Portrait of John Dickinson

 

Jane E. Calvert, Director and Chief Editor

About the Project

Few men wrote, spoke and acted more for their country from the years 1764 to the establishment of the federal government than Mr. Dickinson.

 

John Dickinson contributed more writings to the American Founding than any other figure. He is best known for his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1767-68), the first resounding and successful call for colonial unity to resist British oppression. Yet this was just one of almost 500 published and unpublished works he wrote for the American cause, including pamphlets, broadsides, newspaper articles, songs, speeches, and many seminal state papers. Dickinson's compatriots, elite and ordinary, looked to him throughout the contest for guidance because he was one of the most talented lawyers and writers in the colonies and he wielded more authority and influence both in Congress and over public opinion than almost any other figure before independence.

The goal of the Project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and private donors, is to assemble the entire corpus of Dickinson's political works into an estimated three printed volumes, a college-level course reader, and a Web-based digital version, freely accessible to both scholars and non-academics. The print edition will be published by an academic press and will contain a full scholarly apparatus for contextualization and interpretation of the materials. The Web version, housed at the University of Kentucky's Collaboratory for Research in Computing for Humanities, will have the same textual contents and apparatus as the printed volumes, with added features available through the interlinking and advanced textual searching possibilities in an online publication environment. This edition of Dickinson's works will contain among the most important writings of the Founding period, spanning 46 years from around 1761 to 1807. It will make available all identifiable Dickinson publications and manuscripts from many archives.  

Although Dickinson was one of the foremost figures of the Founding, he is little known today because he refused to sign the Declaration of Independence (click here for Dickinson's biography). The few scholars who have dealt with him have largely interpreted his position as cowardice, indecisiveness, or Loyalism. Some claim his advocacy of rights and subsequent refusal to sign was contradictory and that Dickinson was confused. But the confusion is theirs. They have failed to observe that, although his writings led to Revolution, not one of them advocated separation from Britain or violent protest of any sort. Dickinson did not want independence; he believed in defensive war only and the preservation of the existing British constitution to protect American liberties.

Despite his major contributions and influence, Dickinson's writings have never been published in full. There are only two collections to date—one published in 1801, compiled into two volumes by Dickinson himself after popular demand; and the next in 1895 by Paul Leicester Ford for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Neither of these is complete or scholarly by modern standards. The first edition contains only 14 of his writings, the second 21. Some of the most famous documents are available online or scattered in other published sources. But most of his works are not available in print or online, and few know that Dickinson was the primary author of these seminal documents and more.

For understanding the progress of the Revolution, the creation of the Constitution, and some of the most important issues in the Early Republic, there is great value in having a modern scholarly edition of his collected works. But more than simply collecting these important documents in one place, by identifying them as Dickinson's and putting them in context, the Project will shed light on one of the most influential Founders with whom few Americans are familiar. While Dickinson's primary task was to represent the general sentiments and concerns of his countrymen, his work also reveals a unique political theory, one that was crucial for the preservation of rights and the survival of the new Republic.

Users of a Dickinson edition at all levels from undergraduates to professional scholars to interested non-academics will find his writings complex and sophisticated; but, because he wrote to persuade the population at large, his ideas are remarkably accessible. His thoughts on constitutionalism, federalism, liberalism, republicanism, and war and peace correspond with, and in fact shaped some of the mainstream political thought of the Founding era, but they sometimes differ significantly from it and offer a new perspective on the foundations of the nation. The Project will give Americans easy access for the first time to the body of work by a man who was America's first political hero.

Sample Documents

Below is an excerpt from Dickinson's Letter to the Inhabitants of the Province of Quebec, written in the First Continental Congress in 1774. The purpose of the document was to convince French Canadians to join with the Americans in their resistance to Britain. The first page is the title page from the Extracts from the Votes and Proceedings of the Continental Congress. The second page is from the Letter, contained therein. And the third is Dickinson's manuscript draft of the same page. Click on the documents to enlarge and compare.

Quebec letter 1 Quebec letter 2 Quebec letter draft

Chronological Bibliography of Dickinson’s Best-Known Publications

A Speech, Delivered in the House of Assembly of the Province of Pennsylvania, May 24th, 1764… On occasion of a petition, drawn up by order, and then under consideration, of the House; praying His Majesty for a change of the government of this province. Philadelphia: William Bradford, 1764.

The Late Regulations Respecting the British Colonies on the Continent of America Considered, in a Letter from a Gentleman in Philadelphia to his Friend in London. Philadelphia: William Bradford, 1765.

"Petition to the King from the Stamp Act Congress." Proceedings of the Congress at New-York, 1765.

"The Declaration of Rights adopted by the Stamp Act Congress." Proceedings of the Congress at New-York. Annapolis, 1766.

An Address to the Committee of Correspondence in Barbados. Occasioned by a late letter from them to their agent in London. By a North-American. Philadelphia: William Bradford, 1766.

"Letters from a farmer in Pennsylvania, to the inhabitants of the British colonies."  Pennsylvania Gazette, December 3, 1767—February 8, 1768.

"Letters to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies in America." Pennsylvania Journal; and the Weekly Advertiser, May 25, June 1, June 8, June 15, 1774.

An Essay on the Constitutional Power of Great-Britain over the Colonies in America; with the resolves of the committee for the province of Pennsylvania, and their instructions to their representatives in Assembly.  Philadelphia: William and Thomas Bradford, 1774.

"Bill of Rights [and] a List of Grievances." Extracts from the Votes and Proceedings of the American Continental Congress. Philadelphia: Thomas and William Bradford, 1774.

"To the Inhabitants of the Colonies."  Extracts from the Votes and Proceedings of the American Continental Congress. Philadelphia: Thomas and William Bradford, 1774.

"The Petition of the Grand American Continental Congress to the King's Most Excellent Majesty." Extracts from the Votes and Proceedings of the American Continental Congress. Philadelphia: Thomas and William Bradford, 1774.

A Letter to the Inhabitants of the Province of Quebec. Philadelphia: Thomas and William Bradford, 1774.

"The Humble Petition of the Twelve United Colonies, by their Delegates in Congress, to the King" [Olive Branch Petition].  Philadelphia: William and Thomas Bradford, 1775.

A Declaration by the Representatives of the United Colonies of North-America, Now Met in Congress at Philadelphia, Setting Forth the Causes and Necessity of Their Taking Up Arms. Philadelphia: William and Thomas Bradford, 1775.

Essay on a Frame of Government for Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: James Humphreys, Jr., 1776.

The Letters of Fabius, in 1788, on the Federal Constitution; and in 1797, on the Present Situation of Public Affairs. Wilmington, DE: From the office of the Delaware Gazette, 1797.

"Ode, on the French Revolution." Philadelphia: Benjamin Franklin Bache, 1798.

A Caution; or, Reflections on the Present Contest between France and Great-Britain. Philadelphia: Benj. Franklin Bache, 1798.

An Address on the Past, Present and Eventual Relations of the United States to France. New York: T. and J. Swords, 1803.


Portrait of John Dickinson and manuscript image courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia