John Dickinson Biography
This article is adapted from an entry that appears in The Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History: Vol 1: Colonial Beginning through Revolution, 1500-1783. ed. Andrew W. Robertson (Washington, DC: CQ Press, a division of Sage, 2010), 110-114. How to cite this article
John Dickinson was the only major political figure active on the home front at every stage of the founding of the United States from the protest of the Sugar Act in 1764 through the ratification of the Constitution in 1789. He published more works for the American cause than any other individual, earning him from historians the title of "Penman of the Revolution." Yet many scholars do not consider Dickinson among the principal Founders. His refusal to sign the Declaration of Independence damaged his reputation then and has perplexed historians since.
Background and Personal Life
Dickinson was born on November 13, 1732,* to a wealthy Quaker family in Talbot County, Maryland. His family moved to Dover, Delaware in 1740. After education by a tutor, he began his legal training in Philadelphia at the age of 18, reading law with former king’s attorney John Moland. From 1753 to 1757, he attended the Middle Temple at the Inns of Court in London and, upon his return to the colonies, established a practice in Philadelphia.
On July 19, 1770, Dickinson married Mary (Polly) Norris, daughter of Isaac Norris II, former speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly and one of the most powerful Quaker politicians in the colony. Between Dickinson’s inheritance from his father, acquiring the Norris estate through marriage, and Dickinson’s own thriving legal practice, business dealings, and real estate ventures, the Dickinsons were one of the wealthiest families in the region. They travelled frequently between their many houses around the Delaware Valley—the Pennsylvania countryside, Philadelphia, and in Wilmington and Dover, Delaware. Despite spending much time apart because of Dickinson’s political work in the two states, John and Mary had a close and loving relationship. The letters between them that survive reveal tenderness and romance for the duration of their marriage, until Mary’s death on July 7, 1803. Mary was a devout Quaker and clearly influenced John substantially when he turned to her for religious guidance and political advice. The couple had a total of five children—two sons and three daughters. Only the first and the last survived, Sarah (Sally), born December 10, 1771, and Maria, born November 6, 1783.
Dickinson’s religion was an important factor in his life. While he never became a member of the Society of Friends, citing his belief in the "lawfulness of defensive war" as his reason, his personal and political priorities and behavior were strongly shaped by Quakerism.
Already recognized in Philadelphia as a skilled barrister and eloquent orator, Dickinson was elected to the Delaware Assembly in 1759, took his seat in 1760, and the same year became speaker of the house. He was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1762 and played a major role in one of the most important controversies in the colony’s history. In 1764, Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Galloway fought to replace Pennsylvania’s 1701 Charter of Privileges with a royal charter, claiming that such action would release Pennsylvania from the tyranny of the proprietors. Dickinson opposed the move, arguing that the adoption of a royal charter would undermine traditional Quaker liberties—liberty of conscience and unfettered political participation by dissenters—granted in the Charter of Privileges. Dickinson’s stand in this controversy foreshadowed his role in the conflict with Britain as a champion of civil rights and constitutional perpetuity.
Resistance to Britain
During the Stamp Act crisis of 1765, Dickinson was the nominal leader of the Stamp Act Congress and the primary draftsman of its Resolutions, which appealed to the Crown for security of American rights and claimed that taxes should not be imposed without representation. In this early resistance to Britain, Dickinson’s Quaker inclinations were clearly visible. As violence became prevalent in the Northern colonies, he wrote a number of pamphlets, such as An Address to the Committee of Correspondence in Barbados (1766) and The Late Occurrences in North American, and the Policy of Great Britain, considered (1766), urging peaceful means of resistance, including civil disobedience.
With the passage of the Townshend Acts of 1767, Dickinson became an American and international figure. His Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1767-1768) were the first resounding call for colonial unity in the face of British oppression. These letters, read across America and in Britain and Europe, advocated the same peaceful resistance used during the Stamp Act crisis. With equal emphasis, they warned against revolution as a solution to government oppression. Shortly after the Letters appeared, Dickinson also published "The Liberty Song" (1768), America’s first patriotic song. It was sung in taverns throughout the colonies and helped make him America’s first political hero.
Despite Dickinson’s opposition to war and revolution, he believed that preparations for war must be concurrent with negotiations for peace. Accordingly, after the passage of the Intolerable Acts and the closing of Boston Harbor in 1774, he served on numerous committees, founded the First Philadelphia Regiment and became its colonel, and called for a colony-wide congress to be held in Philadelphia. He was then a member or chairman of many more subsidiary congressional bodies, including the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of Secret Correspondence.
First and Second Continental Congresses
Although not yet a member of the First Continental Congress (he became a member shortly after it convened), Dickinson drafted four of its six publications: To the Inhabitants of the British Colonies, The Bill of Rights [and] a List of Grievances, the First Petition to the King, and A Letter to the Inhabitants of the Province of Quebec. In 1775, he authored two of the best known works of the Second Continental Congress: the Olive Branch Petition and the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, the latter intended to prevent war by warning Britain of a long, bloody, and losing battle. His fundamental belief was that popular defense of rights should not destroy constitutional unity and that amendment of the laws was possible through civil disobedience. He adopted this view from the Quakers, who did not believe that violence or revolution were legitimate options to resist government oppression. He, like they, believed that the civil constitution was both perpetual and amendable. He therefore counseled negotiations, boycotts, and peaceful breakage of the offending laws with the aim of having them repealed.
Through 1775, Dickinson was not only the leader of the Quaker assembly in Pennsylvania, he also wielded more influence over Congress and the general public than any other figure in Pennsylvania—earning him enemies as the idea of revolution gained support. By the spring of 1776, Dickinson, as the author of the voting instructions to the Pennsylvania delegates, almost single-handedly impeded the adoption of a declaration of independence by not instructing them to authorize it. His refusal to go against the will of the majority of the assembly caused Congress to authorize a take over of the Quaker government. The assembly was quickly overrun by radicals, Quaker power largely destroyed, and Dickinson’s influence weakened. With revolution all but confirmed, in June he instructed delegates to vote their consciences. At the same time, because of his belief in the importance of a constitution for the survival of a nation and the protection of rights, he also wrote the first version of the Articles of Confederation with protection for dissenters and a strong central government. Dickinson’s version was revised substantially to weaken the power of the Confederation.
On July 1, Dickinson gave his final speech against independence before Congress. Aware that he was about to destroy his reputation, he argued that the country was not ready, having neither a settled constitution nor foreign support, and that American rights would be safest under Britain’s unwritten constitution. When the vote was taken, refusing to vote against his conscience but knowing that any declaration should be unanimous for the sake of the cause, Dickinson absented himself from the proceedings.
Believing it his duty to support his country in its decision for independence, within days after the Declaration of Independence was signed, and despite ill-health, Dickinson led his battalion on the New Jersey front. He served for only a short time; in the face of widespread desertions, which rendered his and other battalions useless, and because of his fears for his family as the British approached Philadelphia, he resigned his commission to move his family out of the city. His fear was well-founded—despite his advocacy of reconciliation, his leadership in the resistance and his once-great influence over the country caused Tories to see him as a traitor. They looted his house in Dover, and the British, considering him the "ruler of America," according to John Adams, burned his house in Philadelphia. Dickinson also received harsh treatment from his countrymen because of his unpopular stance on independence. Patriots harassed him, confiscating his property and libeling him. The Pennsylvania revolutionary government issued threats of arrest against him, charging that he had not voted in support of independence, that he objected to the new Pennsylvania constitution, that he deserted his militia unit, and that he had advised his brother, a general in the Delaware militia, not to accept Continental currency. Dickinson traveled to Philadelphia to face the charges, but the Council of Safety, which exercised executive authority, avoided meeting with him.
Determined to prove his patriotism, in 1777, Dickinson did something nearly unheard of for a gentleman of his stature—he enlisted in the Delaware militia as a private and, "with a musket upon [his] shoulder," scoured the countryside for supplied and served at the Battle of Brandywine. He was soon promoted to brigadier general, a commission he resigned later that year. Despite not being a Continental officer, Dickinson was nonetheless admitted to the Society of the Cincinnati as an honorary member for his distinguished service.
In 1778, Dickinson joined his family in Delaware, and, over the next years, served in the Confederation Congress, formulated military policy, and drafted documents used in peace negotiations. After years of political strife, seeing battle, and now spending more time with his devout Quaker wife, Dickinson’s Quaker leanings became more pronounced.
President of Pennsylvania and Delaware
In 1781, he was elected unanimously to the presidency of Delaware where he pursued policies that reflected his faith; he took the affirmation of office instead of the oath (Quakers refused to swear) and immediately passed a Proclamation against Vice and Immorality.Yet he continued to take an active role with the Delaware militia, personally reviewing the troops and writing a military manual.
While still president of Delaware, Dickinson was elected president of Pennsylvania in 1782. Taking the affirmation of office in Pennsylvania, as in Delaware he displayed a principled stance for the rights of Quakers and other dissenters who had been detained, denied habeas corpus, and imprisoned at the whim of Congress and the Pennsylvania government. Dickinson met immediate resistance in his first term from enemies who resurrected the old charges from 1776. He was nevertheless reelected twice. During his tenure, he managed to curtail some attacks by members of the Pennsylvania government on traditional rights, including trial by jury, by encouraging moderation and reminding others in government of fundamental liberties.
Creation of the Constitution
Dickinson served as chairman of the Annapolis Convention of 1786, called to discuss revising the Articles of Confederation, and he played a crucial role in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Dickinson’s advocacy of a revised constitution fit within his Quakerly idea of the permanent but amendable constitution. Unlike some other Americans who objected that the Constitutional Convention was illegal and the nation had no constitution without the Articles, Dickinson believed that the nation was already constituted and a written constitution could be changed without risking the stability of the polity
Illness forced him to leave the Convention early and designate a proxy (George Read) to sign for him, but while present, he offered ideas that shaped and advanced the deliberations. First, he presented his vision for the relationship between the states and the federal government in terms of a metaphor that was repeated throughout the Convention—the states would be as planets orbiting a sun that was the federal government. Second, when the Convention stalled on the quandary of representation, Dickinson’s unique position as resident of one of the largest states, Pennsylvania, and one of the smallest, Delaware, allowed him to make a pivotal suggestion—that the people be represented in one branch and the states in the other. This was the basis for the Connecticut Compromise. Additionally, Dickinson was one of the few members of the Convention on record to take a principled stance against slavery. Dickinson himself had manumitted his slaves conditionally in 1777 and unconditionally in 1786. He was the only Founding Father to do so. In 1788, he wrote the Fabius Letters advocating ratification and addressing the questions of those troubled by the proposed Constitution.
Dickinson attempted to retired from active political life after the Constitutional Convention, but Delawarians continued to call for his service. He resumed briefly as the president of the 1791-1792 Delaware constitutional convention, drafting a bill for the gradual abolition of slavery (it did not pass) and wrote provisions in the declaration of rights that would be adopted by most states in the Union. He later resisted the call of Delawarians to become their Senator but continued to write in support of social and political causes. As a Democratic-Republican, he authored several treatises in favor of the French cause and America’s good relations with that country. Another main concern, the health and stability of the new nation, prompted him to write on the religious and civic education of youth. Until his death he served as informal advisor to significant political figures, such as George Logan, Senator from Pennsylvania, and Thomas Jefferson during his presidency.
While in some ways Dickinson’s title as the "Penman of the Revolution" is apt, in other ways, it distorts his intentions and legacy. Although his efforts contributed to independence, everything Dickinson wrote for the American cause was to prevent revolution. Instead he sought to secure rights through peaceful protest and constitutional stability. Yet when the nation fought for its independence, Dickinson joined in and worked tirelessly to create a more perfect Union. Dickinson’s significance to the American political tradition is in being the first national figure to advocate civil disobedience for government reform and to champion the importance of a perpetual but amendable constitution.
John Dickinson died on February 14, 1808. According to those by his side during his final days, his last fevered thoughts remained on public affairs — worry about the welfare of the nation and the advance of Napoleon. When the announcement of his passing was made in the United States Congress, members resolved to wear black arm bands in his honor. He was laid to rest in the burial ground of Wilmington Friends Meeting.
Dickinson’s birth date is sometimes noted as November 2, which is what is recorded in the Dickinson family Bible. But this date is according to the Gregorian calendar, and, when the British Empire switched to the Julian calendar in 1752, Dickinson considered his birth date to be the 13th. Return to top
Bibliography and Further Reading
Calvert, Jane E. Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Flower, Milton E. John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983.
Jacobson, David L. John Dickinson and the Revolution in Pennsylvania, 1764–1776. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.
Johannesen, Stanley K. "John Dickinson and the American Revolution." Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 2, no. 1 (1975): 29–49.
Natelson, Robert G. "The Constitutional Contributions of John Dickinson." Penn State Law Review 108, no. 2 (2003): 415–477.
McDonald, Forrest. Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985.
Rakove, Jack N. The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretative History of the Continental Congress. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.
Stillé, Charles, and Paul Leicester Ford. The Life and Writings of John Dickinson. 2 vols. Philadelphia: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1891–1895.