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John Dickinson is known as “The Penman of the Revolution” because he was able to put on paper the thoughts and ideals which formed the foundation for our brand new country. John Dickinson was a man trained by scholars. He used his knowledge to think for himself. His pen contributed greatly to the American cause by supporting colonial rights and national endeavors.
As with just about all of the women and men who designed and planned the experiment they called the United States of America, John Dickinson was passionately interested in many things and he was very good at many things. A product of the landed gentry of Colonial America, John Dickinson was afforded the education and training available only to a few in the 1700s. As a result, he became well known as a plantation owner, farmer, slaveholder, birthright Quaker, family man, businessman, politician, patriot, and founding father.
Early one November morning in 1732, a child was born at Crosiadore, a large plantation in Talbot County, Maryland. The cry of a newborn baby was familiar to the Dickinson household, but the cry heard that morning signified the birth of a son whose cry for freedom would be heard throughout Colonial America.
John’s life began on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. His father, Samuel Dickinson was a wealthy landowner, businessman, and lawyer. Samuel was the third generation in a family of tobacco planters. With the help of slave labor, Samuel continued to build on an already prosperous business.
In 1740, Samuel moved his second wife, Mary, and their two sons to Kent County, Delaware, leaving the Maryland plantation lands to the surviving children from his first marriage. John Dickinson and his brother, Philemon, enjoyed the life provided by their father, who became a Kent County Judge of the Court of Common Pleas and later Justice of the Peace.
In the mid-1700s, John grew up at the Jones Neck plantation in Kent County and learned the family business. His father had switched from tobacco planting to grain farming. During those boyhood years, John formed a strong attachment to the wheat fields, rivers, and marshes of his father’s farms in Kent County, Delaware.
Beyond the early training from his father, John began his formal education with the help of tutors like William Killen. Killen, who became the first Chancellor of Delaware, directed John’s energies to the study of ancient languages, classical scholars, philosophers. and serious writing. This education formed a solid background which became a great resource for John in his political career.
In 1750, John’s father arranged for him to read law in the office of John Moland, the King’s attorney of Pennsylvania. His position was enviable but John yearned to study law in London, like his father.
In 1753, he sailed to England and entered Middle Temple, part of the Inns of Court. His time in London was well spent. In addition to his study of law under the direction of some of Britain’s best lawyers, John used the opportunity to make social connections that would last his lifetime.
After passing the bar at Middle Temple, John returned to Philadelphia where he quickly established a law practice and extended the social connections established in England.
It was shortly after the beginning of his career that his father Samuel died and John inherited part of the Kent County estate. In 1760 he assumed the responsibility of running the farm as an absentee landlord, as he remained in Philadelphia.
In connection with his career, John met a woman named Mary Norris. Her father was Isaac Norris Jr., Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly. This wealthy Quaker died leaving Mary with a sizable estate. Later she and John married.
This marriage allowed John to strengthen his social and political bonds in Philadelphia, and gain control over a great deal of Pennsylvania property. The combined wealth of the Dickinson and Norris families gave John the opportunity to pursue a long and illustrious political career that others could not afford.
As much as John loved the lands in Kent County, Delaware, he understood that the powerful political arena was in Philadelphia. John’s landholdings in both Delaware and Pennsylvania allowed him the freedom of seeking or holding office in either area.
In 1760, he was elected a member of the Delaware Assembly from Kent County, which met at the New Castle Court House. Only two years later he was chosen to represent Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania Assembly.
In 1764. Dickinson took his first political stance. He stood against Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Galloway and their attempts to make Pennsylvania a royal colony.
This stand, however unpopular with key political figures, foreshadowed other decisions that John made in the future. His thoughts and ideas became important to all Americans as time grew closer to the American Revolution. The start of his career as the “Penman” began with a political pamphlet titled “The Late Regulations” which expressed Dickinson’s thoughts on the Sugar Acts of 1764. Many Americans, including John, felt Parliament was threatening the rights of the colonies and the “Acts”, if carried out, would disturb the American economy. 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. Some of the items that required a stamp included official documents and playing cards.
Dickinson was asked by the ensuing Stamp Act Congress to write a “Declaration of Rights and Resolves” which was sent to the King of England. This address was the first official document drawn up and agreed upon by a combination of American colonies.
Dickinson’s most famous contribution as the “Penman” and for the colonial cause was the publication of a series of letters signed “A FARMER.” Dickinson‘s thoughts concerning the new Townshend Acts were published in most of the colonial newspapers as well as abroad in England and France in 1768.
Dickinson argued 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.” 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.”
Dickinson became famous for another composition in 1768. but it was not a pamphlet or a letter. He wrote words to the well-known tune “Hearts of Oak”. and called it “The Liberty Song.” It quickly found popularity with the colonists and created such a stir that the British wrote a song, using the same tune, as a rebuttal.
Dickinson would be called on in the future, time after time, to use his talents for the American cause. In the wake of rebellious thoughts in the colonies, John Dickinson began to show a moderate point of view. A redress of grievances through constitutional means was his cry.
As a member of the First Continental Congress from Pennsylvania, Dickinson was chosen to rewrite a petition to the King, originally drafted by Patrick Henry. Henry’s words were considered too rebellious by the Congress.
Chosen again by the Continental Congress, Dickinson wrote an “Address to the inhabitants of the Province of Quebec,” and asked them to stand with the American colonies against Britain’s infringement on their rights. For Dickinson, the Continental Congress had given him the opportunity to write two major documents, an honor no one else had ever achieved.
The impression he made on others was not easily expressed. John Adams wrote of his impression in 1774, “a very modest man, and very ingenious as well as agreeable…[He] is but a shadow. Tall, slender as a reed, pale as ashes. One would think at first sight he could not live a month. Yet upon more attentive inspection he looks as if the springs of life were strong enough to last many years.”
Dickinson himself wondered if he could achieve greatness, but was humbled in his assessment. In a letter to George Read, a fellow Delaware politician, he wrote “…I confess I should like to make an immense bustle in the world, if it could be made with virtuous actions. But, as there is no probability of that, I am content if I can live innocent and beloved by those that I love….”
Dickinson’s conservative attitude surfaced even more during the Second Continental Congress. In 1775, he collaborated with Thomas Jefferson in writing the “Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms.” Dickinson rewrote the document with a conciliatory stance, with the support of the Congress. The last major attempt by Congress in preventing a split between Britain and the Colonies was again in the hands of “The Penman”. The famous “Olive Branch Petition” was drafted by the moderate Dickinson. When the last effort was rejected by Britain, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced the motion for independence in June 1776. While Jefferson, Franklin, and others drafted the Declaration of Independence, Dickinson served as chairman of the committee that prepared the plan for a new colonial government, the Confederation.
Dickinson knew that independence was inevitable but strongly opposed the timing. He felt the move should be postponed until the colonies were more united and could obtain foreign alliances.
“I know that the tide of the passions and prejudices of the people at large is strongly in favor of independence. I know too, that I have acquired a character and some popularity with them — both of which I shall risk by opposing this favorite measure. But I had rather risk both than speak or vote contrary to the dictates of my judgments and conscience.” John Dickinson speech against the motion of independence
Dickinson stood firm in his convictions and felt great disfavor. For a short time, Dickinson with his wife and daughter sought the serenity of his Kent County plantation. However, his boyhood home would not remain untouched by the Revolution. In 1781, the house was vandalized by raiding Tories.
By that time, Dickinson had already become one of only two members of the Continental Congress who took up arms against the crown. He served briefly as a private in the Delaware Militia but served in his best capacity as a supplier for the Delaware troops. He was commissioned a Brigadier General in that position but declined the commission. It was probably because of his military service that the people of Delaware elected Dickinson to the Executive Council in 1781, and John returned to his political career. Their confidence in Dickinson was further extended when he was selected President of Delaware that same year. It was a position he kept only a short time because, in 1782, he was selected President of Pennsylvania.
Dickinson continually responded to the needs of the new country. When the need arose for a discussion on navigation rights, Dickinson was there to represent Delaware. The Annapolis Convention convened in 1786. It was because of the problems discussed at the Annapolis Convention that the representatives understood the need to rework the national government.
When the Constitutional Convention met in 1787, Dickinson attended as a delegate from Delaware and ably defended the interests of his home state. When the larger states tried to gain power by proposing representation based solely on population, Dickinson told James Madison. “Delaware would sooner submit to a foreign rule than be deprived in both branches of an equality of suffrage and thereby be thrown under the domination of the larger states.”
His ideas of representation were the topic of discussion in a committee that proposed the great compromise. The States would have equal representation in the Senate and representation based on population in the House of Representatives.
Dickinson also fought to include in national government the right to prohibit the importation of slaves. He felt strongly about this idea but his efforts would not come to fruition. Personally, he had already manumitted all of his own slaves.
He fully supported and signed the Constitution. It could have been his influence that encouraged Delaware to be the first state to ratify the document on December 7, 1787.
Shortly after Delaware’s ratification, a series of letters signed “Fabius”, which explained and supported the Constitution, appeared in the newspapers. They were the work of the Revolutionary “Penman”, John Dickinson. These letters helped to answer the population’s questions concerning the new Constitution and may have helped to carry the ratification of the document to adoption.
After the new Constitution was ratified, the need for political expertise was waning and Dickinson was increasingly plagued by illness. His tremendous contributions in the development of the new nation became a solid background for retirement.
He built a home in Wilmington at Eighth and Market Streets, where he lived out his final years. Wilmington was located in between the “Poplar Hall” of Jones Neck that John enjoyed and the city of Philadelphia, that his wife Mary cherished.
John never neglected the lands inherited from his father in Kent County, Delaware. He traveled frequently to handle plantation business and check on the tenants.
In 1804, Dickinson’s boyhood home burned. Under Dickinson’s careful instructions and watchful eye the house was rebuilt. His attachment for the home and lands were keenly expressed in a letter to his wife. He wrote that, “This place affords a luxuriant prospect of plenty…”
John Dickinson’s accomplishments over his lifetime were many. His nickname “Penman of the American Revolution” was well earned by the fact that most of the major petitions and State papers, before the Revolution, were authored by Dickinson. His influence was felt by Delawareans as well as those across the new nation even before he died in 1808.
“…A more estimable man or truer patriot could not have left us. Among the first of the advocates for the rights of his country when assailed by Great Britain, he continued to the last the orthodox advocate of the true principles of our new government, and his name will be consecrated in history as one of the great worthies of the Revolution…” – Excerpt of a Thomas Jefferson letter to a friend when he heard of Dickinson’s death
The impact of John Dickinson’s ideas and scholarship is still explored today by visitors who see, hear, and experience the connection between Dickinson and others around him at the historic boyhood home. The original historic mansion is flanked by reconstructed farm buildings and a reconstructed tenant/slave quarter called a “log’d dwelling”. In this setting, John Dickinson’s life and the lives of the people he affected are discussed and activities are demonstrated by interpreters in historic clothing.
John Dickinson called himself a “Farmer”, but by touring the John Dickinson Plantation, visitors can receive information about the different facets of John’s life.
The smell of cornbread emanating from the hearth of the “log’d dwelling”, the sound of a musket firing, and the feel of flax being spun into linen allow visitors to experience history and understand the man who wrote important political documents. The Plantation honors John Dickinson, a “great worthy of the Revolution.”
To hear more about this topic and the history of Colonial Delaware contact the Delaware Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs. This division, part of the Department of State, owns and operates the John Dickinson Plantation, as well as other museums which relate to the story of John Dickinson. Those museums include the New Castle Court House and the Old State House in Dover.