Moderns who make the acquaintance of John Dickinson can be forgiven for finding him, on the whole, both irritable and irritating—hardly the Founding Father likeliest to be singled out, from a room ablaze with talent and inspiration, for some after-hours jollity. He would not be the man to call for punch all around and a lively tune from the fiddler—not with the prospect of a split from the mother country weighing heavily upon his mind and soul.
In HBO’s much-honored 2008 series John Adams, Mr. Dickinson of Pennsylvania is the specter at America’s birthday festivities. While a stick-thumping Adams summons his countrymen to arms and independence, Dickinson, with stricken look and half-shut eyelids, urges caution, demands conciliation, foresees ruin should the mad dash to freedom continue. Replying to such arguments, Adams declares stoutly, “Where he foresees apocalypse, I see hope. I believe, sir, that the hour is come.” A toast, sir, to Mr. Adams! As for poor Dickinson, let us make room for him as The Man Who Would Not Sign the Declaration of Independence.
Matters are little different, substantively, in the Broadway musical, and movie, 1776. A brassier Dickinson faces down Adams with sarcasm and swagger. He hurls at him names and reproaches: “incendiary little man,” “madman,” and such. The two go at each other with their sticks until separated. The audience knows the direction this tumultuous pathway leads. Once more the course of human events will find the gentleman-ruffian from Pennsylvania standing apart from the jubilation and rejoicing.
Well, not totally apart. Both John Adams and 1776 do Dickinson the minimal justice of acknowledging that, having failed to temper his colleagues’ enthusiasm for immediate independence, he rode away to serve the colonial cause in uniform—something only one actual Declaration signer, Thomas McKean, did. (He “fought for what he could not vote for,” the historian Carl Bridenbaugh has deftly said of Dickinson.)
Still, need we bestow on the gentleman any further thought? Only, perhaps, if we want to understand one of the most complex and influential figures of the entire revolutionary period, someone who was present at all the major assemblages where thinkers and activists charted the young nation’s path. At every turn he offered counsel both eloquent and sober. The historian Forrest McDonald has called Dickinson “the most underrated of all the Founders of this nation.”
The eclipse of John Dickinson’s once-formidable reputation, his reduction to the role of Adams’s theatrical foil, is among the ironies and accidents of history. It has to do almost entirely with Dickinson’s deeply held doubts regarding the colonies’ capacity to achieve independence. The necessity of independence he had come, however slowly, to acknowledge. Was it necessary, all the same, that the task be accomplished according to John Adams’s timetable? The perils of precipitate action were large and, equally to the point, largely unexplored. Dickinson, a venerated tribune of the colonists’ cause, counseled precaution and delay. Modern reactions are preordained: How could this man not stand with the great Adams, the great Jefferson, and the other greats at that moment we mark every year with flags and fireworks? In my book, The Cost of Liberty, I examine the matter in its right sequence.
There is much else to examine in the life of a patriot who wrote with force and intellectual brilliance many of the revolutionary era’s major documents—pamphlets, petitions, and speeches, by turns forceful and intricate. He wrote a patriotic song—and probably would have written the Declaration of Independence had he been as hot as Adams to strike off the mother country’s shackles at that precise moment. His Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, which carefully enunciated the argument for colonial rights, were read and huzzaed throughout the colonies. London took exasperated note of them. They made him the leader, in a rhetorical and sometimes operational sense, of colonial opposition to Britain’s transgressions against her overseas sons and daughters. Historians have dubbed Dickinson the “Penman of the Revolution.” It is not a bad phrase; nor is it a totally adequate one, suggesting as much as anything else a recording secretary in half-moon spectacles, with head bent low over his journal—a note taker rather than a shaper of mighty events.
Dickinson was, in truth, as much philosopher as writer: a man to whom God had imparted the gifts not merely of expression but also of examination and reflection. Among the large fraternity active in the cause of independence, he gave place, intellectually, to no one. Whenever large decisions were in the offing, John Dickinson’s presence and counsel were wanted. In the preconstitutional period he served as chief executive of two different states, Pennsylvania and Delaware. His was the first draft of the Articles of Confederation. A decade later he was instrumental in arranging the convention that wrote the Constitution—the second grand document to which he never set his name. There was no helping it, the second time. His health had given out. He had to return home before the signing. A friend affixed his name, and there it remains: one more testament to love of country and to character and intellectual wattage. The character he evinced had certain stupendous qualities—akin to those celebrated by the Roman historians from whom he drew wisdom. He was in his own way a bit of a Roman—stubborn as the old consuls and tribunes in defense of principle, willing if it came to that to hand over to the greater good all the blessings he enjoyed, not least immunity from criticism and derision. He was one of the revolutionary era’s authentically great men.
He was deeply learned in history and law alike. Out of the deep net of the past, he fished principles that bore directly on current affairs: respect for the admonitions and precedents of past centuries; prudence that called for heeding guideposts and warning signs; the priority of God’s determinations in the doings of created humanity; and, with it all, a deep attachment to the God-ordained freedoms that alone enabled forward movement in the human condition—the thing that many call progress. He was no passion-driven pamphleteer, in the manner of Tom Paine, who tossed rhetorical torches onto dry tinder. The Dickinson style was that of the age itself—marked by curves, turnings, and elaborations. Yet he could sum up with clarity and economy when the occasion demanded. Ten words he spoke at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 still cast a glow on the affairs of thinkers and lawmakers. “Experience,” Dickinson said, “must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.” Experience was that which we knew, having lived it—the good, the bad, the uplifting, the squalid. By contrast, Reason, and the beauty of the human mind (as shown by Experience, what else!), could be manipulated into false shapes: made to stand in for speculation, opinion, and surmise. Experience urged mankind to look before leaping, particularly when lives and fortunes—to adopt the language of the Declaration—hung in the balance.
Politics conditions us to seek labels for people in political contexts. Not one but two of our favorite labels generally attach to John Dickinson—“conservative” and “moderate.” According to many historians, he was “conservative” insofar as he spoke for the propertied classes and resisted collision with Great Britain, sharing with men of his disposition what the nineteenth-century historian Moses Coit Tyler would call “an uncommon horror of all changes that violated the sequence of established law.” He was “moderate” insofar as he stood somewhere between the ardent revolutionism of the Adamses, John and Sam, and the loyalism that, by John Adams’s estimate, a third of the colonists shared. Not that his “moderation” was unique among members of the Continental Congress. An entire moderate faction, notes the historian Jack Rakove, believed the British ministry guilty of miscalculation concerning the colonists’ grievances. Brought to its senses, the ministry “would abandon a mad policy that could be enforced only at great peril and enormous expense.”
A label, though it may expedite discussion, can never say all that needs saying, least of all about a man so complex, even paradoxical, as John Dickinson—a man who early on could argue for measured movement in human affairs yet, in the sunset of life, call blessings down on the revolutionaries of France. A label can disguise subtleties, nuances of thought and action. It should never be stretched the length of a man’s, or woman’s, form. That can make for bad discourse, bad history—and minimal enlightenment. To box up John Dickinson for consumption as reluctant revolutionary, defender of the fixed and established—any of it—is to serve poorly the cause of telling, and retelling, the tale of how we came to be a people. Not just any people either: one dedicated by all its Founders, whatever their individual motives and interior understandings, to the embrace of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Brains, energy, analytical power—one thing more he had. The thing was moral courage of an order not often enough glimpsed today. The shifty, weasel-like Dickinson of the HBO series is hardly a man you picture facing down powerful adversaries whose shouts grow fiercer as their numbers grow greater. Yet so he faced them down—and never, as far as history knows, did he give thought to acting otherwise. Men who had hailed him scurried away from him. He held tight to conviction, hazarding fame and reputation to tell the truth as he saw it to people whose conceptions of truth came more and more to differ from his own. Of his decision to withhold approval of the Declaration of Independence, he would say: “My Conduct this Day, I expect will give the finishing Blow to my once too great and (my integrity considered) now too diminished Popularity.” When the end he had hoped to avert came finally to pass, he bravely—possibly gladly—acknowledged the new reality and set forth to serve his country and people by whatever means might become possible. Many such means would become possible during the long and singular life of John Dickinson.
William Murchison is the author of the new biography The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson, from which this essay is adapted. Reprinted with permission of ISI Books.
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