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Solidarity during a Pandemic: Wisdom from Founding Father John Dickinson

Aug. 20, 2021


by Nathan Warf

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a blog post identifying John Dickinson as an underrated Founding Father. In a life dedicated to public service, he returned again and again to the themes of prudence and moderation. These virtues are clearly seen in Dickinson’s response to the Declaration of Independence, the event I recounted in that post. Knowing the popular zeal in favor of independence, he nonetheless had the courage to stand in opposition. The time was not right, he argued. Before launching into war, the colonies ought to agree to terms of confederation and arrange treaties with foreign nations. Dickinson was unsuccessful in his appeals, but he went on to prove his loyalty to the fledgling nation, serving with distinction in both the Revolutionary War and in the Constitutional Convention. 

In today’s post, I wish to highlight another virtue that Dickinson championed, the virtue of solidarity. Solidarity, to put it simply, is an awareness of our shared interests and mutual dependence. It binds a society together.  

In 1767, provoked in part by the Townshend Acts, Dickinson began his much-celebrated series of twelve essays under the heading Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer. Throughout, he emphasized the cohesion needed among the colonies. In his first letter, Dickinson reminded the colonies that “the cause of one is the cause of all.” He argued that the colonies were “powerful by their union” but would be weakened by “mutual inattention to the interests of each other.” Dickinson continued, “He certainly is not a wise man, who folds his arms, and reposes himself at home, viewing, with unconcern, the flames that have invaded his neighbor’s house, without using any endeavors to extinguish them.” As in all the Letters, he concluded with a Latin phrase: “Concordia res parvae crescunt,” which means “Small things grow great by concord.” Grand things are made possible when people act in solidarity with one another. 

The language of solidarity continued in subsequent Letters. “We are but parts of a whole,” he said. He stressed the colonies’ “mutual interests,” “common good,” and “general welfare.” In his final letter, Dickinson spoke of the “decay of virtue,” saying that “[a] people is travelling fast to destruction, when individuals consider their interests as distinct from those of the public.”

The ongoing pandemic has revealed that solidarity is in short supply. Over the consistent appeals of healthcare professionals and responsible political leaders, as a society we continue to place individual interests in opposition to the common good. While this crisis has certainly impacted people differently, Dickinson’s words are a helpful reminder that we’re all in this together, and we ought to act like it.

How can we show solidarity during these trying times? Part of solidarity is recognizing that we are not sufficient in ourselves. A thriving society requires many different people performing different functions. For example, I depend on farmers to grow my food, mechanics to repair my car, and professional soccer players to provide my entertainment. A couple of caveats are in order. First, I can do some of these things myself, though probably not as well as a specialist and certainly not without giving up other things (like time for my job or for rest). Second, I recognize that specialists can and do make mistakes. Nonetheless, I’d rather an engineer design my bridge and an electrician wire my house. 

What does this have to do with the pandemic? Solidarity calls us to have humility and to respect the authority and expertise of healthcare workers. Many have literally begged us to wear masks, practice social distancing, and get vaccinated. Mountains of data support these measures. My compliance is a small sacrifice of my freedom. It protects me and others. It slows the spread of the virus and lessens the strain on our healthcare system. My compliance helps protect those who are ineligible for the vaccine and those who refuse it. 

In our culture, individualism is pervasive and often celebrated. The contrast with solidarity is striking.

Individualism says, “I don’t care if you wear a mask. You do what you want, but leave me alone.”

Solidarity says, “I’ll wear a mask for healthcare workers, for those who can’t be vaccinated, and for those who are immunocompromised.”

Individualism says, “I’m healthy. Covid isn’t likely to hurt me.”

Solidarity says, “While I may be healthy, I care about those in my community who are vulnerable.”

Individualism insists on personal rights and freedoms. Solidarity encourages shared responsibility for the common good. 

Beyond these things, which are admittedly rather easy, what else can we do? We can look for ways to assist those who have been adversely affected, who have suffered loss, who have been isolated, or who face financial uncertainty. Solidarity calls for sacrificial giving, with the faith that our community will likewise support us in our own time of need. We can encourage responsible leaders who make difficult but necessary decisions. We can creatively put ourselves in service to others. We can respond with patience and empathy toward those who resist masking or are hesitant to get vaccinated. We can listen to people’s objections and engage in productive conversation rather than writing people off. 

As the pandemic continues, solidarity provides a way forward. It calls us to humbly submit to one another in love, to bear one another’s burdens, to recognize that we are in fact our brother and sister’s keeper. Dickinson’s counsel is applicable here: “Let us all be united with one spirit, in one cause.”