John Dickinson biography
Dubbed the "penman of the Revolution," John Dickinson was born in 1732 and won fame in 1767 as the author of "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies." The letters helped turn public opinion against the Townshend Acts created by British Parliament. Dickinson also helped draft the Articles of Confederation and craft the U.S. Constitution. His legacy is honored through Dickinson College and Penn State's Dickinson School of Law, both in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
John Dickinson was born in 1732 and moved with his family from Maryland to an estate in Delaware when he was young. At age 18, Dickinson followed his father, a judge in Delaware, into the study of law at a Philadelphia law office. Once his feet were wet, Dickinson went overseas and spent four years studying in the London court system. While there, he heard leading minds of the day discuss Enlightenment philosophy and individual rights. The experience brought into sharp focus the relationship between history and politics and would influence the rest of Dickinson's life path.
Dickinson returned to Philadelphia in 1757 to practice law and saw his reputation in the legal field grow. Three years later, he made his first foray into politics and was soon elected to both the Delaware legislature and the Pennsylvania assembly (made possible by Dickinson's residency in both regions). When he took on Benjamin Franklin (1764) in Pennsylvania on the issue of the state becoming an outright British colony (Dickinson was against it), he lost both the debate and his assembly seat.
The Era of Discontent
As Dickinson sought footing in the political arena, the British government in London, in deep debt from the Seven Years War, began looking for ways to generate revenue. It started with the Stamp Act of 1765, which sought to impose a direct tax on the colonies. Predictably, it met with fierce opposition in the colonies, who refused to pay the tax and boycotted English goods.
Dickinson had a strong, measured voice in the debate, and he was chosen to represent Pennsylvania at the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, where he drafted the body's anti–Stamp Act resolution (which had little effect on London). In the face of London's lack of cooperation, in December 1768, Dickinson began (under a pseudonym) publishing in the Pennsylvania Chronicle his "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies." The letters pointed out the Stamp Act's violations of traditional English liberties and were universally read on both sides of the Atlantic, going on to wide fame and playing a part in the act's ultimate rejection.
In 1770, Dickinson married Mary Norris, the daughter of the former speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, and the pair went on to have five children (although only two survived infancy).
Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution
The second Continental Congress revealed high tensions and a looming revolution, but Dickinson refused to vote for or sign the Declaration of Independence, saying the emerging country was not ready for open revolt against the most powerful nation on earth.
In the end, he abstained from the vote so that the overall vote for independence would be unanimous.
In 1779, after the Revolutionary War, in which he fought in varying roles, Dickinson returned to the Continental Congress and was elected president of Delaware two years later (in 1782 he was elected Pennsylvania president). In 1786, he had a hand in revising the Articles of Confederation, and the document that emerged was a new U.S Constitution, which went into effect the following year. Unfortunately, illness kept Dickinson from signing the document, and a colleague put his name to the parchment.
Dickinson died on February 14, 1808, at his home in Wilmington, Delaware.