John Dickinson: The “Timid” Founder

Did John Adams described John Dickinson in 1774 as “very modest, delicate, and timid”? Adams, who previously met with Dickinson during the proceedings of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, was much more complimentary, saying, “Mr. Dickinson is a very modest Man, and very ingenious, as well as agreeable. He has an excellent Heart, and the Cause of his Country lies near it.”  It seems that Adams became miffed when Dickinson was tasked to rewrite Adams’ “Petition to the King” and found that Dickinson had moderated Adams’s more aggressive language. Hence, he was “timid.”
But there was little that Adams could do. By 1774, Dickinson had become the most respected and most famous advocate in all the colonies for the American cause against Parliamentary excess. No other patriot stood anywhere near Dickinson’s record of advocacy and draftsmanship.

John Dickinson was born in 1731 in Maryland, but made his political and legal career in Pennsylvania and Delaware. He came from Quaker stock, but did not join a Quaker Meeting House because he could not accept the Quaker doctrine of pacifism.  Nonetheless, Quaker mores undoubtedly influenced him when he freed all of his slaves in 1777.

Early on, the young Dickinson studied law, and then in 1753 he went to England to master the subject at the Middle Temple for three years. There, his public character solidified: lawyer, advocate, and thoroughly British-American. Upon his return, he began a successful law practice in Philadelphia, inherited sizable farmlands, and married well.

In 1760, he entered politics, first as an assemblyman in Delaware, and later, in Pennsylvania. In 1764, he battled Benjamin Franklin’s quest to wrest Pennsylvania from the heirs of William Penn and turn it into a crown colony. 1764 also began the time of troubles between Parliament and America and Dickinson was soon in the thick of it. He began pamphleteering against the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act. He attended the Stamp Act Congress and drafted its Declaration of Rights and Grievances. True to his mien, the Declaration was direct but respectful in asserting the rights of the colonies to be free of internal taxes imposed by Parliament. Dickinson also drafted a separate Petition to the King. Independently, Dickinson published a broadside urging civil disobedience to the Stamp Act and a pamphlet calling for a trade embargo against England.

His pen seemed to have an engine of its own. After Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, it sought, in 1767 via the Townshend Acts, to gain revenue not by direct taxes but by raising duties. In confronting this British tactic, Dickinson truly hit his stride. In a series of arresting articles, entitled Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, Dickinson defined taxes by their intent, not their form. If taxes were designed to raise revenue, they could not be imposed upon the colonies but by their consent.  If, as true duties, they were designed to regulate the trade of the Empire, then that would be legitimate. The Townshend Acts, though denominated as duties, were truly internal taxes and therefore, illegitimate and unconstitutional.

The Townshend Acts, except for the duty on tea, were repealed in 1770, shortly after the Boston Massacre. That duty on tea, of course, triggered the Boston Massacre in 1773 and the retaliatory Coercive Acts by Parliament. In response, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1774 and Dickinson was at the peak of his influence.  Dickinson was a prime drafter of the Congress’ main document, The Bill of Rights and a List of Grievances, even though he was seated as a delegate late in its deliberations.  He also authored letters to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies, and to the Inhabitants of the Province of Quebec, as well as the aforementioned Petition to the King that had gained John Adams’s ire.

Following the battles of Lexington and Concord, Dickinson at the Second Continental Congress co-authored the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms (1775), and the Olive Branch Petition (1776). Yet, to the everlasting mark on his reputation, he could not bring himself to vote for independence. He stayed away on the day of the vote so that the motion would pass unanimously. In the weeks prior to independence, he drafted the Articles of Confederation with a stronger role for the new government than the delegates would later accept. Nonetheless, after independence, he took up arms in defense of the Revolution.

But the star of his influence had waned. He was at the Constitutional Convention, but had little influence. He seemed to have lost his grounding and his politics became radical, supporting the French Revolution.

John Dickinson was a great advocate but not a political theorist. The right man at the right time, he concretized the American position against Parliament, but when independence came, he timidly demurred and the time of his contribution to the American experiment soon passed.