John Dickinson was born in Talbot County, Maryland on
November 2, 1732. The family - father Samuel Dickinson, his second wife,
Mary Cadwalader of Philadelphia, and assorted step-brothers and sisters
- moved to an estate in Delaware a few years after. There the children
enjoyed the privileged upbringing and private education of the landed
elite. At eighteen, John Dickinson became a law student in the Philadelphia
offices of John Moland. In 1753, he traveled to London to study at the
Middle Temple. Here he absorbed the particularly English legal attitude
of entitlement to protection of ancient rights against new methods of
arbitrary rule that had dominated the previous century in British legal
and political affairs. This experience and his voracious capacity for
study, together with the natural conservatism of his background, marked
his overwhelming interest in the relationship between politics and history
and foretold his remarkable life of public service that was to come.
He extended his stay in London till 1757, and upon returning home, settled
in Philadelphia and began a successful law practice. He also entered
politics, serving in the Pennsylvania Assembly. He distinguished himself
by siding with the Proprietary party against the faction led by Benjamin
Franklin that sought to turn Pennsylvania from a Penn family governed
commonwealth to a colony immediately under Royal control. The bitter
debate of 1764 saw the eloquent and stubborn young Dickinson stand his
ground on the simple conservative principle that change might bring
more oppressive government and that the chance could not be taken. He
lost the debate and his seat in the Assembly.
He gained admiration for his principles, however, and he was soon chosen
to represent Pennsylvania at the Stamp Act Congress in New York in October,
1765. He had, just before this, published a pamphlet seeking support
among English merchants to repeal the Stamp and Sugar Acts as a restraint
of trade. At the meeting, he drafted the resolution of the Congress.
When this action made no impact on government policy, he began in December,
1768, to publish in the Pennsylvania Chronicle his famous Letters
from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies,
under the pseudonym "A Farmer." Twelve in all, the letters
made a masterful argument based upon the contradiction the Acts posed
to traditional English liberties and were widely read, admired, and
digested on both sides of the Atlantic. Although the writings hinted
at an ultimate recourse of resistance, they reflected overall the hesitation
to employ extra-constitutional measures, a hesitation that Dickinson
would display through much of his later career.
The actions of the New England colonies, however, soon moved events
beyond the possibility of reconciliation. Dickinson blamed the radicals
in Boston for this escalation and the end of any hope of constitutional
solution. In the July, 1774 meetings to organize a new congress, Dickinson
drafted three resolutions which retained hope that outright rebellion
could still be avoided. At the same time, he worked to prepare the defenses
of Philadelphia and took command of the first battalion of the city's
new militia regiment. At the second Continental Congress, he wrote the
Petition to the King, which appealed again for peaceful resolution.
When the Crown rejected this approach, the pressures for revolution
became unstoppable and brought Dickinson to his famous refusal to vote
for or sign the Declaration of Independence. The timing was wrong, he
said, to declare war on the greatest power in the world without even
a system of government to bind together the various colonies in their
constitutionality or even their defense. He did abstain from the final
vote, however, so that the Pennsylvania vote would be for independence
and therefore the colonies would adopt the Declaration unanimously.
He also led the committee to draft the Articles of Confederation.
With the war now joined, Dickinson first took up his post as colonel
and then resigned his commission over what he saw were a series of affronts
that his stand in Congress had brought on. Though the actual case is
not clear, many accounts have him serving as a private soldier, notably
at the Battle of Brandywine. He also suffered financially; the British
burned the family's Philadelphia estate, and Tories or bandits caused
extensive damage to his Delaware properties. This caused some economy,
including the manumission of his slaves.
In 1779, he returned to the Continental Congress and in 1781 was elected
president of Delaware. The next year he resigned that post to be elected
president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, returning
to Philadelphia and the radical turmoil in that state. In 1786, Dickinson
joined James Madison in a convention at Annapolis to revise the Articles
of Confederation. Dickinson was elected president of the gathering,
and a brief session soon adjourned in favor of a larger such meeting
to be held in Philadelphia. From May to September, 1787, Dickinson sat
with other delegates in what is now known as the Constitutional Convention.
His contributions to the debates centered mainly upon the election of
and powers for the federal presidency. Under the name "Fabius,"
he wrote nine succinct essays urging the ratification of the new constitution
while warning against the gathering of too much power in the hand of
the national government. Following the success of ratification in both
Delaware and Pennsylvania before the end of 1787, Dickinson essentially
retired from political participation, ironically never holding any office
under the new constitution he had so much helped into being.
He still wrote, however. In 1798, with the French Revolution losing
so many of its initial backers in the United States, he wrote a second
series of "Fabius Letters," this time rather uncharacteristically
defending friendly relations with France. He felt France was one nation
to which the United States owed victory in its War of Independence,
the later excesses of the Paris Revolution notwithstanding. He also
moved into line with Thomas Jefferson and those who resisted a strong
central power for the federal capital. In 1803, he despaired of France,
newly imperial and under the sway of Bonaparte, and wrote An Address
on the Past, Present, and Eventual Relations of the United States to
France in which he dubbed that nation now a threat to United States
In July, 1770, Dickinson had married Mary Norris, the daughter of Isaac
Norris, then president of the Philadelphia Assembly. Mary Dickinson
shared with fortitude the vicissitudes of the following decades. The
couple had five children, though only two daughters, Sarah and Maria,
survived infancy. The family lived quietly in their townhouse in Wilmington,
Delaware. John Dickinson died there on February 14, 1808. President
Jefferson expressed his sorrow, and both houses of Congress resolved
to wear black armbands in mourning. He was buried in the cemetery of
the Friends Meeting House in Wilmington.
Please visit the following link for materials authored
by John Dickinson maintained in the Their Own Words database:
Dickinson, John, 1732-1808.