John Dickinson

John Dickinson

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John Dickinson is remembered as the "Penman of the Revolution," a tribute to his skillful advocacy of the patriot cause, but his gradual conversion to independence was slowed by a deep-seated conservatism.Dickinson was born in Talbot County, Maryland, studied law in Philadelphia and at Middle Temple in London, and operated a successful practice in Philadelphia during the late 1750s.Dickinson began his political career in the assembly of the Lower Counties (later Delaware), where he served as speaker. In 1762, he began service in the Pennsylvania legislature and came to prominence by defending the prerogatives of the Penn family against the insurgent forces of Benjamin Franklin.Dickinson began to drift from his staunch conservatism in the face of the Grenville reforms, particularly the Sugar and Stamp acts, which he opposed in a widely-read pamphlet, The Late Regulations Respecting the American Colonies (1765).At the Stamp Act Congress, Dickinson was the prime contributor to the Declaration of Rights and Grievances. He argued that a difference existed between internal and external taxation.The former involved the collection of duties on trade between the colonies and foreign ports; in his view, that effort to regulate trade was legitimate. In spite of his opposition to the new tax policy, Dickinson resisted any suggestion of violent resistance.Perhaps the peak of Dickinson's influence was reached during the period of public reaction to the Townshend Acts in 1767 and 1768. He authored a series of anonymous essays, the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies, which first appeared in the Pennsylvania Chronicle and later in other newspapers throughout the colonies. He stated his firm support for Parliamentary supremacy and the efforts of that body to levy taxes designed to regulate trade.However, the Townshend duties were unarguably intended to raise revenue and were to be resisted, not by the force of arms, but through reasoned argument and economic pressure. Franklin, a former political rival, was so impressed with the plain-spoken letters that he had them reprinted in London, where he was serving as a colonial agent.Dickinson was a delegate to both continental congresses and created a minor furor by refusing to sign the Declaration of Independence. In his final speech to Congress on July 1, 1776, one day before Richard Henry Lee's resolutions were adopted, Dickinson averred:

I know the name of liberty is dear to each one of us; but have we not enjoyed liberty even under the English monarchy? Shall we this day renounce that to go and seek it in I know not what form of republic, which will soon change into a licentious anarchy and popular tyranny? In the human body the head only sustains and governs all the members, directing them, with admirable harmony, to the same object, which is self-preservation and happiness; so the head of the body politic, that is the king, in concert with the Parliament, can alone maintain the union of the members of this Empire, lately so flourishing, and prevent civil war by obviating all the evils produced by variety of opinions and diversity of interests.

Dickinson abstained from voting on the resolution for independence and declined to sign the document afterwards. Feeling that it was essentially that all members of Congress support the declaration, he resigned from the Continental Congress.Nevertheless, Dickinson gave his full support to the new cause. He was responsible for the first draft of the Articles of Confederation and was the author of many of the Congress's most important statements, including the Address to the Inhabitants of Quebec, the first Petition to the King, the Address to the Armies, the second Petition to the King and the Address to the Several States. Despite being branded a loyalist by his critics early in the war, Dickinson volunteered for service in the Continental Army.Following the war, Dickinson worked to strengthen the Articles of Confederation at the Annapolis Convention (1786) and later championed the cause of the small states at the Constitutional Convention. Despite having reservations about the new document, Dickinson again took up his pen and wrote nine letters under the pseudonym of "Fabius" and argued the case for ratification.In 1797, Dickinson appeared once more as "Fabius" and presented a defense of revolutionary France, which was then at odds with the United States and war between the former allies appeared imminent.Dickinson was a moderate conservative in an age when there were few others. He placed great value on traditional liberties and was repelled equally by errant British policies and the radicalism of Sam Adams.

John Dickinson Plantation

ATTENTION: Our partners at the John Dickinson Plantation are now offering self-guided tours of the grounds on Wednesdays and tours on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday by reservation. Please visit their website for the most up-to-date information.

This site is the early childhood home of John Dickinson who is known as the Penman of the Revolution. During your visit you will learn about his work and accomplishments while also exploring the lesser known stories of those who took care of the land and property.

Your visit will begin inside the John Dickinson Visitor Center where you may watch a short film, stamp your passport book, receive a Junior Booklet and meet your tour guide. When ready, your guide will lead you on a tour of Poplar Hall and share stories about this site.

Three paths with surrounding flowers in front of Poplar Hall at the John Dickinson Plantation.

Dickinson, John (unknown&ndashunknown)

John Dickinson, early Harris County settler and member of Stephen F. Austin's Old Three Hundred colonists, received title to a sitio of land now in Galveston and Harris counties on August 19, 1824, and in that year paid twenty pesos for a strip of land a mile wide between League City and Galveston Bay. In April 1825 he and John Sarver bought a league on the south side of Clear Creek from John K. Williams. In 1848 a John Dickinson testified as a witness at a trial to establish the rights of a free black in Harris County. The original colonist may be the John Dickinson who was a cotton factor and wholesale and retail merchant in Houston as late as 1853 and who accumulated a fortune of more than $100,000. According to some sources Dickinson's wife, whose maiden name was probably Andrews, toured England and Europe with at least three of her children after the Civil War, gave them French and dancing lessons, and visited her husband's relatives in Scotland, though she had to dip "into the principal" of her estate to do so.


Early History
Dickinson and the bayou, which shares the same name, were named for John Dickinson. In 1824 he received a land grant from the Mexican government for the area just north of the present day location of Dickinson.

Around 1850 a settlement was established along the shores of Dickinson Bayou. By 1860 Dickinson became a stop on the Galveston, Houston, and Henderson Railroad. The town had a post office in 1890 registered under its current name.

Dickinson Land & Improvement Association
In the 1890s Fred M. Nichols, the son of E. B. Nichols, and 8 other businessmen organized the Dickinson Land and Improvement Association to market unoccupied land in the Dickinson area. The primary attraction was the local soil's proven suitability for growing fruit, cane, berries, and potatoes. Nichols converted 40 acres of his estate into a public park, the Dickinson Picnic Grounds.

For the next 3 decades large groups came out from Galveston to picnic and holiday on the grounds. A Texas Coast Fair was organized there in 1896, and a harness racetrack where the great harness champion Dan Patch supposedly ran was built to attract more people to Dickinson. By 1911, the Galveston and Houston Electric Railway Company had 3 stops in Dickinson, and prominent Galvestonians had established the Oleander Country Club and built homes there.

Gambling became prominent in Dickinson and stayed active until 1957. Clubs included the Dickinson Social Club, the Little Club, and the Rose Garden. In 1957 Attorney General Wil Wilson and the Texas Rangers effectively shut down open gambling through out Galveston County.

Industrialization and the growth of the oil industry in the Houston and Galveston area after both world wars contributed further to Dickinson's growth. More growth came with NASA's establishment in 1962 of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center just north of Dickinson in Clear Lake City. The fluctuating population figures of the town reflect these influences.

John Dickinson

John Dickinson was possibly one of the most influential of the founding fathers, and certainly one of the most active. However, due to his unenthusiastic attitude toward independence, he is not quite as popular among historians as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, or others of the founding fathers that are well-known today. However, John Dickinson was a great man, who gave great service to this country.

Early Life

John Dickinson was born on November 13, 1732 in Talbot County, Maryland. Dickinson was born to a moderately wealthy family his father was the first judge of the court of pleas in Maryland. As a young man, John studied law at the Temple in London.

Political Life

In 1764, he started off his political career as a member of the Pennsylvania assembly. In 1765, he joined the Stamp Act Congress. There, he drafted the document “Resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress.”

Also during his time there, he wrote a series of essays called “Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer.” They were about the non-importation and non-exportation agreements against England. These letter came to be one of his most famous accomplishments, and they were published by Benjamin Franklin during his time in London. Later, “Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer” were translated and published in France as well.

John Dickinson was a member of the First Continental Congress, in 1774. While there, he wrote another one of his famous addresses “Address to the Inhabitants of the Province of Quebec.”

In 1775, he and Thomas Jefferson wrote a Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms. This document, however, was not an early Declaration of Independence.

John Dickinson was very opposed to fighting against Britain, and was very careful with the wording of this document, in order to avoid being too upsetting. He also worked excessively to try and mellow the actions of the congress against Britain, in the hope of keeping the possibility of reconciliation.

When it came time to vote on the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Dickinson had to abstain, because he did not feel it morally right. Later, however, as a sort of cruel joke, Thomas McKean (current president of Delaware) selected John as a general in the Continental Army. His military career was very short lived.

In 1779, Dickinson was again elected to the Continental Congress. Soon after, in 1780, he was elected to the Delaware Assembly. In 1782 he was elected Governor of Pennsylvania, a post which he held for five years. He joined the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, and while he was there wrote nine consecutive essays promoting the Constitution. He continued writing political essays like this until he retired ten year later. He died in his home at Wilmington on February 14, 1808.

A Better Guide than Reason: The Politics of John Dickinson

Of all the men significantly involved in the major events leading up to and following from the American Revolution none has been so undeservedly neglected by our political historians as the mysterious John Dickinson. The oversight would seem on its face unlikely. For this planter and prototypical Philadelphia lawyer is as complicated and intellectually interesting as any American politician of his era. Furthermore, the bulk and variety of his political writings (alas, never fully collected) is unmatched by any of his contemporaries. And, contrary to the inference which we might also draw from the silence of the scholars, his voice was always heard. Which is precisely why he has been systematically ignored. What we should recognize is that the very fact of Dickinson’s influential career undermines cherished theories of our national origins. If he is more useful in telling us what his times signified than are some of the Fathers we have been taught to reverence as the true progenitors-more useful than Paine, or Madison, or even most of Jefferson (the “advanced,” private opinions)—then the authority of many components of what we now recognize as the American political religion or telos and the manner of thinking which has generated these ends is called into question. And he is!

For John Dickinson was one of the best educated, most respected and most eloquent of the public men who brought us, with character and argument, to and beyond the choice for independence. In two states (Delaware and Pennsylvania) his influence was dominant-so great that he was for a few months, in 1782, governor of both at the same time. He was honored in all the colonies. And he is almost without rival in sustaining this influence throughout the new nation’s formative years, from the Stamp Act Congress (1765) to the Constitutional Convention (1787). The record of his performance in practical politics alone would require a study of two volumes. From such a book we could learn a great deal about the care and management of republics. However, it is with Dickinson as acknowledged spokesman and apologist, as political thinker, that we are here concerned. For from that Dickinson we can correct our misapprehensions of the bias of our institutional beginnings. And thus stand ready to recover the patrimony of which we have been so carefully deprived.

Our focus here must fall particularly upon Dickinson’s most famous and influential composition, the memorable Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.[1] For it was through this work that he shaped the spirit of the Revolution and put his mark upon it long before Paine or Jefferson or the other “radical Whigs” could say a word on the subject: before they could get a chance to give to the American position another (and very different) intellectual base and impetus. Because John Dickinson did not wish to sign the Declaration of Independence when his associates called for the vote, it is easy to forget that this reluctant rebel had said or written prior to 1776 more to propel his countrymen to the brink of that decision than any other representative of the exasperated colonies who signed the document with ease. And particularly in his twelve performances as what toasting patriots, from Charleston to Falmouth, called with affection “the Farmer.” Had indeed done so much that he could not help but know, long before that fateful July day, that a severance was bound to come.[2]

Yet still he felt obliged to deny the principle of revolution, even as he maintained the right. As he had done in the Farmer’s Letters. As he had done since his first appearance in public office, as a member of the Delaware assembly in 1760. For, like no other American political thinker, John Dickinson had absorbed into his very bones the precedent of 1688. In abbreviated form, that creed might be abstracted as follows: The English political identity (the Constitution in its largest sense, including certain established procedures, institutions, chartered rights and habits of thought) is a product of a given history, lived by a specific people in a particular place. Executive, judicial, and legislative arms of government are bound by that prescription and must deal with new circumstances in keeping with its letter and its spirit. The same configuration qua Constitution should be available to all Englishmen, according to their worth and place, their deserts. And any man, upon his achievement of a particular condition (freeholder, elector, magistrate, etc.) should find that his rights there are what anyone else similarly situated might expect. Finally all Englishmen are secure against arbitrary rule under this umbrella and have an equal right to insist upon its maintenance. To so insist, even to the point of removing an offending component by force, is loyalty to the sovereign power.[3] To submit to “dreadful novelty” or dangerous innovation,” even if its source is a prince or minister who came rightfully to his position, is treason.[4] For the authority belongs to the total system, not to persons who operate it at a given time. Or rather, to such persons as “stand to their post” and attempt with and through it nothing contrary to the purpose for which it has been developed. It was this historic and legal identity, formed over the course of centuries by so much trial and error and with such cost in turmoil, which was deemed to be worth whatever efforts its preservation might require—given the danger of being called a rebel—because it was the best known to man.[5] And therefore the most “natural” and conformable to reason. To correct any declension from such experienced perfection was thus clearly more than patriotic. Like the Glorious Revolution itself, it could be called an assertion of universal truth.

Dickinson, of course, recognized that the adoption of the 1689 Bill of Rights marked an addition to and evolution from the more compact, prescriptive England which demanded the “abdication” of James II: was some sort of change, even if made in the direction of officially recovering “Anglo-Saxon purity.”[6] That any such specification of liberties entailed a potential shift in the relation of people, King, and Parliament could not have escaped his notice. An attempt to shift the balance between the elements of a total political mixture, once initiated by one of its components, precludes a precise restoration of things as they were—blocks that path, even if the attempt to force alteration is forestalled! Furthermore, steps must be taken to prevent a repetition of offence to the whole. As in the Great Charter itself, limits of authority must be written down, and these writings given status through institutions. Hence, even before the American counterrevolution within the larger English prescription came down to fighting, before the folly of Lords North and George Germaine led their master, with the “Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition” (August, 1775), to “dethrone” himself in North America, Dickinson moved to preserve the order of things he had known and loved since boyhood.[7] Acted first to secure inter-colonial cooperation in the Stamp Act Congress. Acted then, when the conflict grew, to replace all or part of what had been the executive power of Crown and mother Parliament, first with a Continental Congress (he was among its earliest and strongest supporters) and then with Articles of Confederation (for which he composed the original draft). The only alternatives to these gestures toward preservation and ordered liberty were something like commonwealth status for the troubled colonies or the internal anarchy of no general government whatsoever—thirteen separate rebellions, each conducted almost unto itself, but in conjunction with local, almost discrete, civil wars.[8] Yet all that he made before, during, and after hostilities (when he served in the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia and as the presiding officer at the Annapolis gathering which called for that more ambitious assembly) rested upon what already had being-extant societies, with an accepted culture, law, economy, and government. And he framed these substitutions from necessity alone, because familiar arrangements and channels for negotiation had been forever destroyed. In other words, framed them to protect, not “found,” as changes made in discovery but not in creation.

Indeed, discontinuity and raw innovation, “dangerous innovation,” was Dickinson’s antagonist at every turn, throughout his career.[9] And his name for that novelty was almost always “submission.”[10] Even when, in his first political struggle, he opposed replacement of the proprietary charter and the legal structure of unquestioned liberties established for Pennsylvania by William Penn, his concern was to preserve the protection of law and to avoid rule by fiat. The slender Quaker was, we must remember, a rigid constitutionalist, trained in the Middle Temple. Obedience to King or Parliament, so long as they operated according to law, or, in Selden’s words, “the custom of England, which is part of the law of the land” was “due submission” to the Constitution. And this obligation Dickinson acknowledged at every opportunity. Yet the basis of his argument was consistent. Always he saw his position, prior to the official secession of the colonies, as parallel to that of the common lawyers who opposed excessive Stuart claims of prerogative.[11] Or, to narrow the comparison even further, colonial Whigs of Dickinson’s breed came to find themselves standing in the shoes of Falkland and Hyde. The choice of rebellion or submission seemed to them a false dilemma. Both violated the Constitution. But, of the two, the latter course was, in the 1770’s, clearly more dangerous for Americans-if neither party would agree to anything less than all that they asked.

Dickinson called revolution a “poison.” But even as early as 1774 he could add to that definition that the poison of revolution, though terrible, might be an “antidote” to a poison even worse.[12] Faced with the language of vengeance and not sense, of violence and not of reason, with mere survival in doubt, so would any true man say.[13] And certainly a true Englishman, one proud to declare that “every drop of blood in my heart is British.”[14] Once reduced to the “alternative of chusing an unconditional submission to the tyranny of irritated ministers, or resistance by force,” Dickinson did not draw back from the decision he had hoped to avoid. And once the Howe expedition had produced in North America a more general “sentiment for independency,” he would, later in 1776, probably have proposed a Declaration of his own to mark the division England had made. As I argued above, he had recognized this possibility from the beginning of acrimonious exchange. In 1765 he had written that . . . we can never be made an independent people, except it be by Great Britain.”[15] And he added, at about the same time, that attempts to enforce British views of the taxing power by military means would amount to “a Declaration of War against the Colonies.”[16]

Made is, to be sure, the operative term. If forced into existence on the basis of strict legal arguments, the new nation could hope to keep intact the established order of American life. And if less than independence could, by some chance, serve the same ends, then all the better. What was, however, most important to Dickinson was that difficulties and differences be settled on certain grounds, according to a certain logic or theory of government, either with or without a rupture with England that the future life of his countrymen follow a set of assumptions neither absolutist nor merely democratic and that no American’s person or property should be secured by so little as “the precarious tenure . . . of will.”[17] Even long after the fact of independence, when, as an old man, Dickinson gathered a collection of his political writings, he cited in preface, once again, the authority of Lord Chatham and the British Constitution.[18] We came free, in his view, under no other auspices, no larger structure of abstraction with authority above and beyond the social bond. Rebellion per se is not a healthy method for reinvigorating society or securing human liberty. Only revolution that is not revolutionary, that is a “child of necessity,” can be called American.[19] With these distinctions in mind we can grasp the teaching of his political essays. And particularly of the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.

The Farmer’s Letters first appeared in colonial newspapers-in all but four of them-during late 1767 and early 1768.[20] After serial publication, the set was gathered as a pamphlet in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Williamsburg. Later editions issued in London, Dublin, and Paris became a staple of European political conversation. American replies and comments were legion. For colonials Dickinson’s work had only one rival among pre-revolutionary documents—Paine’s Common Sense. And that late work served very different purposes, under very different conditions. I so insist because John Dickinson’s performance reached thoughtful, literate Americans when the position they as a group were likely to assume, if the quarrel over British authority continued, was very much in doubt. And by settling that question in 1767, insofar as political argument can be said to settle anything, he accomplished a task far more difficult than getting colonials in general, in 1776, to hate George III and to blame him for the disruption of their lives. Here again the scholarship is at fault. Thomas Paine “shot fish in a barrel.” He roused the passions and hates. He gave to Anglo-American amity the last little push required to remove it as an impediment to independence. And he engaged as a primary audience an element of the colonial population not, prior to 1775-1776, very much interested in the dispute over law. However, had the legal case not been well established, set in the full context of British history, and long before Paine wrote, he would have thundered out his anger to no purpose at all. For the people who assumed the position Dickinson drew up in reaction to the Townshend Acts (and to the Stamp and Declaratory Acts which preceded them) were the Americans needed to make a revolution work: and to make it (given British stubbornness). inevitable. They, by accepting Dickinson’s learned, calm, and deliberate exposition of a case at law and from history, were, it turns out, committed to such a revolution, whether they knew it or not. And, because they were, thanks to the deferential quality of colonial politics, the Americans who determined the policy followed by their particular communities. John Dickinson made resistance respectable. With the help of English Whigs educated in the theories he applied to particular disputes with the Crown, he also made submission impossible. Paine simply made a useful noise.

The manner of Dickinson’s twelve letters is well suited to their matter. In form they belong to the “high” or “sober” tradition of English political pamphleteering–as does Common Sense to its “rough and ready” but popular counterpart. In the one company we find Milton, Swift, Addison, and Burke-plus numerous other deliberate and magisterial considerations of important public questions issued through (or from the shelter of) some usually transparent classical persona: “Cato,” for instance, suggesting not personal feeling but public spirit. Cicero’s epistles were the archetypes for these performances. For almost two hundred years these pamphlets formed a pattern of serious, intelligent exchange on affairs of the day unmatched in any other free society. The other quasi-prophetic school had its roots in the Puritan revolution and the emotions antecedent to that explosion. It found its model in the Scripture. It tended toward the merely personal, the paranoid, and the pugnacious. Usually its object was to draw the adversary’s blood. Some English writers had skill in both veins. But not serious, “old-school” Whigs: not men (ordinarily lawyers) who believed in the prescription of British history and the importance of circumstance in interpreting what a precedent means when a prudent choice must be made. For the deepest teaching of that history was that persuasion, even if incomplete, leaves the social bond intact. Calumny, claims of divine sanction, and rigid arguments from definition (asking, for instance, “What is man?” or “What is a republic?”) have a contrary effect. John Dickinson could foresee who might listen to a discussion of the sort he had in mind. And he also knew how important their opinions might turn out to be.

Dickinson’s mask as “farmer” thus predicts what kind of discourse he intends before we have begun to read. Also the date assigned to his opening letter: November 5, when “Good King Billy” first landed in England. Like most Whig traditionalists, the Pennsylvania farmer nods toward the example of Republican Rome. In that segment of ancient history the notion of “public virtue” received its original definition and the idea of corporate liberty, liberty under law, was given meaning.[21] A farming gentry had governed that state, a proud class, conscious of its nation’s history, devoted to preserving its laws and customs. And the same kind of men, the “country party,” called William III to the throne of England. Furthermore, the voice of the farming gentry is what we hear in most Roman literature. And also in much eighteenth century English writing. Dickinson’s self-representation is somewhat more modest than what we get from his English counterparts. And also more the lawyer. This pillar of the Philadelphia bar and Delaware planter was, in fact, a major figure in the unofficial colonial aristocracy. Yet persons not formally aristocratic though possessed of legal training were, from earliest settlement, the accepted leaders of colonial society. And the best respected of the lot were planters well read in law but with a passion for public service, a sense of the communal good: unassuming legal scholars not defined by size of practice or collection of fees. Hence Dickinson’s opening lines:

I am a Farmer, settled, after a variety of fortunes, near the banks of the river Delaware, in the province of Pennsylvania. I received a liberal education, and have been engaged in the busy scenes of life but am now convinced, that a man may be as happy without bustle, as with it. My farm is small my servants are few, and good I have a little money at interest I wish for no more my employment in my own affairs is easy and with a contented grateful mind, undisturbed by worldly hopes or fears, relating to myself, I am completing the number of days allotted to me by divine goodness.

Being generally master of my time, I spend a good deal of it in a library, which I think the most valuable part of my small estate and being acquainted with two or three gentlemen of abilities and learning, who honor me with their friendship, I have acquired, I believe, a greater knowledge in history, and the laws and constitution of my country, than is generally attained by men of my class, many of them not being so fortunate as I have been in the opportunities of getting information.

The library holdings of colonial leaders speak out plainly: a familiarity with constitutional theory, and therefore knowledge of the history where inherited constitutional rights were developed and are defined, went with public virtue. Men with such discipline were a security to the liberties of those confederated with them. In them the digested experience of a united people survived. And therefore their hope of a future.

We may thus conclude, with little doubt, that the strategy behind Dickinson’s rhetoric is to appear deliberate, to project repose, patience, and gentlemanly firmness and to treat his English antagonists as if their persistence to the contrary were a surprising lapse from their ordinary good sense.[22] Resting upon this air of mastery, he then builds, from specific (immediate) and theoretical (long-term) objections to the Townshend Acts, the Mutiny and Restraining Acts to frame (out of English and Roman history, in particular) an appeal to the honor and patriotic spirit of his fellow Americans. And all of this said disarmingly, as if no rhetoric at all were involved. Only up to a point will he specify where this recommended determination might lead. Balanced against protestations of loyalty is a small warning of its limits. But the disinterested farmer leaves no room at the end of the spectrum. What Americans cannot do is made very plain. They cannot agree to a revenue tax!

But why such excitement over so inconsequential a matter as duties upon paper, glass, lead, and tea? The crown revenue to be generated by these customs was small indeed. The Stamp Act had been repealed. Parliament agreed that it had been a mistake. And the Declaratory Act, reserving the right to tax, was merely a device for saving face, passed (we should remember) by the strongest Parliamentary supporters of colonial liberty. To see the question as did Dickinson and his countrymen, we must recognize that the danger of a secret conspiracy to consolidate political and economic power, and thus to subjugate all Englishmen, both at home and abroad, seemed altogether possible.[23] Wrote Dickinson, “. . . the passion of despotism raging like a plague . . . has spread with unusual malignity through Europe [and] . . . has at length reached Great Britain.”[24] That the progress of a tyrannical design should move from the colonies, inward, to attack the Constitution within Great Britain with resources drawn from over the seas was a common speculation. Moreover, no colonial theorist of importance (and I include here many Tories, such as Dickinson’s old enemy, Joseph Galloway) doubted that colony and homeland were separate legal entities-made by the charters two branches from one stem.[25] Even the wicked ministers of the King conceded this-though to a very different purpose. Hence the vigorously drawn distinction between revenue and administrative tax. Regulation of trade was clearly imperial business. Like the foreign policy of English dominions in general. But every page of Whig history spoke to the question of taxes levied but not voted and enforced by standing armies.[26] When these two innovations appeared in company, during a specific reign, the negotiated balance of government and subject was in peril and conflict just over the hill. Large garrisons, royally appointed judges, and taxes to produce revenue (as opposed to supplies for the small colonial establishment) had not been a part of the King’s presence in North America. The colonial assemblies had “granted” to their sovereign what his duties required. That the English parliament, acting under an evil “influence,” now relieved them of this responsibility seemed a dangerous precedent—a precedent of the kind against which Lord Coke warned in his Institutes—under whose aegis the social family of reciprocal rights and responsibilities might collapse into something arbitrary and oriental a precedent fatal to liberty, in that word’s older English sense. Which is the bottom line in what Dickinson’s dignified “farmer” has to say.

From an understanding of these concerns we can move toward a reading of the Farmer’s Letters as a sequence or design: three papers on the suspension of the New York legislature, the Townshend Duties, the necessity of remonstrance, and the non-intercourse agreements. They serve as an overture to the nine papers that follow. The last two of these function as a peroration for the set: an appeal for unity and a salute to the value of liberty, all of it spun out with some elaboration and elevation of tone. The total pattern turns on letters three and ten. The first of these has to do with the tactics and spirit of a proper resistance: the tactics and spirit which will get the job done. Here he speaks to moderate men of how painless and reasonable his form of resistance (unofficial embargo) will turn out to be. Letter ten is of an opposite, almost inflammatory disposition: concerning the utmost limits of “misery and infamy.”[27] Here Dickinson aims to frighten with an image of plunder under cover of law and the prospect of immigrant officeholders, consuming, without let or hindrance, the substance of colonial prosperity.

He imagines a history for these developments in the following terms:

Certain it is, that thought they had before their eyes so many illustrious examples in their mother country, of the constant success attending firmness and perseverance, in opposition to dangerous encroachments on liberty, yet they quietly gave up a point of the LAST IMPORTANCE. From thence the decline of their freedom began, and its decay was extremely rapid for as money was always raised upon them by the parliament, their assemblies grew immediately useless, and in a short time contemptible: And in less than one hundred years, the people sunk down into that tameness and supineness of spirit, by which they still continue to be distinguished. (Letter X)

The letters standing between these two all concern taxes and the probable consequences of altered tax policy. They deal with liberty, inherited rights, and the comprehension of these imperatives within the antipodes of letters three and ten. With that comprehension achieved, the “farmer” is ready to admonish. He has moved his reader from a measured resentment of British policies and their immediate results to a deeper fear of what could be their final costs: from attention or interest, to initial judgment, to consideration in detail, alarm and final full engagement—calling on both head and heart to act. The structure of the entire Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania is therefore proof of a considerable craft at work. And part of the meaning which that craft has produced.

With the evidence examined to this point we may hope to reconstruct John Dickinson’s conception of the role of government and its relation to a healthy society. For Dickinson’s political writings, though occasional in origin, reflect settled opinions on these topics: opinions in evidence at every point in his long public life. And this teaching at this level deserves careful, unanachronistic exposition. Indeed, what he says about “natural” and “political” rights alters drastically our perspective on what eighteenth century Americans meant when they invoked such terms. And therefore our view of the corporate identity which is ours by lawful entail.

To begin, government and society were not, in the eyes of our subject, synonymous terms. To encourage men to perform the virtue of which they are capable, and thus pursue their happiness, as persons and as a community, is the final end of government.[28] Yet its means to such an end are not social policies or teleological commitments to the achievement of some abstractly conceived state or condition or national dream of grandeur. Enlightened self-interest is only one consideration in this process. The need for fellow feeling and interdependence, for a corporate sense achieved through free choice, counts for just as much. (Remember the constant emphasis on unity of action in the Farmer’s Letters?[29]) In the opinion of Dickinson, government is law—law which allows society to grow and flourish. Its terms and specific properties derive from an anterior social reality, not the other way around. It is a set of “ground rules” or agreed upon procedures, found in the course of their history to be reasonable and conducive to the general happiness of those whom it binds into nationality. And even the meaning of liberty (clearly, Dickinson’s “god term”) is restricted by these rules.[30]

Dickinson, like many other colonials and English “Old Whigs,” speaks at times of “rights essential to human happiness” that are not “gifts” of princes but “are created in us by the decrees of Providence which establish the laws of our nature.”[31] But between these and the “historic rights of Englishmen” he marks no distinctions.[32] And about the latter he speaks incessantly.[33] The reasons behind this conflation are not far to seek. The paradox is in our minds, not in the thinking of our subject: in the deductive, rationalist habits we have borrowed from the philosophes, not in the prudential calculus of the Whigs. Like others with his education, Dickinson does not think of natural rights apart from their incarnation in historic rights, as logically prior to the social matrix where they took root. That incarnation, they recognized, might be imperfect—even, as I said above, where human liberty was concerned. But to destroy the continuum where historic rights can survive by reaching for an a priori definition is to risk a sad declension from what real ancestors under real difficulties have achieved: to risk, as Dickinson expressed it with one forceful analogy, making oneself into an illegitimate son.[34]

Men are made social, to exercise their abilities in society and under the conditions of government which, given the flaws in their nature, come closest to making that exercise possible. Those rights which produce a balance of liberty and order, the highest in human felicity, are most natural. When government acts against that balance, there is difficulty. So history reveals, telling us by negations for what condition we were made. And when government misconceives of its function, behaving as if men existed for its sake and not the other way around, the error is absolute. The natural or “inherent” right of self-preservation figures in this conception. Positive law, when it renders a whole people absolutely subject and thus destroys society, can expect to engender a rebellion. Yet, apart from such mistakes, the specific rights which prevent statist denial of man’s providential destiny are not “parchment guarantees” of Justice or Equality or Freedom from Fear. Dickinson talks instead about trial by jury, self-taxation, petition, local responsibility for judges, and a well-ordered militia. Consider the particulars of his “A Petition to the King from the Stamp Act Congress” and all of his other statements in behalf of his countrymen made thereafter, up to and beyond the “Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress, Oct. 14, 1774.”[35] That his “inherent rights” are thus defined, when we recall how typical of American sentiment he was, should encourage us to ask again what occasional use of broad general terms meant in the great documents of the era of our Revolution: meant to those who assented to their promulgation. And I include here the Declaration itself!

John Dickinson continued the same sort of non-theoretical Whig after independence had been achieved. That his objection to the timing and vehement language of the Declaration of Independence did not contradict his emphasis on concerted action he proved under arms in New Jersey and at Brandywine. And thereafter in political service in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and the Continental Congress. We needed an official instrument, linking the free commonwealths in their recalcitrance before we severed their connection in the older Constitution: and thus destroyed their roots in that deposit of liberties. Furthermore, there was a danger from “mobbish Boston” and the “licentious elements” in New England.[36] Alienation from the precedent in those quarters might produce a complete collapse of law into mere democracy: “the precarious tenure of will.” Two American republics could result from the release of such forces and neither would survive.[37] According to Dickinson’s apology for his conduct in those days, he had always a horror of performing “experiments” upon the body politic.[38] And for the same reason he signed and then affirmed in print the Federal Constitution which he, as a delegate from Delaware, had helped to compose.[39] In his eyes it preserved both the “sovereignty” of the states and their union, allowed for no judicial review, no imperial president, no expensive establishment, and no “democratical excess.” Was, in other words, no “experiment” or arbitrary construction doing violence to the larger Anglo-American identity. And when, once in office, other ostensible Federalists found in the document an authority for “energetic,” centralist construction of the government’s power, Dickinson went over to Jefferson its true expositor. Finally, in his last days, he thundered against the French Revolution and the would-be Caesar it released upon Europe as a “reign of monsters” likely to swamp all Christendom with a terrible synthesis of “atheism and democracy.”[40] In the Constitutional Convention his constant theme was “warm eulogiums of the British Constitution,” dread of innovation, and devotion to corporate liberty.[41] And nowhere more forcibly than when the sanction of mathematical logic was invoked against the predominance of the House of Representatives in the initiation of money bills. His address on that occasion may properly serve as a summary of his entire political career.

In response to the cunning Mr. Madison, Dickinson declared:

Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us. It was not Reason that discovered the singular and admirable mechanism of the British Constitution. It was not Reason that discovered or even could have discovered the odd and in the eye of those who are governed by reason, the absurd mode of trial by jury. Accidents probably produced these discoveries, and experience has given sanction to them. This then was our guide.[42]

The eminently reasonable lesson that John Dickinson offered that day is one that he followed to the end. He belonged to the party of memory and nothing very important in the political history from which we derive was, in his public conduct, ever forgotten. Of the generation which shaped our form of government and then set it in motion, few speak to us with such corrective force. His life embodies the American political prescription. As each new wave of political geometers pours in upon us, his is an order and sophistication of experience which we shall very much require. And a teaching needed to guide us on our perilous way.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Reprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Winter 1977).

Capt. John Dickinson

Captain John Dickinson (son of William Dickinson and Sarah Stacey) was born July 28, 1602 in Ely, Cambridge, England, and died 1684 in Oyster Bay, Lewis, New York. He married Elizabeth Howland Hicks on July 10, 1651 in Plymouth, Plymouth, MA.

More About Captain John Dickinson and Elizabeth Howland Hicks: Marriage: July 10, 1651, Plymouth, Plymouth, MA.

Children of Captain John Dickinson and Elizabeth Howland Hicks are:

Samuel Dickinson, b. January 26, 1664/65, Oyster Bay, Nassau, New York, d. 1732, Cedar Swamp Musketa Coe Li, New York.

John Dickinson964 was born 1602 in Ely, Cambridge, England965, and died 1681. He married Elizabeth Howland on 10 July 1651 in Plymouth, Plymouth, MA966, 967, daughter of John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley.


John DICKINSON b. 1602 at Ely, Cambridge, England, came with his brothers, Nathaniel and Thomas, with the "Cambridge Company" to New England in 1630.

m#1: He married Mary TAYLOR at Barnstable, Mass, in 1638, moved to Salisbury, Mass, where two children were born. Mary (Taylor) Dickinson died February 16, 1647, in Salisbury.

m#2: He married Elizabeth (Howland) Hicks, Widow of Ephriam HICKS, who died December 1, 1649. Married July 10, 1651.

She was a daughter of John HOWLAND of Mayflower families. In BARNSTABLE FAMILIES, page 340, "Capt. John DICKINSON, master of the "Desire" of Barnstable owned by Capt. Samuel MAYO of Block Island in 1653. They were delivering the possessions of Rev. William LEVERICK of Sandwich, together with three brothers, Anthony, Peter and Nicholas WRIGHT of Oyster Bay, L.I., when the boat was seized by Capt. Thomas BAXTER. The general court of Hartford, Conn. ruled BAXTER return the goods or pay Capt. MAYO $150.00

John DICKINSON probably did not bring his family to Oyster Bay, Long Island till after 1658, as he bought property from John HINKSMAN for broadcloth at 18 shillings a yard, 3# sterling, 20 shillings in liquor to the Town of Oyster Bay. Also 1 quart of Sack and 1/2 pt. liquor to Peter WRIGHT for exchange. February 2, 1659. Peter WRIGHT lived next to John DICKINSON.

Will: Book A, page 163, New York Wills. January 27, 1680. John DICKINSON of Oyster Bay, Queens Co., Long Island Being weak of body but perfect memory and understanding. First to my son, Joseph, lands and meadow I have settled upon him. Unto my daughter, Elizabeth, 5 shillings she already had. Unto my daughter, Mercy, 5 shillings she already had. To my wife, Elizabeth, to dispose of the remainder of my estate to my six younger children: Lidiah, Mehetable, Samuel, Hannah, James and Jabez, so long as she continues a widow. But if she marry as soon as my debits are defrayed she shall have 1/3 and remainder be divided equally only Jabez to have double portion. Jabez to live with his mother, or if she desires he is to live with his brother, Joseph, he is to have his estate with him.

More About John Dickinson: Will: 27 jan 1688.

More About John Dickinson and Elizabeth Howland: Marriage: 10 July 1651, Plymouth, Plymouth, MA.968, 969

Children of John Dickinson and Elizabeth Howland are:

  • +Elizabeth Dickinson, b. 11 October 1652, Salisbury, Massachusetts969, d. date unknown.
  • +Joseph Dickinson, b. 24 December 1654, Prob. Plymouth, Massachusetts969, d. Abt. 1721, Cedar Swamp, near Musketo Cove, Long Island969.
  • +Mercy Dickinson, b. 23 February 1656/57, Plymouth, Massachusetts969, d. date unknown, Freehold, New Jersey969.
  • Jabez Dickinson, b. 23 February 1659/60, Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York969, d. date unknown.
  • +Lydia Dickinson, b. 05 August 1662969, d. date unknown.
  • +Samuel Dickinson, b. 26 January 1664/65969, d. Bef. 1733969.
  • +Mehitable Dickinson, b. February 1666/67, Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York969, d. date unknown.
  • Hannah Dickinson, b. 06 January 1670/71969, d. date unknown.
  • +James Dickinson, b. 27 May 1675, Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York969, 970, d. Aft. 16 May 1741, Smithtown, Long Island, New York971

Bio Source: John Howland of the Mayflower Volume 4 THE FIRST FIVE GENERATIONS Documented Descendants Through his fourth child Elizabeth Howland, wife of Ephriam Hicks and Captain John Dickinson by Elizabeth Pearson White. John Dickarson/Dickenson/Dickinson "of Barnstable," who was probably born in England around 1622, but whose parentage has not been ascertained. John married first, perhaps in Boston, Mass., a wife named Frances[not Francis Foote], by whom he had one son, John, born 28th 5th mo. 1648, who was not a descendant of John Howland of the MAYFLOWER. John married Elizabeth Howland in Plymouth, Plymouth Co., Mass. on 10 July 1651. Capt. John Dickinson died in Oyster Bay before 12 March 1683, the date his will as proved.

John and Elizabeth Dickinson must have lived in Barnstable, on Cape Cod, during the first few years of their marriage and their first few children must have been born there. In 1651, Capt. John Dickinson bought a plot of land Barnstable which contained eight acres near where the courthouse now stands.

By May 1658, John and his family were living in Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York. In February 1659 John Dickinson bought land from John Hinksman. John paid for it in part with cloth and liquor, indicating he was a merchant and trader. On 15 February 1660, the town granted John Dickinson a house and lot at the south end of Oyster Bay, with a first share of meadowland. The next year, 1 February 1661, he was granted additional land, 10 rods deep, at the end of his property. Many other grants followed. On 12 January 1665/6, JohnDickinson of Oyster bay bought five acres of land from John Finch "of Fairfield on ye Main, formerly an inhabiter"f Oyster Bay.

In 1671 John Dickinson was appointted by the town to obtain a letter from the Rev. William Leverich, who had since moved to Huntington, Long Island, then to Connecticut, and then back to Newton, Long Island. He was asked to discuss the subject of the rights of the Town of Oyster bay with the Town of Hempstead. The same year John sold his rights in Hog Island, across from the Town of Oyster Bay, to Capt. Richard Morris. John Dickinson and Richard Harcut were chosen as overseers in 1676. Capt. John Dickinson died about eight years before his wife, Elizabeth. In his WILL dated 26 January 1680, proved 12 March 1683, John gave his son, Joseph Dickinson, the land and meadow previously settled on him. He gave five shillings each to two of his daughters, Elizabetth and Mercy, who had already received their portions, indicating that they were both married but he did not mention their married names. His widow, Elizabeth, was given the right to divide the rest of the estate among his six youngest children, named as Lydia, Mehetable, Samuel, Hannah, James and Jabez, making special provision for Jabez, who was incapable of caring for himself. Overseers were John Underhill, Sr., John Feakes, Sr., and his own son, Josph Dickinson. The witnesses were Thomas Townsend and Thomas Weekes.

Children of Capt. John Dickinson and Elizabeth Howland, first three probably born in Barnstable, Plymouth Colony, Mass., last six born in Oyster Bay. Long Island, New York.

  • +2 i. Elizabeth, born 11th 8th mo. 1652.
  • +3 ii. Joseph, born 24th 10th mo. 1654.
  • +4 iii. Mercy, born 23th 2d mo. 1657.
  • +5 iv. Jabez/Jabis, born 29th 7th mo. 1657.
  • +6 v. Lydia, born 5th 8th mp. 1662.
  • +7 vi. Samuel, born 26th 1st mo. 1665.
  • +8 vii. Mehetable, born [-] 2d mo. 1667.
  • +9 viii. Hannah, born 6th 1st mo. 1671.
  • +10 x. James, born 27th 5th mo. 1675.


Marguerite S. Dickinson Descendants of Captain John and Elizabeth Howland Dickinson of Oyster Bay, Long Island apparently privately printed by author, R.D. #1 Millersburg, OH 44654, not dated, p. 2.

Will of John Dickinson. Book A, p. 163 New York wills. January 27, 1680.

John Dickinson of Oyster Bay, Queens Co. Long Island. Being weak of body but perfect memory and understanding. First to my son Joseph lands and meadow I have settled upon him. Unto my daughter Elizabeth 5 shillings she already had. Unto my daughter Mercy 5 shillings she already had. To my wife Elizabeth to dispose of the remainder of my estate to my six younger children: Lidiah, Mehetable, Samuel, Hannah, James and Jabez, so long as she continues a widow. But if she marry as soon as my debts are defrayed she shall have 1/3 and remainder be divided equally only Jabez to have double portion. Jabez to live with his mother, or if she desires he is to live with his brother Joseph, he is to have his estate with him. _______________________________

History, Stories & Archives

Dickinson and the bayou, which shares the same name, were named for John Dickinson. In 1824, he received a land grant from the Mexican government for the area just north of the present day location of Dickinson.

Around 1850 a settlement was established along the shores of Dickinson Bayou. By 1860 Dickinson became a stop on the Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railroad. The town had a post office in 1890 registered under its current name.

In the 1890s Fred M. Nichols, the son of E. B., and eight other businessmen organized the Dickinson Land and Improvement Association to market unoccupied land in the Dickinson area. The primary attraction was the local soil’s proven suitability for growing fruit, cane, berries, and potatoes. Nichols converted forty acres of his estate into a public park, the Dickinson Picnic Grounds. For the next three decades large groups came out from Galveston to picnic and holiday on the grounds. A Texas Coast Fair was organized there in 1896, and a harness racetrack (where the great harness champion Dan Patch supposedly ran) was built to attract more people to Dickinson. By 1911 the Galveston and Houston Electric Railway Company had three stops in Dickinson, and prominent Galvestonians had established the Oleander Country Club and built homes there.

Gambling became prominent in Dickinson and stayed active until 1957. Clubs included the Dickinson Social Club, the Little Club, and the Rose Garden. In 1957 Attorney General Wil Wilson and the Texas Rangers effectively shut down open gambling through out Galveston County.

Industrialization and the growth of the oil industry in the Houston and Galveston area after both world wars contributed further to Dickinson’s growth. More growth came with NASA’s establishment in 1962 of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center just north of Dickinson in Clear Lake City. The fluctuating population figures of the town reflect these influences. Dickinson had a population of 149 in 1904. In 1914 the town had a population of 250, twelve businesses and a bank. After World War I the population had risen to 1,000 it dropped to 760 in 1931 but rose again to 1,000 in 1933 it remained stable through the rest of the Great Depression years. During World War II it rose to 1,500. By 1952 it was 3,500 and by 1961 increased to 4,715.

By the 1970’s the cities of Texas City and League City, through aggressive annexation, began to encroach on Dickinson. Residents of the central area worked to incorporate the city in 1977. In 1990, the additional areas of town were annexed into the incorporated city. In 2012, the estimated population of the city was 19,092.

A Biography of John Dickinson (1732-1808)

Dickinson has correctly been called the "Penman of the Revolution" by later historians. But his activities extended fortwo decades into the life of the new republic, years in which Dickinson's contributions were many. Dickinson's career began with his election to the Assembly in the Lower Counties (of Delaware) in 1759. Then, as a Pennsylvania legislater, he represented that colony at the Stamp Act Congress and later, until July 1776, in the Continental Congress. In 1767 as the "farmer" he became America's first native political hero: the outstanding harbinger of American protest against arbitrary British measures and a true defender of liberty. Patience Wright modeled him in wax: Paul Revere engraved his likeness copied from an earlier Philadelphia print. Nor was Dickinson reputation provincial. British leaders and those on the continent knew him as well. His opposition to independence in July 1776 brought vilification by his political adversaries but did not keep Du Simitiere in 1779 from drawing his profile as one of the thirteen American celebrities of the Revolution.

Having left the Continental Congress for military service, Dickinson was not returned to that body by Pennsylvania. Instead Delaware elected him its congressional delegate, but he did not agree to serve until 1779. In 1781 he became president (governor) of Delaware, and the following year, having returned to political favor, he was chosen presedent of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. At the conclusion of his term in Pennsylvania, he moved back to Delaware and took up residence at Wilmington.

Almost at once Delaware delegated him to attend the Annapolis Convention and shortly thereafter the Federal Convention. At the gathering in Philadelphia, Dickinson's voice was strong, setting forth a defense of small states, a position that led to the Great Compromise in congressional representation. As a constitutional authority he had no equal and had been the author of the original Articles of the Confederation, the country's first constitution. Dickinson's involvement in state and federal matters never slackened. He continued to act and write, becoming chairman of Delaware's constitutional convention in 1791, writing under the pseudonym "Fabius" first in support of the Federal Constitution and then a decade later in espousing the French cause as opposed to England's. As an enthusiastic democratic-Republican, he lent his support and advice to Jefferson.

Historians have labeled John Dickinson cautious and conservative. Cautious he was, in part too bound by his great dependence on lessons gained from both English and world history. To certain aspects of history he seemed blind, perhaps as a result of a temperamental revulsion to mass violence. His caution alone caused him to called conservative. But his devotion to the rule of law and to the principles of liberty linked him to the radicals in the early days of the Revolution. Dickinson never changed his principles. A man of great moral courage, he refused to bow to popular clamor and support independence. A conservative stance which seeks to withstand the ongoing currents of a dynamic world cannot, inherently, be a popular one. It tends to obstruct and frustrate. Thus the defender earns calumny from the impatient. Such was the case with Dickinson in Pennsylvania at the time of independence, a fate reversed, however, once his moderation again proved desirable. His life thus is not that of the more familiar Founding Fathers, but of a man no less devoted to his country and important in its history.

John Dickinson

Founding Father John Dickinson was an extremely powerful early leader of colonial resistance to British oppression, creating the foundation for the American Revolution.

Dickinson was born on November 2, 1732 in Maryland. A lawyer by trade, he attended the Stamp Act Congress and served in the First and Second Continental Congress. Although he refused to sign the Declaration of Independence, he chaired the committee that drafted the Articles of Confederation and served as a militia officer during the Revolutionary War. He served President of Delaware in 1781-1782 and President of Pennsylvania in 1782-1785 (he also served in each state&rsquos legislature in the 1760s and 1770s). He later founded Dickinson College.

Dickinson attended the Constitutional Convention on behalf of Delaware, and wrote extensively on behalf of its ratification under the penname Fabius. His influence played a significant role in the ratification of the Constitution by Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Most importantly, Dickinson was one of the early intellectual leaders of resistance to British oppression. Dubbed the &ldquoPenman of the Revolution,&rdquo he had a profound impact on the Founding Fathers when he authored the Declaration of Rights and Grievances (1765) of the Stamp Act Congress as well as the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1767-1768), which condemned British oppression in the years leading to up to the American Revolution. With Thomas Jefferson, he co-authored the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms (1775), which was adopted by the Second Continental Congress. In the Declaration, the Congress approved military action in defense of the rights of the colonists.

He died on February 14, 1808.

Picture: Charles Wilson Peale (1770), Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia.

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The Patriot Who Refused to Sign the Declaration of Independence

Fearing that American independence from Britain would fuel a fight with allied European nations, John Dickinson refused to sign the Declaration of Independence.

The moderates debated whether war with Britain outweighed the real benefits colonists enjoyed as subjects of the king.

In the decade before the American colonies declared independence, no patriot enjoyed greater renown than John Dickinson. In 1765 he helped lead opposition to the Stamp Act, Britain’s first effort to get colonists to cover part of the mounting cost of empire through taxes on paper and printed materials. Then, after Parliament rescinded the Stamp Act but levied a new set of taxes on paint, paper, lead and tea with the Townshend Duties of 1767, Dickinson galvanized colonial resistance by penning Letters From a Pennsylvania Farmer, a series of impassioned broadsides widely read on both sides of the Atlantic. He even set his political sentiments to music, borrowing the melody from a popular Royal Navy chantey for his stirring “Liberty Song,” which included the refrain: “Not as slaves, but as freemen our money we’ll give.”

In "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania," Dickinson expressed views shared by frustrated colonial farmers over England's Townshend Acts, which imposed taxes indirect tax on glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea—all imported from Britain. (National Archives)

Yet on July 1, 1776, as his colleagues in the Continental Congress prepared to declare independence from Britain, Dickinson offered a resounding dissent. Deathly pale and thin as a rail, the celebrated Pennsylvania Farmer chided his fellow delegates for daring to “brave the storm in a skiff made of paper.” He argued that France and Spain might be tempted to attack rather than support an independent American nation. He also noted that many differences among the colonies had yet to be resolved and could lead to civil war. When Congress adopted a nearly unanimous resolution the next day to sever ties with Britain, Dickinson abstained from the vote, knowing full well that he had delivered “the finishing Blow to my once too great, and my Integrity considered, now too diminish’d Popularity.”

Indeed, following his refusal to support and sign the Declaration of Independence, Dickinson fell into political eclipse. And 200-some years later, the key role he played in American resistance as the leader of a bloc of moderates who favored reconciliation rather than confrontation with Britain well into 1776 is largely forgotten or misunderstood.

To be a moderate on the eve of the American Revolution did not mean simply occupying some midpoint on a political line, while extremists on either side railed against each other in frenzied passion. Moderation for Dickinson and other members of the founding generation was an attitude in its own right, a way of thinking coolly and analytically about difficult political choices. The key decision that moderates ultimately faced was whether the dangers of going to war against Britain outweighed all the real benefits they understood colonists would still enjoy should they remain the king’s loyal subjects.

Dickinson and his moderate cohorts were prudent men of property, rather than creatures of politics and ideology. Unlike the strong-willed distant cousins who were leaders of the patriot resistance in Massachusetts—John and Samuel Adams—moderates were not inclined to suspect that the British government was in the hands of liberty-abhorring conspirators. Instead, they held out hope well into 1776 that their brethren across the Atlantic would come to their senses and realize that any effort to rule the colonies by force, or to deny colonists their due rights of self-government, was doomed to failure. They were also the kind of men British officials believed would choose the benefits of empire over sympathy for suffering Massachusetts the colony that King George III his chief minister, Lord North and a docile Parliament set out to punish after the Boston Tea Party of December 1773. Just as the British expected the Coercive Acts that Parliament directed against Massachusetts in 1774 would teach the other colonies the costs of defying the empire, so they assumed that sober men of property, with a lot at stake, would never endorse the hot-headed proceedings of the mob in Boston. Yet in practice, exactly the opposite happened. Dickinson and other moderates ultimately proved they were true patriots intent on vindicating American rights.

Men of moderate views could be found throughout America. But in terms of the politics of resistance, the heartland of moderation lay in the middle colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Unlike Massachusetts, where a single ethnic group of English descent predominated and religious differences were still confined within the Calvinist tradition, the middle colonies were a diverse melting pot where differences in religion, ethnicity and language heightened the potential for social unrest. This was also the region where a modern vision of economic development that depended on attracting free immigrants and harnessing their productive energy shaped the political view of moderate leaders. Let Samuel Adams indulge his quaint notion of turning the town of Boston into “the Christian Sparta.” The wealthy landowners of the middle colonies, as well as the merchant entrepreneurs in the bustling ports of Philadelphia, New York, Annapolis and Baltimore, knew that the small joys and comforts of consumption fit the American temperament better than Spartan self-denial and that British capital could help fund many a venture from which well-placed Americans could derive a healthy profit.

Dickinson, the son of a land baron whose estate included 12,000 acres in Maryland and Delaware, studied law at the Inns of Court of London as a young man in the 1750s. An early trip to the House of Lords left him distinctly unimpressed. The nobility, he scoffed in a letter to his parents, “drest in their common cloths” and looked to be “the most ordinary men I have ever faced.” When Thomas Penn, the proprietor of Pennsylvania, took him to St. James for a royal birthday celebration, Dickinson was struck by the banal embarrassment King George II showed, staring at his feet and mumbling polite greetings to his guests. Yet Dickinson’s memory of his sojourn in cosmopolitan London laid a foundation for his lasting commitment to reconciliation on the eve of the Revolution. Whatever the social differences between the colonies and the mother country, England was a dynamic, expanding and intellectually creative society. Like many moderates in the mid-1770s, Dickinson believed that the surest road to American prosperity lay in a continued alliance with the great empire of the Atlantic.

Another source of Dickinson’s moderation lay in his complicated relation to the Quaker faith. Dickinson’s parents were both Quakers and so was his wife, Mary Norris, the daughter and heiress of a wealthy Pennsylvania merchant and landowner. Dickinson balked at actively identifying with the Friends and their commitment to pacifism. Even though he worried as much as any moderate about resistance escalating to all-out warfare, he supported the militant measures Congress began pursuing once the British military clampdown began in earnest. But at the same time, Dickinson’s rearing and close involvement with Quaker culture left him with an ingrained sense of his moral duty to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Dickinson’s belief that the colonists should make every feasible effort at negotiation was reinforced by his doubts as to whether a harmonious American nation could ever be built on the foundation of opposition to British misrule. Remove the superintending authority of empire, Dickinson worried, and Americans would quickly fall into internecine conflicts of their own.

General outrage swept through the colonies after the British closed the port of Boston in May 1774. When the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in September in response to the crisis, John and Samuel Adams immediately began courting Dickinson, whose writings as the Pennsylvania Farmer made him one of the few men renowned across the colonies. At their first meeting, John Adams wrote in his diary, Dickinson arrived in “his coach with four beautiful horses” and “Gave us some Account of his late ill Health and his present Gout….He is a Shadow—tall, but slender as a Reed—pale as ashes. One would think at first Sight that he could not live a Month. Yet upon a more attentive Inspection, he looks as if the Springs of Life were strong enough to last many Years.” Dickinson threw his support behind a compact among the colonies to boycott British goods, but by the time the Congress ended in late October, Adams was growing exasperated with his sense of moderation. “Mr. Dickinson is very modest, delicate, and timid,” Adams wrote.

Dickinson and other moderates shared an underlying belief with more radical patriots that the colonists’ claims to be immune from the control of Parliament rested on vital principles of self-government. Even if Boston had gone too far with its tea party, the essential American pleas were just. But the moderates also desperately hoped that the situation in Massachusetts would not spin out of control before the government in London had a fair opportunity to gauge the depth of American resistance and respond to the protests Congress submitted to the Crown.

That commitment to conciliation was sorely tested after fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. “What human Policy can divine the Prudence of precipitating Us into these shocking Scenes,” Dickinson wrote to Arthur Lee, the younger, London-based brother of Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. “Why have we been so rashly declared Rebels?” Why had General Thomas Gage, the royal governor of Massachusetts, not waited “till the sense of another Congress could be collected?” Some members were already resolved “to have strain’d every nerve of that Meeting, to attempt bringing the unhappy Dispute to Terms of Accommodation,” he observed. “But what Topicks of Reconciliation” could they now propose to their countrymen, what “Reason to hope that those Ministers & Representatives will not be supported throughout the Tragedy as They have been thro the first Act?”

Dickinson’s despair was one mark of the raw emotions triggered throughout the colonies as the news of war spread. Another was the tumultuous reception that the Massachusetts delegates to the Second Continental Congress enjoyed en route to Philadelphia in early May. The welcome they received in New York amazed John Hancock, the delegation’s newest member, to the point of embarrassment. “Persons appearing with proper Harnesses insisted upon taking out my Horses and Dragging me into and through the City,” he wrote. Meanwhile no matter what direction delegations from other colonies took as they headed to Philadelphia, they were hailed by well-turned-out contingents of militia. The rampant martial fervor of the spring of 1775 reflected a groundswell of opinion that Britain had provoked the eruption in Massachusetts and Americans could not flinch from the consequences.

Military preparations became the first task of the new session of Congress, and a week passed before any attempts to negotiate with the British were discussed. Many delegates felt that the time for reconciliation had already passed. The king and his ministers had received an “olive branch” petition from the First Congress and ignored it. Dickinson delivered a heartfelt speech in which he acknowledged that the colonists must “prepare vigorously for War,” but argued that they still owed the mother country another chance. “We have not yet tasted deeply of that bitter Cup called the Fortunes of War,” he said. Any number of events, from battlefield reverses to the disillusion that would come to a “peaceable People jaded out with the tedium of Civil Discords” could eventually tear the colonies apart.

Dickinson and other moderates prevailed on a reluctant Congress to draft a second olive branch petition to George III. The debate, recorded only in the diary of Silas Deane of Connecticut, was heated. Dickinson insisted not only that Congress should petition anew, but that it should also send a delegation to London, authorized to initiate negotiations. Dickinson’s plans were attacked “with spirit” by Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, and dismissed with “utmost contempt” by John Rutledge of South Carolina, who declared that “Lord North has given Us his Ultimatum, with which We cannot agree.” At one point tempers rose so high that half of Congress walked out.

In the end, the mission idea was rejected, but Congress did agree to a second olive branch petition for the sake of unity, which, John Adams and others sneered, was an exercise in futility.

Over the next two months Congress took a series of steps that effectively committed the colonies to war. In mid-June, it began the process of transforming the provisional forces outside Boston into the Continental Army to be led by George Washington. Washington and his entourage left for Boston on June 23, having learned the day before of the carnage at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17. Meanwhile, John Adams chafed at the moderates’ diversionary measures. His frustration came to a boil in late July. “A certain great Fortune and piddling Genius whose Fame has been trumpeted so loudly has given a silly Cast to our whole Doings,” he grumbled in a letter to James Warren, president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Adams obviously meant Dickinson, and he then went on to complain that “the Farmer’s” insistence on a second petition to the king was retarding other measures Congress should be taking. But a British patrol vessel intercepted the letter and sent it on to Boston, where General Gage was all too happy to publish it and enjoy the embarrassment it caused.

Adams received his comeuppance when Congress reconvened in September 1775. Walking to the State House in the morning, he encountered Dickinson on the street. “We met, and passed near enough to touch Elbows,” John wrote to his wife, Abigail, back home. “He passed without moving his Hat, or Head and Hand. I bowed and pulled off my Hat. He passed haughtily by. The Cause of his Offence, is the Letter no doubt which Gage has printed.” Adams was loath to admit that his original letter to Warren had been as unfair in its judgment as it was ill-advised in its shipment. Dickinson sincerely thought a second petition was necessary, not only to give the British government a last chance to relent, but also to convince Americans that their Congress was acting prudently.
Having pushed so hard to give peace a chance, Dickinson felt equally obliged to honor his other commitment to “prepare vigourously for War.” He joined Thomas Jefferson, a newly arrived Virginia delegate, in drafting the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking up Arms, which Washington was instructed to publish upon his arrival in Boston. Mean­while Dickinson undertook another ploy to try to slow the mobilization for war. He wrote a set of resolutions, which the Pennsylvania legislature adopted, barring its delegates from approving a vote for independence. The instructions were a barrier to separation, but only so long as many Americans throughout the colonies hesitated to take the final step.

That reluctance began to crack after Thomas Paine published Common Sense in January 1776. Paine’s flair for the well-turned phrase is exemplified in his wry rejoinder to the claim that America still needed British protection: “Small islands not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care, but there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.” Public support for more radical action was further kindled as Britain indicated that repression was the only policy it would pursue. Township and county meetings across the country adopted pro-independence resolutions that began flowing into Congress, as John Adams remarked, “like a torrent.” In May 1776, Adams and other delegates moved to break the logjam in Pennsylvania by instructing the colonies to form new governments, drawing their authority directly from the people. Soon the authority of the Pennsylvania legislature collapsed, and the instructions Dickinson had drawn lost their political force.

In the weeks leading up to the vote on independence, Dickinson chaired the committee that Congress appointed to draft Articles of Confederation for a new republican government. Meanwhile, he remained the last major foe of separation. Other moderates, like Robert Morris of Pennsylvania and John Jay of New York, also had hoped that independence could be postponed. Yet having grown increasingly disenchanted with Britain’s intransigence, they accepted the congressional consensus and redoubled their commitment to active participation in “the cause.”

Only Dickinson went his own way. Perhaps his Quaker upbringing left him with a strong conscience that prevented him from endorsing the decision that others now found inevitable. Perhaps his youthful memories of England still swayed him. In either case, conscience and political judgment led him to resist independence at the final moment, and to surrender the celebrity and influence he had enjoyed over the past decade.

Pennsylvania’s new government quickly dismissed Dickinson from the congressional delegation. In the months that followed, he took command of a Pennsylvania militia battalion and led it to camp at Elizabethtown, N.J. But Dickinson had become an opportune target of criticism for the radicals who now dominated Pennsylvania politics. When they got hold of a letter he had written advising his brother Philemon, a general of the Delaware militia, not to accept Continental money, their campaign became a near vendetta against the state’s once eminent leader. Dickinson protested that he meant only that Philemon should not keep money in the field, but in the political upheaval of 1776 and 1777, the fiercely independent Dickinson was left with few allies who could help him salvage his reputation.

Eventually Dickinson returned to public life. In January 1779, he was appointed a delegate for Delaware to the Continental Congress, where he signed the final version of the Articles of Confederation he had drafted. He subsequently served as president of the Delaware General Assembly for two years before returning to the fray in Pennsylvania, where he was elected president of the Supreme Executive Council and General Assembly in November 1782. He was also a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and promoted the resulting framework for the young republic in a series of essays written under the pen name Fabius.

Despite his accomplishments late in life, Dickinson never fully escaped the stigma of his opposition to independence. But upon hearing of Dickinson’s death in February 1808, Thomas Jefferson, for one, penned a glowing tribute: “A more estimable man, or truer patriot, could not have left us,” Jefferson wrote. “Among the first of the advocates for the rights of his country when assailed by Great Britain, he continued to the last the orthodox advocate of the true principles of our new government, and his name will be consecrated in history as one of the great worthies of the Revolution.”

A few years later, even John Adams sounded a note of admiration for his erst-while adversary in a letter to Jefferson. “There was a little Aristocracy, among Us, of Talents and Letters,” Adams wrote. “Mr. Dickinson was primus inter pares”—first among equals.

Historian Jack Rakove won a Pulitzer Prize for Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. His most recent book is Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America.

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