While most people have never heard his name today, Founding Father John Dickinson was famous at the time of the Revolution. In 1767, he authored the 12 “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” in response to the hated Townshend Acts. 

These essays quickly became the most widely-read documents on American liberty, and remained that way for years until the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in 1776.

This work earned him the nickname “Penman of the Revolution.”  

Born Nov 13, 1732 – his writings spanning more than two decades are filled to the brim with principles and strategies we’d do well to follow much more today.

There are four key principles of the American Revolution that permeate his writing, and below, you can read through a few key quotes on each.

  1. Liberty
  2. Power
  3. Precedent
  4. People


For Dickinson and the Old Revolutionaries, liberty was, as Patrick Henry later noted, “the primary object.”

In 1776, he wrote that “Our liberties do not come from charters; for these are the declaration of pre-existing rights.”

Months after Lexington and Concord, Dickinson and Jefferson co-authored the Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms, which was unanimously approved by the 2nd Continental Congress on July 6, 1775. In it, they noted, that “our attachment to no Nation upon earth should supplant our attachment to liberty.”

And in the last of his Farmer letters, he summed up so much of the Revolution in one take:

Let these truths be indelibly impressed on our minds – that we cannot be HAPPY, without being FREE – that we cannot be free, without being secure in our property – that we cannot be secure in our property, if, without our consent, others may, as by right, take it away

Natural rights. Liberty. Property. Consent.


For Dickinson – like so many others at the time – people with power shouldn’t be trusted with that power. And this should be more and more obvious every single day.

“All artful rulers, who strive to extend their power beyond their just limits, endeavor to give to their attempts as much semblance of legality as possible.”

In other words, even knowing their acts are illegal, people in government will often just go ahead with it anyway, hoping to convince enough people that they’re legal, in order to get away with it.

Politicians, he observed, would also use every opportunity possible to “to deceive those whom they resolve to destroy, or oppress, by presenting to them a miserable picture of freedom, when the inestimable original is lost.”

And, of course, one of the best tools of tyrants is to keep the people fighting with each other – rather than opposing them:

“To divide and thus to destroy is the first political maxim in attacking those who are powerful by their union.”


With a perspective that seems to run counter to the views of most people today, what concerned Dickinson most about the growth of government power was actually the smallest infractions, rather than the largest. He viewed the latter as only likely to succeed after a long-train of precedents established by the former.

Rejecting the notion that the Townshend Acts represented just a “small” problem, he wrote the following:

Some persons may think this act of no consequence, because the duties are so small. A fatal error. That is the very circumstance most alarming to me. For I am convinced, that the authors of this law would never have obtained an act to raise so trifling a sum as it must do, had they not intended by it to establish a precedent for future use. To console ourselves with the smallness of the duties, is to walk deliberately into the snare that is set for us, praising the neatness of the workmanship.

This echoed his warning against compliance with the Stamp Act just 2 years earlier, since it would establish “the detestable precedent.”

THE Stamp Act, therefore, is to be regarded only as an EXPERIMENT OF YOUR DISPOSITION. If you quietly bend your Necks to that Yoke, you prove yourselves ready to receive any Bondage to which your Lords and Masters shall please to subject you.


Putting these principles together, Dickinson recognized that it was essential to “Oppose a Disease at its beginning,” as he noted in the Farmer Letters.

But opposing that disease, of course, didn’t mean putting the fate of one’s liberty in the hands of a politician or other government agent. A “Free people,” he noted, were not those who happened to have rulers that did the right thing. Instead, people are free only when they live in a society where government is so checked and controlled that any attempts to violate liberty are stopped at “the beginning.”

That’s why he noted that “A FREE people can never be too quick in observing, nor too firm in opposing the beginnings of alteration.”

Keeping the government in check is up to “the supreme sovereignty of the people.”


Yes, Dickinson sure did go with the ALL-CAPS there, too.

Ultimately, it’s up to the people to protect and defend their own constitution and their own liberty – whether the government wants them to, or not.

The 10th Amendment

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”



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