The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
In 1774, John Dickinson was elected to the First Continental Congress. As he had in the Stamp Act Congress, he served as principal drafter of public statements. The following year he was returned to the Second Continental Congress, where he again served as principal drafter. He was the primary author of, among other papers, two petitions to the crown and "The Declaration of Causes and Necessity for Taking up Arms." Moreover, he chaired the congressional committee that drafted the Articles of Confederation: Our oldest draft of the articles is in his handwriting.
Throughout this period he tried to steer a middle course between submission and rebellion. He was a firm believer in moderation, which he once called "a virtue, and the parent of virtues." Another member of Congress, Thomas Jefferson, wanted to proceed more vigorously. In his "Autobiography," Jefferson relates a story pertaining to the "Declaration of Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms" and the second petition to the crown, the "Olive Branch Petition." The anecdote reveals how most of Dickinson's colleagues perceived him:
I prepared a draught of the Declaration committed to us. It was too strong for Mr. Dickinson. He still retained the hope of reconciliation with the mother country, and was unwilling it should be lessened by offensive statements.
He was so honest a man, & so able a one that he was greatly indulged even by those who could not feel his scruples. We therefore requested him to take the paper, and put it into a form he could approve. He did so, preparing an entire new statement, and preserving of the former only the last 4 paragraphs & half of the preceding one.
We approved & reported it to Congress, who accepted it. Congress gave a signal proof of their indulgence to Mr. Dickinson, and of their great desire not to go too fast for any respectable part of our body, in permitting him to draw their second petition to the King according to his own ideas, and passing it with scarcely any amendment. The disgust against [i.e., distaste for] this humility was general; and Mr. Dickinson's delight at its passage was the only circumstance which reconciled them to it.
This respect for Dickinson was not universal. John Adams, one of Congress's leading hotheads, described him as "delicate, and timid" and representative of people of "great Fortune and piddling Genius."
By the summer of 1776, Dickinson realized independence was inevitable. He was certain, however, that publicly declaring it was premature. His July 1 speech in opposition to the Declaration, of which we have notes but not the text, shared with his 1764 Pennsylvania assembly oration a careful balancing of risks, probabilities, and benefits. Like his other productions, the July 1 speech was punctuated with sound bites. Thus, of his countrymen, he avowed, "I had rather they should hate me than that I should hurt them," and he characterized advocates of an immediate declaration as wanting to "brave the storm in a skiff made of paper."
A modern American may find it difficult to sympathize with Dickinson's arguments against independence. But a historian finds it difficult to disagree with all of them. Several of Dickinson's predictions proved entirely accurate. One was that only American military successes, not the Declaration, would bring France into the war. Unfortunately, Dickinson's prediction that his stance would destroy his popularity also proved accurate.
Dickinson's speech against independence, like his opposition to the 1764 Galloway-Franklin charter plan, illustrates the man's enormous moral courage. There is no record—and I am not the first to make this observation—that John Dickinson ever backed down in the face of popular opposition when an issue was important.
When it became apparent that a majority of states in Congress would approve the Declaration, Dickinson remained a team player. He and Robert Morris withdrew so the vote could be unanimous. Unlike most in Congress, moreover, Dickinson served two stints in the Revolutionary armed forces.
Another insight into his character is offered by his 1781 decision to free his slaves. Most of the Founders opposed slavery. But Dickinson was one of the few to free his own slaves during his lifetime.
Dickinson's loss of popularity kept him from political office for about three years. His political comeback began in 1779, when Delaware returned him to Congress. Two years later he was elected president of that state, and in 1783 president of Pennsylvania. He was reelected to two additional annual terms, thereby serving the constitutionally-permitted maximum.
In 1786, he represented Delaware in the Annapolis Convention, and was elected president of that body. The Annapolis Convention, of course, was the assembly that recommended to the states a wider federal convention in Philadelphia the following May. Virginia (not Congress, as commonly claimed) responded by formally calling the Philadelphia conclave.
Delaware sent Dickinson to Philadelphia as the head of a five-man delegation. In that capacity he impacted the results significantly.
Tomorrow: John Dickinson's contributions to the Constitution.