John Dickinson

John Dickinson

November 8, 1732 – February 14, 1808

The leading opponent of John Adams in the debate upon the Declaration of Independence was John Dickinson, of Delaware–an honest, able, patriotic, but timid statesman. He was born in Maryland, in December, 1732, and educated in Delaware, to which province his parents removed soon after his birth.


He read law in Philadelphia, and resided three years in the Temple, London. After his return to America, he practiced law with success in Philadelphia. He was soon elected to the legislature of Pennsylvania, in which his superior qualifications as a speaker and a man of business gave him considerable influence. The attempts of the mother country upon the liberties of the colonies early awakened his attention. His first elaborate publication against the new policy of the British cabinet was printed at Philadelphia, in 1765, and entitled, The late Regulations respecting the British Colonies on the Continent of America considered. In that year he was deputed, by Pennsylvania, to attend the first Congress, held at New York, and prepared the draft of the bold resolutions of that Congress. In 1766 he published a spirited address on the same questions, to a committee of correspondence in Barbados. He next issued in Philadelphia, in 1767, his celebrated Farmer’s Letters to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies–a production which had a great influence in enlightening the American people on the subject of their rights, and preparing them for resistance. They were reprinted in London, with a preface by Doctor Franklin, and published in French, at Paris.

In 1774, Mr. Dickinson wrote the resolves of the committee of Pennsylvania, and their instructions to their representatives. These instructions formed a profound and extensive essay on the constitutional power of Great Britain over the colonies in America, and in that shape they were published by the committee. While in Congress, he wrote the Address to the Inhabitants of Quebec; the first Petition to the King; the Address to the Armies; the second Petition to the King, and the Address to the several States; all among the ablest state-papers of the time. As an orator, he had few superiors in that body. He penned the famous Declaration of the United Colonies of North America, (July 6, 1775;) but he opposed the declaration of independence, believing that compromise was still practicable, and that his countrymen were not yet ripe for a complete separation from Great Britain. This rendered him for a time so unpopular, that he withdrew from the public councils, and did not recover his seat in Congress until about two years afterward. He then returned, earnest in the cause of independence. His zeal was shown in the ardent address of Congress to the several States, of May, 1779, which he wrote and reported.

Mr. Dickinson was afterward president of the States of Pennsylvania and Delaware, successively; and, in the beginning of 1788, being alarmed by the hesitation of some States to ratify the constitution proposed by the federal convention the year before, he published, for the purpose of promoting its adoption, nine very able letters, under the signature of Fabius. This signature he again used in fourteen letters, published in 1797, the object of which was to produce a favorable feeling in the United States toward France, whose revolution he believed to be then at an end. Before the period last mentioned, he had withdrawn to private life, at Wilmington, in the State of Delaware, where he died, February 14, 1808. His retirement was spent in literary studies, in charitable offices and the exercise of an elegant hospitality. His conversation and manners were very attractive; his countenance and person, uncommonly fine. His public services were eminent: his writings have been justly described as copious, forcible and correct; sometimes eloquently rhetorical and vehement, and generally rich in historical references and classical quotations.

The patriotism of Mr. Dickinson was of that manly nature which does not permit the statesman to sanction a measure simply because it chances to be popular, but holds him to what seems to tend to the best interests of the country.

Source: Marshall, James V. The United States Manual of Biography and History. Philadelphia: James B. Smith & Co., 1856. Pages 143 and 144.



John Dickinson was an American lawyer and politician from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Wilmington, Delaware. He was a militia officer during the American Revolution, a Continental Congressman from Pennsylvania and Delaware, a delegate to the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, President of Delaware and President of Pennsylvania. Among the wealthiest men in the British American colonies, he is known as the “Penman of the Revolution” for his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania; upon receiving news of his 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 revolution.”[1] He is the namesake of Dickinson College and Penn State University’s Dickinson School of Law.


Family history

Dickinson was born[2] at Croisadore, his family’s tobacco plantation near the village of Trappe in Talbot County, Maryland.[3] He was the great grandson of Walter Dickinson who emigrated from England to 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 of the 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, Delaware. [4]

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 Poplar Hall.[5]

Samuel Dickinson first married Judith Troth on 11 April 1710. They had nine children; William, Walter, Samuel, Elizabeth, Henry, Elizabeth “Betsy,” Rebecca, Rachel 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 (Grand daughter of 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 Maryland governor 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 Philadelphia relations.

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. Included among them was the Presbyterian minister Francis Alison, who later established New London Academy in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Most important was William Killen, who became a life-long friend, and himself had a distinguished career as 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 works of Edward Coke and Francis Bacon at the Inns of Court following in the footsteps of his lifelong friend, Pennsylvania Attorney General Benjamin Chew,[citation needed] 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, the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker, and Speaker of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, Isaac Norris.[6] They 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.”

Already wealthy his marriage increased his wealth. In Philadelphia, he lived at the family estate of his wife, Fairhill, near Germantown. 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.[citation needed] It then became the residence of the French ambassador and still later the home of his brother, Philemon Dickinson. Fairhill 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.

Continental Congress

As events unfolded Dickinson was one of Pennsylvania’s 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. Among the most famous is one written with Thomas Jefferson, a Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, with Dickinson’s conclusion that Americans were “resolved to die free men rather than live slaves.” Another was the Olive Branch Petition, a last ditch appeal to King George III to resolve the dispute. 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 Parliament only.

When the 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. 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 Pennsylvania militia.

Following the Declaration of Independence Dickinson was given the rank of brigadier general in the Pennsylvania militia, known as the Associators. He led some 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 the 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 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.

President of Delaware


John Dickinson, 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 Delaware and 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 end the 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 census.

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 Pennsylvania and 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 formally resigned.

President of Pennsylvania

When the American Revolution began, Dickinson fairly represented the center of 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 Virginia in southwestern Pennsylvania, but was never able to satisfactorily disentangle disputed titles in the Wyoming Valley resulting from prior claims of Connecticut to those lands. An exhausted Dickinson left office October 18, 1785. On that day a special election was held in which 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.

While serving this term he donated 500 acres (2 km²) to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, an educational institution founded in 1783 by his friend Benjamin Rush.

United States Constitution

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., 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. Following the Convention he promoted the resulting Constitution in a series of nine essays, written under the pen name, Fabius.

In 1791, 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.

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, donated a considerable amount of his wealth to the “relief of the unhappy.” In 1801 he published two volumes of his collected works on politics.

Death and legacy

Dickinson died at Wilmington, Delaware, where he is buried in the Friends Burial Ground.[7][8]

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.”.[1][9]

He shares with Thomas McKean the distinction of serving as Chief Executive of both Delaware and Pennsylvania after the Declaration of Independence. Dickinson College and Dickinson School of Law, separate institutions both located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, were named after him. 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. [10]


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 counselors 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 Counselors 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 Convention.


  1. “UD Library discovers Thomas Jefferson letter”. University of Delaware. December 3, 2009.
  2. 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.
  3. National Archives and Records Administration: “America’s Founding Fathers: Delegates to the Constitutional Convention.”
  4. The Duke of York Record 1646-1679,Printed by order of the General Assembly of the State of Delaware, 1899
  6. Stillé, Charles Janeway, The Life and Times of John Dickinson. 1732-1808 (Philadelphia, 1891).
  7. Ehrlich, Eugene and Gorton Carruth. The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982: 217
  8. John Dickinson (politician) at Find a Grave
  9. “Student finds letter ‘a link to Jefferson’ –”. CNN. December 8, 2009.
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