Last updated: October 15, 2021
John Dickinson, often referred to as the “penman of the Revolution”, was the most influential of the Founders to come from Delaware. A man of immense intellect, literary skill, and contradictory beliefs, he embodied a principled stand for the respect of the rights of American colonists, while stepping back from declaring independence or fighting the British Empire. As such, he represents a feeling that was prevalent in many of the Mid-Atlantic and Southern colonies in the first half the of American Revolution, and the early part of the War of Independence.
Dickinson was born in November of 1732 in the colony of Maryland, into a family that had been solidly Quaker until John’s father, Samuel Dickinson, broke with his congregation over his daughter’s marriage to an Anglican man. Though John would attend Quaker services on and off throughout his life, and espoused many Quaker beliefs, he would not become an official member of any Quaker meeting as an adult. As he matured, Dickinson studied law first in Philadelphia, and then later for three years in London. This legal education, combined with his Quaker-influenced beliefs, would serve as the intellectual foundation for much of his later philosophy and writing.
Upon returning from Britain, he was admitted to the Philadelphia bar in 1757, and officially began his legal career. It was just a decade later, when Dickinson, in his mid-30s, rose to prominence for his opposition to the Townshend Acts. Passed by the British Parliament between 1767-1768, the Townshend Acts imposed a number of duties on goods imported into the American colonies and were an attempt to plug a massive financial hole in the British Empire’s budget, generated by the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian War in North America). Dickinson wrote one of his most famous works, Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, in reaction to the acts, plugging into a sentiment that was growing across the colonies, that Parliament, 3,000 miles away in London, was overreaching its authority and trampling on colonial rights and privileges. Dickinson argued that while Parliament had the right to regulate trade in the Empire, it did not have the right to raise revenue through taxing the colonies, and that if the colonists accepted the Townshend Acts, then Parliament would only be emboldened to push further. His work brought Dickinson widespread acclaim, and Letters was reprinted in newspapers throughout the colonies.
In 1770 Dickinson married Mary “Polly” Norris, herself the daughter of a wealthy Quaker family, and the owner of one of the largest libraries in the colonies. Though steeped in Quaker beliefs, as mentioned before, Dickinson himself never officially joined a Quaker meeting, and so he and Norris were married in a civil ceremony. Combined, the couple became one of the wealthiest families in the American colonies, and owned several residences in both Pennsylvania and Delaware, including the plantation which bears John Dickinson’s name to this day, were the couple had both free and enslaved labor working the fields.
It is the contradiction between this willingness to enslave people, and yet at the same time, so eloquently write on the concepts of freedom, liberty, and justice that makes Dickinson one of the more controversial and fascinating figures of the Founding generation. Dickinson’s career would bring him to positions of power and influence, including serving as one of Delaware’s delegates to both the First and Second Continental Congresses. It was at the Second Continental Congress, from 1775-1776, that Dickinson established his opposition to the Declaration of Independence. He made a stand, based on his principles, that while the American colonies had the right to seek redress for their grievances, and even to defend themselves from military action by the British army seeking to impose Parliament’s will, they did not have the right to separate themselves from the Empire. After the Declaration was passed, Dickinson retired to his plantation in Kent County, Delaware, and though he would serve in the Delaware militia as a private, he did not see combat during the rest of the War of Independence.
Dickinson remained influential however and did not shy from public life. He was appointed a delegate to the Continental Congress once more in 1779, and it was during this term that he signed the Articles of Confederation, which he had helped to author back in 1776. Later, starting in 1782, he served as the President of Pennsylvania, the precursor office to the Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania which was established in 1790, for three years, helping to diffuse political tensions, especially towards the end of the War of Independence. It was also during this period that Dickinson began to slowly emancipate the enslaved people who worked on his Delaware plantation. Though he faced some backlash in Delaware, and the manumission was only gradual, meaning that there would still be enslaved people on his estate for some years afterwards, these actions meant that Dickinson became the only Founder to emancipate his enslaved workforce during the Revolutionary years between 1776-1786.
Dickinson would go on to serve as a delegate in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, arguing for a strong centralized government. In his later years Dickinson revised the manumission of his enslaved workers, so that all were freed shortly before his death in 1808. During this time he also wrote openly in support of the abolition movement, and like many of the Founders, saw the gradual end of slavery as an institution in the United States as inevitable. They also funded the college which would eventually bear their name, Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.John Dickinson is a figure that embodies so much of the often-contradictory truths of the Founders. He was a man of immense intellect, strong work ethic, and dearly held beliefs about freedom and liberty. Yet he also enslaved human beings, profiting from their labor and time. Without the wealth generated from this slavery, his legacy would have almost certainly not been as great. As such, Dickinson is an excellent lens through which we can examine and study the rest of the Founders, as well as the millions of everyday people who made up the Revolutionary generations.
You can learn more about John Dickinson, his influence and work, as well as his family and all the people, both enslaved and free, who worked for him, at the John Dickinson Plantation, one of the six sites that makes up First State National Historical Park. Please visit the John Dickinson Plantation website for more information.
- How does the fact that John Dickinson enslaved Black Americans and profited from their labor impact your view on his writings and beliefs? Can someone truly believe in “freedom and liberty”, and enslave others at the same time? Why or why not?
- What do you see as Dickinson’s legacy on the United States? What aspect is the most influential?
- What factors do you think went into Dickinson’s choice not to sign the Declaration of Independence? Do you agree or disagree with his reasoning?
- Calvert, Jane E. “Liberty Without Tumult: Understanding the Politics of John Dickinson.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 131, no. 3 (2007): 233–62. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20093948.
- Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc, 2005.
- Reed, Paula, and Edith Wallace. 2019. A Historic Saga of Settlement and Nation Building: First State National Historical Park Historic Resource Study. New Castle, DE: National Park Service.