Sunday, September 17, 2023

John Dickinson: A little talked about Founding Father


Today in history, 39 of the 42 delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the Constitution. I recall reading of a delegate who had cancer but purposed to sign the document despite how ill he was. Researching the founding fathers, I discovered the ill man was John Dickinson.

He was at the time of the Revolutionary War the wealthiest man in the British American Colonies. His great-grandfather Walter Dickinson immigrated to Virginia in 1659. Over the decades, the Dickinson’s expanded their holdings into three Maryland counties, as well as into Pennsylvania and Delaware.

John Dickinson was the son of Samuel Dickson and his second wife, Mary Cadwaler. He was the youngest of three boys, born to their union. Educated at home by the finest scholars, he excelled academically. It is said he was a precocious, energetic child. Although he loved his home at Poplar Hill, he felt drawn to Philadelphia where at 18 he began studying law under John Moland, a successful attorney.

Because John’s father had lost his three eldest sons (from his first marriage) to small pox while attending school in London. he was hesitant to send John to school there. After much persuasion on John’s part, Samuel gave permission.

John completed his Law degree at Middle Temple in London. He returned home and was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1757. He was an intellectual and a man of faith. His education had given him a wealth of information to draw from that would guide his life in politics.

Dickson was a gifted writer. Able to put the thoughts of the people into words that pulled the country together. In protest of the Townsend Act, a law to unfairly tax colonists, John published a series of letters titled Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, dissecting those laws in common terms. His gift of words helped directed the country toward independence.

The Letters first appeared in the Pennsylvania Chronicle and were reprinted throughout the colonies. It was the most influential document written before the Revolutionary War.

John married a well-educated Philadelphia businesswoman, Mary Norris. Her father was a prominent quaker and Speaker of the House, Isaac Norris. Mary had large real estate holdings and a 15,000 book library, the largest in the colonies. Books were considered a very valuable asset in that era. Their combined wealth made them people of influence throughout the colonies. In spite of this, John remained humble. He desired peace rather than war to gain independence.

John refrained from becoming a member of the church, although he attended faithfully. Quakers are pacifists, but John felt there may be a time where war was necessary. Even so, he was well-respected among the Friends.

John developed the name of the Penman of the Revolution for his skill with words. He was a huge influence in the cause for freedom. Dickinson was called upon to edit Thomas Jefferson’s work. He also wrote the original draft of The Article’s of the Confederation. (The predecessor of the U.S. Constitution). He also rewrote a work by Henry Clay that congress deemed too volatile to be sent to King George.

Although Dickinson is named among the Founding Fathers, he refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. Not because he was loyal to the Crown, but because he had strong convictions that the colonists were declaring their independence too soon. He felt the Articles of the Confederation needed to be in place before they severed relationships with Britian. And, in his view, the colonists needed to gain a few foreign powers as allies. He wasn’t present at the signing of the Declaration and declined to add his name later.

Despite his conviction that his decision was a career ender, he remained loyal to the cause of freedom. He willingly joined the colonial army. One of only two Founding Fathers who actually fought in the Revolution.

He was given a rank of Brigadier General, but he resigned after it became apparent people questioned his loyalty for his refusal to sign the Declaration.

Dickinson retired and joined the Kent County Militia and helped defend his home. During his service, Popular Hill was taken over as a hospital and later burned by the British. He once again joined the army. This time as a private, and when offered the commission of General, he turned it down. Even though he was the wealthiest man in the colonies and in that position should have lead, he preferred to take a more humble rank.

When the war ended, he was asked to serve as President of Delaware. The thirteen colonies were more independent under the Articles of Confederation. Therefore, rather than governors, the states had presidents. John served in Delaware and later as President of Phildelphia because he had land in both states.

When the Constitution was being drafted and Dickinson was a delegate from Pennsylvania, he along with two other representatives of Delaware insisted a second assembly (the Senate) be added to the legislative branch so smaller states would have equal representation. He desired to abolish slavery as well. He’d already freed his own slaves. Along with other northern delegates, they argued in favor of abolishing slavery. Although freeing the slaves was left out of the Constitution, he won the victory for smaller states’ representation in congress.

He served in various political positions during his life in both Delaware and Pennsylvania. He was ever the statesman as proven while President of Pennsylvania. He patiently brought an end to the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783. Pennsylvania Veterans were demanding their pay before they left the army. They were threatening the Continental Congress. Rather than allow Congress to bring full military action against the men, he persuaded Congress to leave town. The government seat was relocated to Princeton, New Jersey, where it remained until 1790.

After he retired from politics, he wrote volumes of essays on current events. John continued to sway the young nation with his words that were reprinted all across the colonies.

I found only one reference to his actual illness. He had skin cancer and took to wearing a veil as the disease spread. Again, historical documents vary on this one fact: who signed his name to the document. Some say he charged his friend George Read, a Delaware delegate, with signing on his behalf because he was so ill. Others say he rode up in his carriage, his face veiled and signed the document, then headed back to his home. However it happened, he lived another decade beyond this historic event.

He died February 14, 1808, leaving a legacy as The Penman of the Revolution. Because of his moderate stance and desire to see peaceful resolutions rather than war, he is often overlooked when the Founding Fathers are mentioned.

Delaware has not forgotten him. The John Dickinson High School in Milltown, Delaware carries his name, as does Dickinson Hall at the University of Delaware,

Have you ever heard of John Dickinson?

Cindy Ervin Huff is an Award-winning author of Historical and Contemporary Romance. She loves infusing hope into her stories of broken people. She is addicted to reading and chocolate. Her idea of a vacation is visiting historical sites and an ideal date with her hubby of almost fifty years would be live theater.

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today. I had not heard about John Dickinson.