The Reading Room
“A perpetual jealousy, respecting liberty”: John Dickinson on Fundamental Rights
Although few Americans today have heard of John Dickinson, he was a central figure of the Founding era. Writing more for the American cause than any other figure, he was America’s first celebrity, known around the Atlantic World as the spokesman for American rights and liberties. But because many of his ideas were not appreciated at the time and historians failed to understand him, he was written out of history.
Of the leading Founders, Dickinson alone sought to protect the fundamental rights of all Americans, including women and Black people, at a time when most believed they had virtually none. As a lawyer, he represented poor widows and women accused of heinous crimes. He defended a mixed-race servant woman accused of infanticide and concealment, arguing that “women have suffered, no doubt, for the concealment of a dead child,” and it was a “harsh statute” under which they would be punished, especially since women were considered guilty until proven innocent. He also sought to protect women’s rights of religious liberty and public speech, using gender-inclusive language in his draft of America’s first constitution, the 1776 Articles of Confederation. The clause was rejected. But Dickinson had always thought women capable of contributing valuable ideas to public political debates. He listened to his mother and his wife, who themselves read law and wrote poetry, and he encouraged women such as British historian Catharine Macaulay and Mercy Otis Warren, the American pamphleteer and historian, in their work of enlightening the public. Women, he knew, could be models of virtue and patriotism as much as men.
Similarly, slavery had troubled Dickinson since he was young because of the harm it did to both the enslaved and the enslaver. The practice turned whites into tyrants and deprived Blacks of their God-given right to liberty. Early in his career, he passed legislation to prevent the enslavement of free Blacks. He tried to make enslavement easy on his own slaves by treating them kindly and sometimes purchasing whole families at their request to prevent them from being separated, until he realized that nothing short of freedom would suffice. By 1786, he had freed all his slaves. Although he lost a significant sum, he gained an easy mind. He continued to support those whom he had enslaved with lodging and provisions, and he wrote abolition legislation for Delaware. It did not pass.
Neither did these priorities appear in the new Constitution Dickinson helped create in 1787. The Framers “laboured to form the best plan they could,” he explained. But he also knew that they were fallible mortals whose efforts were inherently flawed. He believed that as experience was the Framers’ guide, so must it be for future Americans. Far from imagining that posterity should view the Constitution as sacred or set in stone, all-encompassing and unchangeable, the Framers “provided for making at any time amendments on the authority of the people, without shaking the stability of the government.” The people could, he explained, “amend it, wherever it is defective.” As though to demonstrate their meaning, ten amendments were included to remedy deficiencies in the original document. Critically, the Tenth Amendment instructed future generations that all rights could not be codified in a written document. Rights, said Dickinson, “are not annexed to us by parchments and seals. They are created in us by the decrees of Providence, which establish the laws of our nature. They are born with us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power, without taking our lives.”
With the Constitution in place, Dickinson believed that the only way to preserve this “democratical republic” was to ensure that citizens received liberal education that emphasized subjects such as history and science, so they could learn the lessons of the past, of nature, and about objective truths. He also believed there should be a “reformation of manners,” by which he meant morality. To this end, he hoped Americans would turn to religion, but not the benighted faith of anti-intellectual evangelical zealots or intolerant and punishing Old Testament judgments. Rather, he advocated the liberal Christianity of faiths like Quakerism, drawn from the New Testament, that viewed government as a necessary good to aid the unfortunate and to protect the rights of all humans, male and female, rich and poor, black and white. Such faith would compel Americans to love one another and consider the common good above their individual interests. But as important as religion was to Dickinson, he himself was unaffiliated with any church, and to him, the only acceptable government was one that allowed complete liberty of conscience in which no American would be compelled to practice a faith in which he or she did not believe.
Most Americans have come to agree with Dickinson that the rights of all should be protected. And they would also do well to remember his words: “A perpetual jealousy, respecting liberty, is absolutely requisite in all free states.”