ON the second of December, 1767, the Pennsylvania Chronicle and Universal Advertiser produced a sensation among the staid citizens of Philadelphia. To those acquainted with the reputation of its editor, William Goddard, there was less surprise, though greater interest. In New York, immediately before the meeting of the Stamp Act Congress, he had incensed the Royal Council and excited the people by scattering broadcast the Constitutional Courant, purporting to be printed “ by Andrew Marvel, at the sign of the Bribe refused, on Constitutional Hill, North America.” Coiled about the title of “ that incendiary paper ” was the representation of a snake in eight parts, denoting New England and the other sections of the American colonies, together with the motto “ Join or die.” But the existence of the Constitutional Courant, like its object (to promote union against the Stamp Act), had been transitory. It had had but a single issue ; and its bold publisher, moving to Philadelphia, had started the Pennsylvania Chronicle and Universal Advertiser.
In the issue above referred to, this paper contained a letter, addressed To my Dear Countrymen, and signed A Farmer, the tone and aspect of which aroused much curiosity and excitement. Who this Farmer might be many were asking, but no one could tell. The chief evidence presented by the letter itself was in its opening, which appeared to be a description of the writer, and was as follows: “ I am a farmer, settled, after a variety of fortunes, near the banks of the river Delaware, in the province of Pennsylvania. I received a liberal education, and have been engaged in the busy scenes of life, but am now convinced that a man may be as happy without bustle as with it. My farm is small; my servants are few and good ; I have a little money at interest; I wish no more ; my employment in my own affairs is easy; and with a contented, grateful mind, undisturbed by worldly hopes or fears relating to myself, I am completing the number of days allotted to me by divine goodness.”
Before speculation as to the identity of this wise, contented old “ farmer " could take definite shape, there appeared a second letter, with the same address and signature, upon the same general subject and with a similar treatment, and during the ensuing ten weeks ten more were published, the last on February 17, 1768. With the advent of each successive letter the popular interest and excitement increased and spread. It was dispatched and copied throughout the thirteen provinces. As soon as the series was completed, it was issued and disseminated as a pamphlet, entitled Letters from a Farmer of Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies ; and soon the name and words of John Dickinson—for the author was early discovered — were known and read from Massachusetts Bay through Georgia. Indeed, it may be said that prior to the Revolution no American composition was so widely read and admired. Its fame and circulation were not restricted to the British colonies. In May, 1768, it was reprinted in London, with a preface written by Benjamin Franklin, and in 1769 it was published in French at Paris.
This sudden and widespread popularity of the Letters from a Farmer was largely due to the efficiency of the means employed for their circulation. In the American colonies, the newspaper, though of recent origin and crude form, had already become an important circulating medium. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the public duty of news-vender was attached to the office of postmaster, and was performed through correspondence, by circular letters, with neighboring towns and provinces. In 1704, John Campbell, postmaster of Boston, tiring of this clumsy and laborious method, instituted a novel substitute. He started the Boston News-Letter, the first newspaper in America to survive its first issue. Printed on a single sheet, — more often on a half-sheet, of foolscap size, with two columns on each side, it contained, first, extracts from recent London papers, and then an odd mixture of more important local events with striking incidents and rumors of other places and provinces. Though for fifteen years the Boston News-Letter existed without a rival in America, by 1766 it had been the model for at least fortythree newspapers. Most of them were issued once a week, and were filled chiefly with news and advertisements. But as rumors arose and increased of the designs of the mother country to tax America, the newspapers became more and more the vehicles of public opinion. It was thus that the Letters from a Farmer, as they successively appeared, were taken up and passed on by these public sentinels guarding the common welfare.
These Letters were welcomed by the people because they revealed the startling nature of the political situation. The storm of resistance that disturbed the whole seaboard upon the passage of the Stamp Act had been almost allayed by the repeal of that measure. Directly, the conviction had spread that Great Britain had yielded the point in dispute, the right to tax the colonies ; and there had been a signal reaction in public sentiment toward gratitude, loyalty, and confidence. But this feeling was unfounded. The impossibility of enforcement, not a yielding of the principle, had brought about the repeal of the Stamp Act; and the new ministry, under the lead of Charles Townshend, imputing the failure to a defect in method and a lack of policy, had already begun a second and more subtle attempt to attain the primary object. Under the pretense of exercising its acknowledged right to regulate commerce, Parliament had in June, 1767, substituted for a direct tax — the feature so obnoxious in the Stamp Act — an indirect duty on imports ; had imposed a tariff on all importations into the colonies of tea, paints, paper, glass, and lead, — the income therefrom to be used, so far as needed, in supporting the government, not of Great Britain, but of the colonies themselves. Surely, for finesse and boldness this new plan of attack was quite worthy of the brilliant and versatile Townshend; and it might have been successful had it not been for the Letters from a Farmer of Pennsylvania. They sounded the alarm throughout the colonies, and aroused the slumbering people to prompt and vigorous resistance.
Indeed, one can readily understand the remarkable influence of these Letters after noting their style. They abound in direct, incisive statement, cogent reasoning, keen sarcasm, and impassioned appeal ; and withal they are infused with a moderate judicial spirit, and are enriched and strengthened by extensive legal and political learning. By a brief, pungent analysis of the recent Townshend Act, the writer revealed an object essentially the same with that of the Grenville Stamp Act, — to appropriate the money of the colonies without their consent. “ It is a bird,”he declared, “ sent out over the waters to discover whether the waves that lately agitated this part of the world with such violence are yet subsided. If this adventurer gets footing here, we shall quickly find it to he of the kind described by the poet, — ' infelix vates,' — a direful foreteller of future calamities.” Reflecting upon the consequences of submission, he intimated : “ Some future historian may thus record our fall : ‘ The eighth year of this reign was distinguished by a very memorable event, the American colonies then submitting for the first time to be taxed by the British Parliament. . . . From thence the decline of their freedom began, and its decay was extremely rapid ; for as money was always raised upon them by the Parliament, their assemblies grew immediately useless, and in a short time contemptible; and in less than one hundred years the people sunk down into that tameness and supineness of spirit by which they still continue to be distinguished.’”
The fineness of this sarcasm is no less remarkable than are the dignity, fervor, and force of the final appeal in the twelfth and concluding letter of the series : " Let us with a truly wise generosity and charity banish and discourage all illiberal distinctions which may arise from differences in situation, forms of government, or modes of religion. Let us consider ourselves as men — freemen — Christian freemen, separated from the rest of the world, and firmly bound together by the same rights, interests, and dangers. . . . Let these truths be indelibly impressed on our minds : that we cannot be happy without being free ; that we cannot be free without being secure in our property ; that we cannot be secure in our property if, without our consent, others may, as by right, take it away; that taxes imposed on us by Parliament do thus take it away; that duties laid for the sole purpose of raising money are taxes ; that attempts to lay such duties should be instantly and firmly opposed ; that this opposition can never be effectual unless it be the united effort of these provinces ; that therefore benevolence of temper towards each other and unanimity of counsels are essential to the welfare of the whole ; and lastly, that, for this reason, every man amongst us who in any manner would encourage either dissension, diffidence, or indifference between these colonies is an enemy to himself and to his country. ”
Here is, indeed, a masterly summary of the political situation and of the needs of the time, and as such it was everywhere welcomed by the patriots. John Dickinson, the Farmer of Pennsylvania, became the hero of the hour. Within a month after the last letter was published, the citizens of Boston, in town-meeting, voted “ that the thanks of the town be given to the ingenious author of a course of letters published at Philadelphia and in this place, and signed A Farmer ; ” and at the same time the meeting appointed Benjamin Church, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, and John Rowe a committee to prepare and publish a letter of thanks. When prepared, it was accepted by the town and published in the several newspapers. After an elaborate panegyric, it begged leave to " salute the Farmer as the friend of Americans and the common benefactor of mankind.” The Society of Fort Saint David’s — a company of young men in Pennsylvania, mainly of Welsh descent, associated for the purpose of fishing in the Schuylkill, and possessed of much local prestige — presented Dickinson with an address in a box of heart of oak, ornamented with gold letters, emblems, mottoes, and inscriptions. These are but examples of the many marks of public favor bestowed on Dickinson by his grateful countrymen. It is probable that at this time no man, Franklin possibly excepted, was more widely or more favorably known in the American colonies.
As a natural result, Dickinson was immediately called into politics, both local and intercolonial, a work for which he had varied and peculiar qualifications. Not the least of these were his parentage and his social connections. He was horn in 1732. His parents then resided at their country-seat,Crosia, in Talbot County, Maryland ; but, a few years later, they removed to Dover, Delaware. At Dover, his father, Samuel Dickinson, a rich Quaker, purchased a large tract of land, and held several important public offices. His mother, Mary Cadwalader, came from a good family of Welsh descent, and was the sister of Dr. John Cadwalader, distinguished in Philadelphia prior to the Revolution as a physician, philanthropist, and man of affairs. After a careful training at home, Dickinson was sent abroad, according to a custom prevalent among wealthy families, especially of the Middle and Southern colonies. Before going abroad he had studied law with John Moland, a barrister of the Inner Temple and a prominent lawyer in Philadelphia, and while in England he continued his legal studies at the Temple, London. On his return to America he began the practice of law, and soon achieved marked success.
In 1770, shortly after the publication of his Letters from a Farmer, Dickinson, then thirty-eight years of age, was married to Mary Norris, the sole surviving child of Isaac Norris. Jr., and of Sara Logan. By this alliance he added to his own large property the control of the Norris estate, and became connected with two of the first Quaker families in Pennsylvania. Both the Logan and the Norris families had long been prominent in politics and in society. James Logan, the maternal grandfather of Mary Norris, came to America with William Penn, and held successively the important offices of secretary of the Council, trustee of the Penn estate, and chief justice of the province. Withal he gained some distinction in science and literature, and he established a free public library in Philadelphia. Isaac Norris, Jr., like his father, was early in life a successful merchant, greatly increasing his paternal fortune. They both became distinguished in public life. A few years before his death, Isaac Norris, Sr., built and adorned the beautiful country-seat of Fair Hill, situated just outside the town of Philadelphia, upon an estate of over five hundred acres. This was the favorite residence of Isaac Norris, Jr., also, till his death, in 1766; and here John Dickinson lived after his marriage to Mary Norris, then its sole mistress.
Prior to the Revolution Fair Hill was reputed to be one of the most beautiful country residences in America. The mansion itself was a large square structure, with dormer windows and a recessed porch. The spacious halls and parlors were wainscoted in oak and red cedar polished with wax. A flight of broad steps descended from the porch to a wide carriage-way that, bordered with lofty trees and dense shrubbery, led over the lawn to the Germantown road. Several acres were laid out in walks, fishponds, and gardens. The last, intersected by graveled paths with clipped hedges, contained many costly exotics, besides a variety of native plants.
But of far more interest to Dickinson was the library which he found at Fair Hill. It included many rare and valuable books, collected mainly by his wife’s father, a man of taste, education, and scholarly attainment. It is said to have been, next to that of James Logan, the most extensive in the province. With this added to a large library of his own, Dickinson undoubtedly possessed an equipment for study and research excelled by few, if any, contemporary Americans. Even before going to Fair Hill he wrote of himself: “Being generally master of my time, I spend a good deal of it in a library which I think the most valuable part of my small estate ; and being acquainted with two or three gentlemen of abilities and learning, who honor me with their friendship, I have acquired, I believe, a greater knowledge in history and the laws and constitution of my country than is generally attained by men of my class, many of them not being so fortunate as I have been in the opportunities of getting information.”
His knowledge of history and government was at this time supplemented by eight years of political experience. In 1762, at thirty years of age, he had entered the Assembly, and since then had been most of the time connected with that body. This period was a stormy one in local politics. The standard of equity recognized by the first Proprietor, William Penn, had not been maintained by his successors. In 1763, John Penn, the lieutenant-governor of the province and the representative of the Proprietaries, by insisting upon a considerable diminution of taxes on Proprietary lands, stirred up a large and vigorous opposition in the Assembly, led by Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Galloway. The latter were so incensed that they endeavored, by petition to the king, to transform the Proprietary government into a royal province. But a large minority, chiefly Quakers, in the Assembly would not go to this extreme, and of this party John Dickinson, who had recently taken his seat, became the leader. He did not countenance the unjust and arbitrary exactions of the Proprietors, but their rule, as a whole, he much preferred to that of royal favorites or emissaries. He therefore resisted to the utmost the revolutionary designs of Franklin and Galloway. But for the time he was defeated. The petition to the king for a change of government was voted by the Assembly, and Franklin was sent to England to advocate it at court.
Franklin gone, Dickinson easily became the first statesman in Pennsylvania,— a fact evident from his part in the stirring events following the passage of the Stamp Act. Under the imminence of foreign oppression local dissension was put aside, and, led by Dickinson, the Assembly adopted and executed a policy of firm but temperate resistance ; and this moderation was in such contrast with the violence of Massachusetts and other colonies that it was publicly recognized in a letter from General Conway, Secretary of State. As a delegate from Pennsylvania, Dickinson attended the Stamp Act Congress, and drew its most important measure, the Resolves, called the American Bill of Rights; and on his return he published an able pamphlet, discussing the situation and outlining the policy of non-importation presently executed. To his culture, wealth, social position, and political experience the popularity of the Letters from a Farmer now added an intercolonial reputation, and their author was hailed throughout America as a leader of the first importance.
This expectation was not disappointed. The Farmer of Pennsylvania had not only revealed the true import of the Townshend Act, but had also suggested a plan for obtaining its repeal. This was, in brief, to withhold American trade with Great Britain. It was not a new plan. Two years before, it was executed against the Stamp Act, and with success. Hence it was now adopted with the greater alacrity, and along the whole seaboard merchants, spurred by public sentiment, entered into agreements not to import the goods recently made dutiable.
At first this policy was successful. It brought such enormous losses upon English merchants that they induced Parliament to repeal the Townshend Act. But from this concession there was one reservation which maintained the principle : the duty on tea was retained. Accordingly, colonial merchants, modifying their agreements, refused to import tea. But they did not persist in unanimity and zeal. Greed warred with patriotism. The merchants of Rhode Island and New York withdrew from the agreement, and the friends of the movement apprehended ultimate failure.
To avert this catastrophe, Dickinson and his associates devised an ingenious and comprehensive extension of the plan. They proposed that its execution be entrusted no longer to the faithless merchants, but henceforth to the more patriotic farmers, the consumers themselves. Should the latter form associations pledged not to consume the article taxed, then, it was believed, the merchants, deprived of a market, would, at least for their own interest, refrain from importations.
Had the greed of colonial merchants been the only obstacle, it might have been overcome by this new scheme, so intense at this time was the spirit of patriotism in the masses. But the policy of peaceful resistance met another and more serious difficulty, — the violence of the people. Foreseeing this, the Farmer of Pennsylvania had given earnest warning. “ The cause of liberty,” he had written, “ is a cause of too much dignity to be sullied by turbulence and tumult.” He had urged his countrymen “ immediately, vigorously, and unanimously to exert themselves, in the most firm but most peaceful manner, for obtaining relief ; ” and in Pennsylvania, where he held the reins of power, this policy had been fully and uniformly executed. But in other colonies, guided by men of a different temperament, not the same consistency and moderation had been manifested. In Massachusetts, particularly, the spirit of resistance had been, from the first, rather active than passive. The fierce denunciations and passionate appeals of James Otis, the " impetuous ardor and restless activity ” of Samuel Adams, had begotten in the people a temper toward the British authorities which it was hard to control. Several times, when suddenly and intensely excited, it had given way even to riot and pillage.
Of course in England these acts of violence had greatly injured the cause of the Americans. In fact, they had distracted attention from its real merit. The considerable sympathy for colonial grievances had been quickly overborne, Determined first of all to enforce the law and to secure order, the British public had sanctioned the quartering of troops in the colonies, and at last, thoroughly exasperated by the destruction of the tea in Boston harbor, had approved the passage of the Boston Port Bill. Thus mainly by her own impetuosity and violence, Massachusetts, impatient of the accepted policy of peaceful commercial retaliation, had brought herself to the dread alternative of abject submission or of severe punishment. She would not submit; and she could endure to be punished, provided she were sustained by her sister colonies. Accordingly, to secure this support, she speedily dispatched circulars to the public bodies, and private letters to the leading men, in the several colonies, soliciting coöperation in council and in action at this crisis of her affairs.
Assistance was sought in particular from Pennsylvania; for in 1774 this was the most populous province, and Philadelphia the largest city, on the continent. Situated as she was midway among the thirteen colonies, Pennsylvania possessed great importance in the execution of an intercolonial policy or movement. Furthermore, by her conduct thus far in the pending controversy, she had gained the confidence of the neighboring colonies and the respect of the mother country. As Joseph Reed wrote at this time to the Earl of Dartmouth, secretary of state for the colonies, “ This city has been distinguished for its peaceable and regular demeanor; nor has it departed from it on the present occasion, as there have been no mobs, no insults to individuals, no injury to private property.”
While, therefore, the support of Pennsylvania was indispensable, the Boston patriots sought it in uncertainty ; for they had reason to think that their recent course was not generally approved. A large and influential part of the population were Quakers, a sect opposed to violent or extreme action of any kind, and especially averse to active opposition to the mother country. Without their participation the coöperation of the province could hardly be secured. There was also the Proprietary party, devoted to the support of the existing government, and hence looking askance at anything savoring of revolution. Yet both this and the Quaker element were disposed, after a fashion, to resist the aggression of Great Britain, and if properly approached could be brought to the assistance of Boston. To effect this result, however, the ardent Whigs were quite incompetent. They knew that this lay in the power of but one man, — John Dickinson. No man surpassed him in influence among the Quakers. He was attached to them by birth and education and connected with them by marriage, and his well-known caution and moderation attracted and retained their confidence. At the same time he was the recognized leader of the Proprietary party. Thus generally trusted and obeyed, of high professional standing and of great wealth, he more than any other had for several years guided the course of Pennsylvania, and thereby moulded the prevailing policy of the colonies. It was plain, therefore, that to secure their end the Whigs must have the aid of Dickinson; but whether they could win him over was quite uncertain.
Evidently, Dickinson was chagrined at the recent turn of events in Boston. In a letter to Josiah Quincy, about this time, he wrote: “Nothing can throw us in a pernicious confusion but one colony’s breaking the line of opposition, by advancing too hastily before the rest. The one which dares to betray the common cause, by rushing forward contrary to the maxims of discipline established by common sense and the experience of ages, will inevitably and utterly perish.” Massachusetts, rushing forward, had dared “ to betray the common cause,” and was now facing the consequences. Would Dickinson, nevertheless, interpose to save her ?
The circumstances required immediate action. Urged by letters from Hancock and Adams, the leading Whigs, Joseph Reed, Thomas Mifflin, and Charles Thomson, issued a call for a meeting of the principal citizens in the long room of the City Tavern, hoping to elicit an expression of sentiment favorable to Boston. But they knew that if Dickinson should quietly ignore the meeting or should publicly antagonize their purpose they could not succeed. Immediately, therefore, with much anxiety, they waited upon him at his country - seat, Fair Hill.
This conference occupied most of the day, and must have covered the whole political outlook; for the course now taken by Philadelphia would be the one followed by the whole province, and probably by all the Middle and Southern colonies. The Whigs gained over Dickinson to their cause ; and, such was the crisis, they entrusted that cause to his superior judgment and leadership. Toward evening they took their departure from Fair Hill, assured of success; for they had come to a complete understanding and acquired a competent leader, as ensuing events made plain.
At the City Tavern they found the long room crowded with representatives of all classes, — officers of the government, adherents of the Proprietaries, Quakers, Moderates and whigs, awaiting with much excitement and some hostility the opening of the meeting. After the reading of the Boston letter, Reed, Mifflin, and Thomson spoke in turn, all warmly urging immediate and outspoken approval of Boston ; but their proposition was received in uproar and confusion. As soon as order could be restored, Dickinson, probably as prearranged, in a conciliatory tone, recommended that a more guarded reply be made to the Boston circular, and the governor be petitioned, in view of the crisis, to call the Assembly,— his design being to make the governor’s refusal, which he anticipated, an excuse for calling a conference of the people independent of the hostile Assembly. The ruse was successful throughout. His recommendations, appearing non - committal and inoffensive, were at once adopted by the meeting, and he was made chairman of a committee for their execution. The governor rejected the petition as an insult to the authorities, and directly a provincial convention was assembled by the Whigs, with the concurrence of Dickinson. The latter now took the chief control of the Whig movement, and his mastery as a politician became evident. This popular convention in its important acts did little more than to register his will. Its statement of grievances and its instructions to the members of Assembly, both written by him, evinced, in decided but respectful language, a determination to resist taxation by Parliament on the one hand, and on the other an aversion to a separation from the mother country. He was made chairman of the committee delegated to correspond with the other colonies; and, later, he was appointed a representative of Pennsylvania in the First Continental Congress.
In this first general assemblage of American statesmen no one exerted more influence or did better service than Dickinson. In fact, no one brought greater prestige or fitter talents. Few of them had any reputation outside their respective colonies. But he, known and admired by all as the author of the Letters from a Farmer, was at once singled out with eager curiosity and regarded with much deference. This predilection was confirmed upon a personal acquaintance. His personality was singularly impressive and attractive. John Adams thus writes of Dickinson’s appearance at this time: “Just recovered from an illness, he is a shadow, tall but slender as a reed, pale as ashes.” A more satisfactory description is that given by William T. Read in his Life of George Read, and is the picture of Dickinson in his later years cast clear and full upon the sensitive mind of a youth : “ I have a vivid impression of the man, —tall and spare, his hair white as snow, his garb uniting with the severe simplicity of his sect a neatness and elegance peculiarly in keeping with it; and his manners beautiful emanations of the great Christian principle of love, with the gentleness and affectionateness . . . combining the politeness of a man of the world familiar with society in its most polished forms, with conventional canons of behavior. Truly he lives in my memory as a realization of my beau-ideal of a gentleman.” In speech he was easy, fluent, and earnest, though temperate, exhibiting rare tact and self-control. His whole conduct was stamped with culture and courtesy. At the same time, the graces of his person were set off by a fitting background of hospitality. The sober Quaker city had never received so large and distinguished a company of guests ; and she quite exhausted herself, and them, in their entertainment ; but it is safe to say that few entertained with more gracious or more generous hospitality than did the master of Fair Hill.
But what most gave Dickinson influence in the First Continental Congress was his acknowledged and unrivaled success as a politician of the highest class. Though in the guise of a Farmer of Pennsylvania he had exposed and refuted the shrewdest English leaders, still he had given a more recent and equally great evidence of his power. By his patriotism and adroitness he had attached to the common cause the great pivotal province of Pennsylvania, — long the arena of contending factions, and often the source of chilling indifference, — and thereby had greatly influenced in the same direction the other Middle and the Southern colonies. In short, probably he had done more than any other man toward the present realization of the dream of an intercolonial union.
Moreover, Dickinson’s moderate, conciliatory spirit, by which chiefly he had accomplished these results, was generally commended by his fellow-delegates. Many of them were wealthy, conservative land-owners ; nearly all were still warmly attached to the mother country; and the great majority, though determined to relieve the Boston patriots in their distress, were, nevertheless, disposed to restrain them from further excesses, and to make an earnest effort at accommodation with England. To effect this object had now become a delicate matter, demanding just the method and the policy that had been so successful in Pennsylvania. Hence it was substantially the plan urged by the delegates from that province which the Congress finally adopted.
“It is at present,” Joseph Reed had written to the Earl of Dartmouth in July, 1774, “ the sense of the inhabitants of Pennsylvania that no measure of opposition to the mother country should be adopted until other modes have failed of success.” Two months having passed, this now became the sentiment of the First Continental Congress. Accordingly, that body, while resolving to support and relieve the inhabitants of Boston, at the same time Strictly enjoined them to be patient. It mainly devoted itself to “ redressing American grievances, ascertaining American rights, and restoring harmony between Great Britain and her colonies; ” and to this end it prepared and issued a series of papers that reflect alike the eminence of its statesmanship and the justice of its cause. Indeed, no further praise is needed for this work than that bestowed in the ensuing January by the Earl of Chatham in the House of Lords : “ When your lordships look at the papers transmitted us from America; when you consider their decency, firmness, and wisdom, you cannot but respect their cause, and wish to make it your own. For myself, I must declare and avow that in all my reading and observation — and it has been my favorite study — I have read Thucydides, and have studied and admired the master-states of the world — that for solidity of reasoning, force of sagacity, and wisdom of conclusion, under such a complication of difficult circumstances, no nation or body of men can stand in preference to the General Congress at Philadelphia.”
The paper which may well have been most prominent in the mind of the Earl of Chatham when he spoke these remarkable words was the First Petition to the King. This was intended to present to King and Parliament the plea of the colonies for justice and reconciliation. Its rejection would certainly inaugurate retaliation, and might lead to war ; while its favorable reception would be at least an augury of a better understanding. Its terms and spirit, therefore, engaged the earnest solicitude of the Congress. The drafting of this instrument was first assigned to Patrick Henry, whose wonderful eloquence had made him conspicuous ; but his work, when completed, was not acceptable. Meanwhile, Dickinson had been admitted as a delegate, and at once added to the committee on the petition. To him the task was given anew, and his draft met the approval of his associates. He also wrote the important Address to the Inhabitants of Canada, an eloquent appeal for sympathy and cooperation against a common oppression. In some respects these have few equals among American state papers. They merit the earnest study alike of students of our history and of leaders in our politics. They contributed in a great degree to that eminent reputation for statesmanship enjoyed by the leading patriots of the Revolutionary era.
The merit of these papers is seen equally in the salutary effect which they had in the colonies. They calmed excitement, spread confidence, and encouraged moderation. In a firm but reasonable spirit America awaited the answer to her prayers. Had a similar spirit controlled Great Britain, the magnanimous efforts of Dickinson and his fellowconservatives might have brought about reconciliation.
But neither the pleas of the colonies nor the warnings of Burke and Chatham could turn the British ministry and the parliamentary majority from their fatal purpose of requiring unconditional submission. The petition to the king was rejected, and a rebellion was declared to exist in Massachusetts. As prearranged, the colonies retaliated by a total suspension of commercial intercourse with Great Britain, and the Second Continental Congress assembled to deliberate upon the changing outlook. In this body, Dickinson, again a delegate from Pennsylvania, found a temper far different from that of its predecessor. Stirred to exasperation by the recent affairs at Lexington and Concord, the delegates began to lose hope, and even desire, of reconciliation with England. This feeling was zealously promoted by the New England delegates, led by John Adams. In the preceding Congress these men had with difficulty repressed their vehemence and radicalism. They had borne with ill-disguised impatience what Josiah Quincy called “the refinements, delays, and experiments of the Philadelphians.” Now they came out frankly and stoutly. They were rapidly gaining sympathy and following. They were known already to be meditating independence ; and if not checked, they might soon effect its declaration.
This idea of a total separation from the mother country was intolerable to Dickinson. It antagonized his temperament and his convictions. It could be realized, if at all, only through a fratricidal war, awful in its consequences ; and from this he shrunk with a revulsion due partly to his Quaker training, partly to his delicate, sensitive organization. At the same time, he believed such a separation to be impolitic. Seven years before, in his Letters from a Farmer, he had written: “ If I am an enthusiast in anything, it is in my zeal for the perpetual dependence of these colonies on their mother country.” “ The prosperity of these colonies is founded in their dependence on Great Britain.” “ I regard Great Britain as a bulwark happily fixed between these colonies and the powerful nations of Europe.”
To these convictions he still adhered, and with them his present policy was thoroughly consistent. From the beginning he had urged that oppressive measures of Parliament should be resisted at first peacefully, by suspension of commercial intercourse. Should this policy of peace fail, he had suggested an obvious alternative : “ If at length it becomes undoubted that an inveterate resolution is formed to annihilate the liberties of the governed, the English history affords frequent examples of resistance by force.”Accordingly, on hearing of the inroad to Lexington and Concord, Dickinson, in spite of his religious scruples, became colonel of the first Pennsylvania battalion of militia raised for defense ; and for the same purpose — the resistance of invasion — he approved the assumption by the Second Continental Congress of full control of the Continental army before Boston. At the same time, he expected and desired that ultimately the total failure of coercion would bring about a reconciliation upon a constitutional basis.
Hence, conscious of the purity of his motives and convinced of the wisdom of his policy, Dickinson set himself squarely against the rapid drift toward independence. In the first place, he advocated the policy and expediency of a second and final petition to the king, couched in respectful though firm language. Thereupon it first became evident that two extremes of opinion had been forming in the Congress. The radicals, led by John Adams, opposed the petition as useless, calling it “that measure of imbecility; ” while under the name of the Olive Branch it was supported by Jay and other conservative minds. Being finally voted by the Congress, it was drafted by Dickinson, signed by all the delegates, and sent to England. But it was in vain : the ministry had gone too far to recognize any olive branch other than a tender of complete submission.
Meanwhile, Dickinson, at the request of his associates, drew the declaration of “ the causes and necessity of their taking up arms,” — a paper rarely equaled for lofty sentiment and chaste diction. “ We are reduced to the alternative,” it declares, “ of choosing an unconditional submission to the tyranny of irritated ministers or resistance by force. The latter is our choice. We have counted the cost of this contest, and find nothing so dreadful as voluntary slavery. . . . We have not raised armies with ambitious designs of separating from Great Britain and establishing independent States. We fight not for glory or for conquest. . . . In our native land, in defense of the freedom that is our birthright, and which we ever enjoyed till the late violation of it; for the protection of our property, acquired solely by the honest industry of our forefathers and ourselves, against violence actually offered, we have taken up arms. . . . With an humble confidence in the mercies of the supreme and impartial Judge and Ruler of the universe, we most devoutly implore his divine goodness to protect us happily through this great conflict, to dispose our adversaries to reconciliation on reasonable terms, and thereby to relieve the empire from the calamities of a civil war.”
In July, 1775, this declaration of Congress was proclaimed at the head of the several divisions of the Continental army ; and it is recorded that " as soon as these memorable words were pronounced to General Putnam’s division, which he had ordered to be paraded on Prospect Hill, they shouted in three huzzas a loud Amen.” Thus, still the acknowledged and unrivaled spokesman of the thirteen colonies, John Dickinson strove with all his tact, force, and eloquence to mould the sentiment and to guide the action of the people away from independence toward the attainment of an American Magna Charta.
But it was inevitable that this resort to arms should embitter the combatants, — should cause them to disregard or impel them to destroy the bonds of fraternity. Under oppression, in the midst of war, the colonists would not reason, — they could only feel ; and an irresistible impulse, arising in Massachusetts, swept down the Atlantic seaboard through Georgia, — an impatient determination, without regard to the consequences, to throw off all connection with the unnatural mother country. Against this gathering mighty voice of the people, of what avail was the calm, temperate, earnest protest of John Dickinson! He soon felt his weakness, but he could not change his mind.
John Adams was not slow to read the times and to seize his opportunity. He was instant, in and out of season declaring that all was ripe for independence. For a time its declaration was staved off by the conservatives, on the ground that sentiment in its favor was not yet unanimous. This was the case particularly in Pennsylvania, truly called the battle-field of independence. Only by the exercise of great tact and patience had Dickinson drawn this province into the general resistance to British aggression ; and of course the New England scheme of independence was even less acceptable to the Quakers and Proprietaries. These two parties, ill-mated though they were, now led by Dickinson in the opposite direction, controlled the Assembly, and ignored the growing popular approval of separation. In November, 1775, they instructed the Pennsylvania delegates in Congress to “ dissent from and utterly reject any propositions, should such be made, that may cause or lead to a separation from our mother country, or a change in the form of this government.” Hence resistance to independence was associated with the maintenance of the Proprietary government. Indeed, the former depended on the latter, — a fact soon perceived by the more zealous advocates of separation. Hence, led by Benjamin Franklin and encouraged by John Adams and his New England associates, they strove, by overthrowing the government, to commit the province to a declaration of independence. Thus, with Franklin’s return to America, after a lapse of more than ten years, his old struggle against Dickinson for the destruction of the Proprietary government was renewed. This time it had better chances for success.
In this struggle John Adams was not content with giving advice. He induced Congress, on May 15, 1776, to declare that all authority under the Crown should be suppressed, and all powers of government should be drawn from the people. Under this powerful impulse, the popular party in Pennsylvania immediately assembled a provincial conference directly from the people, which authorized the delegates in Congress to vote for independence, and organized itself into a convention for framing a new state government. With this final blow the Proprietary government ceased to exist.
Though beaten thus upon his own field, Dickinson still adhered to his convictions in Congress. In the great final debate over the Declaration of Independence, he was its most formidable opponent, and John Adams and Richard Henry Lee its ablest advocates. The last two, in orations of great fervor and force, appealed especially to the passions and the imaginations of their associates; reciting the injuries America had received, together with her failures to obtain redress, and painting the glory and the felicity that would attend the birth and the progress of the new republic. But Dickinson deprecated all excitement and precipitation. He calmly but earnestly appealed to reason. His argument was : To substitute the attainment of independence for the resistance of aggression as the object of the war would, on the one hand, destroy the union of the people, since all could see the necessity of opposing the pretensions of ministers, but not all that of fighting for independence ; and, on the other hand, as aiming at the dismemberment of the empire rather than at the revocation of obnoxious laws, it would unite the British nation in support of their ministers and in the suppression of rebellion. At any rate, only a long succession of victories by the Americans — which was improbable in such an inequality of power — could induce Great Britain to recognize American independence. “ Prudence,” he declared, “ requires that we should not abandon certain for uncertain objects. Two hundred years of happiness and present prosperity, resulting from English laws and the union with Great Britain, demonstrates that America can be wisely governed by the King and Parliament. It is not as independent but as subject states, not as a republic but as a monarchy, that the colonies have attained to power and greatness. What, then, is the object of these chimeras, hatched in the days of discord and war ? Shall the transports of fury sway us more than the experience of ages, and induce us to destroy, in a moment of anger, the work which has been cemented and tried by time ? The restraining power of the King and Parliament is indispensable to protect the colonies from discord and civil war.”
Dickinson was outvoted. Was he outargued? Whether he was or was not, the great majority of the Continental Congress, together with an overwhelming majority of the American people, were at length resolved to be free and independent, and so they declared. But, in justice to Dickinson’s understanding, it should be borne in mind that independence was ultimately achieved largely because difficulties predicted by him, and realized in fact, were offset by occurrences which no one foresaw, — notably the meagreness of the British forces and the incompetency of British generals; and the casting off of “ the restraining power of the King and Parliament ” was followed by a disgraceful and disastrous period of state selfishness and jealousy. It actually brought “discord,” if it did not eventually lead even to “ civil war.”
In regard to his integrity throughout this memorable contest, that should no longer be questioned. At the last he stood almost alone ; yet he never faltered. Nothing could have sustained him but the honesty of his purpose and the strength of his convictions. For a time his course cost him his seat in Congress and his influence in public life. Nevertheless. he was conscious of his own rectitude. “ If the present day,” he said, “ is too warm for me to be calmly judged, I can credit my country for justice some years hence.”
The reaction of public sentiment in his favor began sooner than was to be expected, considering the extremity to which he had gone and the criticism he had encountered. His sincerity and patriotism soon became evident from his abiding by the decision of Congress and his serving for a time in the Continental army. In 1780 he was chosen president of Delaware, whither he had retired from public life. Two years later, resuming his residence in Philadelphia, he was elected to the supreme executive council, and almost immediately made president, of Pennsylvania. In the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a representative of Delaware, he, together with Oliver Ellsworth, led the smaller States in their great struggle to secure in the new national government a recognition of the principle of equality among the States. In fact, it was mainly through their efforts that this became the fundamental principle in constituting the Senate of the United States; and when the new government was submitted to the people, Dickinson advocated its ratification in his Letters of Fabius, his last political pamphlet.
Thus he lived to assist in the embodiment and establishment of that American independence which he had discouraged and opposed in its inception and declaration. In both cases he was actuated by the same noble principles, — fidelity to his convictions and devotion to his country. He declared himself to be “ a trustee for my countrymen to deliberate upon questions important to their happiness ; ” and eminently faithful was he to that trust through an unusually long and varied public service. Prior to the Revolution his aim was to secure for Americans the constitutional rights enjoyed by Englishmen. And to this end he uniformly approved those measures only that were warranted by English precedents. The danger was that those precedents would be disregarded, in the excitement and the license of the times. Much praise, then, is due to him who, in spite of the public clamor and at the sacrifice of his popularity, stood firmly and consistently for law and moderation. His great work was first to stimulate, then to moderate, the incipient spirit of nationality till it should reach a consciousness of its destiny. That he believed this destiny to be the attainment of an American Magna Charta rather than of a national independence does not lessen the value of his service. It should not cloud the lustre of his fame. Few contemporary patriots understood so well the issue between Great Britain and her colonies. Surely no one could state it better. His statement was acceptable to the people because it was temperate, forcible, and comprehensive. He must he recognized not only as the chief political writer, but also as the great conservative of the Revolutionary era.
Frank Gaylord Cook.