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Dickinson, John.

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.

Researched and authored by John Osborne, Ph. D.

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