Wednesday, February 12, 2014

John Dickinson as fusionist thinker

Over at The Imaginative Conservative Wilfred McClay posts this review of William Murchison's book The Cost of Liberty: the Life of John Dickinson:  The Anti-Jefferson.  In his review, McClay notes that Dickinson often incorporated and fused differing strands of thought into his approach to practical politics. Of particularly interest to those interested in constitutional theory is McClay's observation that Dickinson incorporated critical aspects of anti-federalist theory into his defense of the Constitution, notably the need for a virtuous citizenry in order for the American republic to survive and thrive:
Dickinson carried forward into the constitutional era a great deal of the moral concern expressed by many of the anti-Federalists, a concern grounded in classical republicanism, and he thereby provides a good example of a major debate that remained—and, one hopes, remains—contested. He did not celebrate the Constitution as a well-oiled Rube Goldberg mechanism, cleverly designed to make ambition counteract ambition and render virtue optional, but as a “plain-dealing work,” designed to give “the will of the people a decisive influence over the whole, and over all the parts.” He clearly linked the flourishing of political liberty with a high regard for “that perfect liberty better described in the Holy Scriptures.” His sense of history, prudence, and religion all came together in these words, placed in the mouth of Fabius: “History sacred and profane tells us, that, corruption of manners sinks nations into slavery.” The sole antidote to such corruption was “soundness of sense and honesty of heart.”
Read it all, and get a glimpse at the work of one of the most overlooked of the American Founding Fathers, and one of the great conservative minds of the late colonial and early republican periods. It may be too much to hope for, but perhaps some enterprising young historian might be interested in resurrecting John Dickinson from obscurity to the rightful place of prominence he deserves among the Founding Generation?

7 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

He clearly linked the flourishing of political liberty with a high regard for “that perfect liberty better described in the Holy Scriptures.”

I bet not one American in 100 knows that that was the consensus view of what "liberty" meant in the Founding era.

"None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license." John Milton, Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649)

JMS said...

Mark - good post - thanks.

The standard and best history for the more diverse scope of European colonization (newcomers) of North America (natives) and the USA founding is Alan Taylor's excellent, "American Colonies" (Penguin History of the U.S.)

Mark DeForrest said...

Right you are, Tom. The ideas of the American founders would be profoundly alien to most modern Americans. Their whole way of thinking -- even the relatively secular ones like Jefferson and Franklin -- was oriented differently than our own. They were more religious in a critical sense: they believed that God would judge them for their actions in this life, for the good and evil that they did. And they thought that such a conviction was at the heart of all self-government, which was necessary for liberty. Try talking like that now, and you get labeled as a fundamentalist who makes people feel bad about themselves.

JMS said...

TVD - what consensus? John Dickinson represented a very unique Quaker view of political liberty derived from the mid-17th century (e.g., William Penn)

Mark - alien to whom? It seems that John Dickinson's ideas are "alien" to Professor McClay.

Where are my fellow-Pennsylvanians at AC? If like me, you grew up in southeastern PA and studied PA history as a student or an avocation, then you should know about John Dickinson (although he was not born in PA), and should refute the review’s unfounded assertion that , “Dickinson is not merely neglected but forgotten. There has been very little biographical work on him,” yada yada yada.

A less well-known founder, certainly, but hardly “forgotten” unless your source is HBO. Please read Jane Calvert’s bio (in The Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History: Vol 1: Colonial Beginning through Revolution, 1500-1783. ed. Andrew W. Robertson (Washington, DC: CQ Press, a division of Sage, 2010), 110-114), her article, “Liberty without Tumult: Understanding the Politics of John Dickinson” (PMHB Vol. CXXXI, No. 3 (July 2007)), and her brilliant book, “Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson” (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Unfortunately her long-promised full biography has not appeared.

I hope the book [which I have not read] is more grounded in the historical context and political uniqueness of Dickinson’s Quaker constitutionalism than the review, which did not even mention his essential Quaker political thought and practice (civil disobedience and peaceful resistance to preserve a sacred and perpetual written constitution framing a limited gov’t. with an internal process of popular amendment) once. I’m sure Dr. McLay, with a Chair in the “History of Liberty” and touted as an “acclaimed expert on American intellectual and cultural history” knows his stuff. But it is inaccurate to label Dickinson as either a “conservative” or “grounded in classical republicanism.”

Dickinson was not a “Puritan, pietist, deist, Lockean Whig, Tory, classical republican, liberal, royalist, Burkean conservative or commonwealthman. He was a radical but not a revolutionary. His concern for virtue and liberty cannot be explained in terms of the usual ideologies. What most analyses fail to take seriously is Dickinson’s religious belief,” i.e., Quakerism (although technically he was not a “convinced” member of the Society of Friends because he never abandoned his belief in “the lawfulness of defensive war.” (Calvert LwT 237-238). The bottom line is that, “Dickinson’s opinions and conduct in the Revolution were based on Quaker political theory as it originated in the 17th century” (i.e., since the 1650s, well before Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government ” or “Letter on Toleration (1689), with William Penn, Robert Barclay and Isaac Pennington). It is no use appealing to “English constitutional history” either, because the English system had no formal process to discern the will of the people (i.e., all the pepole, not just “virtual” representation in Parliament) and no process for changing bad laws (hence the need for civil disobedience).

One minor quibble (again, I do not know if it is the reviewer’s or the book’s author) is that Dickinson did not serve in the Continental army; he served in the PA and DE militias. But interesting fact, “despite not being a Continental officer, Dickinson was nonetheless admitted to the Society of the Cincinnati as an honorary member for his distinguished service.” (Calvert bio 112)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Where are my fellow-Pennsylvanians at AC? If like me, you grew up in southeastern PA and studied PA history as a student or an avocation, then you should know about John Dickinson

I did, and I didn't.

Anonymous JMS said...
TVD - what consensus? John Dickinson represented a very unique Quaker view of political liberty derived from the mid-17th century (e.g., William Penn)


Tell us more, then. [Although the willingness of this Quaker to wage war has nothing to do with the actual topic, which is more about "liberty not license."]

But by all means, tell us about what you found on Google.

JMS said...

TVD said - "Tell us more. But by all means, tell us about what you found on Google."

I cited my sources and they were not from Google. I actually read the book and read the articles (via JSTOR).

Tom Van Dyke said...

And your point is what, again, JMS? Even Jefferson thought the scriptures were a perfect handbook of morality.

And the digression into the Quaker Dickinson's willingness to participate in war

Anonymous JMS said...
TVD - what consensus? John Dickinson represented a very unique Quaker view of political liberty derived from the mid-17th century (e.g., William Penn)


was interesting, but tangential to my original comment

Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...
"He clearly linked the flourishing of political liberty with a high regard for “that perfect liberty better described in the Holy Scriptures.”

---I bet not one American in 100 knows that that was the consensus view of what "liberty" meant in the Founding era.

"None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license." John Milton, Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649)


I don't mind disagreement, but you have a long way to go before arguing with that.

If you want to dispute what "liberty" meant to the Founding era, please at least aim at the broad side of the barn.