The start of John Dickinson’s career as the “Penman of the Revolution” began with a political pamphlet titled “The Late Regulations” which expressed Dickinson’s thoughts on the Revenue Act (Sugar Acts) of 1764 which raised taxes on sugar. Many Americans, including John, felt Parliament was threatening the rights of the colonies and the “Acts,” if carried out, would disturb the American economy.
Soon after, during the Stamp Act Crisis in 1765, Dickinson was a leading voice against the Parliamentary acts that imposed a tax on items by requiring the purchase of a stamp. During a gathering of the so-called Stamp Act Congress in New York City in October 1766, Dickinson was asked to write fifteen proposals. These proposals, now known as the “Declaration of Rights and Resolves,” condemned the legislation as unconstitutional. This document, which was sent to the King of England, was the first official document drawn up and agreed upon by a combination of American colonies. Shortly thereafter, the Stamp Act was repealed after only four months of unsuccessful operation.
Victory over the repeal of the Stamp act was short lived. With yet more burdensome acts, Parliament continued to make life difficult for the colonies. The Declaratory Act stated that Parliament could pass laws on the American colonies because its authority was the same in America as in Britain. This was followed by a new Revenue Act in 1767 which taxed other goods besides sugar. The most danger, however, was presented by the Townshend Acts which, in addition to taxing yet more goods such as tea, threatened the integrity of the New York legislature.
Dickinson’s most famous contribution as the “Penman” and for the colonial cause was the publication of a series of letters signed “A FARMER.” The letters were published over a period of ten weeks in late 1767 and early 1768 with the first letter appearing in the Pennsylvania Chronicle on December 2, 1767.
In the letters, Dickinson argued, amongst other things, that the Townshend Acts were illegal because they were intended to raise revenue, a power held only by the colonial assemblies. His arguments were a collection of ideas that were written in a clear and concise manner which the general population could understand. Collectively, the letters were called “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies.”
The letters were shortly thereafter published in pamphlet form and reprinted in almost all of the colonial newspapers. They were read widely across the colonies and in Britain and France. This quickly made John Dickinson famous. After reading the “Letters”, Voltaire, the French philosopher, compared Dickinson to Cicero, an honored Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher. At the Boston town meeting in March of 1768 Samuel Adams and others spoke of the author by saying “that the thanks of the town be given to the ingenious author of a course of letters… signed ‘A FARMER,’ wherein the rights of the American subjects are clearly stated and fully vindicated: …members of a committee [are] to prepare and publish a letter of thanks.”
As a direct result of the popularity of Dickinson’s letters, there were calls and petitions for the boycotting of imported goods throughout the colonies. The eventual result of the unity amongst the colonies against a common enemy was the First Continental Congress. When the Congress was called, however, Dickinson quickly realized that much progress needed to be made towards the solutions that he wrote about in his letters.