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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Having failed to temper his colleagues’ enthusiasm for immediate independence, John Dickinson rode away to serve the colonial cause in uniform—something only one actual Declaration signer did. (That signer was Thomas McKean, another Delawarean.) Dickinson “fought for what he could not vote for,” the historian Carl Bridenbaugh has deftly said.
Dickinson recovered in time from the blow to his once too great popularity. He was too imposing a figure for his fellow Americans to cast into outer darkness. In fact, in the fall elections of 1776, the voters of Philadelphia County returned him to the Assembly. Yet he declined to serve under the radical new constitution Pennsylvania had established that year to replace its long-standing charter. In December, with reports in the air concerning a British descent upon Philadelphia, he decamped with his family to the estate in Kent County, Delaware, where he had grown up.
Delaware elected him to a seat in Congress. He besought his old friend George Read, then Delaware’s president, to dispense him from that obligation in view of, among other things, his ill health. Read agreed.
There was still, of course, a war to be waged and won. With the British pressing down on the Delaware Valley in the late summer of 1777, Dickinson returned to military service—as a private serving in a force of Delawareans. The Battle of the Brandywine went poorly for the Americans, and the British industriously cleared the Delaware Valley of colonial resistance. In the neighborhood of the Germantown road, British troops put the torch to seventeen American homes and estates. One was John Dickinson’s Philadelphia home, Fair Hill.
In 1779 Delaware once more sought Dickinson out to serve in Congress. He accepted this time, and in that capacity he signed the Articles of Confederation—the original draft of which he had been called on to write. Delaware became the twelfth state to accede to the new political order.
In August 1781, only two months before the British surrender at Yorktown, a Loyalist raiding party looted Dickinson’s Kent County estate. Returning to Delaware to deal with the damage, he found himself drawn inadvertently into the state’s politics. New Castle County wanted him as a member of the Delaware governing council. He agreed—and before the year was out, he was nominated as president (chief executive, that is) of the whole state. The one legislative vote against his candidacy was his own, or so historians surmise.
Pennsylvania, too, clamored for his return. He was elected to the Pennsylvania executive council in October 1781. The new arrangement—a Delaware chief executive sitting in the councils of Pennsylvania—was decidedly odd: odder still after November, when this same Delaware chief executive accepted the presidency of Pennsylvania.
Dickinson remained at the center of affairs through those pivotal early years of the republic. In 1786 Dickinson was sent as delegate to a meeting of the states in Annapolis, Maryland. His fellow delegates quickly promoted him to chairman. The Annapolis Conference called for a new convention, to be held in Philadelphia in 1787, for the purpose of mending the defects of the government that the Articles of Confederation had patched together.
Naturally John Dickinson was on hand for that meeting as well—now known to us as the Constitutional Convention. Delaware leaders acknowledged not only the credentials of their most famous and accomplished statesman but also the peculiar peril Delaware faced as the least populous state (with a mere sixty thousand inhabitants). Could the likes of Virginia and Pennsylvania be counted on to respect its claims to something like moral equality in the Union?
The Constitutional Convention
Dickinson’s views were well suited both to the necessities of the state he represented and to the vision animating the convention as a whole. He understood the need for a stronger central government; he understood equally well the importance of the states and their particular, locally founded interests. Early in the deliberations, Dickinson (according to James Madison’s paraphrase of his remarks) said that “the division of the Country into distinct States” provided “a principal source of stability” and “ought therefore to be maintained and considerable power to be left with the States.”
On June 7 Dickinson proposed that individual states appoint the chamber we know as the Senate. This was in order (as the Massachusetts delegate Rufus King recorded) that “the mind & body of the State as such shd. be represented in the national Legislature” by “men of first Talents.” Dickinson’s overall vision for an American government—one that could be relied on to promote the urgent ends of virtue and liberty—he had reduced to writing by mid-June. Though he seems never to have introduced a “Dickinson Plan” as such, he argued during the long summer for the specific elements that revolved in his mind, and against proposals he found wrong or unlikely.
Plagued by poor health, at the convention Dickinson had a frail, almost ghostly appearance. On July 4 a family member reported “Cousin Dickinson” as faring “very poorly” under the stresses. Dickinson did not speak on the floor of the convention for more than a month, from late June to late July. Yet his sense of duty drove him hard, and notes of speeches he prepared during the period speak of a Dickinson vitally engaged by the proceedings. He had useful things to say, as in a speech he prepared to make the case for the smaller states. They posed no danger, he said: “Their condition teaches them political Virtues and suppresses political Vices.” He spoke a word for the patriotic attributes of his own state: “Thro the little State of Delaware, the Army of the Enemy passed, while her whole seaboard was exposed to the continual Hostilities of her naval forces. . . . Weak as her arm was yet did her Mind ever waver? No.” No other delegate can have understood so impartially, and perhaps so perspicuously, the large state–small state imbroglio. He had lived in both sizes of state; he had represented both sizes.
Debates involving how to apportion representation inevitably touched on the issue of slavery. Dickinson was one of the few at the Constitutional Convention to express principled opposition to slavery.
John Dickinson had himself been a slave owner, holding as many as three dozen slaves at one point. He was far from unusual in this respect among the delegates in Philadelphia. He was, however, unique in that he was the only one to have already freed his slaves. As early as 1776, in An Essay of a Frame of Government for Pennsylvania, he had proposed a law by which “no person hereafter coming into, or born in this country,” would “be held in Slavery under any pretense whatever.” In 1786, a year before going to the Constitutional Convention, he had written abolition legislation for Delaware, though the bill failed to pass. Dickinson came (as he later put it in a letter) to see slavery as “deeply, deeply injurious to the morals of the masters and their families.”
These strenuous views on the subject came through clearly in the arguments he prepared for the Constitutional Convention. In August, Dickinson took to the floor to challenge the slave trade. As Madison recorded it, the Delawarean declared that it would be “inadmissible on every principle of honor & Safety that the importation of slaves should be authorised to the States by the Constitution.” His impassioned plea appears to have won him a seat on the Committee on Slave Trade, charged with working out a compromise. The committee proposed allowing Congress to regulate the slave trade beginning in 1800; the convention eventually accepted the compromise but pushed the date out to 1808.
Dickinson’s struggles with ill health rendered him silent during the period when the “three-fifths” compromise was thrashed out. We need not speculate, even so, as to where he stood on the matter. By the terms of this much-mocked, internally inconsistent bargain, three-fifths of the slave population would be counted both for a state’s representation in the lower house of Congress and for its apportioned direct-tax liability. In a speech he prepared in July (but was unable to deliver), Dickinson reminded his fellow delegates that they were “acting before the World.” “What,” he asked, “will be said of this new principle of founding a Right to govern Freemen on a power derived from Slaves”—those “incapable of governing yet giving to others what they have not”?
The artfulness of the three-fifths compromise betokened nothing good in terms of the slavery question’s divisive power. “The omitting of the Word,” Dickinson recorded prophetically—that word being slavery—“will be regarded as an Endeavour to conceal a principle of which we are ashamed.”
By September, the drafting of the Constitution was complete. The document at hand was of greater weight in certain particular senses than any proclamation, however stirring, of the right to walk a different national path. John Dickinson had held aloof from the Declaration of Independence. He wished his name firmly affixed to the plan of government he had helped to shape, against physical odds.
Yet Dickinson could not sign the Constitution himself. His health had given out. He had to return home to the Wilmington town house (at Eighth and Market streets) where he had lived since laying down the Pennsylvania presidency. At Dickinson’s request, his friend and fellow delegate George Read signed for him. Dickinson’s name remains affixed to the U.S. Constitution, one more testament to love of country and to character and intellectual wattage.