Dickinson, John 1732–1808

A leading figure in colonial politics during the later half of the eighteenth century, John Dickinson was a conservative revolutionary who personally reflected the tortured loyalties that bound the Mid-Atlantic colonies to Great Britain. Regardless of his divided political sentiments, Dickinson ably served both Delaware and Pennsylvania in many different positions, partaking in both sessions of the 1774 and 1775 Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention of 1787. John Dickinson was born on November 8, 1732, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. His family was part of the Quaker elite, and John’s father, Samuel Dickinson, was a well-respected judge and landowner. This early high status enabled John to receive an extensive education in his early years, despite his constant poor health. In 1750, Dickinson moved to Philadelphia to pursue legal studies under John Moland, who was among the leading lawyers in the Pennsylvania colony. After spending two years under Moland’s tutelage, from 1754 to 1757, Dickinson continued his training in London at Middle Temple, the most prestigious center of legal training in the British Empire. Following the completion of his coursework and training, Dickinson returned to Philadelphia and joined the bar in 1757. In part due to his family’s immense property holdings in Delaware, Dickinson was elected to the state assembly in 1760, where he became speaker for a year. Political office in Pennsylvania called, however, and Dickinson was nominated and elected to serve in the state assembly in 1762. Serving for three years, he was a strong supporter of the Proprietary Party, which was led by the Penn family and was conservative in supporting traditional society and elite elements of Pennsylvanian society. Dickinson was constantly at odds with Benjamin Franklin, who was the leader of the opposing Royalist Party, which garnered its support from the Pennsylvania backcountry and German Americans (then known as Dutch) who resented Quaker control over the colony. When the issue of changing the colony’s charter to a royal one arose in late 1763, Dickinson led the Proprietary Party in denouncing it, arguing the colony would be at the mercy of the British ministry and the colonists’ traditional rights as Englishmen would be violated or ignored. Dickinson’s strong statements and efforts led to his electoral defeat in 1765 and a five-year absence from the state assembly. It was during the period from 1765 to 1770 that John Dickinson wrote his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, which gained him enormous recognition throughout the colonies. Dickinson was stirred to action after his involvement and leadership in the Stamp Act Congress, which met in 1765, arguing in his letters that the act was unconstitutional because of the lack of representation for the colonies in the House of Commons. Hence, Dickinson’s Letters stressed the rights the colonists had as English citizens, particularly in regard to taxation, and the need to protect the public liberty. During this period of popular success, Dickinson married Mary Norris, daughter of wealthy merchant Isaac Norris, in July 1770 and further solidified his standing in elite society. Later that fall, Dickinson was elected again to a seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly, and he served until 1776. During this time, Dickinson found himself allied with the vocal Presbyterian Party, which sought to preserve colonial rights, particularly during the aftermath of the Intolerable Acts of 1774. He was selected to attend the First Continental Congress, which met in the fall of 1774. Serving for only a brief period, he penned a petition to King George III, which urged the king to listen to the colonists. The patriot John Dickinson, portrayed here by Charles Willson Peale, served Delaware and Pennsylvania in several capacities before and after the Revolution, but he was best known as the author of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1765 1770), a series of anti-British political tracts. (Courtesy of Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection, Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia/Bridgeman Art Library) When the Second Continental Congress met in 1775 after the battles of Lexington and Concord, Dickinson was opposed to seeking independence, and instead stressed reconciliation and moderation in dealing with Great Britain. He voted against the Declaration, declaring that it was premature. This move caused long-term tensions with John Adams and other leading New Englanders. Dickinson resigned from the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1776 and refused to serve in the Continental Congress, instead fighting as a private at the battle of Brandywine in 1777. He was elected president of Delaware in 1782, a position he held until 1785. A delegate from Delaware to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, he offered strong support for ratification with his Letters of Fabius. In the 1790s, Dickinson became increasingly critical of George Washington’s pro-British policy, and he strongly supported Thomas Jefferson and the Republican Party in the election of 1800. After an extended illness, he died in Wilmington, Delaware, on February 14, 1808. Peter Bratt See also: Continental Congress, First; Continental Congress, Second; Revolutionary War. Bibliography Flower, Milton E. John Dickinson: Conservative Revolutionary. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983. Jacobson, David L. John Dickinson and the Revolution in Pennsylvania: 1764 1776. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965. Power, Susan M. Before the Convention: Religion and the Founders. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984. Articles of Confederation, US Constitution, Constitution Day … Mapq8Ethics Hero Emeritus (Independence Day Division): John Dickinson … Mapq8John Dickinson Portrait Stock Photos & John Dickinson Portrait … Mapq8

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