A Speech, Delivered in the House
of Assembly of the Province of Pennsylvania, May 24th, 1764.
Philadelphia: Printed; London: Re-printed for J. Whiston and
B. White, 1764.
In the spring of 1764, Pennsylvania provincial politics
were in turmoil. A mainly Philadelphia faction under the leadership
of Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Galloway were seeking to curtail what
they saw as the corrupt and arbitrary rule of Thomas Penn, son of William
Penn and proprietor of the Commonwealth. Pennsylvania remained a proprietary
colony under the original charter granted to William Penn and his family.
The Franklin faction sought to end this arrangement in favor of status
as a royal colony. They felt that a royal governor, able to call upon
royal troops, would simplify the maintenance and funding of order on
the frontier while relieving Pennsylvania of the corruption, land grabbing,
and tax evasion of the younger Penn and his supporters, notably William
Allen. In turn, Franklin and his friends were accused of their own self-interest
and ambition, and the Assembly divided. Meanwhile, the Penns sought
support and assistance both at Court and in the rural north and west
regions of the colony. Franklin, as speaker of the assembly, introduced
a petition to the King to end the proprietorship in May, 1764 and touched
off a tumultuous year of politics in the Commonwealth. John Dickinson,
the wealthy lawyer and plantation owner then sitting in the Assembly
representing the county of Philadelphia, gave a powerful speech on the
question that was to have a powerful impact on the debate. The oration
serves as well as a thoughtful and scholarly observation on the politics
of this pre-Revolutionary colony.
In a blend of perhaps his two most constant and famous characteristics,
those of constitutional conservatism and common sense prudence, John
Dickinson laid out his objections to the petition. Among these was the
observation that only around 3,500 Pennsylvanians had signed the circulated
petition. He considered this nowhere near sufficient - a majority of
the quarter million residents must approve any change of this magnitude.
Further, change must be very carefully considered. Power is like an
ocean, he said - not easy to place bounds upon; the protection of English
liberty had been safeguarded through centuries of slowly built custom
that precipitous action would threaten. Pennsylvania enjoyed a representative
and benevolent government, despite problems of taxation and corruption,
thanks to the Charter of Privileges William Penn had granted in 1701;
there was no guarantee that royal provincial status would preserve those
freedoms in the future because rulers always tend to gather power rather
than distribute it. Dickinson also warned that care be taken not to
anger the King himself with this move. The Crown was more likely to
see demands to be relieved of rightfully ordained control as democratic
rather than as a statement of loyalty and trust.
Dickinson's speech and its distribution undercut Franklin's faction,
almost fatally, at least for the moment. Most considered Dickinson as
neutral despite his Philadelphia Quaker connections, and Thomas Penn
was pleased to have Dickinson's speech printed and published on both
sides of the Atlantic as a common sense response to a radical proposal.
The edition provided here, in fact, contains a lengthy preface arguing
the Penn side of the question. In the autumn elections, the Franklin
faction lost heavily, and the petition was shelved. Ironically, Dickinson's
stand also cost him his seat in the Assembly. In the following year's
elections, the reformers won back the support of the legislature and
Franklin was finally able to present the petition at Court in London.
The King officially rejected the petition in November, 1765. Dickinson
could have claimed himself justified indeed that the Crown would interpret
Pennsylvania's action as factious since, by then, the uproarious response
across the American colonies to the Stamp Act had both marked the King's
subjects in America as troublesome and even dangerous. Issues in Pennsylvania
had moved very quickly beyond those of local corruption and taxation,
and John Dickinson almost immediately turned his particular talents
and ideals to the broader scene.