John Dickinson: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Matthew Hill
John Dickinson was a leading writer who supported the principles of the American Revolution, but who refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. He is called the 'Penman of the Revolution.'

Beginnings and Legal Career

Have you ever faced a problem that just seemed impossible to fix? John Dickinson faced just such a challenge during the American Revolution. Dickinson was born in November 1732 in Maryland to a wealthy Quaker family. When he was eight, his family moved to Delaware where his father served as a judge. Dickinson had a first-rate education. He was initially taught by tutors, studied law in Philadelphia, and completed his legal studies in England at the distinguished Temple of London.

He returned to Philadelphia to practice law and married into the powerful Quaker family of Mary Norris in 1770. The two had five children and split their time between their residences in Delaware and Philadelphia. Although Dickinson was influenced by his Quaker associations, he didn't share their view on an absolute ban on war. This distinction proved critical during the American Revolutionary War. He was known for his impeccable behavior, as illustrated in 1777 when he freed his own slaves.

John Dickinson
John Dickinson

The Road to Revolution

Like many great figures in history, Dickinson earned a nickname. He became known as the 'Penman of the Revolution' for his massive volume of writings defending colonial politics. In response to the Stamp Act, Dickinson took a leadership role and authored its principle statement, the Declaration of Rights and Grievances which outlined colonial frustrations. In response to the Townshend Acts, he wrote his widely-read Letters from a Philadelphia Farmer which elevated him to celebrity status.

Published as a series of editorials in the Pennsylvania Gazette he argued in defense of colonial rights but urged moderation in separation. It's this moderate tone that got him into trouble. Boston was full with anti-British sentiment and they had little patience for fence-sitters! Nevertheless, this quote really shows his commitment: 'He certainly is not a wise man who folds his arms and reposes himself at home, seeing with unconcern the flames that have invaded his neighbor's house without using any endeavors to extinguish them.'

In July 1775, the Second Continental Congress had Thomas Jefferson draft the Olive Branch Petition in an attempt to reconcile with England. However, Dickinson thought it was too harsh, and he redrafted it, and it was his amended version that was approved by Congress and sent to England. This is important to remember: Dickinson frequently amended what others wrote to soften the tone. You might think this would offend others, but surprisingly, it wasn't (as his next document illustrates)! When King George rejected the petition, Dickinson co-authored with Jefferson the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity in Taking up Arms which justified going to war.

If you notice, Dickinson co-authored an essay with the same man whose paper he'd just rewritten! Jefferson took no offense. His most memorable moment though came one year later in July 1776, when he refused to sign the Declaration of Independence as he felt war premature. As noted above, this was his core dilemma. As a patriot, he supported the ideas of the revolution, but not the methods of the revolution. This is an important distinction to keep in mind for this lesson. Dickinson though was down but not out, and he soon played a key role in drafting the Articles of Confederation in 1776 which preceded the U.S. Constitution.

John Dickinson Delaware Home, Popular Hall
Popular Hall

Statesmen and the Constitutional Convention

It should be no surprise to you by now that Dickinson served in yet another official role. In 1787, he served as one of five representatives from Delaware at the Constitutional Convention. He favored a strong national government, but he also wanted protection for state interests. This is yet another important point to remember for this lesson. Even when Dickinson favored a certain position, he was willing to give the other side respect. After the Constitution was completed it had to be approved by three-quarters of the states, but ratification stalled in endless debate.

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