John Dickinson is among America’s “Forgotten Founders.” Despite authoring the most widely-read documents on American liberty before 1776, representing Pennsylvania at the Second Continental Congress, and being a primary author of the Articles of Confederation, many people have no idea who he was. 

One of the reasons he’s less well known is because he’s one of the most difficult to understand for both historians as well as ordinary Americans. Though a tireless advocate for the colonies, and an ardent opponent of British tyrannical actions to the point he was dubbed “the Penman of the Revolution,” he nevertheless refused to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Even at the time, his decision drew outrage from his peers, especially John Adams. Since then, his legacy has been pushed aside in favor of other founders such as Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson.

In “Liberty Without Tumult: Understanding the Politics of John Dickinson,” University of Kentucky associate professor of history Jane E. Calvert seeks to contextualize his decision-making in keeping with Quaker political philosophy.

It’s important to clarify a potential point of confusion for modern Americans. In 1776, it was possible to support resistance to British tyranny in the American colonies, but not call for separation from England. In fact, initially, the Revolution was not for independence from England, but to regain colonial rights under the unwritten British constitution.

Until the Declaration of Independence was signed, the war was more accurately described as a rebellion or a revolt, but not a revolution.

Calvert writes that “the confusion over Dickinson’s politics hinges on two seminal and apparently contradictory moments—the publication of the Farmer’s Letters and his refusal to support the Declaration of Independence. This lack of understanding has been as much on our part as on that of Dickinson’s contemporaries.”

The focus on his refusal to support independence is likely due to the fact that almost everything else he did leading up to that moment was harmonious with the prevailing attitude among many other founders, if not more so. 

Calvert writes that when the Continental Congress issued “A Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms” after General Gage offered amnesty to those who surrendered and gave up their arms, the tone and language of Dickinson’s draft was much harsher than that of Jefferson’s.

According to 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.”

Further, after the vote was taken in favor of independence, Dickinson was one of the few delegates to actually take up arms and fight on the front line.

Another reason is that prior to the vote for independence he had written the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania in 1767, which were the most widely-read papers on American liberty up until the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in early 1776.

Calver notes they were “heralded by his contemporaries and by historians as one of the greatest pieces of writing in the revolutionary era and the one that served to unite the colonists against Britain as never before. With its publication, he became America’s first political hero.”

But, his perceived about-face baffles historians, Calvert writes, because “they have not understood the cultural and intellectual tradition in which he was thinking or the theory it produced. They have looked only at the result of his writings and his actions and have ignored the ‘connotative context’ of his work—the ‘supporting lore’ that defined his world, his words, and his intentions.”

Calvert argues it is impossible to understand Dickinson without also understanding core Quaker beliefs. Although not a Quaker in 1776, Dickinson was married to a Quaker and had many Quaker friends. As a result, his values were very much in line with Quaker thinking. But there was a major point of divergence between his ideals and the Quaker religion – Dickinson believed violence could be justified – at times.

Nevertheless, Dickinson seemed to embrace the Quaker view of government and how Christians should respond to injustice. 

Calvert writes:

“Quakers believed that a constitution—which included the founding principles of government, the laws, and the government itself—was ordained by God and therefore sacred. But in spite of the sanctity of the constitution, it was not static; rather, it was constantly evolving because it was sacred. The reason for this sacred flexibility was that the constitution was created and continually discerned by the people—all the people—through the direction of God. Because man was fallible and God did not reveal his will all at once, change was a fundamental aspect of Quaker constitutionalism.

“Thus, although it was sacred and therefore perpetual, the constitution was also amendable as God gave man greater insight into his will and man fixed his earlier mistakes. By contrast, while most Englishmen acknowledged that constitutional change took place, they all agreed that it was dangerous and generally undesirable.”

Put simply, Quakers permitted reform within the existing government, but not its overthrow. It allowed dissent, but not in a way that undermined the foundation of the system itself.

“Quaker theory was embodied in action – their revelatory process for legal discernment and peaceful redress of grievances,” Calvert writes.

The problem is that the English system had no formal process that allowed Quakers to express this philosophy. In response, Quakers utilized civil disobedience to bring about desired change. Though Dickinson was not a pacifist, his “Quaker sensibilities” (to borrow a line from the John Adams miniseries) did not condone a complete overthrow of the existing English constitution. 

Dickinson drew intense criticism for his decision, and was later forced to justify himself before the Pennsylvania Council of Safety. Calvert cites a letter Dickinson penned to an unknown person in August 1776, in which he defended his decision as an act of principle and not, as some at the time believed, due to pressure from his Quaker companions:

What can be more evident than that I have acted on Principle? Was there a Man in Pennsylvania, that possessed a larger share of the public Confidence…than I did? Or that had a more certain Prospect of personal advantages from Independency, or of a smaller chance of advantages from Reconciliation? . . . I knew most assuredly & publicly declared in Congress that I should lose a great Part of my popularity and all the benefits of an artful, or what some would call a prudent Man, might coin it into—I despised them, when to be purchased only by violation of my Conscience—I should have been a Villain, if I had spoken and voted differently from what I did—for I should have spoken & voted differently from what I judged to be for the Interest of my Country. . . . While I was there voluntarily & deliberately, step by step, sacrificing my Popularity . . . what would be my object & whom was I trying to please? The Proprietary People are known to be & to have been uniformly my deadly foes throughout my Life. Was it to please the People called Quakers? Allow it— What was I to obtain by pleasing them? All things were converging to a Revolution in which they would have little Power. Besides, I had as much displeased quieted them by other measures I took as I did others by opposing the Declaration of Independence.[Emphasis added]

At the same time, Calvert contemplates to what extent Dickinson’s vote represented meaningful opposition to independence. Rather than vote against it, he merely abstained. Also, before the vote was even cast, he was already raising troops in Pennsylvania, and drafting the Articles of Confederation in preparation for an independent government as called for by the Lee Resolution.

One could argue that had he truly believed independence was against his values, his involvement in the war would have ended there. Yet, as Calvert notes, it’s difficult to see his abstention as anything other than an act of principle, for it didn’t completely satisfy his Quaker friends, and it tarnished his public perception. It’s quite possible had he voted in favor he would be much better known today.

Calvert concludes that “his priority was always the preservation of American liberties by the surest means.” 

She notes that he continued along that path whether it was a popular approach or not.

“Dickinson’s record, when situated in the context of his culture, reflects not hesitancy, indecisiveness, or pessimism, but unambiguous resolve in favor of peace, freedom, and unity – and caution lest these things be lost in the heat of passion. Furthermore, as the religious dissenters he followed, he chose derision and infamy rather than admiration and popularity.”

Principle over popularity is something we’d do well to follow much more today.

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