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  John Dickinson (1732–1808), by Charles Willson Peale, 1770 John Dickinson (1732–1808), by Charles Willson Peale, 1770
Dickinson, John (1732–1808), revolutionary politician and writer in America, was born on 2 November 1732 at Croisadore plantation, Talbot county, Maryland, the first of two children of , planter and judge, and his second wife, Mary Cadwalader (1700–1776), daughter of John Cadwalader. His father's family were English Quakers who settled in Maryland's Eastern Shore about 1660; his mother's were Welsh Quakers who emigrated to Pennsylvania. In 1741 the family moved to Kent county, Delaware, to be closer to Philadelphia. The Dickinsons employed private tutors for their children. In 1750 John went to Philadelphia to read law with John Moland, and in 1754 he crossed the Atlantic to enrol at the Middle Temple, where he was a diligent student and avid reader. He obtained his degree in 1757, and returned to open his practice in Philadelphia.

Politics and religion

Dickinson's political career began with his election to the Delaware assembly in 1759. The next year, after re-election, he became speaker of the assembly. Because he regarded Philadelphia as his home, he did not stand again for his prominent post in Delaware in October 1761, but ran unsuccessfully for an assembly seat from Philadelphia county in the Pennsylvania assembly. The Philadelphia county assembly delegation was a phalanx of adherents to the anti-proprietary and pro-Quaker political leaders of the colony, Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Galloway. In 1762 one of this political contingent died, and Dickinson, possessing the credentials of a Quaker background, won the by-election. Dickinson did not, however, consider himself a Quaker. His father stopped attending meetings in 1739 because he was upbraided for allowing his daughter to marry an Anglican in a church. For the next forty-two years John avoided all aspects of organized religion. When he married Mary Norris (1740–1803), daughter of the late Speaker Isaac Norris, on 19 July 1770, he insisted on a civil ceremony. In 1781, perhaps because of a revived Quaker conviction which his wife urged on him, he refused an oath of office, taking an affirmation instead, and also freed his slaves. By the 1790s he was attending Quaker meetings, though not as a member. He believed that Christianity mainly concerned doing one's duty to others, and was noted in his later years for many charitable donations.

Before March 1764 Dickinson sided with the Pennsylvania assembly leaders, contesting against the proprietary governor over taxation. Dickinson believed that the Penn proprietors, using their executive authority, were attempting to shirk their financial obligations. But he parted with the leadership in 1764 because he viewed Franklin's solution to the executive–legislative conflict—royal government for Pennsylvania—a threat to charter liberties. He attacked it in the house and in print. His opposition led to a fight with Joseph Galloway on the state house steps and a fierce election battle in October 1764. Although Dickinson was re-elected, while Franklin and Galloway temporarily lost their seats, the petition for royal government went forward, only to fail in London. Intense rivalry between Dickinson and Galloway continued, and cool collaboration marked later relations with Franklin.

Revolutionary leader

In 1765 Dickinson began his career as a publicist for American rights within the empire and an advocate for peaceful means to get Britain to acknowledge these rights. At the Stamp Act Congress in October 1765, he drafted its declarations and resolves, asserting that while the colonies had the obligation to obey imperial legislation, taxation without representation was an infringement on colonial rights. Dickinson's writings advised that to persuade Britain to repeal the tax the colonies should ignore it. He endorsed demands that stamp officers resign and supported the merchant boycott of British trade. In his most famous work, the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1767–8), he challenged the Townshend duties on legal and constitutional bases. The Letters were designed to prove that, while Britain had rightful authority to regulate colonial trade, the Townshend duties were taxation for revenue, no different from the Stamp Act or the impositions of the Mutiny Act of 1765, and equally unconstitutional. They should be resisted by non-importation of goods from Britain, as had been the Stamp Act. Dickinson strongly advised against any violent resistance. Mob action against the Stamp Act had antagonized Britain, while peaceful efforts won repeal. Published throughout the colonies, the Letters established Dickinson's reputation as America's foremost defender against British taxation. Outside Pennsylvania he was toasted and honoured, and his ‘Liberty Song’ of 1768 widely published and sung; in his home colony Joseph Galloway and his political allies, hesitant to resist British authority, kept Dickinson out of political office most years until 1774.

When parliament passed the Tea Act in 1773 Dickinson condemned it not only as an underhand device to get colonials to pay the unconstitutional tea tax, but also as unlawfully establishing a monopoly to aid only one merchant enterprise. Dickinson had heretofore always restricted his condemnation of British policy to the taxes and duties imposed for revenue, and the misuse of those funds. In his address to the merchants of Philadelphia in April 1768 he had noted that some of the acts of trade and the manufacturing restrictions bore hard on the colonists, but that they had accepted these out of ‘filial respect’. Dickinson's condemnation of the tea monopoly signalled that he was now ready to broaden his attack to include other British legislation. He warned against violent resistance and advocated peaceful boycott of the tea, and Philadelphia's threats turned the tea ships back. When peace was not preserved in Boston, and parliament adopted the punitive Coercive Acts, Dickinson's imperial views changed quickly: he now opposed parliamentary legislation that intervened in internal colonial matters. He still believed, however, that parliament could legislate concerning imperial trade.

Under Dickinson's direction Philadelphia reacted carefully and sensibly to Boston's plea for assistance. City leaders rejected precipitate action and called for a continental congress. Dickinson's political enemies in the assembly prevented his appointment as congressional delegate, but in October 1774 the Pennsylvania voters repudiated the cautious majority in the legislature and elected Dickinson and his allies. The assembly added Dickinson to the continental congress delegation. Even before he became a member he drafted for the congress its declaration and resolves. He was also the principal author of congress's address to the king. Dickinson's thinking influenced every action of the first continental congress: rejecting British impositions but not advocating independence, imposing a comprehensive economic boycott, and making a reasoned appeal to Britain to change course.

The British government was bent on repressing what it saw as rebellion, and Dickinson's hopes for conciliation became unrealistic with Lexington and Concord. In May 1775 he accepted appointment as colonel of a Philadelphia battalion. In the second continental congress in June he edited Thomas Jefferson's draft of the ‘Declaration of the causes of taking up arms’, embellishing some pointed passages about American determination to fight until free. To this time Dickinson had been regarded as the chief spokesman of the principles of colonial resistance. However, in June he lost credibility with many members, particularly John Adams, by insisting on an ‘olive branch’ petition to the king, which the congress approved in July probably on the expectation that its rejection would settle the issue of independence. Later in July Dickinson successfully led opposition to the independence faction's motion to open American ports in six months and to Franklin's plan for confederation. However, the British government in successive hostile steps evinced no desire to conciliate, and by February 1776 its intransigence converted a bare majority of colonies to independence.

Dickinson refused to alter his views, though he had great difficulty making up his mind. He told Charles Thomson that if the British hired foreign troops he would join the pro-independence advocates. Yet when news of British contracts to hire mercenaries from several German states reached Philadelphia in late May, he did not change his stance. Dickinson feared that colonial Pennsylvania's charter liberties and legislative privileges, the political dominance of the Philadelphia élite, and his own political influence would be overthrown: he chose reconciliation with a unified, liberalized empire rather than vote to create independent states that would probably quarrel endlessly and seek intervention by various European nations. By mid-June 1776 even Pennsylvania no longer opposed independence, by July congress was almost unified in favour of it, and Dickinson could only argue unpersuasively that independence was premature, and that both firm union of the colonies and alliance with France should precede it. In January 1777 he was still hoping for reconciliation.

Military and public offices

Independence or not, defence was imperative. In mid-July 1776 Dickinson led his militia battalion to northern New Jersey to counter the large British force invading the New York harbour area. His unit saw no action. When he returned to Philadelphia in September 1776, he got into a series of clashes with Pennsylvania's new government. It removed him from its continental congress delegation and reduced his military stature, whereupon he resigned his commission. He obtained election to the new government's legislature but quit when the majority refused to revise the new Pennsylvania constitution. Dickinson's opponents censured him for advising his brother not to take continental currency while the American army was in retreat across New Jersey in late 1776. He never satisfactorily explained his advice, but did not himself refuse the paper money of the revolutionary government.

In early 1777 Dickinson quit Philadelphia for his Delaware estate. He volunteered for the Delaware militia and served as a private at the battle of the Brandywine, but took no part in the fighting. He refused the offers of both command of the militia and election to congress from Delaware in 1778, pleading ill health. However, in April 1779 he returned to congress and was very active until about September, when he ceased to attend. Although he was re-elected in December 1779, he never served in congress again. In October 1781 Delaware's leaders persuaded Dickinson to go into the legislature, and then in November to take the presidency of the state. In this office he was active, energetic, and committed, borrowing money for the state on his own credit. His Philadelphia friends, fellow opponents of the Pennsylvania constitution, gave his administration favourable publicity. In October 1782 Philadelphia elected him to Pennsylvania's supreme executive council, and in November he became council president. Dickinson was chief executive of the two states until he resigned from the Delaware post, at that state's request, in January 1783. His major achievement in Pennsylvania, in June of that year, was to disperse mutinous unpaid troops and to agree to a hearing of their grievances, without calling out the militia and risking bloodshed. Dickinson served the constitutionally permissible three annual terms. Although successive elections vindicated his honour among most Pennsylvanians, he resented his opponents' continued press attacks, and after his final term he retired to Wilmington, Delaware. The Delaware assembly called on him, as a private citizen, to attend the Annapolis convention on interstate commerce in September 1786, and again to attend the Philadelphia convention in May 1787 to revise the articles of confederation.

Constitution making

Dickinson's involvement in forming a central government dated back to June 1776, when he chaired a continental congress committee that prepared what eventually became the articles of confederation. The committee report gave the federal government few powers and little vigour. National majorities could not frame policy, because each state had one congressional vote, important actions required supermajorities of states, and the confederation government could not tax. Dickinson was not responsible for all weaknesses of the articles, but he evidently concurred with most provisions that guaranteed feeble central government. During the early 1780s, as various leaders criticized the restrictive character of the articles, Dickinson realized that congress needed the power to control commerce and levy port duties. However, one or two states twice vetoed import duties by refusing to grant the unanimous consent necessary to amend the articles, a provision that Dickinson had included in his draft. He also came to oppose unicameralism.

When Dickinson and the other delegates assembled for the Philadelphia convention, he was well prepared by experience to advocate particular governmental measures. His most important contributions related to checks and balances, and to the separation of powers. He was chief advocate of the election of the upper house by the state legislatures, so that it would be a check on the popularly elected lower house. He believed that indirect election of the executive originating in the people, for a short term, rather than election by the national legislature or by state governments voting as equals, would make the president the agent of the people and would separate the executive from both the national legislature and the state governments. He also favoured judicial independence. He was too conservative in his unsuccessful opposition to a broad suffrage, believing that only freehold landowners should vote in federal elections and not mere taxpayers, who in Pennsylvania probably supported his opponents, the constitutionalists. He unsuccessfully advocated a tripartite, sectionally based executive committee and a judiciary unable to overrule the legislature.

Dickinson was very willing to get agreement by compromise. He endorsed the eventual solution of two houses with differing representation schemes, and also recommended the compromise of permitting foreign slave importation for twenty years. He represented his own small state well, asserting the need for equality of the states in one house of the legislature and, unsuccessfully, for basing representation on state tax revenues rather than on population. His ideas of separation and balance showed his moderation. He wanted a constitution slightly more restrictive on national power, and with a weaker executive and judiciary than those that the convention approved. None the less Dickinson strongly supported the ratification of the constitution as presented by the convention. Pseudonymously he wrote nine Fabius letters in 1788. These argued that Americans would greatly benefit from this balanced government, which could easily be contrasted with that under the deficient articles.


Ill health kept Dickinson inactive for much of the time after 1788. He had suffered lung problems since his youth, and by 1774 was added that of gout. Undoubtedly he would have been elected senator from Delaware, but he refused to run. He presided over Delaware's constitutional convention of 1791–2, and accepted election as state senator. He left that position in 1793, never to hold office again.

Dickinson continued to comment on diplomatic issues because he sympathized with the principles of the French Revolution. In 1795 he denounced the Jay treaty at a public meeting. In 1797 he published fifteen more Fabius letters, championing friendship with France, and in 1798 his pamphlet warned John Adams's administration to avoid antagonizing France. By 1803 Napoleon's territorial ambitions, particularly regarding Louisiana, turned Dickinson against France, and he wrote a pamphlet suggesting naval co-operation with Britain. Dickinson died on 14 February 1808, at Wilmington, and was buried in the Quaker burial-ground there. He left a large estate, including over 6000 acres in Delaware and almost 1300 in Pennsylvania, to his two daughters. Historians have seen Dickinson as both radical (Bernard Bailyn) and conservative (Milton Flower), but he seems best described as a moderate, contributing to the mainstream of American political thought, except at the critical time of independence.

Benjamin H. Newcomb


M. E. Flower, John Dickinson: conservative revolutionary (1983) · D. L. Jacobson, John Dickinson and the revolution in Pennsylvania (1965) · Political writings of John Dickinson, ed. P. L. Ford (1895) · C. J. Stille, Life and times of John Dickinson (1891) · E. K. Ginsburg, ‘Dickinson, John’, ANB · J. N. Rakove, The beginnings of national politics: an interpretive history of the continental congress (1979) · J. H. Hutson, ‘John Dickinson at the federal constitutional convention’, William and Mary Quarterly, 40 (1983), 256–82 · P. H. Smith and others, eds., Letters of delegates to congress, 1774–1789, 26 vols. (1976–2000) · M. Jensen, The founding of a nation: a history of the American Revolution, 1763–1776 (1968) · G. Mackinney and C. F. Hoban, eds., Votes and proceedings of the house of representatives of the province of Pennsylvania, 8 vols. (1754–76), vols. 5–6 [Oct 1758 – June 1776] · B. Bailyn, Pamphlets of the American revolution, 1750–1776, 1 (1965) · M. P. Zuckert, ‘Federalism and the founding: toward a reinterpretation of the constitutional convention’, Review of Politics, 48 (1986), 166–210 · J. H. Powell, The house on Jones Neck: the Dickinson mansion (1954)


Hist. Soc. Penn., MSS; commonplace book; memorandum book |  Hist. Soc. Penn., Dreer collection · Hist. Soc. Penn., Gratz collection · Hist. Soc. Penn., Loudon collection · Hist. Soc. Penn., McKean collection · Historical Society of Delaware, Wilmington, R. S. Rodney collection


C. W. Peale, oils, 1770, Hist. Soc. Penn. [see illus.] · C. W. Peale, oils, Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia

Wealth at death  

over 7300 acres: Flower, John Dickinson