Web Exclusive: Who Was Delaware’s John Dickinson and Why You Should Care
William Murchison authors the new biography “The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.”
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The Rush to Independence
Dickinson had anticipated that his Olive Branch Petition might be the last throw of the dice. “Our Rights,” he wrote to Arthur Lee, “have already been stated—our Claims made—War is actually begun, and we are carrying it on Vigorously. . . . If they reject this application with Contempt, the more humble it is, [the more such] Treatment will confirm the Minds of [our] Countrymen to endure all the Misfortunes that may attend the Contest.”
The petition failed to move the king or his ministers. In a speech to the new session of Parliament in October 1775, George III declared the colonies to be in a state of rebellion.
On January 9, 1776, Thomas Paine barged into the American conversation on liberty by means of a pamphlet published in Philadelphia. Common Sense offered short, sharp, shocking language. Reconciliation? It was “truly farcical.” No greater cause than separation had ever existed. Now was the time. No more waiting; no more fine talk or debate. Now!
By June 1, a waterborne British force had appeared opposite Charleston. Whatever the Continental Congress meant to do, it had to do quickly.
Dickinson himself seems to have recognized that there was little hope of averting what a year earlier he had spoken of as “the calamities of civil war.” The Dickinson biographer David Jacobson writes, “Sometime in February or March of 1776, Dickinson’s attitude shifted noticeably in the direction of attempting independence.” All that remained was to make the best terms possible for entry into the new state of affairs, where, by definition, disorder was the reigning passion.
The Congress’s first attempt to thrash out the matter of immediate independence began in earnest on Saturday, June 8. The debate was not the one-sided affair that legend may have conditioned us to suspect. There was intelligence in the opposition’s arguments that Jefferson noted in his account of the day’s proceedings. Of Dickinson and other members, he recorded: “Tho’ they were friends to the measures themselves, and saw the impossibility that we should ever again be united with Gr. Britain, yet they were against adopting them at [this] time. . . . The people of the middle colonies . . . were not yet ripe for bidding adieu to British connection but . . . they were fast ripening & in a short time would join in the general voice of America.” These representatives of the middle colonies suggested that if they held aloof from the cause, their “secession” would weaken it “more than could be compensated by any foreign alliance.” Why not take the time necessary, then, to form an alliance with the only overseas power equipped to take on the British—namely, France?
The delegates discovered that quick resolution to the debate was not to be looked for. A three-week recess was declared. In the interim a committee whose leading members were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson was tasked with preparing a paper explaining to all the world just what case the colonists, in the event of independence, would make in behalf of that extraordinary commitment.
“The Finishing Blow”
The Congress reconvened on July 1. That day John Dickinson arose to make his case. He cannot have expected success. He was too good a lawyer to misread the courtroom. He laid out his arguments all the same.
Those arguments (which the twentieth-century historian J. H. Powell painstakingly recovered from Dickinson’s carefully prepared notes) are worth careful reading as a corrective to now-sanctified narratives of the American beginning—jubilant bells ringing out over the land, hearts beating as one to the divine promise of a free America.
Dickinson felt “unequal to the Burthen assigned me” of swimming against the tide. Here is where he acknowledged that he expected his conduct to deliver the “finishing Blow” to his reputation. He had nonetheless to “speak, tho I should lose my Life, tho I should lose the Affections of my Country,” for “Silence would be guilt.” He implored God “to enlighten the Members of this House, that this Decision will be such as will best promote the Liberty, Safety and Prosperity of these Colonies.” There were those in the Congress contending that “we ought to brave the storm in a skiff made of Paper.” John Dickinson was not of their number.
Dickinson’s case was anything but negligible. War was on. The colonies lacked a military force that was more than an assortment of militias. A war of independence could prove a terrible thing, he warned, bringing the “Burning of Towns” and the “Setting Loose of Indians on our Frontiers.”
The Americans also lacked a national government. Let us “take the Regular form of a State,” Dickinson said. “These preventive measures will show Deliberation, wisdom, caution & Unanimity.” Americans could come “in Bitterness of Soul to complain against our Rashness & ask why We did not settle Differences among ourselves, [why we did not] Take Care to secure unsettled Lands . . . Why [we did] not wait till [we were] better prepar’d [or] till We had made an Experiment of our Strength.”
America needed French help, too. The problem, as Dickinson saw it, was that the French were unready to come in on the American side. “ ‘We are not ready for a Rupture,’ ” he saw them saying. “ ‘You should have negotiated Till We were. We will not be hurried by your impetuosity.’ ”
The colonies, in short, were in a “wretched” state of preparation. Where was the foresight in this endeavor? “To escape from the protections we have in British rule by declaring independence,” Dickinson said, “would be like Destroying a House before We have got another, In Winter with a small Family, Then asking a Neighbour to take Us in [and finding] He [is] unprepared.”
It was not, in certain senses, John Dickinson’s grandest oratorical hour. He presented a diffuse collection of doubts and warnings rather than a focused vision of what great things might be achieved by delay. There seems to have been in the whole presentation very little of genuine refutation. A likely reason is that the verdict had been settled in advance, and was known to all. Jefferson’s account of the proceedings before the recess made clear that opponents of independence—including, specifically, Dickinson—“were friends to the measures themselves,” if reluctant to move without greater assurance that the moment was right.
The difference between John Adams and John Dickinson consisted less in respective attachments to English-made liberties than in matters of temperament. Adams was a high-stakes gambler, unafraid to shove in all his chips, counting on his innate ability to brazen his way through any crisis. Not so Dickinson, who wanted to know that all things essential to a great enterprise had been taken into account. Both were men of vast moral courage—but courage weighed from different sacks, upon scales differently balanced.
The first vote on the resolution for independence came shortly afterward. Pennsylvania and South Carolina said no, the former by a single vote. The Delaware delegates split. The delegates from New York abstained, in accordance with instructions from their provincial congress. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina was beginning, all the same, to shift his ground. He asked for a vote the next day on grounds that his delegation might go along for the sake of unanimity.
Would Dickinson stand athwart the proceedings for so long as he thought it essential? The HBO series on John Adams represents Adams as visiting a pale and wigless Dickinson the night before the crucial vote, coaxing him to stand aside and let destiny have its way. No such visit took place. A man who had chosen to throw away his “once too great” popularity had no trouble forming his own conceptions of duty and the public interest. When the Congress convened on July 2, two dissenters from the resolution were discovered absent from the Pennsylvania delegation. They were Robert Morris, the opulent merchant, and John Dickinson. Pennsylvania’s 4–3 vote the previous day against the resolution became a 3–2 vote in favor. South Carolina switched to the affirmative. Delaware’s split having healed, that colony, too, voted for independence. New York abstained once more, according to legislative instructions. Twelve colonies stood together at last for the new liberty they saw as their undoubted right.