John Dickinson was born on November 13, 1732 in Maryland to Samuel and Mary Dickinson. At the age of eight, he moved to Delaware where he was privately educated. In 1750 he moved to Philadelphia in order to study law. After passing the Bar exam, he became a prominent lawyer in Philadelphia in 1757.
In 1759 until 1760 Dickinson served at the Assembly of the Lower Three counties, representing Delaware. He gained a seat in the Pennsylvania Legislature as a Philadelphia delegate in 1762. He attended The Stamp Act Congress of 1765 and was the author of the resolutions agreed to in the congress (Bradford 100).
Dickinson wrote The Late Regulations Respecting the British Colonies on the Continent of America Considered, which told people to repeal The Stamp Act. He wrote newspaper articles in the Pennsylvania Chronicle, which collectively became known, as his famous Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. These letters informed the people of Britain’s taxation policy and their unjust laws. They urged resistance, but emphasized the possibility of a peaceful resolution.
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These Letters were so popular that he received an honorary LL.D. from the College of New Jersey and public thanks from a meeting in Boston (Pickett). In 1770 Dickinson married Mary Norris and bore two daughters. In 1771, Dickinson returned to the Pennsylvania legislature and drafted a petition to the king, which was unanimously approved. He chaired the Philadelphia Committee of Correspondence and attended the First Continental Congress. In Continental Congress he was named one of the “cool devils” that tried to stall independence as much as possible (Bowen 58).
Dickinson was the author of the Declaration and Resolves of the Continental Congress, and the “Song of the Farmer”- the Revolution anthem. In 1775 he served in the Second Continental Congress as a representative from Pennsylvania and wrote the Declaration of the Causes of Taking up Arms (Bradford 100). In July 1776, Dickinson voted against The Declaration of Independence. He believed that his countrymen were not yet ready for a complete separation from England and there could still be a possibility of a compromise. Thus, he did not sign the document.
Dickinson joined the military and was given the rank of Brigadier General, which was a big honor. When he was not reelected this rank, he resigned from the military and went to his home, “Popular Hall”. In 1779 he was sent to the Continental Congress as a delegate from Delaware. He wrote and signed the Articles of Confederation. Shortly afterwards, he returned to his home because of tragic problems with “Popular Hall.” On November 6, 1781, Dickinson was elected President of Delaware (Pickett). One year later, he moved to Philadelphia and became president from 1782 until 1785. The following year, Dickinson attended the Annapolis Convention representing Delaware (odur.let.rug). In 1787, he was sent by Delaware to the Constitutional Convention where he was one of the strongest advocates for a national government.
Since Dickinson was coming from a small state, he was in favor of equal representation. He did not want the bigger states to overpower the smaller states. After all, “we are a nation! We are a nation although consisting of parts or states” (Bowen 41). He declared that the government be like that of the solar system. Let the general government be like the sun and the states like the planets, repelled yet attracted, and the whole moving regularly and harmoniously in their several orbits. [Or] Thirteen small streams, pursuing one course (Bowen 79).
Dickinson believed that the senate should be chosen by the state legislatures and not from the common people. This would “more intimately connect the state governments with the national legislature.” The senate should have the most distinguished characteristics and have a strong likeness to the British House of Lords. It is more likely that the state legislatures will choose this type of person rather than the common people. The senate should be numerous in order to balance the popular branch (Van Doren 67).
Dickinson did not think that The Constitution should authorize the importation of slaves to the states. The men at the Convention could not abolish the importation all together, but they delayed the prohibition until 1808 (Bowen 204).
If he could, Dickinson would have made the government a limited monarchy. He thought it was the best type of government, but it was out of the question in America. He believed that the Legislative, Executive and Judiciary departments should be made as independent as possible. Each state should retain an equal voice in at least one branch of the national legislature (Van Doren 59).
Although Dickinson did not agree on all the forceful opinions of Madison and the other nationalists, he helped make the Great Compromise and wrote public letters supporting constitutional ratification.
Unfortunately, Dickinson had to leave early from the Convention because of illness. He appointed his colleague, George Read to sign his name in the Constitution. He wrote a series of essays titled The Letters of Fabius while the chairman of Delaware’s constitutional convention in 1791. The purpose of these letters was to produce a favorable feeling in the United States toward France, whose revolution he believed to be at an end. In 1792, he was elected to the Delaware State Senate and served for two years. He decided not to serve any longer due to health reasons (Pickett).
Dickinson is referred to in history as the “Penman of the Revolution.” He died at the age of seventy-five on February 14, 1808 at his home in Wilmington. He was a man of great moral courage, and stood for his beliefs. Many people have said that in the Constitutional Convention he did not live up to his infamous reputation.
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