Often referred to as the “penman of the Revolution,” John Dickinson was an American statesman, delegate to the Continental Congress and one of the writers of the Articles of Confederation.
John Dickinson was born in 1732 and won fame in 1767 as the author of "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies." The letters helped turn public opinion against the Townshend Acts, enacted by the British Parliament. Dickinson also helped draft the Articles of Confederation and craft the U.S. Constitution. His legacy is honored through Dickinson College and Penn State's Dickinson School of Law, both in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
John Dickinson was born in 1732 to a wealthy Quaker family in Maryland. Six years later, the family moved to an estate in Delaware. At age 18, Dickinson followed his father, a judge in Delaware, into the study of law at a Philadelphia law office. In 1753, Dickinson went overseas and spent four years studying in the London court system. While there, he heard leading minds of the day discuss Enlightenment philosophy and individual rights. The experience brought into sharp focus the relationship between history and politics and would influence the rest of Dickinson's life.
Returning to Philadelphia in 1757 to practice law, John Dickinson saw his reputation in the legal field grow. Three years later, he made his first foray into politics and was soon elected to both the Delaware legislature and the Pennsylvania assembly (made possible by Dickinson's residency in both regions). In 1764, he challenged Benjamin Franklin on the issue of replacing Pennsylvania’s proprietary charter with a royal charter (Dickinson was against it). Dickinson lost both the debate and his assembly seat in Pennsylvania.
The Era of Discontent
In the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756-1763), the British government found itself deep in debt and began looking for ways to generate revenue. Parliament enacted the Stamp Act of 1765, which imposed a direct tax on specific products imported to the colonies. Predictably, the colonists met the tax with fierce opposition claiming taxation without representation and organizing boycotts on British goods.
John Dickinson, with his strong, measured voice, was chosen to represent Pennsylvania at the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, where he drafted the body's anti–Stamp Act resolution. Though Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, it ignored the colonists’ protests and passed the Townshend Acts of 1767, which imposed new taxes on goods imported to the colonies. Soon after, Dickinson began publishing in the Pennsylvania Chronicle his "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies" under the pseudonym "Fabius." The letters advocated peaceful resistance to oppression and warned against revolution as an answer to Britain’s violations. The letters were republished in many colonial newspapers advocating a cautious opposition to British tyranny.
In 1770, Dickinson married Mary Norris, the daughter of the former speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, and the pair went on to have five children (although only two survived infancy).
Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution
After serving in various roles, including battle during the Revolutionary War, John Dickinson was elected to the Delaware legislature and was later elected governor. During the Second Continental Congress, there was high tension among the delegates and intense debate over revolution, but Dickinson refused to vote for or sign the Declaration of Independence, saying the emerging nation was not ready for open revolt against the most powerful empire on earth. In the end, he abstained from voting so that the overall tally for independence would be unanimous.
In 1779, after the Revolutionary War, in which he fought in varying roles, Dickinson served in the Confederation Congress and was elected president of Delaware two years later (in 1782 he was elected Pennsylvania president). In 1786, he chaired the Annapolis Convention, convened to address concerns over the Articles of Confederation. The next year, Dickinson represented Delaware at the Constitution Convention, in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, illness kept Dickinson from signing the document, and a colleague put his name to the parchment.
John Dickinson returned to Delaware where he divided his time between private life and political duty. He served as president of Delaware’s constitutional convention and was an informal advisor to President Thomas Jefferson. Dickinson died on February 14, 1808, at his home in Wilmington, Delaware.