In modern times, few recognize the name John Dickinson. Despite a lifetime of influence and accomplishment, he has truly become a figure overshadowed by other eighteenth century associates. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and others typically receive much more historical appreciation and prestige. Despite this trend, Dickinson was once one of the most famous people of the founding generation, and one of the most recognizable figures in Pennsylvania. A further investigation into Dickinson’s fight for liberty surely merits additional focus.
Known as the “Penman of the Revolution,” he endured a struggle that would tear at his ideological core and spur his political activism. Despite all adversity in front of him, Dickinson worked meticulously to produce a freer society. He did so while recognizing small strides were important ones.
Originally convinced that King George III would find a peaceful way to mediate the conflict between the colonies and the Parliament, Dickinson gradually sided with independence when the transgressions against the colonies became intolerable. In doing so, he grew to understand an essential truth: harsh criticism would be warranted, but such criticism would require equally substantive action to confront the offenses of government.
Once the Olive Branch Petition he wrote in 1775 failed to produce any hope for reconciliation, Dickinson faced the ruthless consequences of war. He watched as ships were positioned in New York Harbor, ready to strike the rebelling forces. He surveyed the subsequent occupation of New York City, and the military disaster at Long Island. As the British embarked upon the Pennsylvania campaign, he witnessed the absconding Continental Congress, forced to flee Philadelphia when threatened.
In fact, Dickinson lived in a world that fundamentally parallels our own. His reactions to that world appear today as prognostic reactions to our own.
In his time, Dickinson belonged to a state that was ruled by a far off power, which imposed purchase mandates on its products, invaded the privacy of its citizens, and occupied its biggest city with military forces. He witnessed a monarch reject the redress of grievances from the Continental Congress, and watched as Parliament vowed to bind the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” He observed a government that had become despondent, unchallenged, and beyond repair.
Each moment seemed disastrous. Every scenario seemed to favor the British. Each defeat wounded the rebelling states. Nonetheless, Dickinson crafted a response in order to obstruct the overreaching power, using calculated determination to actualize his goals.
Instead of agonizing in cynicism, Dickinson worked hard to win victories. Rejecting Delaware’s appointment to the Continental Congress in 1777, he instead served in his state’s militia. He drafted the Articles of Confederation in 1776, which would legally sanction the Confederation government and allow for a more cohesive wartime strategy. He was influential and respected in the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, and became an ardent supporter of the new constitutional model thereafter.
Before all of this, Dickinson realized that a grand victory could only become reality if minor victories were obtained through the hard work of individuals. Only through tough work and individual battles, not inane pessimism, would tyranny yield. To Dickinson, small victories were not insignificant. They were necessary advances.
Sharing his thoughts with Boston, Dickinson wrote a series of letters in the midst of the controversy of the Townshend Acts. In what is now known as the first Letter From a Pennsylvania Farmer, Dickinson criticized the inclination to bemoan treachery without the willingness to raise a hand against it:
“To divide and thus to destroy is the first political maxim in attacking those who are powerful by their union. He certainly is not a wise man who folds his arms and reposes himself at home, seeing with unconcern the flames that have invaded his neighbor’s house without using any endeavors to extinguish them.”
Dickinson realized that the path of anguish would be paved with inaction. Instead of dwelling in the agony and desolation of defeat, Dickinson suggested a wiser course of actions. He urged citizens to stand defiant against unjust laws that stripped them of liberty. He recognized that widespread rejection starts with individual rejection. “Small things grow great by concord,” he concluded.
Proving the impression he made years earlier, even some of Dickinson’s political opponents understood this concept. In the Federal Farmer writings, an opponent of the Constitution warned of the depravity that would be the inevitable result of inaction and endless negativity. The writer corroborates Dickinson’s view:
“This has been the custom of tyrants and their dependants in all ages. If it is true, what has been so often said, that the people of this country cannot change their condition for the worse, I presume it still behoves them to endeavour deliberately to change it for the better. The fickle and ardent, in any community, are the proper tools for establishing despotic government.”
As we can see, Dickinson’s foundational principle was once held as a universal truth.
Despite the adversity of his age, Dickinson cherished liberty and the gift it could bestow upon humanity. Dickinson was overjoyed as his state retained its own sovereignty after the great conflict of his time, recognizing its emergence as a free state. He freed his slaves in 1777, when it was often unpopular and unfeasible to do so. He left an impression in the hearts of his countrymen that should never be forgotten.
When Thomas Jefferson learned of John Dickinson’s death, he wrote this in consideration of his contributions:
“A more estimable man, or truer patriot, could not have left us. Among the first of the advocates for the rights of his country when assailed by Great Britain, he continued to the last the orthodox advocate of the true principles of our new government and his name will be consecrated in history as one of the great worthies of the revolution.”
Dickinson is important because his ideas are timeless. He lived in a world suffering through the same problems of our own, with the same challenges in front of him. He is not an antiquated remnant of history; he is our next door neighbor. The “Penman of the Revolution” is now more essential now than ever, because his words echo throughout the contemporary world.
In the liberty movement, we need less naysayers and more people like John Dickinson. Only then can we realize that the path to a free society is a painstaking and challenging one. We must follow Dickinson’s example, and contribute to that cause in ways that stretch beyond idle words. Like Dickinson did in his age, we must find ways to achieve each contributing victory in our own.
 Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania #1, in Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies, Edited by R.T.H. Halsey (New York: The Outlook Company, 1903), 11
 Letter from the Federal Farmer to the Republican #1, in The Complete Anti-Federalist, Volume I, Edited by Herbert J. Storing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 226.
 Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Bringhurst, February 24, 1808, in Charles Stille, The Life and Times of John Dickinson, 1732-1808 (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1891), 336-337.
Latest posts by Dave Benner (see all)
- Retired Supreme Court Justice Shows Danger of Trusting Federal Courts with Incorporation - August 10, 2015
- Edict and Oligarchy: The Modern Federal Judiciary - July 17, 2015
- Thomas Jefferson’s Legacy - July 4, 2015