John Dickinson

Hand writing a letter with a quill

A Great Worthy of the Revolution

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.

Crosiadore Plantation

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.

Samuel Dickinson - John Dickinson's Father

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.

John and Mary Dickinson teapot

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.”

Liberty Song lyrics

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.

Illustration of the John Dickinson Plantation on fire

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.

The Farmer

Watercolor illustration of tenants harvesting wheat

John Dickinson called himself a farmer, a title he used when writing his most famous series of letters that argued against the Townshend Acts in 1767. John's love of the land and his background in farming started when he was born. He was the son of a wealthy tobacco planter. In fact, his grandfather and great-grandfather were also tobacco planters. He readily assumed the role of landlord and cared for the land his father bequeathed him the rest of this life.

In the last quarter of the 18th century, John Dickinson owned more land than anyone else in Kent County, Delaware. His landholdings in Delaware began with his inheritance; however, John aggressively purchased more land on his own. His marriage to Mary Norris of Philadelphia allotted him even more property, as all of her possessions became his. John's real estate included land in Kent and New Castle Counties, Delaware, as well as properties in Pennsylvania. His favorite place to call “home” was his boyhood farm in Kent County, Delaware. He described it as a “prospect of plenty” and called it the “Poplar Hall”

Watercolor illustration of tenants harvesting wheat

The number of acres John owned in St. Jones Neck in Kent County totaled over 5,000 by the time he died in 1808. This property was his favorite, but all his land was carefully supervised with much intervention on his part. While John was influencing the political arena of Philadelphia, his tenants were growing wheat, rye, barley, and raising orchard fruits.

Each tenant, whose backgrounds varied, oversaw the upkeep and production of a portion of his land. Many tenants reported to John on a regular basis. If they could not meet the lease agreements, they often had to find work elsewhere. The successful tenants specifically followed the lease agreements to produce market quality grain. Other tenants agreed to produce more than crops. William White, who tenanted “Poplar Hall,” was required to produce candles, soap, lard, wool, flax, beef and pork among other things. Tenants are often viewed as a landless population, but in the case of William White, he owned land in his own right. Other tenants for John included free African Americans, women and poor white farmers who owned very little or never acquired land.

The land on Jones Neck was typical of coastal Delaware. It consisted of marsh, wooded, and cleared land. All features of the land were utilized. The cleared land produced grain crops. Tobacco ceased to be a profitable crop in Delaware after the early 18th century. Orchards provided a source of fuel. Heating, cooking, laundry fires, and many other tasks used wood as a fuel. This became a problem in the latter part of the 1700s when trees were becoming scarce on the landscape. John Dickinson saw the need to reform and required all building repairs and fence building to be completed with dead tree material. However, under special circumstances, he specified that live trees could be damaged to complete many projects.

John's attempts to improve the landscape was part of a larger effort by many at a full scale agriculture reform. John Spurrier, who may have been a tenant of Dickinson's at one time, wrote a book on reform methods. Gentleman farmers, like Dickinson, debated the reform issues and implemented many programs. This did not alleviate the problem that had become too intense for a quick reform by the end of the 1700s.

Styles of fencing and ditching efforts to better utilize marsh land were two methods of agricultural reform that Dickinson carried out. However, John died in 1808, just two years after he rebuilt his boyhood home that was damaged by fire. Dickinson's “prospect of plenty” was in need of careful management. Sally Dickinson, John's daughter, assumed the responsibility of running the Jones Neck property until her death in 1856.

The Family Man

The life of John Dickinson was easy and rewarding compared to most people who grew up in Delaware in the 1700s. He lived the life enjoyed by only the wealthy. His father, a tobacco planter, was highly educated and served as a judge in Kent County, Delaware and earned the respect of his peers. This lineage passed down from father to son for three generations in the Dickinson family. It was the key to the man John Dickinson became.

John Dickinson's great-grandfather was Walter Dickinson. He came to the colonies in the seventeenth century. Early on, Walter served time as an indentured servant, but did not waste time settling on a career when he was freed. Tobacco was the cash crop for several colonies in the 1600s. Great profits could be made from tobacco even with only a few acres. By planting and harvesting this crop Walter began a family that survived many generations. Walter's son William took over the running of the plantation his father established in Talbot County, Maryland in 1717. Tobacco was still as profitable crop. Samuel, William's son, continued the legacy left him from his father. The family home was called Crosiadore, and Samuel built strong marketing connections as well as a large family. Life in the colonies in the early eighteenth century was good if a cash crop could be cultivated. Disease invaded all levels of society. Samuel's wife and five of his seven children died. Samuel remarried. They lived at Crosiadore, where Mary Cadwalader Dickinson gave Samuel two more sons, Philemon and John.

John Dickinson's brother - Brigadier General Philemon Dickinson - Member of the Continental Congress

John's life began on Jones Neck, Delaware in 1740. His father moved his second family to the area and left the ancestral lands in Talbot County, Maryland to the grown children from his first marriage. John's father began training him at an early age. Many young sons received their first lesson from their father. John's lessons centered around land management. By the mid-1700s, tobacco was profitable for only a few due to variable markets. Samuel Dickinson had the foresight to switch from tobacco planting to grain farming. Therefore, John learned to oversee the planting and harvesting of wheat, barley, rye, and corn, which remained a profitable business for many.

Mary Cadwalader Dickinson - Mother of John Dickinson

John's mother, Mary Cadwalader Dickinson, was a Quaker with strong convictions. Together, John's parents had a great influence on his life and helped to shape the man that was destined to become a key player in the drama of the American Revolution. Family was important to John Dickinson. In 1770, he married Mary Norris, the daughter of Isaac Norris, speaker of the Assembly in Philadelphia.

Like his father, John was a lawyer. He became interested in politics early in his career. Between the two avocations John spent limited time at home. His wife, Mary, accepted John's absences but was lonely without him. There are many letters between the two that survive. These accounts of each other's thoughts and feelings show a strong devotion and love. This became the backbone of their relationship and helped them to continue. The two often had to compromise, even on where they lived. Mary, a strong, steadfast, solid Quaker like John's mother, continually implored John to follow the religious precepts more closely.

John and Mary had five children, of whom two survived. Both girls were enjoyed by the parents. John's absences again were replaced with letters. The letters he sent to his daughters were filled with instructions and encouragement. John was keenly interested in their education. The oldest daughter, Sally, never married. She eventually inherited the estate in Kent County, Delaware where her father grew up. The younger daughter, Maria, married into a prominent family from Philadelphia, and her children inherited the Delaware property from their Aunt Sally upon her death.

John Dickinson lived a full life. His wealth and position afforded him many advantages, but he worked hard to make something of himself. He could not have accomplished anything without guidance from his family. It was the legacy of his ancestors, the influence of his parents, and his relationship with his wife and children that made John Dickinson a devoted family man.

The Politician

Illustration of John Dickinson

A careful man who was also meticulous and demanding of those around him, John Dickinson, achieved greatness as a politician in the years before the American Revolution. His popularity and fame eventually came crashing down when his convictions kept him from signing the Declaration of Independence.

Dickinson's political career began when he was 27 years old. He was elected to represent Kent County at the Delaware Assembly which met in the New Castle Court House in 1759. From that point forward until 1792, John Dickinson's life revolved around the political arena in Philadelphia and Delaware.

Born into a Quaker family, John Dickinson was also the son of a wealthy tobacco planter. His place in society was determined at birth. Because of his family's wealth, Dickinson made good use of the opportunity to study abroad in England. At Middle Temple, part of the Inns of Court in England, he studied law, but found constitutional law and history the most satisfying. This proved to be invaluable training when the English constitution came under great scrutiny during the years before the Revolution. But, ingrained in him from his studies at Middle Temple was the belief that the British constitution was good and fair.

Though not a Quaker, Dickinson's religious conscience was greatly influenced by his devout mother and wife. As time went on, the family with their Quaker connections persuaded John to take his religious background more seriously. This included embracing the belief that no man could own another human being and therefore slavery was an abomination.

John Dickinson's political experiences varied, but he never strayed far from his ideals or family upbringing. He began a busy political career by supporting the Pennsylvania constitution against efforts by Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Galloway to make it a royal colony. This cautious attitude continued throughout his career. He believed the British constitution provided rights to the colonists as well as the British subjects. He also felt that the colonial problems could be addressed peacefully and through constitutional means.

After leading the moderate position up to the Declaration of Independence, Dickinson finally realized that a separation was inevitable. Even though he finally supported the majority and their efforts to attain separation, he could not with good conscience sign the document, because he did not believe the time was right. Those convictions earned Dickinson much contempt.

Dickinson was equally firm in his conviction that slave trading must be abolished. During the process of writing the U.S. Constitution he lobbied for that measure to be included. Although he was not among the majority, his (though not his alone) recommendation that the importation of slaves be halted in 1808 was included. Another of Dickinson's strong ideals was his thoughts on national government. And in this battle he won. He influenced the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States, as he was involved in the creation of both documents. Dickinson was convinced that the nation would only survive with a strong unified government. Each document mirrors those beliefs.

Best known in history as “The Pennsylvania Farmer,” John Dickinson was a man with strong convictions. His determination to stand by his views won him both praise and scorn. He wanted "to make an immense bustle in this world," but he settled for being true to himself and eventually his God.

The Slave Holder

The institution of slavery was well ensconced in Delaware by the time John Dickinson became a slave owner. At one time, he owned as many as 59 men, women, and children. He used them in a manner typical of the type of agriculture that was prominent in Delaware in the second half of the 1700s. John, who owned property in Pennsylvania and Delaware, divided his enslaved individuals among the properties that needed labor. Work performed on Dickinson’s properties included growing crops, digging ditches, mending fences and buildings, spinning flax and wool, and odd jobs.

When Samuel Dickinson died, he left slaves to John in his will. John administered the properties he inherited and began to make transactions with the enslaved individuals to fulfill different obligations. He purchased individuals from his brother Philemon to keep some families together. When asked, he purchased a woman named Dinah to keep her and her daughter from being sold out of state.

In Kent County, Delaware where the boyhood home of John is located, enslaved people were used primarily for agricultural work. Grain, wheat, and corn were the cash crops. John Dickinson required his tenants to raise the crops in some cases with the help of his enslaved people. This was a profitable business for him. It was expensive, however, to pay for the upkeep of the many enslaved people that produced his crops.

Grain was planted in the spring or fall. Fields were prepared, but after the grain was planted, there was little work until harvest. Grain farming required intense labor only twice a year. It precluded the necessity for a lot of hand labor, so John’s enslaved individuals were diversified. They were tailors, shoemakers, tanners, and carpenters. John Dickinson rented enslaved individuals to others that needed labor and made them available to his tenants to help them fulfill their lease agreements.

In time, John Dickinson made a difficult decision. In 1776, the Quakers in the Philadelphia area made it known that holding humans in bondage was an unacceptable practice. It was recommended strongly that all Quakers manumit, or set free, their slaves. In the following year 1777, John Dickinson conditionally manumitted his enslaved individuals. The conditions were set because even though this was a religious decision, the economic impact was staggering. At the time, the county required a bond payment for each slave set free. Because Dickinson owned so many people, the payment would be high. On the other hand, because grain farming did not depend on slave labor for high profits, setting free his dependent slaves, and hiring free individuals to work would be less costly. Eventually, in 1786, John unconditionally manumitted his slaves. Sally Dickinson, his oldest daughter, later wrote that her father emancipated his slaves due to his conviction of duty.

After the final manumission, records show a few individuals remained employed by the family. Some former slaves and other free individuals associated with Dickinson through other ways. For instance, Dinah married Peter Patten, a free African American tenant of John’s. Others were mentioned as living in buildings in the “peach orchard” on Dickinson’s property where they were not to be disturbed. It is evident that John Dickinson was influenced by the Quaker thought as well as the economic situation. No matter why he felt compelled to free his slaves in 1777, he was among many in Kent County, Delaware to do so.