It’s one thing to talk about fighting for liberty. It’s another thing to put your money where your mouth is.
John Dickinson did just that.
Despite his refusal to sign the Declaration of Independence, he was one of the few members of the First or Second Continental Congresses to take up arms in the American Revolution.
Dickinson is known as the “Penman of the Revolution.” In the years leading up to independence, he was one of the strongest and most eloquent voices in support of the rights and liberties of the colonists. In the early days of the conflict between the American colonists and the British, Dickinson insisted that they needed to “oppose a disease at its beginning,” before the sickness could spread.
In late 1767, he published a series of essays now known as Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania in a local newspaper, vigorously opposing the Declaratory and Townshend Acts. They were the most widely-read documents on American liberty until the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in 1776.
Dickinson warned that failure to confront this assertion of British power then and there would lead to dire consequences and loss of liberty down the road. In the sixth Letter, he argued that letting the government take on even a little bit of new power would eventually lead to bigger and bigger usurpations in the future.
“All artful rulers, who strive to extend their power beyond its just limits, endeavor to give to their attempts as much semblance of legality as possible. Those who succeed them may venture to go a little further; for each new encroachment will be strengthened by a former. ‘That which is now supported by examples, growing old, will become an example itself,’ and thus support fresh usurpations.”
But years later, even as the Second Continental Congress was contemplating declaring independence from Great Britain, Dickinson still favored a policy of reconciliation. He didn’t believe the time was ripe for independence. He thought Congress should complete articles of confederation and develop foreign alliances before formally declaring independence.
And those three items were just what was approved by Congress with passage of the Lee Resolution on July 2, 1776.
According to historian Jane Calvert, Dickinson’s unwillingness to support independence also stemmed from his doubts that “Americans could secure basic rights as well as they were already secured—or were likely to be secured—under the British constitution.”
With his Quaker roots, Dickinson was also wary of using violence to settle disputes.
When votes on independence came up on July 2, 1776, Dickinson absented himself, along with fellow Pennsylvania delegate Robert Morris, to preserve unanimity. He also refused to sign the completed Declaration.
Dickinson knew that his reputation would likely take a hit for taking this stand. He stood before Congress and said, “My conduct this day, I expect will give the finishing blow to my once too great, and (my integrity considered) now too diminished popularity.”
But instead, one of his fiercest opponents praised his integrity. John Adams said, “Mr. Dickinson’s alacrity and spirit certainly become his character and sets a fine example.”
Despite his reticence to declare independence at the time, Dickinson threw himself into the fight.
Dickinson had already organized the first battalion of troops raised in Philadelphia. In February 1776, he led a detachment of the so-called Accociators to support colonial troops in New York. His unit was assigned to the Flying Camp a mobile reserve that supported George Washington with around 10,000 men who could be called up to join the continentals holding New York City.
Just days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Dickinson resumed command and his regiment and marched to Elizabethtown, N.J. to help protect the area from a British incursion from Staten Island.
Due to Pennsylvania politics and his stand against independence, two men were promoted ahead of Dickinson, so he returned to Delaware with his family. He later re-enlisted as a private in the Kent County militia. His unit was called up along with other Delaware regiments when a British force under General Sir William Howe appeared in Maryland at the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay. Howe planned to march north to attack Philadelphia. During this defensive action, Dickinson’s company guarded the approaches to the Brandywine River.
Dickinson later served as a supplier for the Delaware Militia and was offered a commission as brigadier general in that capacity. He refused that commission as well.
In addition to his military service, Dickinson paid a personal price for independence. The British burned his Philadelphia home during the Battle of Germantown due to his principled stand during the march for independence.
While John Dickinson didn’t sign his name on the Declaration of Independence pledging his life, fortune and sacred honor in pursuit of liberty, he certainly put it all on the line anyway. He didn’t just talk about freedom and independence. He took action to achieve it.
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