John Dickinson Biography
This article is adapted from an entry that appears in The Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History: Vol 1: Colonial Beginning through Revolution, 1500-1783. ed. Andrew W. Robertson (Washington, DC: CQ Press, a division of Sage, 2010), 110-14.
How to cite this page: Jane E. Calvert, "John Dickinson Biography," The John Dickinson Writings Project Website. <https://drjaneecalvert.wixsite.com/mysite>. Accessed: date.
John Dickinson's Standing Desk. Library Company of Philadelphia.
Charles Willson Peale, "Mary Norris Dickinson and Sally" (1773). Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Charles Willson Peale, "John Dickinson" (1770). Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
James Smither, "The Patriotic American Farmer" (1768). Library Company of Philadelphia.
Pierre Eugene DuSimitiere, "J. Dickinson" (1781). Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Artist and date unknown.
John Dickinson (1732-1808) was the only major political figure active on the home front at every stage of the founding of the United States from the protest of the Stamp Act in 1765 through the ratification of the Constitution in 1789. He published more works for the American cause than any other individual, earning him from historians the title of "Penman of the Revolution." Yet many scholars do not consider Dickinson among the principal Founders. Although his refusal to sign the Declaration of Independence did not much affect his reputation in his day, many later historians did not understand his reasons and excluded him from the national patriotic narrative.
Background and Personal Life
Dickinson was born on November 13, 1732 (N.S.),* to a wealthy Quaker family in Talbot County, Maryland. His family moved to Dover, Delaware, in 1740. After education by tutors and parents, he began his legal training in Philadelphia at the age of 18, reading law with former king’s attorney John Moland. From 1753 to 1757, he attended the Middle Temple at the Inns of Court in London and, upon his return to the colonies, established a practice in Philadelphia.
[* Dickinson’s birth date is sometimes noted as November 2, which is what is recorded in the Dickinson family Bible. But this date is according to the Julian (Old Style) calendar, and, when the British Empire switched to the Gregorian (New Style) calendar in 1752, Dickinson considered his birth date to be the 13th.]
On July 19, 1770, Dickinson married Mary (Polly) Norris, daughter of Isaac Norris II, former speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly and one of the most powerful Quaker politicians in the colony. Between Dickinson’s thriving law practice, business dealings, tenant properties, an inheritance from his father, and the Norris estate, the Dickinsons were one of the wealthiest families in the region. They travelled frequently between their houses in Philadelphia, Dover, and later Wilmington. Despite spending much time apart because of Dickinson’s legal and political work in the Delaware Valley, John and Polly had a close and loving relationship. The letters between them that survive reveal tenderness and romance for the duration of their marriage, until Polly’s death on July 7, 1803. Polly was a devout Quaker and clearly influenced John substantially when he turned to her for religious guidance and political advice. The couple had a total of five children—two sons and three daughters. Only the first and the last survived, Sarah (Sally), born December 10, 1771, and Maria, born November 6, 1783.
Dickinson’s religion was an important factor in his life. While he never became a member of the Society of Friends, citing his belief in the "lawfulness of defensive war" as his reason, his personal and political priorities and behavior were strongly shaped by Quakerism. Towards the end of his life, he spent so much time in religious study that his friends considered him a theologian.
Already recognized in Philadelphia as a skilled barrister and eloquent orator, Dickinson was elected to the Delaware Assembly in 1759. The following year he became speaker of the House. He was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1762 and played a major role in one of the most important controversies in the colony’s history. In 1764, Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Galloway fought to replace Pennsylvania’s 1701 Charter of Privileges with a royal charter, claiming that such action would release Pennsylvania from the tyranny of the proprietors. Dickinson opposed the move, arguing that the adoption of a royal charter would undermine traditional Quaker liberties—liberty of conscience and unfettered political participation by dissenters—granted in the Charter of Privileges. Dickinson’s stand in this controversy foreshadowed his role in the conflict with Britain as a champion of civil rights and constitutional perpetuity.
Resistance to Britain
During the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765, Dickinson was the nominal leader of the Stamp Act Congress and the primary draftsman of its Petition and Declaration, which appealed to the Crown for security of American rights and claimed that taxes should not be imposed without representation. In this early resistance to Britain, Dickinson’s Quaker inclinations were clearly visible. As violence became prevalent in the Northern colonies, he published a number of writings. A broadside that began "Friends and Countrymen" (1765) offered the colonists the first practical advice on how to resist peacefully using the Quaker method of civil disobedience. He also published two pamphlets, The Late Regulations Respecting the British Colonies on the North American Continent of America (1765) and An Address to the Committee of Correspondence in Barbados (1766).
With the passage of the Townshend Acts in 1767, Dickinson became an American and international figure. His Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1767-1768), making him America's first celebrity, were the first resounding call for colonial unity in the face of British oppression. These letters, read across America and in Britain and Europe, advocated the same peaceful resistance used during the Stamp Act crisis. With equal emphasis, they warned against revolution as a solution to government oppression. Shortly after the Letters appeared, Dickinson also published "The Liberty Song" (1768), America’s first patriotic song. It was sung in taverns throughout the colonies and solidified his celebrity.
Despite Dickinson’s opposition to war and revolution, he believed that preparations for war must be concurrent with negotiations for peace. Accordingly, after the passage of the Intolerable Acts and the closing of Boston Harbor in 1774, he served on numerous committees, founded the First Philadelphia Regiment of Associators and became its colonel, and joined the call for a colony-wide congress to be held in Philadelphia. He was then a member or chairman of numerous congressional bodies, including the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of Secret Correspondence.
First and Second Continental Congresses
Although Dickinson did not join the First Continental Congress until well after it had convened, he drafted four of its six publications: To the Inhabitants of the British Colonies, The Bill of Rights and a List of Grievances, the First Petition to the King, and A Letter to the Inhabitants of the Province of Quebec. In 1775, he authored two of the best known works of the Second Continental Congress: the Olive Branch Petition and the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, the latter intended to prevent war by promising Britain of a long, bloody, and losing battle. His fundamental belief was that popular defense of rights should not destroy constitutional unity and that amendment of the laws was possible through civil disobedience. He adopted this view from the Quakers, who did not believe that violence or revolution were legitimate options to resist government oppression. He, like they, believed that the civil constitution was both perpetual and amendable. He therefore counseled negotiations, boycotts, and peaceful breakage of the offending laws with the aim of having them repealed.
Through 1775, Dickinson was not only the leader of the Quaker Assembly in Pennsylvania, he also wielded more influence over Congress and the general public than any other figure—earning him enemies as the idea of revolution gained support. By the spring of 1776, Dickinson, as the author of the voting instructions to the Pennsylvania delegates, almost single-handedly impeded a declaration of independence by instructing them not to authorize it. This refusal to go against the will of the majority of the Pennsylvania Assembly caused Congress to authorize a take over of the Quaker government. The Assembly was quickly overrun by radicals, Quaker power neutralized, and Dickinson’s influence weakened. With a revolution all but confirmed, in June he instructed delegates to vote their consciences. At the same time, because of his belief in the importance of a constitution for the survival of a nation and the protection of rights, he also wrote the first version of the Articles of Confederation with a strong central government and protections for religious dissenters with, most notably, gender-inclusive language that protected women's rights to liberty of conscience and freedom of public speech. Dickinson’s version was revised substantially and these provisions removed, which weakened the power of the Confederation and made individuals vulnerable to violations of their civil rights.
On July 1, Dickinson gave his final speech against independence before Congress. Aware that he was about to destroy his reputation, he argued that the country was not ready, having neither a settled constitution nor foreign support, and that American rights would be safest under Britain’s unwritten constitution. When the vote was taken, refusing to vote against his conscience but knowing that any declaration should be unanimous for the sake of the cause, Dickinson absented himself from the proceedings.
Believing it his duty to support his country in its decision for independence, within days after the Declaration of Independence was signed, and despite ill-health, Dickinson led his battalion on the New Jersey front. He served for only a short time; in the face of widespread desertions, which rendered his and other battalions useless, he returned to Philadelphia, where he was reelected to the Pennsylvania Assembly. His tenure was brief, however; he resigned his seat when the body refused to amend the new state constitution that did not protect dissenters' rights. With the British bearing down on Philadelphia and Dickinson and his family being special targets, he moved his family down to Dover. Pennsylvania radicals, enraged by Dickinson's departure, harassed him by libel, confiscation of his property, and threatening him with arrest on trumped up charges. Dickinson traveled to Philadelphia to face the charges, but the Council of Safety, which exercised executive authority, avoided meeting with him.
Back in Delaware, Dickinson took two highly unusual steps. First, at the his soonest opportunity after the Declaration of Independence, he liberated all the Black people he enslaved. At first it was just a conditional freedom, but within ten years, he freed them all unconditionally. Of the leading Founders, Dickinson was the only one to put the theory of the Declaration of Independence into practice and free all those he enslaved during his lifetime. Then, determined to prove his patriotism, in 1777, Dickinson did something nearly unheard of for a gentleman of his stature—he enlisted in the Delaware militia as a private. He was soon promoted to brigadier general, a commission he never acted on. Despite not being a Continental officer, Dickinson was nonetheless admitted to the Society of the Cincinnati as an honorary member for his distinguished service. Near the end of 1777, when the British took Philadelphia, Dickinson narrowly got Polly and their children out of their house before the British, believing Dickinson was "the ruler of America," as John Adams put it, burned his estate to the ground. In 1781, Tory raiders looted his other house in Dover.
By 1779, Dickinson was back in Congress as a delegate from Delaware. With personal and sectional conflicts among members, this was one of the most fractious and dysfunctional Congresses in history. The members were also sorely lacking in expertise, which is what Dickinson brought. In only six months, he served on over twenty committees, managing issues including peace negotiations with Britain, fiscal policy, and maritime affairs.
President of Pennsylvania and Delaware
In 1781, Dickinson was elected unanimously to the presidency of Delaware, where he took the affirmation of office instead of the oath, signaling his commitment to Quakerism. In the course of just one year, Dickinson turned Delaware from a failing state to a model state, reforming its military, court system, and economy.
While still president of Delaware, Dickinson was elected president of Pennsylvania in 1782. Taking the affirmation of office in Pennsylvania, as in Delaware he displayed a principled stance for the rights of Quakers and other dissenters who had been detained, denied habeas corpus, and imprisoned at the whim of Congress and the Pennsylvania government. Dickinson met immediate resistance in his first term from enemies who resurrected the old charges from 1776. He was nevertheless reelected twice. During his tenure, he dealt with an unimaginable slate of crises, including a near mutiny of Continental soldiers fomented by congressman Alexander Hamilton, an armed conflict between residents of Pennsylvania and Connecticut in the Wyoming Valley, the attempted secession of a western portion of the state, Indian raids on the frontier, an international diplomatic incident with France, and, since he was head of the judiciary, several consequential court cases.
When Dickinson retired from office, he turned his attention to "doing good." In addition to putting his considerable wealth to use in charitable causes, he also wrote a bill for the gradual abolition of slavery, which he tried to get passed in Delaware. It failed.
Creation of the Constitution
Dickinson was called out of retirement in 1786 to serve as delegate to and chairman of the Annapolis Convention, called to discuss revising the Articles of Confederation. He then played a crucial role in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Although suffering from debilitating headaches, Dickinson he offered key ideas that shaped and advanced the deliberations. On the central problem of representation, he presented his vision for the relationship between the states and the federal government in terms of a metaphor that was repeated throughout the Convention—the states would be as planets orbiting a sun that was the federal government. Dickinson’s unique position as resident of one of the largest states, Pennsylvania, and one of the smallest, Delaware, allowed him to make a pivotal suggestion—that the people be represented in one branch and the states in the other. This was the basis for the Connecticut Compromise. Additionally, Dickinson was one of the few members of the Convention on record to take a principled stance against slavery. Like all delegates, he did not get everything he wanted. Although his motion to abolish the slave trade passed, that was as far as his colleagues would go. He also favored direct election of the president by the people, which did not pass. Illness forced Dickinson to leave the Convention a couple of days early and designate a proxy (George Read) to sign for him. But he immediately began efforts to secure ratification. In 1788, he published the Fabius Letters explaining the Constitution. urging ratification, and telling ordinary Americans it was both their right and their duty to join in the debate.
Dickinson attempted to retired from active political life multiple times, but Delawareans continued to call for his service. At last, he returned as the president of the 1791-1792 Delaware constitutional convention, and he was elected to the Delaware legislature, but served only briefly in early 1793 before ill-health again forced him to retire, this time permanently. One of the last things he did was make a third failed attempt to abolish slavery in Delaware. He later resisted the call of Delawareans to become their Senator but continued to write in support of social and political causes. As a Democratic-Republican, he authored several treatises in favor of the French cause and America’s good relations with that country. Another main concern, the health and stability of the new nation, prompted him to write on the religious and civic education of youth. Until his death he served as informal advisor to significant political figures, such as George Logan, Senator from Pennsylvania, and Thomas Jefferson during his presidency.
Most of Dickinson's time in retirement was spent engaging in philanthropy and theological study. He and Polly took a special interest in education for poor children, founding or contributing to the founding numerous schools, the most famous of which is Westtown Friends School in Chester County, Pennsylvania. They also provided the idea and initial funding for the first prison reform society, now called the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
While in some ways Dickinson’s title as the "Penman of the Revolution" is apt, in other ways, it distorts his intentions and legacy. Although his efforts contributed to independence, everything Dickinson wrote for the American cause was to prevent revolution. Instead he sought to secure rights through peaceful protest and constitutional stability. Yet when the nation fought for its independence, Dickinson joined in and worked tirelessly to create a more perfect Union. Dickinson’s significance to the American political tradition is in becoming America's first native-born celebrity based on his resounding call for unity in the face of British oppression and being the first national figure to advocate civil disobedience for government reform. Moreover, of the major leaders, he was the only figure to work for the ideal of equality stated in the Declaration of Independence by advocating the abolition of slavery and the rights of women.
John Dickinson died on February 14, 1808. According to those by his side during his final days, his last fevered thoughts remained on public affairs — worry about the welfare of the nation and the advance of Napoleon. When the announcement of his passing was made in the United States Congress, members resolved to wear black arm bands in his honor. He was laid to rest in the burial ground of Wilmington Friends Meeting.