In the year 1786, many of the leading men of the country recognized that the Articles of Confederation were not working. A Constitutional Convention was organized in Annapolis, Maryland with John Dickinson serving as chairman.2 Dickinson’s time at the head of national politics was cut short because only five states sent representatives. The Annapolis Convention did, however, foster support for a later convention to amend the Articles of Confederation that would be held in Philadelphia. John Dickinson arrived at the Philadelphia convention on May 29, 1787 as a delegate from Delaware. At fifty-five years old, Dickinson was still a young man, though a lifetime of stress, debate, and illness added years to his appearance. (Flower, 240) Above all else, it was Dickinson’s wisdom that stood out most. In the waning days of the Constitutional Convention, Dickinson advised his fellow delegates that
Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us. It was not Reason that discovered the singular & admirable mechanism of the English Constitution. It was not Reason that discovered or ever could have discovered the odd & in the eye of those who are governed by reason, the absurd mode of trial by Jury. Accidents probably produced these discoveries, and experience has given a sanction to them. This is then our guide. (Madison, 447)
Dickinson wasted little time before jumping into the fray. On June 2, Dickinson made the first argument for impeachment of the executive as a legislative power.
Mr. DICKENSON moved ‘that the Executive be made removable by the National Legislature on the request of a majority of the Legislatures of individual States.” It was necessary he said to place the power of removing somewhere.’” (Madison, 55)
The motion was originally rejected but was passed later on. Another part of this motion would provide a theme for Dickinson’s time at the Convention. Although John Dickinson identified as a nationalist, it did not stop him from advocating the rights that legitimately belonged to the states. As he stated on June 2, 1787, “The happiness of this Country…required considerable powers to be left in the hands of the States.” (Madison, 55) As Flower writes, “‘National’ to him did not necessarily mean centralization.” (Flower, 240) He would, in response to objections by Madison and Wilson, go on to draw distinctions about the benefits of a two house system and the assurance that a national government could not legitimately rob the states of their rights.
In the British Govt. itself the weight of the Executive arises from the attachments which the Crown draws to itself, & not merely from the force of its prerogatives. In place of these attachments we must look out for something else. One source of stability is the double branch of the Legislature. The division of the Country into distinct States formed the other principal source of stability. This division ought therefore to be maintained, and considerable powers to be left with the States. (Madison, 56)
Another idea that Dickinson proposed on this day was an equality of all states in at least one branch of the legislature. (Madison, 57) On June 5, Dickinson the lawyer appeared in Independence Hall to debate the legitimacy of the lower courts. When John Rutledge of South Carolina called for the reconsideration of the clause which empowered the Congress to institute inferior tribunals; Dickinson responded that, if we were to have a national legislature, that it would not be too out of hand to institute a national judiciary. He then added that, “the former ought to have authority to institute the latter.” (Madison, 72) This argument inspired Wilson and Madison to move that the words, “that the National Legislature be empowered to institute inferior tribunals” be added. (Madison, 72)
Many have stated that John Dickinson’s greatest contribution to America as we know it today was his work on the Connecticut Compromise. The basis of representation, he knew, would have to be based on mutual compromise. (Flower, 243) His involvement with the Great Compromise began on June 6 when Dickinson proposed the idea that the representatives of one house should be elected directly by the people and that the other should be appointed through the discretion of those in the State Legislatures. Madison dissented to this motion when the matter was picked up a day later. His principle concern was that, if Dickinson’s plan were to be adopted, we would either have to forget about proportional representation altogether or elect a number of representatives that would be too big to accomplish anything. (Madison, 83) Dickinson admitted that he believed a large number of representatives would be a beneficial good if for no other reason than to check the national government. (Madison, 85) For Dickinson, the checks and balances between the multiple modes of government were of the utmost importance. Just as the sovereignty that states possessed in their own spheres would check the national power. Though, Dickinson was quick to clarify that although the states would own the power within their own spheres, they would revolve around the national government like the planets revolve around the sun. (Madison, 84)
Dickinson’s motion to appoint the Senate by state legislature was approved unanimously. (Madison, 87) As an advocate for small states’ rights, Dickinson took issue with the motion made by Mr. Charles Pinkney on June 8th to bestow a veto onto the national legislature. Dickinson feared that giving the legislature a veto would do more harm than good for the small states. For one thing, it would be impossible to discern when the veto could be legitimately applied. His fellow Delawarean, Gunning Bedford, echoed these concerns stating that, “It was meant, he found, to strip the small states of their equal right of suffrage.” (Madison, 91) All states deserved the right to protect themselves. Dickinson was such a fierce defender of small states’ rights that he would rather not live in a country where one state did not have the same level of representation as another. This view was brilliantly articulated in a confrontation with James Madison on June 15th.
Some of the members from the small States wish for two branches in the General Legislature, and are friends to a good National Government; But we would sooner submit to a foreign power than submit to be deprived of an equality of suffrage,3
These matters would be resolved by the Congress over the Fourth of July holiday. Unfortunately, Dickinson was forced to leave by illness. Dickinson returned to Philadelphia in late July and his remaining arguments concerned elections. On July 25, Dickinson stated his desire that the power of election should reside within the people. (Madison, 369) He also opposed the property qualifications that were supported by many others in the Congress. (Madison, 374) It was the freeholders who John Dickinson considered “the best guardians of liberty.” (Madison, 402) On August 8, 1787, John Dickinson made a motion “that each State shall have one representative at least.” (Madison, 413) This motion was agreed to without discussion and ensured every state representation in the national legislature. Dickinson was forced to permanently leave the convention before the final draft of the Constitution was signed. Pleased with the result, he made sure that his name was applied to the document by having his friend and colleague, George Read, sign in his place. Dickinson was a static character at the Convention. His views on American liberty and the place of the average man in the new nation barely changed at all in the summer of 1787. If anything, the views grown in his psyche during the revolution were sustained. Dickinson returned to Delaware to achieve some rest and recuperation.
This vacation lasted until December 3, 1787, when he was called to serve at a convention to ratify the Constitution in Delaware. Dickinson had been an avid and vocal supporter of ratification since his return to his home in Kent. Delaware ratified the Constitution quite quickly, acknowledging it as law four days later on December 7, 1787.4 Other states, however, were slower to approve the new Constitution and Dickinson took it upon himself to convince the other states of its merit. Dickinson wrote a series of nine letters under the name “Fabius” in early 1778. (Flower, 250) These Federalist Paper-esque essays were published in the Delaware Gazette and later as a pamphlet. (Flower, 250) The first letter clearly stated that there was opposition to the Constitution from both friends and foes of liberty alike. Dickinson dismissed the trouble-makers by stating that only the “sincere friends…deserved respect and an answer to their objections.” (Flower, 251) Free understanding of speech was pertinent to the future of the United States.
What concerns all, should be considered by all; and individuals may injure a whole society, by not declaring their sentiments. It is therefore not only their right, but their duty to declare them… Let everyone freely speak what he really thinks. (Flower, 251)
The Fabius letters stressed the importance of the people in making the new form of government work. While The Federalist Papers were more philosophical than the Fabius essays, Dickinson’s works were far more practical and offered real solutions to the problems that faced the young republic. (Flower, 252) John Dickinson only entered the political arena once more after the publication of his Fabius essays. In 1791, he represented New Castle County, Delaware in a convention that was called “for the purpose of reviewing, altering and amending, the Constitution of this State”. (Flowers, 254) John Dickinson spent the rest of his life at home in Delaware with his wife Mary (until her death in 1798) and his two adult daughters, Sally and Maria. John Dickinson was taken from this world on February 14, 1808.
Dickinson was one of the most prominent public figures in America before the revolution, during the revolution, and after the revolution. His time in the Constitutional Convention helped to shape the way that the states and the federal government regard each other today. All states have equal representation in the senate in part because of John Dickinson. Dickinson, above all else, was an American patriot. There have been few people in the last three hundred years that have matched the spirit, tenacity, and patriotism of John Dickinson. The United States would not be the country that we know today without him.
- The John Dickinson Writings Project
- This exchange can be found in the footnotes of Madison’s Notes, 118.
- Delaware government-State of Delaware.