top of page

Heading 4

About the JDP

"Few men wrote, spoke and acted more for their country from the years 1764 to the establishment of the federal government than Mr. Dickinson."   --Benjamin Rush 

Founded in 2010 by historian Jane E. Calvert, the JDP is working to publish The Complete Writings and Selected Correspondence of John Dickinson in an estimated twelve print volumes with the University of Delaware Press and an open-access digital version with the University of Virginia's Center for Digital Editing.

John Dickinson (1732-1808, click here for his full biography) contributed more writings to the American Founding than any other figure. He is best known for his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1767-68), the first resounding and successful call for colonial unity to resist British oppression. Yet this was just one of hundreds of published and unpublished works he wrote for the American cause, including pamphlets, broadsides, newspaper articles, songs, speeches, and many seminal state papers such as legislation, petitions, declarations, proclamations, and constitutions. Dickinson's compatriots, elite and ordinary, looked to him throughout the contest for guidance because he was one of the most talented lawyers and writers in the colonies and he wielded more authority and influence both in Congress and over public opinion than any other figure before independence.

The goal of the JDP, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanitiesthe State of Delaware, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and private donors, is to assemble the entire corpus of Dickinson's political and legal works in print and digital editions and a selection of his most important works in a student course reader. This edition of Dickinson's works will contain among the seminal writings of the late-colonial and Founding periods, spanning 57 years from 1751 to 1808. It will make available all identifiable Dickinson publications and manuscripts from many archives, as well as a robust selection of correspondence.

Although Dickinson was one of the foremost figures of the Founding, he is little known today in part because he refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. The few scholars who have dealt with him have largely interpreted his position as cowardice, indecisiveness, or Loyalism. Some claim his advocacy of rights and subsequent refusal to sign was contradictory and that Dickinson was confused. But the confusion is theirs. They have failed to observe that, although his writings led to Revolution, not one of them advocated separation from Britain or violent protest of any sort. Dickinson did not want independence; he believed in defensive war only and the preservation of the existing British constitution to protect American liberties. Yet he also believed enough in America to take up arms for the cause immediately after independence was declared.

Despite his major contributions and influence, Dickinson's writings have never been published in full, which is another reason for his present obscurity. There are only two collections to date—one published in 1801, compiled into two volumes by Dickinson himself; and the next in 1895 by Paul Leicester Ford for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Neither of these is complete or scholarly by modern standards. The first edition contains only 14 of his writings, the second 21. Some of the most famous documents are available online or scattered in other published sources. But most of his works are not available in print or online, and few know that Dickinson was the primary author of these seminal documents and more.

For understanding the progress of the Revolution, the creation of the Constitution, and some of the most important issues in the Early Republic, there is great value in having a modern scholarly edition of his collected works. But more than simply collecting these important documents in one place, by identifying them as Dickinson's and putting them in context, the JDP will shed light on one of the most influential Founders with whom few Americans are familiar. While Dickinson's primary task was to represent the general sentiments and concerns of his countrymen, his work also reveals a unique political theory, one that was crucial for the preservation of rights and the survival of the new Republic.

Users of a Dickinson edition at all levels from undergraduates to professional scholars to interested non-academics will find his writings complex and sophisticated; but, because he wrote to persuade the population at large, his ideas are remarkably accessible. His thoughts on constitutionalism, federalism, liberalism, republicanism, and war and peace correspond with, and in fact shaped some of the mainstream political thought of the Founding era, but they sometimes differ significantly from it and offer a new perspective on the foundations of the nation. The JDP will give Americans easy access for the first time to the body of work by an individual .

bottom of page