JOHN DICKINSON (November 8, 1732 – February 14, 1808), a Founding
Father of the
United States , was a solicitor and politician from
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and
Wilmington, Delaware known as the
"Penman of the Revolution" for his twelve Letters from a Farmer in
Pennsylvania , published individually in 1767 and 1768. As a member of
Continental Congress , where he was a signee to the
Continental Association , Dickinson drafted most of the 1774 Petition
to the King , and then as a member of the Second Continental Congress
wrote the 1775
Olive Branch Petition , two attempts to negotiate with
King George III of Great Britain . When these failed, he reworked
Thomas Jefferson 's language and wrote the final draft of the 1775
Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms . When
Congress then decided to seek independence, Dickinson served on the
committee that wrote the
Model Treaty , and then wrote the first draft
of the 1776–1777
Articles of Confederation and
Perpetual Union .
Dickinson later served as President of the 1786 Annapolis Convention
, which called for the Constitutional Convention of 1787 , which
Dickinson then attended as a delegate from
He also wrote "
The Liberty Song " in 1768, was a militia officer
American Revolution , President of Delaware, President of
Pennsylvania, and was among the wealthiest men in the British American
colonies. Upon Dickinson's death, President Thomas Jefferson
recognized him as being "Among the first of the advocates for the
rights of his country when assailed by Great Britain whose "name will
be consecrated in history as one of the great worthies of the
Together with his wife,
Mary Norris Dickinson , he is the namesake of
Dickinson College (originally John and Mary's College), as well as of
Dickinson School of Law of
Pennsylvania State University and the
Delaware 's Dickinson Complex.
John Dickinson High
School was opened/dedicated in 1959 as part of the public schools in
* 1 Family history
* 2 Early life and family
* 4 Return to Poplar Hall
* 5 Drafting of the
Articles of Confederation
* 6 President of
* 7 President of
* 8 John and Mary\'s College
United States Constitution
* 10 Death and legacy
* 11 Almanac
* 12 In popular culture
* 13 Notes
* 14 References
* 15 Sources
* 16 External links
Coat of Arms of
Dickinson was born at Croisadore, his family's tobacco plantation
near the village of Trappe in
Talbot County, Maryland . He was the
great-grandson of Walter Dickinson who emigrated from
Virginia in 1654 and, having joined the Society of Friends , came with
several co-religionists to Talbot County on the Eastern Shore of the
Chesapeake Bay in 1659. There, with 400 acres (1.6 km2) on the banks
Choptank River , Walter began a plantation, Croisadore, meaning
"cross of gold." Walter also bought 800 acres (3.2 km2) on St. Jones
Neck in what became Kent County,
Croisadore passed through Walter's son, William, to his grandson,
Samuel, the father of John Dickinson. Each generation increased the
landholdings, so that Samuel inherited 2,500 acres (1,000 ha) on five
farms in three
Maryland counties and over his lifetime increased that
to 9,000 acres (3,600 ha). He also bought the Kent County property
from his cousin and expanded it to about 3,000 acres (1,200 ha),
stretching along the
St. Jones River from Dover to the
Delaware Bay .
There he began another plantation and called it Poplar Hall . These
plantations were large, profitable agricultural enterprises worked by
slave labor , until 1777 when
John Dickinson freed the enslaved of
Samuel Dickinson first married Judith Troth (1689–1729) on April
11, 1710. They had nine children; William, Walter, Samuel, Elizabeth,
Henry, Elizabeth "Betsy," Rebecca, and Rachel. The three eldest sons
died of smallpox while in London seeking their education. Widowed,
with two young children, Henry and Betsy, Samuel married Mary
Cadwalader in 1731. She was the daughter of Martha Jones
Dr. Thomas Wynne ) and the prominent Quaker John
Cadwalader who was also grandfather of General John Cadwalader of
Philadelphia. Their sons, John, Thomas, and Philemon were born in the
next few years.
For three generations the Dickinson family had been members of the
Third Haven Friends Meeting in Talbot County and the Cadwaladers were
members of the Meeting in Philadelphia. But in 1739, John Dickinson's
half-sister, Betsy, was married in an Anglican church to Charles
Goldsborough in what was called a "disorderly marriage" by the
Meeting. The couple would be the grandparents of
Charles Goldsborough .
Leaving Croisadore to elder son Henry Dickinson, Samuel moved to
Poplar Hall, where he had already taken a leading role in the
community as Judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Kent County. The
move also placed Mary nearer her
Poplar Hall was situated on a now-straightened bend of the St. Jones
River . There was plenty of activity delivering the necessities, and
shipping the agricultural products produced. Much of this product was
wheat that along with other wheat from the region, was milled into a
"superfine" flour. Most people at this plantation were servants and
slaves of the Dickinsons.
EARLY LIFE AND FAMILY
Dickinson was educated at home, by his parents and by recent
immigrants employed for that purpose. Among them was the Presbyterian
Francis Alison , who later established New London Academy in
Pennsylvania . Most important was his tutor, William
Killen , who became a lifelong friend and who later became
Delaware’s first Chief Justice and Chancellor . Dickinson was
precocious and energetic, and in spite of his love of Poplar Hall and
his family, was drawn to Philadelphia.
At 18 he began studying the law under
John Moland in Philadelphia.
There he made friends with fellow students George Read and Samuel
Wharton , among others. By 1753, John went to London for three years
of study at the
Middle Temple . He spent those years studying the
Edward Coke and
Francis Bacon at the
Inns of Court ,
following in the footsteps of his lifelong friend, Pennsylvania
Benjamin Chew , and in 1757 was admitted to the
Pennsylvania Bar beginning his career as barrister and solicitor.
On July 19, 1770, Dickinson married Mary Norris , known as Polly, a
prominent and well educated thirty-year-old woman in
a substantial holding of real estate and personal property (including
a 1500 volume library, one of the largest in the colonies at the time)
who had been operating her family's estate, Fair Hill, for a number of
years by herself or with her sister. She was the daughter of a wealthy
Philadelphia Quaker, and Speaker of the
Pennsylvania General Assembly,
Isaac Norris and Sarah Logan, the daughter of James Logan , both
deceased. She was also cousin to the Quaker poet
Hannah Griffitts .
Dickinson and Norris had five children, but only two survived to
adulthood: Sarah Norris "Sally" Dickinson and Maria Mary Dickinson.
Dickinson never formally joined the Quaker Meeting, because, as he
explained, he believed in the "lawfulness of defensive war". He and
Norris were married in a civil ceremony.
In Philadelphia, he lived at his wife's property, Fair Hill, near
Germantown , which they modernized through their combined wealth.
Meanwhile, he built an elegant mansion on Chestnut Street but never
lived there as it was confiscated and turned into a hospital during
his 1776–77 absence in Delaware. It then became the residence of
the French ambassador and still later the home of his brother,
Philemon Dickinson. Fair Hill was burned by the British during the
Battle of Germantown . While in
Philadelphia as State President, he
lived at the confiscated mansion of
Joseph Galloway at Sixth and
Market Streets, now established as the State Presidential mansion.
Dickinson lived at Poplar Hall, for extended periods only in
1776–77 and 1781–82. In August 1781 it was sacked by Loyalists and
was badly burned in 1804. This home is now owned by the State of
Delaware and is open to the public. After his service as President of
Pennsylvania, he returned to live in
Wilmington, Delaware in 1785 and
built a mansion at the northwest corner of 8th and Market Streets.
Dickinson was one of
Pennsylvania delegates to the First Continental
Congress in 1774 and the Second
Continental Congress in 1775 and 1776.
In support of the cause, he continued to contribute declarations in
the name of the Congress. Dickinson wrote the
Olive Branch Petition as
the Second Continental Congress' last attempt for peace with Britain
(King George III did not even read the petition). But through it all,
agreeing with New Castle County 's George Read and many others in
Philadelphia and the Lower Counties , Dickinson's object was
reconciliation, not independence and revolution. He was a proud
devotee of the
British Constitution and felt the dispute was with
Continental Congress began the debate on the Declaration of
Independence on July 1, 1776, Dickinson reiterated his opposition to
declaring independence at that time. Dickinson believed that Congress
should complete the
Articles of Confederation and secure a foreign
alliance before issuing a declaration. Dickinson also objected to
violence as a means for resolving the dispute. He abstained or
absented himself from the votes on July 2 that declared independence
and absented himself again from voting on the wording of the formal
Declaration on July 4. Dickinson understood the implications of his
refusal to vote stating, "My conduct this day, I expect will give the
finishing blow to my once too great and, my integrity considered, now
too diminished popularity." Dickinson refused to sign the Declaration
and since a proposal had been brought forth and carried that stated,
"for our mutual security and protection," no man could remain in
Congress without signing, Dickinson voluntarily left and joined the
Following the Declaration of Independence , Dickinson was given the
rank of brigadier general in the
Pennsylvania militia, known as the
Associators . He led 10,000 soldiers to
Elizabeth, New Jersey , to
protect that area against British attack from
Staten Island . But
because of his unpopular opinion on independence, two junior officers
were promoted above him.
RETURN TO POPLAR HALL
Dickinson resigned his commission in December 1776 and went to stay
at Poplar Hall in Kent County. While there he learned that his home on
Chestnut Street in
Philadelphia had been confiscated and converted
into a hospital. He stayed at Poplar Hall for more than two years. The
Delaware General Assembly tried to appoint him as their delegate to
Continental Congress in 1777, but he refused. In August 1777 he
served as a private with the Kent county Militia at Middletown ,
Delaware under General
Caesar Rodney to help delay General William
Howe 's march to Philadelphia. In October 1777, Dickinson's friend,
Thomas McKean , appointed him Brigadier General of the Delaware
Militia, but again Dickinson declined the appointment. Shortly
afterwards he learned that the British had burned down his and his
wife's Fairhill property during the Battle of Germantown.
These years were not without accomplishment however. In 1777,
Dickinson, Delaware's wealthiest farmer and largest slaveholder,
decided to free his slaves. While Kent County was not a large
slave-holding area, like farther south in Virginia, and even though
Dickinson had only 37 slaves, this was an action of some considerable
courage. Undoubtedly, the strongly abolitionist Quaker influences
around them had their effect, and the action was all the easier
because his farm had moved away from tobacco to the less
labor-intensive crops like wheat and barley. Furthermore, manumission
was a multi-year process and many of the workers remained obligated to
service for a considerable additional time.
Dickinson was the only founding father to free his slaves in the
period between 1776 and 1786.
Benjamin Franklin had freed his slaves
DRAFTING OF THE ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION
Dickinson prepared the first draft of the Articles of Confederation
in 1776, after others had ratified the Declaration of Independence
over his objection that it would lead to violence, and to follow
through on his view that the colonies would need a governing document
to survive war against them.
At the time he chaired the committee charged with drafting the
Articles Dickinson was serving in the
Continental Congress as a
delegate from Pennsylvania. The
Articles of Confederation he drafted
are based around a concept of "person", not "man" as was used in the
Declaration of Independence, although they do refer to "men" in the
context of armies.
PRESIDENT OF DELAWARE
Dickinson as President of Delaware.
On January 18, 1779, Dickinson was appointed to be a delegate for
Delaware to the Continental Congress. During this term he signed the
Articles of Confederation, having in 1776 authored their first draft
while serving in the
Continental Congress as a delegate from
Pennsylvania. In August 1781, while still a delegate in Philadelphia
he learned that Poplar Hall had been severely damaged by a Loyalist
raid. Dickinson returned to the property to investigate the damage and
once again stayed for several months.
While there, in October 1781, Dickinson was elected to represent Kent
County in the State Senate, and shortly afterwards the Delaware
General Assembly elected him the President of Delaware. The General
Assembly's vote was nearly unanimous, the only dissenting vote having
been cast by Dickinson himself. Dickinson took office on November 13,
1781 and served until November 7, 1782. Beginning his term with a
"Proclamation against Vice and Immorality," he sought ways to bring an
end to the disorder of the days of the Revolution. It was a popular
position and enhanced his reputation both in
Pennsylvania. Dickinson then successfully challenged the Delaware
General Assembly to address lagging militia enlistments and to
properly fund the state’s assessment to the Confederation
government. And recognizing the delicate negotiations then underway to
American Revolution , Dickinson secured the Assembly's
continued endorsement of the French alliance, with no agreement on a
separate peace treaty with Great Britain. He also introduced the first
However, as before, the lure of
Pennsylvania politics was too great.
On October 10, 1782, Dickinson was elected to the Supreme Executive
Council of Pennsylvania. On November 7, 1782 a joint ballot by the
Council and the
Pennsylvania General Assembly elected him as president
of the Council and thereby President of Pennsylvania. But he did not
actually resign as State President of Delaware. Even though
Delaware had shared the same governor until very
recently, attitudes had changed, and many in
Delaware were upset at
seemingly being cast aside so readily, particularly after the
Philadelphia newspapers began criticizing the state for allowing the
practice of multiple and non resident office holding. Dickinson’s
constitutional successor, John Cook , was considered too weak in his
support of the Revolution, and it was not until January 12, 1783, when
Cook called for a new election to choose a replacement, that Dickinson
DELAWARE GENERAL ASSEMBLY
(sessions while President)
Nicholas Van Dyke
PRESIDENT OF PENNSYLVANIA
American Revolution began, Dickinson fairly represented the
Pennsylvania politics. The old Proprietary and Popular
parties divided equally in thirds over the issue of independence, as
Loyalists, Moderate Whigs who later became Federalists , and Radicals
or Constitutionalists. The old
Pennsylvania General Assembly was
dominated by the Loyalists and Moderates and, like Dickinson, did
little to support the burgeoning Revolution or independence, except
protest. The Radicals took matters into their own hands, using
irregular means to write the
Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, which
by law excluded from the franchise anyone who would not swear loyalty
to the document or the Christian Holy Trinity. In this way all
Loyalists, Moderate Whigs, and Quakers were kept out of government.
This peremptory action seemed appropriate to many during the crises of
1777 and 1778, but less so in the later years of the Revolution, and
the Moderate Whigs gradually became the majority.
Dickinson's election to the Supreme Executive Council was the
beginning of a counterrevolution against the Constitutionalists. He
was elected President of
Pennsylvania on November 7, 1782, garnering
41 votes to
James Potter 's 32. As president he presided over the
intentionally weak executive authority of the state, and was its chief
officer, but always required the agreement of a majority to act. He
was re-elected twice and served the constitutional maximum of three
years; his election on November 6, 1783 was unanimous. On November 6,
1784 he defeated John Neville , who also lost the election for
Vice-President the same day. Working with only the smallest of
majorities in the General Assembly in his first two years and with the
Constitutionalists in the majority in his last year, all issues were
contentious. At first he endured withering attacks from his opponents
for his alleged failure to fully support the new government in large
and small ways. He responded ably and survived the attacks. He managed
to settle quickly the old boundary dispute with
southwestern Pennsylvania, but was never able to satisfactorily
disentangle disputed titles in the Wyoming Valley resulting from prior
Connecticut to those lands. An exhausted Dickinson left
office October 18, 1785. On that day a special election was held in
Benjamin Franklin was unanimously elected to serve the ten days
left in Dickinson's term.
Perhaps the most significant decision of his term was his patient,
peaceful management of the
Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783 . This was a
violent protest of
Pennsylvania veterans who marched on the
Continental Congress demanding their pay before being discharged from
the army. Somewhat sympathizing with their case, Dickinson refused
Congress's request to bring full military action against them, causing
Congress to vote to remove themselves to Princeton , New Jersey. And
when the new Congress agreed to return in 1790, it was to be for only
10 years, until a permanent capital was found elsewhere.
PENNSYLVANIA GENERAL ASSEMBLY
(sessions while President)
Frederick A. C. Muhlenberg
John Bubenheim Bayard
JOHN AND MARY\'S COLLEGE
In 1784, Dickinson and
Mary Norris Dickinson bequeathed much of their
combined library to John and Mary's College, named in their honor by
Benjamin Rush and later renamed
Dickinson College . The
Dickinsons also donated 500 acres (2 km²) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania,
land originally inherited and managed by Mary Norris , to the new
UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION
The Signing of the Constitution of the United States.
After his service in Pennsylvania, Dickinson returned to Delaware,
and lived in Wilmington. He was quickly appointed to represent
Delaware at the Annapolis Convention , where he served as its
President. In 1787,
Delaware sent him as one of its delegates to the
Constitutional Convention of 1787 , along with
Gunning Bedford, Jr.
Gunning Bedford, Jr. ,
Richard Bassett , George Read , and
Jacob Broom . There, he supported
the effort to create a strong central government but only after the
Great Compromise assured that each state, regardless of size, would
have an equal vote in the future
United States Senate . As he had done
with the Articles, he also carefully drafted it with the term "Person"
rather than "Man" as was used in the Declaration of Independence. He
prepared initial drafts of the First Amendment . Following the
Convention he promoted the resulting Constitution in a series of nine
essays, written under the pen name Fabius.
Delaware convened a convention to revise its existing
Constitution , which had been hastily drafted in 1776. Dickinson was
elected president of this convention, and although he resigned the
chair after most of the work was complete, he remained highly
influential in the content of the final document. Major changes
included the establishment of a separate Chancery Court and the
expansion of the franchise to include all taxpayers, except blacks and
women. Dickinson remained neutral in an attempt to include a
prohibition of slavery in the document, believing the General Assembly
was the proper place to decide that issue. The new Constitution was
approved June 12, 1792. Dickinson himself had freed his slaves
conditionally in 1776 and fully by 1787.
Once more Dickinson was returned to the State Senate for the 1793
session, but served for just one year before resigning due to his
declining health. In his final years, he worked to further the
abolition movement, and donated a considerable amount of his wealth to
the "relief of the unhappy". In 1801, Dickinson published two volumes
of his collected works on politics.
DEATH AND LEGACY
Dickinson died at
Wilmington, Delaware and was buried in the Friends
Burial Ground .
In an original copy of a letter discovered November 2009 from Thomas
Jefferson to Joseph Bringhurst, caretaker of Dickinson in his later
years, Jefferson responded to news of Dickinson's death: "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."
He shares with
Thomas McKean the distinction of serving as Chief
Executive of both
Pennsylvania after the Declaration of
Dickinson College and
Dickinson School of Law (now of
Pennsylvania State University ), separate institutions each
operating a campus located in Carlisle,
Pennsylvania , on land
inherited and managed by his wife Mary Norris , were named for them.
Dickinson College was originally named "John and Mary's College" but
was renamed to avoid an implication of royalty by confusion with
"William and Mary." And along with his Letters from a Farmer in
Pennsylvania , Dickinson also authored
The Liberty Song .
Dickinson Street in
Madison, Wisconsin is named in his honor, as is
John Dickinson High School in Milltown, Delaware, and Dickinson Hall
at the University of
Delaware elections were held October 1 and members of the General
Assembly took office on October 20 or the following weekday. The State
Legislative Council was created in 1776 and its Legislative Councilmen
had a three-year term. Beginning in 1792 it was renamed the State
Senate. State Assemblymen had a one-year term. The whole General
Assembly chose the State President for a three-year term.
Pennsylvania elections were held in October as well. Assemblymen had
a one-year term. The
Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council was
created in 1776, and counsellors were popularly elected for three-year
terms. A joint ballot of the
Pennsylvania General Assembly and the
Council chose the President from among the twelve Counsellors for a
one-year term. Both Assemblies chose the Continental Congressmen for a
one-year term as well as the delegates to the U.S. Constitution
October 20, 1759
October 20, 1760
October 20, 1760
October 20, 1761
October 7, 1765
October 19, 1765
Stamp Act Congress
August 2, 1774
October 26, 1774
March 16, 1775
October 21, 1775
October 21, 1775
November 7, 1776
January 18, 1779
December 22, 1779
December 22, 1779
February 10, 1781
October 20, 1781
November 13, 1781
November 13, 1781
November 7, 1782
November 4, 1782
October 18, 1785
May 14, 1787
September 17, 1787
November 29, 1791
June 12, 1792
January 6, 1793
January 6, 1794
DELAWARE GENERAL ASSEMBLY SERVICE
New Castle at-large
IN POPULAR CULTURE
Dickinson is a prominent character in the musical drama 1776 , billed
third after the parts of Adams and Franklin. He was originally
portrayed on stage by
Paul Hecht , and in the 1972 film adaptation by
Donald Madden .
Michael Cumpsty portrayed him in the 1997 revival. His
portrayal in this musical differs substantially from reality: instead
of abstaining from voting and debating, he acts as John Adams' primary
antagonist in the debates over independence, to the point where the
two men come to blows. His motivation in the musical is to convince
the delegates to come to peace terms with Britain, rather than to seek
reforms through civil disobedience and other nonviolent measures and
for the colonies to mature before seeking independence. Also his wife
Mary Norris does not appear in the musical at all, despite being
Philadelphia at the time, whereas
Abigail Adams and Martha
Jefferson are heavily depicted, despite being in Boston and Virginia,
respectively, at the time.
In Part II of the 2008
John Adams , based on the book by
David McCullough , the part of Dickinson is played by Zeljko Ivanek .
As portrayed in the 2015 miniseries
Sons of Liberty
Sons of Liberty Dickinson is
shown continually speaking out against prematurely fighting the
British and voting on the idea of a Declaration of Independence. He
suggests a request first be made from the
Continental Congress to the
King of England, in the form of the
Olive Branch Petition . The
program gives no indication that Dickinson would author the petition.
As the Congress votes on independence, the miniseries portrays
Dickinson getting up and leaving the room without explanation, and no
summary was given of his overall contributions to the American
Revolution or what would become of him later.
* ^ A B These are
Gregorian calendar dates. They are November 2 or
4 in the
Julian calendar .
* ^ A B "UD Library discovers
Thomas Jefferson letter". University
Delaware . December 3, 2009. Retrieved December 5, 2009.
* ^ Various sources indicate a birth date of November 8, November
12 or November 13, but his most recent biographer, Flower, offers
November 2 without dispute.
* ^ National Archives and Records Administration: "America\'s
Founding Fathers: Delegates to the Constitutional Convention."
* ^ The Duke of York Record 1646–1679, Printed by order of the
General Assembly of the State of Delaware, 1899
* ^ "John Dickinson: timeline". Historyhome.co.uk. January 5, 2011.
Retrieved September 12, 2012.
* ^ "History - University of Delaware". www.udel.edu. Retrieved
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* ^ Flower, Milton Embick (1983). John Dickinson: Conservative
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Newark, DE: University of
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978-0-87413-309-7 . Retrieved June 10, 2013.
* ^ McKenney, Janice E. (2012). Women of the Constitution: Wives of
* ^ "The Books of Isaac Norris at Dickinson College". The Dickinson
Electronic Initiative in the Liberal Arts. Retrieved February 10,
* ^ Butterfield, L.H. (1948).
Benjamin Rush and the Beginning of
John and Mary\'s College Over the Susquehanna. Oxford Journals:
Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. p. 427.
* ^ Ehrlich, Eugene and Gorton Carruth. The Oxford Illustrated
Literary Guide to the United States. New York: Oxford University
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John Dickinson at
Find a Grave
* ^ "Student finds letter \'a link to Jefferson\'". CNN.com.
December 8, 2009. Retrieved May 6, 2010.
* ^ "Odd Wisconsin Archives". Wisconsinhistory.org. March 29, 2006.
Retrieved September 12, 2012.
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John Dickinson – Conservative
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