On November 13, 1732, a man came into this world who would serve as a voice of reason to the American people during the Revolutionary era and the early Republic. Dickinson was a member of various political bodies throughout his life. He was a British-educated lawyer and real estate manager who was famous throughout the colonies. More importantly, Dickinson was a human being who believed in the rights of man to speak his mind without fearing the consequences and always took the opportunity to do so. Although his physical body was weak, Dickinson’s character and virtue were as influential as any in America.
Although he was a moderate conservative at the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, Dickinson played a vital role in the pre-revolution activities of the seventeen sixties and early seventeen seventies. His pamphlet, Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer denounced the heavily reviled Stamp Act and called for the colonists to demand their rights as British citizens. These early conflicts with Britain would demand much of Dickinson during his time in the Pennsylvania and Delaware Assemblies.
Throughout his life, Dickinson always advocated the legal solution to the problems that faced his nation. The seventeen seventies were a time of change in the colonies and John Dickinson found himself squarely in the thick of things. Milton E. Flower describes one exhibition of the man’s leadership qualities that occurred in the spring of 1774 after the passing of the Boston Port Act in his book, John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary. (Flower, 101) The Boston Port Act was written to punish the people of Boston for the now famous Boston Tea Party and other acts of “dangerous commotions and insurrections”1 through the application of a naval blockade. The British hoped that the blockade would break the Massachusetts spirit but it only succeeded in convincing the other colonies that England was a tyrannical regime and to give their support to Boston. A letter arrived in Philadelphia from Boston on May 19, 1774 that called for united action against the crown in response to the harshness of the Boston Port Act and other intolerable acts of its kind. The people of Philadelphia now found themselves at an impasse. Few of those who sympathized with the Bostonian plight were ready to take action and those who were ready hesitated because they did not know which position to take.
Dickinson, known as a “man of peace” (Flower, 100) held conflicting views on the situation. While he believed that the Bostonians had gone too far in destroying the private property of others, he could not help but feel empathy for the oppressed city. John Dickinson found himself representing the moderates on the subject at a town hall meeting the night after the letter arrived from Boston. That speech can be broken down into two proposals. First, “that the governor be requested to call a special session of the assembly”, and second “that a committee of correspondence be appointed to send an answer to Boston”. (Flower, 103) Dickinson’s proposals were the most reasonable that night and were affirmed by those in attendance. A committee of nineteen men, including Dickinson, was assembled to draft a letter of support to the people of Philadelphia. These nineteen gentlemen were tasked with writing a formal invocation to the governor of Pennsylvania to convene a special session of the assembly. The committee was successful in both of their tasks as well as being the unwitting catalysts for the First Continental Congress. In the following months, Dickinson would serve in the special session of the Pennsylvania Assembly called for by his committee.
Dickinson’s most important argument of the session was performed on July 15 and principally argued for the rights of the colonists as Englishmen. (Flower, 109) This outlook would define John Dickinson as he took a greater role in continental politics. Dickinson found himself advocating a moderate view during his days in the Second Continental Congress that intersected with the beginning of Revolutionary violence. Dickinson remembered his time in the Stamp Act Congress and advocated joint action and petition to effect change. (Flower, 100) As violence began to break out in Massachusetts cities like Concord and Lexington; as young men lost their lives on Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill, John Dickinson continued to be motivated by his own words from 1774, “Nothing can ruin us but our violence. Reason teaches this.” (Flower, 108) Two years later, as the prospects for a permanent reconciliation with Great Britain dwindled to almost zero, Dickinson found himself once more arguing against violent insurrections against the British crown. Flower notes that the frequent calls for liberty that made Dickinson so well-known as the “Pennsylvania Farmer” had started to quell as the odds of all-out war began to be more real. Flower reminds us that, “By the spring of 1776, the time for passive means of protest had ended.” (147) That Dickinson hoped for a peaceful reconciliation between the colonists and the crown was no secret. Thomas Rodney, the brother of Delaware delegate Caesar Rodney, wrote to his brother that he believed Dickinson “still had some glimmering hopes for reconciliation without independence.” (Flower, 154) Dickinson’s hopes unfortunately made him a politician who was reluctant to be bold in the face of changing human events.
Dickinson, hoping to prevent the separation, wrote directions to the other Pennsylvanian delegates forbidding a vote to separate from the British Empire. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee, delegate and soon to be governor of Virginia, brought a motion into the Continental Congress that stated “the United Colonies ‘of right and ought to be free and independent states”. (Flower, 153) Lee’s motion passed and the colonies were officially on the path to independence. Dickinson continued to stand staunchly against the popular movement though there was not much more he could do. At a June 6, 1776 meeting of the First Battalion of Associators, the militia group to which Dickinson belonged, the “Penman of the Revolution” responded to an attack made against him with the words, “I can defy the world, sir, but I defy not Heaven: nor will I ever barter my conscience for the esteem of mankind.” (Flower, 156) Dickinson took the opportunity to put that quote into affect on July 1, 1776 when the Continental Congress voted on the Declaration of Independence. He could not bear to make his constituents fight a war with Britain that he did not think they could win. To John Dickinson, it would be like “braving the storm in a skiff made of paper.” (Flower, 162) The colonies voted unanimously in support of Independence. John Dickinson abstained from signing the Declaration of Independence and left his seat in Congress to fight for his country as a private. (Flower, 167)
One final accomplishment of Dickenson before his military service should be noted. While Independence was the great issue of the day, forming a government for the colonies after winning independence was also on the docket. Dickinson was appointed to the committee that was given the task “to prepare and digest the form of a confederation to be entered into between the colonies.” (Flower, 159) Under these orders, Dickinson wrote the original draft of the Articles of Confederation that would be accepted as the national law, though heavily amended, five years later on March 1, 1781. (Flower, 161) Dickinson’s military service was short-lived and he returned to private life in 1778. He would return to the political arena a year later, as a Congressional representative of Delaware before being elected governor of Delaware in 1781.
- Boston Port Act
Continued in Part Two