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John Dickinson is remembered as the "Penman of the Revolution," a tribute to his skillful advocacy of the patriot cause, but his gradual conversion to independence was slowed by a deep-seated conservatism.
Dickinson began his political career in the assembly of the Lower Counties (later Delaware), where he served as speaker. In 1762, he began service in the Pennsylvania legislature and came to prominence by defending the prerogatives of the Penn family against the insurgent forces of Benjamin Franklin.
Dickinson began to drift from his staunch conservatism in the face of the Grenville reforms, particularly the Sugar and Stamp acts, which he opposed in a widely-read pamphlet, The Late Regulations Respecting the American Colonies (1765).
At the Stamp Act Congress, Dickinson was the prime contributor to the Declaration of Rights and Grievances. He argued that a difference existed between internal and external taxation.
The former involved the collection of duties on trade between the colonies and foreign ports; in his view, that effort to regulate trade was legitimate. The latter, involving duties imposed on activities within the colonies, was deemed unconstitutional. In spite of his opposition to the new tax policy, Dickinson resisted any suggestion of violent resistance.
Perhaps the peak of Dickinson's influence was reached during the period of public reaction to the Townshend Acts in 1767 and 1768. He authored a series of anonymous essays, the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies, which first appeared in the Pennsylvania Chronicle and later in other newspapers throughout the colonies. He stated his firm support for Parliamentary supremacy and the efforts of that body to levy taxes designed to regulate trade.
However, the Townshend duties were unarguably intended to raise revenue and were to be resisted, not by the force of arms, but through reasoned argument and economic pressure. Franklin, a former political rival, was so impressed with the plain-spoken letters that he had them reprinted in London, where he was serving as a colonial agent.
Dickinson was a delegate to both continental congresses and created a minor furor by refusing to sign the Declaration of Independence. Even in mid-1776, he still believed that accommodation could be reached. In his final speech to Congress on July 1, 1776, one day before Richard Henry Lee's resolutions were adopted, Dickinson averred:
I know the name of liberty is dear to each one of us; but have we not enjoyed liberty even under the English monarchy? Shall we this day renounce that to go and seek it in I know not what form of republic, which will soon change into a licentious anarchy and popular tyranny? In the human body the head only sustains and governs all the members, directing them, with admirable harmony, to the same object, which is self-preservation and happiness; so the head of the body politic, that is the king, in concert with the Parliament, can alone maintain the union of the members of this Empire, lately so flourishing, and prevent civil war by obviating all the evils produced by variety of opinions and diversity of interests.
Dickinson abstained from voting on the resolution for independence and declined to sign the document afterwards. Feeling that it was essentially that all members of Congress support the declaration, he resigned from the Continental Congress.
Nevertheless, Dickinson gave his full support to the new cause. He was responsible for the first draft of the Articles of Confederation and was the author of many of the Congress's most important statements, including 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. Despite being branded a loyalist by his critics early in the war, Dickinson volunteered for service in the Continental Army.
Following the war, Dickinson worked to strengthen the Articles of Confederation at the Annapolis Convention (1786) and later championed the cause of the small states at the Constitutional Convention. Despite having reservations about the new document, Dickinson again took up his pen and wrote nine letters under the pseudonym of "Fabius" and argued the case for ratification.
In 1797, Dickinson appeared once more as "Fabius" and presented a defense of revolutionary France, which was then at odds with the United States and war between the former allies appeared imminent.
Dickinson was a moderate conservative in an age when there were few others. He placed great value on traditional liberties and was repelled equally by errant British policies and the radicalism of Sam Adams.
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