Best known today for his refusal to vote for independence, John Dickinson (November 13, 1732 - February 14, 1808) was among the most influential leaders in the Continental Congress. Born into a wealthy slave-owning family, Dickinson was raised in Maryland and Delaware and studied law at the Inns of Court in London. Following his marriage to Mary Norris, a wealthy Pennsylvania Quaker heiress, Dickinson practiced law in Philadelphia. Alarmed by British policy toward the Colonies, Dickinson's writings and entry into politics thrust him to prominence as a leading spokesman in the struggle for independence. As author of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies,1 Dickinson attained an international reputation as a spokesman for colonial rights.
In the 1774 meetings of the First Continental Congress, Dickinson vied with John Adams for influence among the delegates.2 Dickinson emerged as leader of the moderate faction favoring reconciliation with Britain, while Adams emerged as leader of the radical faction arguing for immediate independence.
The 1775 meetings of the Second Continental Congress saw Dickinson’s influence wane while that of John Adams, now joined by Thomas Jefferson, increased.3 Nonetheless, Dickinson collaborated with Jefferson in the summer of 1775 to draft "A Declaration by the Representatives of the United Colonies of North America now met in Congress at Philadelphia setting forth the Causes and Necessity of their taking up Arms."4 Jefferson’s draft and Dickinson’s additions foreshadow Jefferson’s arguments in the Declaration of Independence.5 In a final bid to advance reconciliation, Dickinson’s Olive Branch Petition was mooted by King George III’s Proclamation of Rebellion. In 1776, as the Colonial delegates received instructions to vote for independence and with Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence lying on the table, Dickinson, fearing a lack of allies and the absence of a central government would render the Colonies helpless, made a final plea arguing “To escape the protection of Great Britain by declaring independence, unprepared as we are would be to brave a storm in a skiff made of paper.”6 Dickinson abstained from voting for independence and refused to approve the Declaration.
Following independence, Dickinson devoted his energies to ensuring the success of the new nation. Dickinson enlisted in the Continental Army, freed his slaves, represented Delaware in the Confederation Congress, served as President (Governor) of Delaware and Pennsylvania, partnered with Benjamin Rush to found Dickinson College, chaired the Annapolis Convention and played a key role in the drafting and ratification of the Constitution.7
From their first meeting in 1775 through his death in 1808, Dickinson served as an informal advisor to Jefferson, particularly regarding new federal laws, diplomatic relations with Russia and establishing the boundaries and legal status of the Louisiana Territory. On learning of Dickinson’s death Jefferson wrote: “Among the first 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.”8
1. Dickinson’s twelve Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies, originally printed in the Pennsylvania Chronicle between 1767 and 1768, were published in pamphlet form throughout the American colonies, England, and France. The pamphlet edition included the verses of "The Liberty Song” written by Dickinson to the tune of "Hearts of Oak," which became a popular rallying cry throughout colonial America.
2. John Adams’s diary entries from 1774-1776 underscore his discontentment with Dickinson’s conciliatory approach to Britain. A July 24, 1775 letter from Adams to James Warren (President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress), containing Adams's damning comments about Dickinson and the Olive Branch Petition, was intercepted by the British and published in Boston and London, causing a permanent alienation between the two men.
3. The 1774 publication of Jefferson’s A Summary View of the Rights of British America thrust him onto the national stage, eclipsing Dickinson’s place as spokesman for colonial rights.
4. Jefferson later described himself as Dickinson’s “junior companion of his labors in the early part of our revolution." See Jefferson to Joseph Bringhurst, February 24, 1808; transcription available at Founders Online.
5. See "Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms [26 June - 6 July 1775]." Transcription available in Founders Online. Link includes editorial note, Jefferson's composition draft, Jefferson's fair copy for the committee, John Dickinson's composition draft, and the Declaration as adopted by Congress.
6. "Speech of John Dickinson Opposing the Declaration of Independence, 1 July, 1776," in J. H. Powell, "Notes and Documents," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 65, no. 4 (1941): 470. While Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence, Dickinson was drafting the Articles of Confederation, which were approved by the Continental Congress July 12, 1776.
7. John Dickinson, "The Letters of Fabius, in 1788, on the Federal Constitution" in Pamphlets on the Constitution of the United States, ed. Paul Leicester Ford (New York: 1888), 163-216. Writing under the pseudonym Fabius, Dickinson’s essays in support of ratification of the Constitution were published widely.
8. Jefferson to Joseph Bringhurst, February 24, 1808. Transcription available at Founders Online.