A Biography of John Dickinson (1732-1808)

By Marianne Bouman

Dickinson has correctly been called the "Penman of the Revolution" by later historians. But his activities extended fortwo decades into the life of the new republic, years in which Dickinson's contributions were many. Dickinson's career began with his election to the Assembly in the Lower Counties (of Delaware) in 1759. Then, as a Pennsylvania legislater, he represented that colony at the Stamp Act Congress and later, until July 1776, in the Continental Congress. In 1767 as the "farmer" he became America's first native political hero: the outstanding harbinger of American protest against arbitrary British measures and a true defender of liberty. Patience Wright modeled him in wax: Paul Revere engraved his likeness copied from an earlier Philadelphia print. Nor was Dickinson reputation provincial. British leaders and those on the continent knew him as well. His opposition to independence in July 1776 brought vilification by his political adversaries but did not keep Du Simitiere in 1779 from drawing his profile as one of the thirteen American celebrities of the Revolution.

Having left the Continental Congress for military service, Dickinson was not returned to that body by Pennsylvania. Instead Delaware elected him its congressional delegate, but he did not agree to serve until 1779. In 1781 he became president (governor) of Delaware, and the following year, having returned to political favor, he was chosen presedent of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. At the conclusion of his term in Pennsylvania, he moved back to Delaware and took up residence at Wilmington.

Almost at once Delaware delegated him to attend the Annapolis Convention and shortly thereafter the Federal Convention. At the gathering in Philadelphia, Dickinson's voice was strong, setting forth a defense of small states, a position that led to the Great Compromise in congressional representation. As a constitutional authority he had no equal and had been the author of the original Articles of the Confederation, the country's first constitution. Dickinson's involvement in state and federal matters never slackened. He continued to act and write, becoming chairman of Delaware's constitutional convention in 1791, writing under the pseudonym "Fabius" first in support of the Federal Constitution and then a decade later in espousing the French cause as opposed to England's. As an enthusiastic democratic-Republican, he lent his support and advice to Jefferson.

Historians have labeled John Dickinson cautious and conservative. Cautious he was, in part too bound by his great dependence on lessons gained from both English and world history. To certain aspects of history he seemed blind, perhaps as a result of a temperamental revulsion to mass violence. His caution alone caused him to called conservative. But his devotion to the rule of law and to the principles of liberty linked him to the radicals in the early days of the Revolution. Dickinson never changed his principles. A man of great moral courage, he refused to bow to popular clamor and support independence. A conservative stance which seeks to withstand the ongoing currents of a dynamic world cannot, inherently, be a popular one. It tends to obstruct and frustrate. Thus the defender earns calumny from the impatient. Such was the case with Dickinson in Pennsylvania at the time of independence, a fate reversed, however, once his moderation again proved desirable. His life thus is not that of the more familiar Founding Fathers, but of a man no less devoted to his country and important in its history.