Vantage Points

John Dickinson: "Underrated Founder"

Nov. 05, 2018

by Nathan Warf

 

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The historian Forrest McDonald called John Dickinson “the most underrated Founder.”[1]  I find his assessment persuasive.  Below is one story from Dickinson’s long career of public service.  As our nation anticipates mid-term elections this Tuesday, Dickinson’s example of moderation is worth considering.

On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee presented a resolution before Congress: “Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.”[2]  Four days later, Congress appointed Thomas Jefferson and four others to a committee tasked with preparing what would become the Declaration of Independence.[3]  The following day, two additional committees were formed: one “to prepare and digest the form of confederation” and one “to prepare a plan of treaties to be proposed to foreign powers.”[4]  John Dickinson was appointed to both. 

Jefferson’s committee finished their work quickly, presenting a draft of the Declaration of Independence to the House on June 28, 1776.[5]  When the matter was opened for debate on July 1, Dickinson stood and stated, “My conduct this day, I expect will give the finishing blow to my once too great, and (my integrity considered) now too diminished popularity.”[6]  He proceeded to outline his case against the Declaration of Independence.  Dickinson recognized popular zeal for independence but argued, “People are changeable.  In bitterness of soul they may complain against our rashness and ask why we did not apply first to foreign powers, why we did not settle difference among ourselves … why we did not wait till we were better prepared, or till we had made an experiment of our strength.”[7]  He continued, “Not only treaties with foreign powers but among ourselves should precede this Declaration.  We should know on what grounds we are to stand with regard to one another.”[8]  Otherwise, it is like “destroying a house before we have got another, in winter, with a small family, then asking a neighbor to take us in and finding he is unprepared.”[9]  Dickinson’s opposition was a matter of timing.[10]

When it came time for the final vote, both Dickinson and fellow Pennsylvania delegate Robert Morris absented themselves so as to preserve unanimity.[11]  Both, however, went on to support the war effort and eventually served as delegates to the Constitutional Convention.  Despite his personal reservations, Morris signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2 and then became the “financier of the American Revolution.”[12]  Dickinson, on the other hand, never signed but actually took up arms.  Prior to the Declaration, Dickinson had already been elected as colonel over the first battalion raised from Philadelphia.[13]  In February 1776, Dickinson answered the call of Congress to lead a detachment of four battalions from Philadelphia to the relief of New York.[14]  As Charles Stillé notes, the alarm of invasion soon passed, yet Dickinson’s willingness to resist by force at this early date is significant.  Months later, just days after the Declaration of Independence was approved, Dickinson resumed command and marched his regiment to Elizabethtown in defense of New York (which actually was under siege this time).[15]  After two men were promoted ahead of Dickinson by his enemies in the Pennsylvania Assembly, Dickinson resigned command of the first battalion, moved his family back to Delaware, and re-enlisted as a private in Captain Lewis Stephen’s company.  Serving with distinction, he was eventually commissioned as a brigadier general.[16]  He went on to participate in the Constitutional Convention, where, once again, he exerted a moderating influence in a fashion deserving praise. 

 



[1] Forrest McDonald, “Most Underrated of all the Founders: John Dickinson,” The Imaginative Conservative, available at http://www.imaginativeconservative.org/2012/06/most-underrated-of-all-founders-john.html.

 

[2] 5 J. Cont. Cong. 425 (June 7, 1776).

 

[3] See 5 J. Cont. Cong. 431 (June 11, 1776) (The committee included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston.).

 

[4] 5 Cont. Cong. 433 (June 12, 1776).

 

[5] 5 Cont. Cong. 491 (June 28, 1776).

 

[6] John Dickinson and J. H. Powell, “Notes and Documents: Speech of John Dickinson Opposing the Declaration of Independence, 1 July, 1776,” 65 PA Magazine of History and Biography 458, 468 (Oct., 1941).  J. H. Powell carefully reconstructed Dickinson’s speech from a manuscript in Dickinson’s handwriting.  The speech was long held in a private collection and thus went unpublished.  I have regularized the text to make it more intelligible.

[7] Ibid., 476.

 

[8] Ibid., 478.  See also John Dickinson, “Mr. Dickinson’s Vindication of His Career During the Revolution,” reprinted in Charles Stillé, The Life and Times of John Dickinson, 1732-1808 (Philadelphia: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1891) at Appendix V.  Dickinson repeated this idea, saying, “To me it seemed, that, in the nature of things, the formation of our governments, and an agreement upon the terms of our confederation, ought to precede the assumption of our station among the sovereigns” (371).

 

[9] John Dickinson, “Speech Against Independence,” at 478.

 

[10] See John Dickinson, “Mr. Dickinson’s Vindication,” at 367.  To the charge that he “opposed the declaration of independence in Congress,” Dickinson responded, “To the first charge, as it is made, I deny, but I confess that I opposed the making the declaration of independence at the time when it was made.” 

 

[11] Robert G. Natelson, “The Constitutional Contributions of John Dickinson,” 108 Penn. St. L. Rev. 415, 424 (2003-2004). See also Stillé at 196-97.  He notes that the historian Hildreth considered Dickinson’s opposition the “noblest proof of moral courage ever shown by a public man in the history of the country.”

 

[12] “Morris, Robert (1734-1806),” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, available at http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=m000985.  

[13] See Stillé at 153.  See also Dickinson, “Vindication” at 399.  Despite only having the rank of colonel, Dickinson states that his command over the first brigade gave him the whole militia of Pennsylvania.

 

[14] See Dickinson, “Vindication” at 380.

 

[15] See Dickinson, “Vindication” at 374.  Defending his record against hostile opposition, Dickinson asked, “Have you forgot, gentleman, this remarkable circumstance, that within a few days… after the declaration of independence, I was the only member of Congress that marched with my regiment to Elizabeth Town against our enemies, then invading the state of New York?”  Stille correctly notes that Dickinson was in error to think that he was the only member of Congress to take up arms.  Thomas McKean also served as a colonel in the war.

 

[16] See ibid., 391-94.