Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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John Dickinson, Quaker Hamlet

John Dickinson

John Dickinson (1732-1808) would probably be better known if his abilities were less complex and numerous. It would have been particularly helpful if he had consistently remained on only one side of the important issues of his day. Born in a Quaker family and buried in a Quaker graveyard, he was for years a notable Episcopalian and soldier. He outwitted John Penn, the Pennsylvania Proprietor who was trying to keep Pennsylvania from sending representatives to the Continental Congress, by having the Pennsylvania representatives hold a meeting in the same small room of Carpenters Hall at the same time as the Congress. But he ultimately refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. Although he was the main author of the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution which replaced it would not have been ratified without his idea of a bicameral Congress. Although he was Governor of Pennsylvania, he was also Governor of Delaware, has been the central figure in the separation of the two states. In fact, for fifteen years he was a member of the Legislature of both states. Dickinson seems in retrospect to have been on every side of every argument, but he was immensely respected in his time.

Two events seem to have been central in the organization of his life. The first was his education as a lawyer. At that time and for a century afterward, lawyers were trained by apprenticeship. Dickinson, however, studied in London at the Inns of Court for four years and was by far the most distinguished lawyer in North America for the rest of his life. Furthermore, he absorbed the principles of the Magna Carta and the approaches of Francis Bacon so thoroughly that he never quite got over his pride in his English heritage. Throughout his leadership of the colonial rebellion, he acted as a better Englishman than the English themselves. His demand was for American representation in the British Parliament, not independence from England. It would not be hard to imagine Dickinson standing before a firing squad, gritting the words of St. Paul, Civis Romani Sum.

His other pivotal experience was the Battle of Brandywine. Dickinson had been the organizer or chairman of the two main Pennsylvania military organizations, the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety and Defense, and the so-called Associators (today's 111th Infantry, the first battalion of troops in Philadelphia). Both of these particular names were a characteristic gesture to conciliating pacifist Quaker feelings. Nevertheless, when Dickinson refused to sign the Declaration, he did temporarily become so unpopular he resigned his military commands. A few months later, when General Howe landed at Elkton at the narrow neck of the Delmarva peninsula, Dickinson enlisted as a common soldier to defend the southern perimeter of the defense line Washington had hastily thrown up to defend Philadelphia. Shortly afterward, Dickinson's friend and neighbor Caesar Rodney made him a Brigadier General in charge of the garrison around Elizabeth New Jersey, but the Battle of Brandywine taught an important lesson. Little states like Delaware and Maryland could not possibly defend themselves without alliance and coordination with the larger states. Delaware was later very active in persuading the other small states to surrender sovereignty in the Constitutional Convention, to be the first to ratify the Constitution, and eventually in the Civil War to remain within the Union in spite of being a slave state.

Going back to the Battle of the Brandywine, the lesson was permanently and indelibly taught that a foreign army in Elkton, could gobble up Dover or Baltimore within a week. And that, too, is part of an overarching theme of Dickinson's life which makes many inconsistencies consistent. He devoutly believed in peace and order within a large nation. If it could not be within the British Empire, at least it had to be more than just a little state consisting of a few counties. Once he finally accepted the idea of separation from England, he devoted his life to achieving a voluntary union of formerly sovereign states, on terms acceptable to each other. Central to this mission was resistance to the idea of a unicameral national Legislature, with representation based on population. From his position, the larger states would then always dominate the smaller ones, and residents of the smaller states could never achieve national prominence. Although Benjamin Franklin proposed the compromise of the bicameral Legislature with one body selected by the state rather than population, Franklin and Dickinson had been lifetime collaborators in assembling a national Union, and Franklin was surely intervening on behalf of his friend and colleague. Many large nations have been unified by armed force; ours was and continues to be the only one to do it voluntarily. Dickinson and Franklin were central to the concept of honest negotiation and necessary compromise, which even today continues to escape the United Nations and the European Union. In fact, the need for a bicameral Legislature in this sort of Union is now so well accepted, that opposition to bicameral is mostly a sly method to oppose the Union without confessing your true position.

John Dickinson was known as the "Penman of the Revolution" in his day because of his persuasive arguments, but the hotheads refused to grasp his wise advice that the King would be more persuaded by economic pressures on his merchants than by Colonials shooting his Redcoats. The Tories and the proprietors, on the other side, never forgave him for denouncing their own abuses of power. Super-patriots distrusted him once more after he refused to sign the Declaration, while those who were bankrupted by the Revolution resented that at some times, by some definitions, he remained the richest man in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, the really serious Quakers would never forgive any member who organized, led and fought as a soldier, no matter what else he might have done. To a person of his sophistication, however, none of these resentments really proved he was being inconsistent.

Perhaps some understanding of Dickinson can be gleaned from the 1779 summary of him in the Diary of John Adams:

"He [Chevalier de la Luzerne] inquired after Mr. Dickinson and the reason why he disappeared. I explained, as well as I could in French, the inconsistency of the Farmer's Letters, and his perseverance in that inconsistency in Congress, Mr. Dickinson's opposition to the Declaration of Independence. I ventured, as modestly as I could, to let him know that I had the honor to be the principal disputant in Congress against Mr. Dickinson upon that great question; that Mr. Dickinson had the eloquence, the learning, and the ingenuity, on his side of the question; but that I had the hearts of the Americans on mine; and, therefore, my side of the question prevailed. That Mr. Dickinson had a good heart and an amiable character; but that his opposition to independence had lost him the confidence of the people, who suspected him of timidity and avarice, and that his opposition sprung from those passions; but that he had since turned out with the militia against the British troops, and, I doubted not, might in time regain the confidence of the people."

This statement of John Adams' respect for the Declaration continues his insistence that the critical moment was when Congress decided to act on his proposal, not when Jefferson penned some propaganda for it. The point for Dickinson over Adams is best summarized: Adams felt the point of no return had been reached long before July 4, 1776, whereas Dickinson felt it had not been reached even then. Dickinson was entirely right that the artificial fuss over the Tea Act was no reason to go to war. Adams was right that public hysteria had surged to a point where further resisting the public would cost you your ability to lead it. It was the Quaker in Dickinson coming out; he was "morbidly principled". Only when the Redcoats were actually marching across the neck of Delaware, would he concede that events had overtaken logic.

Robert Morris was no Quaker, but he joined his friend John Dickinson in the Quaker position of refusing to sign the Declaration of Independence. Both men eventually joined the revolution, but largely out of allegiance to their fellow Americans. History has vindicated that position, to the extent that the decisive defeat of the British at Saratoga brought their most ardent adversary himself to agree with them. Lord North of all people, then offered the colonists the compromise of an American parliament within a commonwealth of parliaments, independent except that trading relationships with Great Britain would be maintained. Governor Morris was selected to answer the British. Without a military defeat, the British might not have made the offer, but Governor Morris' rejecting Lord North's offer for the expedient reasons earlier expressed by John Adams could be described as making the war last six years longer than it needed to, in order to remain in charge of it.

As a footnote, it can probably be surmised from Franklin's life that he was in total agreement with Morris and Dickinson's assessment, except for the comparatively brief period when the British aristocracy had publicly humiliated the most accomplished man on earth in the cockpit at Whitehall. That does leave one other persuasive theory of the Revolutionary War. The Americans first joined with the British in 1754 to drive out the French from America. And then a few years later in 1778, the Americans joined with the French to drive the British out. According to this mostly Canadian description, what New Englanders had wanted all along, was to dominate the continent.

vary good I am locking for more on John Dickinson
Posted by: Richard Dickinson   |   Mar 1, 2014 5:51 PM
you should give your site more color
Posted by: Savannah   |   Feb 14, 2008 4:26 PM

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