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Dickinson, John (1732-1808)

John Dickinson (1732-1808)


Lawyer and statesman

Study Abroad. John Dickinson was born on 8 November 1732 into a wealthy, socially prominent Quaker family on the eastern shore of Maryland. Dickinson was schooled at home until 1750, when he went to Philadelphia to study law in the office of John Moland, a prominent attorney. Dickinson worked in Molands office for three years, copying documents and studying in the company of other apprentices. In 1753 he went to Londons Inns of Court to complete his legal education. The study of law in the Inns was an unstructured affair. Dickinson followed a daily regimen of reading law books, visiting law courts, and debating the fine points of law with fellow law students. He learned not only court procedure but also, from discussions with the other residents, how to organize and present his views on a variety of topics. This broad but rigorous legal training helped him develop an extensive knowledge of Englands legal history and a keen insight into British politics. This close contact with politics taught him other, troubling lessons: he was distressed to learn that the members of the House of Lords were rather ordinary men, and he was even more disturbed to see corruption and incompetence among members of the House of Commons. He completed his training in London upon admission to the bar in 1757 and sailed home to Philadelphia.

Legislator. Dickinson began his legal practice as soon as he returned home. In Pennsylvania a long-running political feud was heating up at this timethe dispute between the supporters of the elected assembly and the supporters of the proprietorship. The assembly, deriving authority from the 1701 Charter of Liberties, had gradually increased its control of local financial affairs. The proprietary faction were the supporters of the heirs of William Penn. The proprietors, who owned one-tenth of all the land in the colony, also had some political powersthey appointed the governor and the judges. Dickinson did not get involved in this dispute at the outset of his political career, but when he was elected to the assembly in 1762, he was quickly forced to take sides.

Champion of the Status Quo. One of the leaders of the movement to replace the proprietary system with a royal charter form of government was Benjamin Franklin. He and his allies argued that the proprietors, as owners of one-tenth of all the land in the colony, had a conflict of interest on the issue of taxes, when, in their positions as governors council members and judges, they needed to raise taxes and appropriate money for defense of western settlements. The antiproprietor faction urged a separation between the power of government and the ownership of property and sought to have the assembly petition the Crown for a change to a royal colony form of government.

Moderate Course. Dickinson pointed out that other colonies with royal charters chafed under many burdens and urged that Pennsylvania not change to a charter simply to spite the proprietors. More important, he argued, Pennsylvanians had benefits under their 1701 charter that they put at risk by asking for a changecomplete religious freedom, with no oaths required for political participation, and the assembly was less subject to the will of the governor than were the legislatures of the royal colonies. Dickinson disliked the proprietary form of government, but he saw too much to lose by changing to a royal charter. He advised bargaining with the royal authorities to solve the primary problem, the taxation dispute. Dickinsons arguments had only partial success in the assembly. The members voted to send Franklin to London to petition for a change of the charter, provided that he preserve Pennsylvanias civil and religious privileges. When Franklin arrived in London, in March 1765, as the Stamp Act controversy was gathering steam, Parliaments determination to tax the colonies made the antiproprietary petition a lost cause. Dickinsons analysis of the situation was clearly correct.

Stamp Act Congress. Pennsylvania sent Dickinson to the Stamp Act Congress in New York in September 1765. He gained widespread notice as the principal draftsman of the Congresss Declarations of Rights and Privileges. The delegates acknowledged that the colonists were loyal to the British Crown and subject to the authority of Parliament. However, as Dickinson wrote: It is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives. The Stamp Act Congresss resolutions and petition were sent to Parliament and helped convince Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act in 1766.

Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer. After the settlement of the Stamp Act controversy, Parliament passed three acts that rekindled the dispute: the Quartering Act required colonial legislatures to provide barrack necessities (candles, mattress straw, windowpanes, etc.) for British soldiers stationed in the colonies; the Restraining Act prohibited the New York assembly from meeting until it complied with the Quartering Act; and the Townshend Act imposed new duties on goods imported into the colonies from England. These three acts inspired Dickinson to write his most famous work: Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer. His first letter, published in a Philadelphia newspaper on 2 December 1767, described some personal qualities. He said he was a retired farmer, an educated gentleman interested in promoting the welfare of men, and one who believed that such welfare was best secured with liberty. At the rate of one letter every week for twelve weeks, the farmer wrote about these three acts. The letters were quickly republished in newspapers in other cities, and pamphlet versions soon appeared as well. The sober tone of the letters and their call for cautious opposition to the various tax acts awakened and unified people in all the colonies. The letters generated favorable comments in all the colonies and were discussed and praised in New England town meetings.

Continental Congress. In 1774 Dickinson was a delegate from Pennsylvania at the First Continental Congress. He played a prominent role outlining the grievances and drafting essays, resolutions, and petitions. He based his arguments on natural law and constitutional limitations of Parliaments power. He focused on two main grievancesParliaments interference with the internal affairs of the colonies and its wrongful use of its power over trade. The Second Continental Congress convened in May 1775, after the battles at Lexington and Concord. Dickinson, working with John Duane of New York, proposed a plan for a reconciliation with Britain. He urged a three-staged approach: preparations for war, sending a petition to the king, and negotiating a permanent set of commercial regulations and a revenue settlement. Dickinsons insistence that Congress wait for a response to the Olive Branch Petition was the main controversy in the debate. The petition was sent in July, and support for Dickinsons position on reconciliation wasted away as months passed with no response from London. Finally, in November, Congress learned that the king would not respond. Dickinsons prestige in Congress waned rapidly.

Declaration of Independence. Dickinson labored under the conviction that reconciliation was still possible although he became increasingly doubtful. He simply was unable to make the same leap that so many others already had, that independence was inevitable. In Congress in June 1776 the delegates debated declaring independence. Dickinson urged that independence be deferred at least until the colonies could agree on how they would form a confederation and ascertain the likelihood of foreign help in the war. When the motion for independence was finally presented, Dickinson abstained and did not sign the Declaration of Independence. In the next several weeks he drafted the Articles of Confederation for a committee of the Continental Congress. On 20 July, Pennsylvanias provincial convention ousted him from the congressional delegation because he had not supported independence. Dickinson was not disappointed at his ouster, writing that no youthful Lover ever stript off his cloathes to step into Bed to his blooming beautiful bride with more delight that I have cast off my Popularity.

Later Years. Dickinson spent the next several years out of the public spotlight. He moved to Delaware and resumed his law practice. In 1781, however, he was elected to Delawares legislature. Later that year, under the then-current form of government, the legislature elected him president of the state for a three-year term. Dickinsons main interests were in Philadelphia, though, and in late 1782 he returned there, where he was promptly elected to the Pennsylvania legislature. Shortly thereafter the legislature elected him president of Pennsylvania. Dickinson was president of both states at the same time but resigned the Delaware office after three months. In 1783, believing there was a need for a college in the western part of Pennsylvania, he founded Dickinson College. He endowed the new school with two farms, totaling five hundred acres, and a library of 1,500 volumes. Dickinson represented Delaware at the Annapolis Convention in 1786 and at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. During the debate on ratification, Dickinsons Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer were often cited by opponents of ratification. Dickinson wrote a series of essays signed Fabius in support of ratification. He helped write the Delaware constitution in 1792 and wrote occasionally on political matters for the next ten years. He died on 19 February 1808.


Lawrence Henry Gipson, The Coming of the Revolution, 1763-1775 (New York: Harper, 1954);

David L. Jacobson, John Dickinson and the Revolution in Pennsylvania, 1764-1776 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965);

Charles J. Stille, The Life and Times of John Dickinson (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1891).

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John Dickinson

John Dickinson

John Dickinson (1732-1808), American lawyer, pamphleteer, and politician, helped guide public opinion during the clash between colonial and British interests prior to the American Revolution. Although he had opposed American independence, he worked to strengthen the new nation.

After 1769 John Dickinson was without peer in the pamphlet war for colonial rights, which the moderates preferred to a shooting war. He was not a "man of the people," but he shared with most American Whigs the aspiration for self-government. He was cautious but not an obstructionist.

John Dickinson was born Nov. 13, 1732, in Talbot County, Md., the son of a judge. Dickinson began his legal studies in 1750 in Philadelphia, but 3 years later he went to London and became a reader at the Middle Temple.

In England, Dickinson studied the authorities, heard cases argued, and visited the theater and the family of Pennsylvania proprietor Thomas Penn. He took his law degree in 1757 and returned to America with the disillusioned view that Parliament was a school for corrupt bargainers of meager talents.

Dickinson was admitted to the Philadelphia bar, and after 1760, when his father died, he divided his time between Kent County, Del., and the thriving Pennsylvania capital. Elected to the colonial legislature in 1762, he showed little awe for the Penn family's proprietary interests but displayed a lifelong tendency to see both sides of an issue and then lean toward the middle ground. When the antiproprietary leaders insisted that the colony should be wrested from the Penns and converted into a royal province, Dickinson warned that the transition might exact a heavy price. The colony was torn between the Quaker party and the Scotch-Irish faction, and Dickinson insisted that a change of masters was in itself no solution to their deep-rooted problems.

Debating American Independence

No one could foresee the rapid deterioration of British-American relations set off by the Stamp Act in 1765, when local concerns finally gave way to larger problems. Whereas Benjamin Franklin at first saw no harm in the stamped paper, Dickinson sensed the dreaded implications it carried. As a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress, he met leaders of active antiparliamentary parties from other colonies. His "Declaration of Rights and Privileges" adopted by the Congress denounced taxes voted in England and collected in America. Regulation of trade was one thing, but levying taxes struck at the main artery of colonial government. Dickinson wrote several pamphlets which suggested that Britain would, if necessary, bleed the Colonies into obedience. In common with James Otis, the foremost pamphleteer of the day, Dickinson argued that "immutable maxims of reason and justice" supported the American discontent.

Repeal of the Stamp Act temporarily relaxed tensions, but the Townshend Acts of 1767 gave Dickinson renewed opportunity to serve as a moderate spokesman. In the maelstrom of American discontent, Dickinson's Letters from a Pennsylvanian Farmer capitalized on the shifting grounds of argument. The new duties were contrary to natural law, he argued, and clearly unconstitutional. Dickinson denied the sophistry that claimed there were internal and external duties and that Parliament might legally enact only the latter. Levying taxes, he argued, was the precious prerogative of the colonial assemblies alone but Parliament might enact regulatory duties on trade. Dickinson insisted that the point of tightened British controls was to keep Americans obedient rather than happy. Widely published in newspapers and as a pamphlet, his Letters (as Franklin said) echoed "the general sentiments" of the colonists. The tone was neither humble nor belligerent.

Dickinson tried to rouse the lethargic Philadelphia merchants into a more active stand and corresponded with James Otis and other resistance leaders. In 1770 he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly. He married Mary Norris the same year. In the backlash of the Boston Tea Party, Philadelphians debated both their role in aiding a sister city and their position in the imperial argument. Dickinson helped clarify matters in his pamphlet An Essay on the Constitutional Power of Great Britain, which granted Parliament power to regulate foreign trade but little else in American life. In the First Continental Congress he drafted both the cogent "Address to the Inhabitants of Quebec," a summary of the rights of Americans, and the petition to George III seeking reconciliation.

Dickinson's attitude characterized the Second Continental Congress, which John Adams saw as holding "the Sword in one Hand [and] the Olive Branch in the other." Dickinson's "Olive Branch" petition to the King boomeranged. By ignoring it, George III slammed the door on moderate Americans and placed Dickinson in a difficult position.

Dickinson's Approach Too Moderate

By 1776 Dickinson was arguing against the inevitable; his opposition to the Declaration of Independence left him a conscientious but marked man. His proposed "Articles of Confederation" proved useful as Congress patched together a national government, but in state politics his ideas were rejected, and he was dropped from the congressional delegation. Exasperated, Dickinson challenged supporters of the ultrademocratic Pennsylvania Constitution by calling for an immediate revision of their work. Frustrated and convinced he was ill, he temporarily retired.

Gradually, Dickinson regained his old political form. In 1779 Delaware sent him back to Congress and in 1781 elected him its chief executive. A year later Pennsylvania also chose him as its president, and he briefly held both offices. Soon, however, he returned to Pennsylvania to serve 3 years as its president. Dickinson was sent to the Annapolis Convention and was a Delaware delegate to the Federal Convention in 1787. Age and health excused him from an active role in debate, but in the ratification campaign he wrote the "Fabius" letters in support of the United States Constitution.

Thereafter, Dickinson appeared rarely in public bodies. He helped draft the 1792 Delaware Constitution but took no part in a similar work for Pennsylvania. He veered away from the Federalists to attack Jay's Treaty. He supported the rising Republican party and Jefferson in 1800 but refused to become politically active himself. Dickinson died on Feb. 14, 1808, at Wilmington, Del.

Further Reading

There is no satisfactory comprehensive biography of Dickinson. Charles J. Stillé, The Life and Times of John Dickinson (1891), is inadequate. David L. Jacobson, John Dickinson and the Revolution in Pennsylvania, 1764-1776 (1965), is excellent for its analysis of a significant period. Dickinson's papers in the several leading Philadelphia archives have not yet been collected and edited by a competent scholar. The Political Writings of John Dickinson, edited by himself (1801), and Paul L. Ford, ed., The Writings of John Dickinson (1895), leave gaps.

Additional Sources

Flower, Milton Embick, John Dickinson, conservative revolutionary, Charlottesville: Published for the Friends of the John Dickinson Mansion by the University Press of Virginia, 1983.

Fredman, Lionel E., John Dickinson, American Revolutionary statesman, Charlotteville, N.Y., SamHar Press, 1974. □

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Dickinson, John


John Dickinson was born November 8, 1732, in Talbot County, Maryland. He was educated at the College of New Jersey (today known as Princeton University), where he earned a doctor of laws degree in 1768. He also pursued legal studies at the Middle Temple, Inn of the Court, England.

After his admission to the Philadelphia bar in 1757, Dickinson established a prestigious legal practice in that city and subsequently entered politics on the state level.

In 1760, Dickinson served in the Assembly of Lower Counties, Delaware, and performed the duties of speaker. Two years later, he participated in the Pennsylvania legislature, representing Philadelphia until 1764, and again, from 1770 to 1776. In 1765, Dickinson wrote a pamphlet titled The Late Regulations Respecting the British Colonies on the Continent of America Considered, which protested the passage of two unjust acts of taxation, the stamp act and the Sugar Act, by England. In the same year, he also served at the Stamp Act Congress and drafted a series of requests to King George III. Although he opposed many of the policies enforced by England, Dickinson favored conciliatory action over violence.

England passed the unpopular townshend acts in 1767, which levied tariffs on colonial imports of certain items. Dickinson composed another publication in protest, known as "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania"; these letters advocated nonimportation of the taxed materials, rather than a violent reaction to the passage of the act.

Dickinson continued to serve in pre-Revolutionary War activities, including the Committee of Correspondence in 1774 and the continental congress from 1774 to 1776 and from 1779 to 1781. He still hoped for reconciliation with England and, as a result of this sentiment, opposed the Declaration of Independence. However, with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Dickinson served a tour of military duty.

"It is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people that no taxes be imposed on them but with their own consent, given personally or by their representatives."
—John Dickinson

From 1781 to 1785, Dickinson was a participant in state government activities, acting as

administrator of the Supreme Council of Delaware in 1781 and performing the same duty for the Supreme Council of Pennsylvania from 1782 to 1785.

Dickinson was instrumental in the formation of the articles of confederation, adopted in 1781, by serving as presiding officer of the committee appointed to compose the document and creating the outline that became the foundation of the articles. In 1787, he represented Delaware at the Constitutional Convention and advocated the ratification of the Constitution through a series of letters published under the name of Fabius.

In addition to his achievements as a statesman, Dickinson also contributed to the field of education as a founder of Dickinson College, located at Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Dickinson died February 14, 1808, in Wilmington, Delaware.

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Dickinson, John

John Dickinson, 1732–1808, American patriot and statesman, b. Talbot co., Md. After studying law in Philadelphia and in London at the Middle Temple, he developed a highly successful practice in Philadelphia. In 1760 he became speaker of the assembly of the Lower Counties (Delaware), and in 1762 he entered the Pennsylvania legislature. Dickinson led the conservative wing opposing Benjamin Franklin and defending the proprietary system. The Sugar Act and the Stamp Act led him to write a pamphlet (1765) in protest. As a member of the Stamp Act Congress he helped draw up the petitions to the king, but he opposed all violent resistance to the law. The passage of the Townshend Acts (1767) led to the colonial nonimportation agreements and the publication of Dickinson's famous Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, which appeared in the Pennsylvania Chronicle in 1767 and 1768. He pointed out that these laws were inconsistent with established English constitutional principles, but he favored nonimportation agreements and conciliation rather than revolt. Dickinson came to be regarded as the leader of the conservative group, which opposed not only British actions but also the ideas of such radicals as Samuel Adams. He was a delegate to the First Continental Congress and drew up a petition to the king. However, he still hoped for reconciliation even after the opening of hostilities, and he refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. He continued to be the leader of the conservative patriots in Pennsylvania and Delaware and held state posts. His draft formed the basis of the Articles of Confederation (see Confederation, Articles of). In 1786 he presided over the Annapolis Convention, and in the subsequent U.S. Constitutional Convention, Dickinson was a delegate from Delaware and a leading champion of the rights of the small states. He later wrote vigorously in support of the Constitution. Dickinson College, established with his support when he was Pennsylvania's president (governor), is named after him.

See biographies by C. J. Stillé (1891, repr. 1967) and E. Wolf (2d ed. 1967); study by D. L. Jacobson (1965).

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