Preserving American Freedom

The Evolution of American Liberties in Fifty Documents

John Dickinson



John Dickinson, painting by Charles Willson Peale, 1770. Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Company Collection, box # 1926.1, Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Delaware Assembly
Continental Congress, 1774-1776, 1779
President of Delaware, 1781
President of Pennsylvania, 1782-1785
Chairman, Annapolis Convention, 1786
Delaware Delegate to Constitutional Convention, 1787
President, Delaware Constitutional Convention, 1792
John Dickinson was a lawyer, businessman, and statesman who served Pennsylvania and Delaware during the American founding. Born in Maryland and raised in Delaware, his religious leanings were Quaker, but he never formally joined the Society of Friends. He was one of the most active office-holders and most prolific authors, writing more for the American cause than any other figure. Trained in the law at the Middle Temple in London's Inns of Court, he began his political career in Delaware and soon moved to Pennsylvania. There he was a vigorous opponent of Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Galloway during their 1764 campaign for royal government. In 1765, he wrote against the Stamp Act and served as nominal leader of the Stamp Act Congress, where he authored that body's petition to the king and Declarations. With the publication of his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1767-1768) in response to the Townshend Duties, he became the nation's first political hero and international spokesman for American rights and liberties. He went on to author most of the Pennsylvania Assembly's and many of the Continental Congresses' publications against British oppression. He did not, however, believe that independence was the best way to secure these rights, and his reputation was damaged when he refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. Yet he was the only member of Congress to enlist to fight the British. He served as a colonel of the Pennsylvania militia (1776), as private in the Delaware militia (1777), and, in recognition of his service, was one of the few honorary members of the Society of the Cincinnati. He remained active in office, including serving in Congress (1779), as president of Delaware (1781) and Pennsylvania (1782-1785), chairman of the Annapolis Convention (1786), delegate from Delaware to the Constitutional Convention (1787), and president of the Delaware constitutional convention (1792). In retirement he continued to publish on political and religious issues and served as informal advisor to Democratic-Republican statesmen, including President Thomas Jefferson.
Dickinson was also an abolitionist and a philanthropist. The only major founder to liberate his large number of slaves, he also wrote abolition legislation for Delaware. He gave money and assets to establish institutions such as Dickinson College, Westtown Friends School, and the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, the first prison reform society in the West. His remains are interred in the burial ground of Wilmington Friends Meeting.
Biography by Jane E. Calvert (University of Kentucky), Director and Editor of the John Dickinson Writings Project and author of Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009)