The Reading Room
John Dickinson and the Moderation of Constitutional Balance in The Letters of Fabius
Some might be tempted to remember John Dickinson only as the man who at the last hour refused to support American independence. That would be an error. Among those American founders fallen into relative obscurity, few deserve restoration to remembrance more than John Dickinson.
While he merits study for sowing the seeds of 1776 with his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, and for his thoughts on the rights of conscience and the liberty of the press, he deserves attention also as an exemplar of political moderation - all the more so in our current moment, agitated as it is with passions, impatience, and political extremes. Dickinson was a not a great politician – he was not charming enough – but he exercised to an uncommon degree the virtues of a statesman, virtues like courage, prudence, and, especially, moderation. Dickinson’s Fabius Letters of the late 1780s illustrates this well.
The Meaning of Political Moderation
To say that John Dickinson was a moderate does not mean that he was unprincipled or lukewarm, suspended somewhere between competing principled positions. Aurelian Craiutu writes that political moderation may exist not only in those in the political center but among “diverse actors on all sides of the political spectrum” who use calm and reason seek to “promote necessary social and political reforms,” to “defend liberty,” and to “keep the ship of the state on an even keel.”
In his Democracy in Moderation, Paul Carrese explains how moderation was a central concern in the political thought of Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and others. Montesquieu, for example, wrote that “the spirit of a legislator ought to be that of moderation; political, like moral good, lying always between two extremes.” One finds political moderation in a kind of constitutional balance, which avoids an outcome in which a political order tips to one side, and in a commitment to dispassionate deliberation, which avoids the errors that accompany rashness.
The Letters of Fabius
Dickinson understood as much, writing in his Fabius letters that the proposed U.S. Constitution contained the balance requisite for freedom. Having to a large degree recovered from the censure and contempt resulting from his July 1, 1776 speech opposing American independence, Dickinson served as one of the elder statesmen at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, representing Delaware and the interests of the small states generally. Dickinson’s Fabius letters were a series of nine essays published in Delaware. Written to encourage constitutional ratification, the letters were Delaware’s version of Publius’ Federalist in New York.
Citing Polybius and other authors and examples ancient and modern to augment his argument in Fabius IV, Dickinson defended the Constitution’s separation of powers, which so arranged the departments of government that they “may therefore be said to be balanced,” something that would render “the extraordinary interference of the people,” that is, revolution, less frequent. The importance of the separation of powers notwithstanding, Dickinson argued that it is ultimately the people, the sovereign authority, who must keep watch to preserve the new Constitution, which is to say that political orders are properly and truly balanced by the “power from which they proceed.” Similarly, he remarked in Fabius II that “assaults upon liberty” should be guarded against with “sleepless vigilance,” a continuation of his warning in his Farmer letters that “UNLESS THE MOST WATCHFUL ATTENTION BE EXERTED, A NEW SERVITUDE MAY BE SLIPPED UPON US.” It was also in the Farmer letters that Dickinson defended what is perhaps the greatest balancing weight to the power of rulers – the liberty to be taxed only by one’s own consent and through one’s own representatives.
He saw balance also in the confederation of the American states. Like Washington, Hamilton, and others, the trials and experience of the American Revolution convinced Dickinson of the necessity of a stronger union of states. However, he insisted, more than did Madison, on the need of a significant power remaining in the state governments. A Federalist, Dickinson insisted that sovereignty lay ultimately with the people. Yet the states were an already-existing stabilizing force that could serve as a counterweight to the federal government. Introducing his themes in Fabius I, Dickinson wrote, “the power of the people pervading the proposed system, together with the strong confederation of the states, forms an adequate security against every danger that has been apprehended.”
Dickinson’s concern with constitutional balance reveals his deep reading in ancient and modern history. Having read carefully Plutarch, Polybius, Cicero, Sallust, and many others among the ancients, as well as many authors of English history, Dickinson could not but see the disastrous consequences of constitutional imbalance, throughout the ages yielding the loss of liberty and the conflict that accompanies it.