John Dickinson (1732-1808)

John Dickinson Portrait

When, in Fathers of the Revolution, Philip Guedalla described the American War for Independence as “a sedate rebellion…founded on equity and quotations from Blackstone,” he may well have had John Dickinson in mind. Erudite and reserved, Dickinson had the respect but not the love of his contemporaries. It is helpful to keep in mind he was born the same year as George Washington and Joseph Haydn, two other deeply religious men of conservative temperaments and refined tastes.

Dickinson enjoyed the serene childhood of a southern plantation. His family were English, having settled in the seventeenth century in Maryland; Dickinson himself was born in Talbot County, on November 2, 1732. He grew up at Poplar Hall, the elegant brick mansion of his father, Judge Samuel Dickinson. There, surrounded by flat fields of wheat and tobacco, young Dickinson received private tutelage in Latin. Highly impressionable, he entertained himself with making a model of the bridge over the Rhine as found in Caesar’s Commentaries.

Dickinson’s parents sent him to London, where he studied law at the Middle Temple. In his spare time he saw David Garrick perform in King Lear and The Tempest, and he kept up with his Latin, reading Sallust and Tacitus for fun. Dickinson’s letters home provide invaluable vignettes of the provincial scholar in the heart of empire. For Dickinson in London is but part of a larger pattern of British colonial life, perhaps more familiar from writers under the Raj.

Upon returning home, Dickinson settled in Philadelphia and began practicing law. He also entered politics, being elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly. He distinguished himself in the Assembly, siding with the Proprietary party against the faction led by Benjamin Franklin that sought to turn Pennsylvania from a commonwealth governed by the Penn family to a colony immediately under Royal control. Dickinson, eloquent and stubborn, stood his ground and kept his standing in Philadelphia society.

He married Mary (“Polly”) Norris, daughter to Isaac Norris, Speaker of the Assembly, and the Dickinsons moved to the Norris estate of Fairhill, near Germantown. All would have been the quiet, orderly life of an affluent attorney had not Parliament levied the Stamp Acts. Under the pseudonym of “A Farmer,” Dickinson wrote twelve essays, published in newspapers throughout the colonies, emphasizing the contradiction the Acts posed to traditional English liberties. Dickinson quoted legal authorities as well as ancient Roman writers, and his stately yet vigorous prose inspired citizens the length of the Atlantic seaboard.

Duly elected to serve in the Continental Congress, Dickinson soon proved of use drafting declarations in the name of the Congress. Most characteristic perhaps is one written with Thomas Jefferson, “Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms,” with Dickinson’s ringing conclusion that Americans were “resolved to die freemen rather than live slaves.” When Richard Henry Lee proposed a declaration on independence, Dickinson opposed it, saying the timing was imprudent. Dickinson suggested the colonies form a confederation amongst themselves before declaring independence from the Crown. While Jefferson, Franklin, John Adams, and others were appointed to a committee to draft a Declaration of Independence, Dickinson, Roger Sherman, and others were put on a committee to draw up Articles of Confederation. The document Dickinson prepared was heavily amended and revised before being accepted by the full Congress.

During the War for Independence, Dickinson enlisted as a private in the Continental Army, having been a colonel in the provincial militia. He was proud of his service, however undistinguished. Congress had fled to York, and Philadelphia fell to General Sir William Howe. Dickinson had moved his family to safety in Delaware; in 1777 British troops burnt Fairhill. Dickinson’s company served under General Caesar Rodney, notably at the Battle of Brandywine. Dickinson’s genteel Quaker relatives disapproved but convinced themselves he was Rodney’s aide-de-camp.

In 1781 Dickinson was elected president of Delaware; the next year he resigned that post to be elected president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. While Dickinson was president of Pennsylvania, his old colleague from the Congress, Benjamin Rush, suggested founding a new college in Cumberland County. Rush approached Dickinson about naming the new college “John and Mary’s College,” in honor of the president and his lady. Dickinson, appalled at the parallel with William and Mary, demurred, saying that the new Republic should avoid allusions to monarchy. Rush won approval for calling the college “Dickinson.”

In 1786 Dickinson joined James Madison in a convention at Annapolis to revise the Articles. Dickinson was elected president of the convention, a brief session soon adjourning in favor of a larger such meeting to be held in Philadelphia. From May to September, 1787, Dickinson sat with other delegates to what is now known as the Constitutional Convention. His contributions to the debates centered mainly upon the election of and powers for the president. To encourage ratification of the new federal Constitution, Dickinson again took to journalism. Under the name “Fabius,” he wrote nine succinct essays, once more filled with legal and classical quotations.

The 1790s saw Dickinson in retirement, living with his wife and two daughters in a townhouse in Wilmington, Delaware. There he read works chiefly historical and religious, and he wrote often to his cousin, United States Senator George Logan, commenting on current affairs. Once a year he entertained the Rev. Charles Nisbet, first principal of Dickinson College. Dickinson and Nisbet shared literary interests and must have enjoyed great sympathy of tastes; from the first, Dickinson established a bank account for his new friend.

John Dickinson died February 14, 1808, at his home in Wilmington. 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, Wilmington.

Students of this fascinating but little-known Founding Father should be aware of a wealth of primary material — letters, mostly — and a scarcity of secondary literature. Most of the manuscripts are kept at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, with another significant collection being at Dickinson College. In contrast to other Founders, Dickinson has had no collected works, other than his own Political Writings (two volumes, 1801) and one volume of a projected series by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (1895). Of the scholarly studies, there have been only two biographies, one by Charles J. Stille (1891), another by Milton E. Flower (1983). Not to be overlooked are the perceptive articles from the 1930s and later in Pennsylvania History and The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography by J. H. Powell, who also gave one of the Boyd Lee Spahr Lectures.


Portrait photographed by A. Pierce Bounds

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Dickinson College Archives
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