Thursday, November 11, 2010

In praise of an overlooked Founder, John Dickinson

Over at Front Porch Republic, John Wilson has written a short article on why we should pay more attention to John Dickinson (1732-1808):  Our Lost Founders.  Dickinson, as Wilson points out, was an influential force prior to the Declaration of Independence, known not just in the colonies but by the England as well.  Once independence had been declared, Dickinson was active in the Continental Congress and as a result ended up writing the first draft of our nation's first Constitution, the Articles of Confederation.

Wilson notes that if Dickinson had not had the misfortune to fall ill during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he likely would have had a larger impact on our current Constitution than he had -- although as Wilson points out in an aside, he had plenty of influence as it was, both on the text of the Constitution and on its eventual ratification.  He wrote a series of letters in defense of the Constitution under the pen name Fabius. 

Dickinson was also a committed abolitionist.  Unlike many of the Founders, like Jefferson and Madison, who spoke against slavery while enjoying the benefits of owning human property, Dickinson took decisive personal steps against the institution of chattel slavery.  Not content to merely talk the talk like Jefferson and Madison, Dickinson freed his slaves long before it was fashionable to do so.  As Wilson points out, Dickinson freed his slaves because of his commitment to the principles of the American Revolution -- that the freedom sought by the Americans was incompatible with the institution of chattel slavery.  Dickinson prophetically announced that the refusal of the Framers of the Constitution to address the problem of slavery head-on would cause nothing but trouble for the Republic.  Because the slavery issue was not settled on the side of human freedom, as Wilson summarizes Dickinson's position, the Republic was inevitably going to "have to face the consequences of our lack of courage." 

Aside from his historical importance and principled opposition to slavery, Dickinson also stands as a model of a prudent statesman -- a model well in need of revival in our own times.  As Wilson writes:
Dickinson’s first draft of the Articles included provisions for an impost, which would have given the government an income, and subtle powers for the executive functions of the legislature that together would have made the convention of 1787 unnecessary.  He signed off on the Constitution because he was convinced that a combination of the equality of the states (the Senate was his contribution to that frightful summer) and the “power of the people” would restrain what Hamilton and others hoped would become an English-style government.  He also uttered the wisest and most prudent statement of the entire constitutional debate.  On August 13, 1787, he said, “Experience must be our only guide.  Reason may mislead us.”

John Dickinson lived long enough to know how right he had been.  We need to learn which of our fathers to honor.  Dickinson stands for the right combination of limited government, local loyalties, principled freedom, and the rule of law that republican government requires to survive.  We write biographies of nationalists, and pay too little attention to the men who gave us our liberty.
That quote by Dickinson is one of my favorites short quotes by any of the Founders.  It is a testament to his prudent and small-c conservative approach to politics and constitutional order.  A salutary example for our modern age!


Tom Van Dyke said...

Dickinson, as Wilson points out, was an influential force prior to the Declaration of Independence, known not just in the colonies but by the England as well. Once independence had been declared, Dickinson was active in the Continental Congress and as a result ended up writing the first draft of our nation's first Constitution, the Articles of Confederation.

All true.

What's elided here is that the "Penman of the Revolution," John Dickinson, refused to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Talk about a "conservative," Mark. He was a Tory. All they wanted was their rights "as Englishmen."

And the "godfather of conservatives," Edmund Burke, pleaded with parliament just to give the American colonists taxation WITH representation.

After all, Britain had just defended the happy colonists in the French & Indian war, with great expense to the Crown.

Pay up, freeloaders!

Edmund Burke, 1774, for those of us who have patience with our actual history. Which is all of us, right?


He was outmaneuvered when the Contintental delegates were in town in Philadelphia, 1776.

But once he lost that battle, he joined the cause wholeheartedly, that's truly a fact. In for a penny, in for a pound.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Was Dickinson a "Tory" or did he not want to revolt based on his Quaker pacifist beliefs?

Mark in Spokane said...


I don't think his opposition to declaring independence was based on pacificism. If memory serves, Dickinson raised a militia unit after Independence was declared and fought in the Revolution.


Dickinson wasn't a Tory -- he fits within the Whig mold as far as politics go. The "rights of Englishman" model was a Whig one, and was developed by such notable non-Tories as Thomas Jefferson prior to Independence (e.g., Jefferson's treatise on the rights of "British North America"). The Revolution was fought on two grounds, one of which was based on natural law, the other was based on English constitutional theory as developed by the Whigs. Dickinson's emphasis on the later rather than the former doesn't place him outside the mainstream of Revolutionary period thought.

Dickinson was a supporter of the idea of Independence, and had advocated Independence for some time prior to the Revolution. But he thought that a declaration of Independence in 1776 was premature and imprudent. Like Burke he sought reconciliation within the Empire.

And again, this was not an unusual approach to take at this time. Up until late 1775 many of the "top-tier" Founders followed just such an approach -- Franklin, for example, was scrambling to try to hold the Empire together. Washington in the field with the Continental Army didn't embrace Independence until he had read Common Sense. John Adams had a feud with his cousin Sam over the prudence of Independence at during the rising Boston Troubles in the early 1770's. Dickinson may have been late to the party, so to speak, when it came to Independence, but many other Founders had expressed similar misgivings to his own. Dickinson's hesitation was due to his conservative temperament. And that's not a bad thing.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I think there is more to the Dickinson/Quaker thing, but I am going to have to look it up.

I read the article; the place in Phila. to which he refers, I lived right next to it for 3 years and never once set my foot in it.

I've had a number of life circumstances similar to that where I get interested in something AFTER it's too late. [I've always had some kind of interest in religion; but when I was in Rome -- 1/2 mile away from the Vatican for 6 weeks -- I had little interest in the history of Christianity.]

But it's not really too late for Phila., b/c I can always drive or take a train there as I live about 1/2 hr. - 40 min. away.

Mark in Spokane said...


Dickinson's thought was heavily influenced by Quaker theology and political belief. There's a book on this, if I remember correctly. But I don't think that Dickinson was motivated by pacificism -- in fact his later actions after Independence were declared show that he was no pacificist but a patriot willing to resort to arms.

There is no question, though, that Dickinson's push was to attempt reconciliation, that he sought a peaceful transition away from dependent colonial status to equal status with the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom. Again, in this way he was very similar to Burke and Franklin, although he held out hope for reconciliation longer than either of them.

Luck you living so close to so many historical sites! Out here in eastern Washington, there aren't so many!