John Dickinson

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John Dickinson (November 8, 1732 – February 14, 1808) was an American lawyer and a politician from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Wilmington, Delaware. He was a militia officer during the American Revolution, a Continental Congressman or representative from Pennsylvania and Delaware, a delegate to the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, President of Delaware, President of Pennsylvania and served from 1782 to 1785 as an ex officio member and president of the board of trustees of the University of Pennsylvania. Among the wealthiest men in the British American colonies, he is known as the Penman of the Revolution, for his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, where he eloquently argued the cause of American liberty.

Family history

Dickinson was born November 8th, 1732 [1] at "Croisadore," his family's tobacco plantation in Talbot County, near Trappe, Maryland. He was the great grandson of Walter Dickinson who emigrated from England to Virginia in 1654 and, having joined the Society of Friends, came with several co-religionists to Talbot County on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay in 1659. There, with 400 acres on the banks of the Choptank River he began a plantation, "Croisadore," meaning "cross of gold." He also bought 800 acres on St. Jones Neck in what became Kent County, Delaware.

Croisadore passed through Walter's son, William, to his grandson, Samuel, the father of John Dickinson. Each generation increased the landholdings, so that Samuel inherited 2500 acres (10 km²) on five farms in three Maryland counties and over his lifetime increased that to 9000 acres (36 km²). He also bought the Kent County property from his cousin and expanded it into a massive domain of some 3000 acres (12 km²) stretching along the St. Jones River from Dover to the Delaware Bay. There he began another plantation and called it “Poplar Hall.” These plantations were large, profitable agricultural enterprises worked by slave labor, producing tobacco in Talbot County and wheat and corn in the more sandy soil of Kent County. As a result the family was enormously wealthy.

Samuel Dickinson first married Judith Troth and they had nine children. As was often the case, four died as children, but tragically Judith herself died in 1729, and the three eldest sons died while in England seeking their education. Widowed, with two young children, Henry and Betsy, Samuel married Mary Cadwalader in 1731. She was the daughter of the prominent Quaker, John Cadwalader of Philadelphia. Their sons, John and Philemon, were born in the next few years.

For three generations the Dickinson family had been devout members of the Third Haven Friends Meeting in Talbot County and the Cadwaladers were equally devout members of the Meeting in Philadelphia. But in 1739, John Dickinson's half-sister, Betsy, was married in an Anglican Church to Charles Goldsborough in what was called a "disorderly marriage" by the Meeting. This event hurt Samuel Dickinson in such a way that he never participated in the Meeting again.

It may have also been one of the reasons for Samuel’s decision to move the family to Poplar Hall in 1740. Leaving Croisadore to elder son, Henry Dickinson, they made the trek to their new home, where Samuel had already taken a leading role in the community as Judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Kent County. The move also placed Mary nearer her Philadelphia relations, and young John was to grow up under the growing attraction of that great metropolis.

By contemporary standards Poplar Hall was itself a busy place, situated on a now straightened bend of the St. Jones River. There was plenty of activity delivering the necessities, and shipping the agricultural products produced. Much of this product was wheat, an especially soft, fine wheat, that along with other wheat from the region, was milled into the famous “superfine” flour. But the people were largely servants and slaves, employed by, or doing business with the Dickinsons. Neighbors were a long way away over the marshy hinterland, and even those that were there were not close friends, separated psychologically by differences in wealth and religion. The land itself was a vast, damp, mosquito ridden domain, acquired because it was cheaper to buy than to improve, and therefore quickly worn out and abandoned. It had a subtle, quiet beauty, fully appreciated by John Dickinson and his father, but less so by others in the family, and not at all by his wife in the years to come.

Early life and education

Dickinson was educated at home, largely by doting parents, but also by recent immigrants employed for that purpose. Included among them was the Presbyterian minister Francis Alison, who later began the well known New London Academy in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Most important was William Killen, who became a life-long friend, and himself had a distinguished career as Delaware’s first Chief Justice and Chancellor. Dickinson was precocious and energetic, and in spite of his love of "Poplar Hall" and his family, was himself irresistibly drawn to the larger stage up river in Philadelphia.

Recognizing all this, his father sent him, at the age of 18, to begin studying the law under John Moland in Philadelphia. There he made friends with fellow students George Read and Samuel Wharton, among others, and enjoyed the new experience of urban life. By 1753 it was apparent that the place he really needed to study was London, and in spite of having already lost three sons while making similar trips, Samuel Dickinson agreed to send John for what ended up as three years of study at the Middle Temple. He spent those years studying the works of Edward Coke and Francis Bacon among others, at the Inns of Court, and by early 1757 was admitted to the Bar. After returning to "Poplar Hall" for a lengthy visit, he was back in Philadelphia by the fall, having begun his career as barrister and solicitor.

Personal affairs

In 1770 Dickinson married Mary Norris, also known as Polly, the daughter of another wealthy Philadelphia Quaker, and Speaker of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, Isaac Norris. They had two daughters, Sally and Maria. Dickinson never formally joined the Quaker Meeting, because, as he explained, he believed in the "lawfulness of defensive war." However, now married to another devout Quaker, he was always strongly influenced by the beliefs of the Society of Friends.

He was already among the wealthiest of men, and this marriage only increased that. In Philadelphia, he preferred to live at the family estate of his wife, called "Fairhill," near Germantown. Meanwhile he built an elegant mansion on Chestnut Street but never lived there as it was confiscated and turned into a hospital during his 1776-77 absence in Delaware. It then became the residence of the French ambassador, and still later the home of his brother, Philemon Dickinson. Fairhill was burned by the British during the Battle of Germantown. While in Philadelphia as State President, he lived at the confiscated mansion of Joseph Galloway at Sixth and Market Streets, now established as the State Presidential mansion.

As an adult Dickinson lived at his family home, Poplar Hall, on the Jones Neck, in Kent County, for extended periods only in 1776-77 and 1781-82. In August 1781 it was sacked by Loyalists, and after being restored, was badly burned in 1804. This home is now owned by the State of Delaware, is undergoing restoration and is open to the public. After his service as President of Pennsylvania, he returned to live in Wilmington, Delaware in 1785 and built a mansion at the northwest corner of 8th and Market Streets.

Continental Congress

As events unfolded Dickinson was one of Pennsylvania's delegates to the First Continental Congress in 1774 and the Second Continental Congress in 1775 and 1776. In support of the cause, he continued to contribute declarations in the name of the Congress. Among the most famous is one written with Thomas Jefferson, a Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, with Dickinson’s famous conclusion that Americans were resolved to die free men rather than live slaves. Another was the Olive Branch Petition, a last ditch appeal to King George III to resolve the dispute. But through it all, agreeing with New Castle County's George Read and many others in Philadelphia and the Lower Counties, Dickinson's object was reconciliation, not independence and revolution. He was a proud devotee of the British Constitution, and felt the dispute was with Parliament only. He was also a product of his Quaker heritage, which insisted that disputes be settled without violence.

When the Continental Congress began the debate on the Declaration of Independence on July 1, 1776, Dickinson reiterated his opposition to declaring independence at that time. Dickinson believed that Congress should complete the Articles of Confederation and secure a foreign alliance before issuing a declaration. He abstained or absented himself from the votes that declared independence (July 2) and approved the wording of the formal Declaration (July 4). Dickinson understood the implications of his refusal to vote, stating, "My conduct this day, I expect will give the finishing blow to my once too great and, my integrity considered, now too diminished popularity." Dickinson refused to sign the Declaration, and since a proposal had been brought forth and carried that stated, "for our mutual security and protection," no man could remain in Congress without signing, Dickinson voluntarily left and joined the Pennsylvania militia.

Following the Declaration of Independence, Dickinson was given the rank of brigadier general in the Pennsylvania militia, known as the Associators. He led some 10,000 soldiers to Elizabeth, New Jersey to protect that area against British attack from Staten Island. Because of his unpopular opinion on independence, two junior officers were promoted above him. He resigned his commission in December 1776 and went to stay at Poplar Hall in Kent County. While there he learned that his home on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia had been confiscated and converted into a hospital. Despite these setbacks, Dickinson insisted on always espousing his true feelings, no matter the consequence.

President of Delaware

For more than two years Dickinson stayed at Poplar Hall in a long depression. The Delaware General Assembly tried to appoint him as their delegate to the Continental Congress in 1777, but he refused. In August 1777 he served as a private with the Kent County Militia at Middletown, Delaware under General Caesar Rodney to help delay General William Howe's march to Philadelphia. In October 1777, Dickinson's friend Thomas McKean appointed him Brigadier General of the Delaware Militia, but again Dickinson declined the appointment. Shortly afterwards he learned that the British had burned down his Fairhill property during the Battle of Germantown.

These years were not without accomplishment, however. In 1777, Dickinson, Delaware's wealthiest farmer and largest slaveholder, decided to free his slaves. While Kent County was not a large slave-holding area, like farther south in Virginia, and even though Dickinson had only 37 slaves, this was an action of some considerable courage. Undoubtedly the strongly abolitionist Quaker influences around them had their effect, and the action was all the easier because his farm had moved away from tobacco to the less labor intensive crops like wheat and barley. Furthermore manumission was a multi-year process and many of the workers remained obligated to service for a considerable additional time.

Finally, on January 18, 1779, Dickinson was appointed to be a delegate for Delaware to the Continental Congress. During this term he signed the Articles of Confederation, having in 1776 authored their first draft while serving in the Continental Congress as a delegate from Pennsylvania. In August 1781, while still a delegate in Philadelphia he learned that Poplar Hall had been severely damaged by a Loyalist raid. Dickinson returned to the property to investigate the damage and once again stayed for several months.

While there, in October 1781, Dickinson was elected to represent Kent County in the State Senate, and shortly afterwards the Delaware General Assembly elected him the President of Delaware. The General Assembly's vote was nearly unanimous, the only dissenting vote having been cast by Dickinson himself. Dickinson took office on November 13, 1781 and served until November 7, 1782. Beginning his term with a "Proclamation against Vice and Immorality," he sought ways to bring an end to the disorder of the days of the Revolution. It was a popular position and enhanced his reputation both in Delaware and Pennsylvania. Dickinson then successfully challenged the Delaware General Assembly to address lagging militia enlistments and to properly fund the state’s assessment to the Confederation government. And recognizing the delicate negotiations then underway to end the American Revolution, Dickinson secured the Assembly's continued endorsement of the French alliance, with no agreement on a separate peace treaty with Great Britain. He also introduced the first census.

However, as before, the lure of Pennsylvania politics was too great. On October 10, 1782, Dickinson was elected to the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. On November 7, 1782 a joint ballot by the Council and the Pennsylvania General Assembly elected him as president of the Council and thereby President of Pennsylvania. But he did not actually resign as State President of Delaware. Even though Pennsylvania and Delaware had shared the same governor until very recently, attitudes had changed, and many in Delaware were upset at seemingly being cast aside so readily, particularly after the Philadelphia newspapers began criticizing the state for allowing the practice of multiple and non resident office holding. Dickinson’s constitutional successor, John Cook, was considered too weak in his support of the Revolution, and it was not until January 12, 1783, when Cook called for a new election to chose a replacement, that Dickinson formally resigned.

President of Delaware
Previous Service Dates Successor
Caesar Rodney November 13, 1781 - November 7, 1782 John Cook

Delaware General Assembly
(sessions while President)
Year Assembly Senate Majority Speaker House Majority Speaker
1781/82 6th non-partisan Thomas Collins non-partisan Simon Kollock
1782/83 7th non-partisan John Cook non-partisan Nicholas Van Dyke

President Of Pennsylvania

When the American Revolution began, Dickinson fairly represented the center of Pennsylvania politics. The old Proprietary and Popular parties divided equally in thirds over the issue of independence, as Loyalists, Moderate Whigs who later became Federalists, and Radicals or Constitutionalists. The old Pennsylvania General Assembly was dominated by the Loyalists and Moderates and, like Dickinson, did little to support the burgeoning Revolution or independence, except protest. The Radicals took matters into their own hands, using irregular means to write the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, which by law excluded from the franchise anyone who would not swear loyalty to the document or the Christian Holy Trinity. In this way all Loyalists, Moderate Whigs, and Quakers were kept out of government. This peremptory action seemed appropriate to many during the crises of 1777 and 1778, but less so in the later years of the Revolution, and the Moderate Whigs gradually became the majority.

Dickinson's election to the Supreme Executive Council was the beginning of a counterrevolution against the Constitutionalists. He was elected President of Pennsylvania, on November 7, 1782, garnering 41 votes to James Potter's 32. As president he presided over the intentionally weak executive authority of the state, and was its chief officer, but always required the agreement of a majority to act. He was re-elected twice and served the constitutional maximum of three years; his election on November 6, 1783 was unanimous, and on November 6, 1784 he defeated John Neville, who also lost the election for Vice-President the same day. Working with only the smallest of majorities in the General Assembly in his first two years and with the Constitutionalists in the majority in his last year, all issues were contentious. At first he endured withering attacks from his opponents for his alleged failure to fully support the new government in large and small ways. He responded ably and survived the attacks. He managed to settle quickly the old boundary dispute with Virginia in southwestern Pennsylvania, but was never able to satisfactorily disentangle disputed titles in the Wyoming Valley resulting from prior claims of Connecticut to those lands. An exhausted Dickinson left office October 18, 1785. On that day a special election was held in which Benjamin Franklin was unanimously elected to serve the ten days left in Dickinson's term.

Perhaps the most significant decision of his term was the result of his patient, peaceful management of the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783. This was a violent protest of Pennsylvania veterans who marched on the Continental Congress demanding their pay before being discharged from the army. Somewhat sympathizing with their case, Dickinson refused Congress's request to bring full military action against them, causing Congress to vote to remove themselves to Princeton, New Jersey. And when the new Congress agreed to return in 1790, it was to be for only 10 years, until a permanent capital was found elsewhere.

While serving this term he donated 500 acres (2 km²) to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, an educational institution founded in 1783 by his friend Benjamin Rush.

Pennsylvania General Assembly
(sessions while President)
Year Assembly Majority Speaker
1782/83 7th Republican Frederick A. C. Muhlenberg
1783/84 8th Republican George Gray
1784/85 9th Constitutional John B. Bayard

United States Constitution

After his service in Pennsylvania, Dickinson returned to Delaware, and lived in Wilmington. He was quickly appointed to represent Delaware at the Annapolis Convention, where he served as its President. In 1787, Delaware sent him as one of its delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, along with Gunning Bedford, Jr., Richard Bassett, George Read, and Jacob Broom, There, he supported the effort to create a strong central government, but only after the Great Compromise assured that each state, regardless of size, would have an equal vote in the future United States Senate. Following the Convention he promoted the resulting Constitution in a series of nine essays, written under the pen name, Fabius.

In 1791, Delaware convened a convention to revise its existing Constitution, which had been hastily drafted in 1776. Dickinson was elected president of this convention, and although he resigned the chair after most of the work was complete, he remained highly influential in the content of the final document. Major changes included the establishment of a separate Chancery Court and the expansion of the franchise to include all taxpayers, except blacks and women. Dickinson remained neutral in an attempt to include a prohibition of slavery in the document, believing the General Assembly was the proper place to decide that issue. The new Constitution was approved June 12, 1792.

Once more Dickinson was returned to the State Senate for the 1793 session, but served for just one year before resigning due to his declining health. In his final years he worked to further the abolition movement, donated a considerable amount of his wealth to the "relief of the unhappy," and in 1801 published two volumes of his collected works on politics.

Death and Legacy

Dickinson died February 14, 1808, at Wilmington, Delaware, where he is buried at the Friends Burial Ground.[2]

Dickinson shares with Thomas McKean the distinction of serving as Chief Executive of both Delaware and Pennsylvania after the Declaration of Independence. Dickinson College and Dickinson School of Law, separate institutions both located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, were named after Dickinson. Along with his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, Dickinson also authored "The Liberty Song".

Dickinson is a prominent character in the musical drama 1776, billed fourth after the parts of Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson. He was originally portrayed on stage by Paul Hecht, and in the 1972 film adaptation by Donald Madden. Michael Cumpsty portrayed him in the 1997 revival. His portrayal in this musical differs from reality: instead of abstaining from voting and debating, he acts as John Adams' primary antagonist in the debates over independence, to the point where the two men come to blows. In Part II of the 2008 HBO series John Adams (TV miniseries), based on the book by David McCullough, the part of Dickinson is played by Zeljko Ivanek.


Delaware elections were held October 1, and members of the Delaware General Assembly took office on October 20 or the following weekday. Assemblymen had a one-year term. The Legislative Council was created in 1776, and Legislative Councilmen had a three-year term. The Delaware General Assembly chose the State President for a three-year term.

Pennsylvania elections were held in October as well. Assemblymen had a one-year term. The Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council was created in 1776, and counsellors were popularly elected for three-year terms. A joint ballot of the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the Council chose the President from among the twelve Counsellors for a one-year term. Both Assemblies chose the Continental Congressmen for a one-year term as well as the delegates to the U.S. Constitution Convention.

Public Offices
Office State Type Location Took Office Left Office notes
Assemblyman Delaware Legislature New Castle October 20, 1759 October 20, 1760
Assemblyman Delaware Legislature New Castle October 20, 1760 October 20, 1761
Assemblyman Pennsylvania Legislature Philadelphia October 1762 October 1763
Assemblyman Pennsylvania Legislature Philadelphia October 1763 October 1764
Delegate Pennsylvania Legislature New York October 7, 1765 October 19, 1765 Stamp Act Congress
Delegate Pennsylvania Legislature Philadelphia August 2, 1774 October 26, 1774 Continental Congress
Delegate Pennsylvania Legislature Philadelphia March 16, 1775 October 21, 1775 Continental Congress
Delegate Pennsylvania Legislature Philadelphia October 21, 1775 November 7, 1776 Continental Congress
Delegate Delaware Legislature Philadelphia January 18, 1779 December 22, 1779 Continental Congress
Delegate Delaware Legislature Philadelphia December 22, 1779 February 10, 1781 Continental Congress
Councilman Delaware Legislature Dover October 20, 1781 November 13, 1781
State President Delaware Executive Dover November 13, 1781 November 7, 1782 Executive Council
State President Pennsylvania Executive Philadelphia November 4, 1782 October 18, 1785
Delegate Delaware Convention Philadelphia May 14, 1787 September 17, 1787 U.S. Constitution
Delegate Delaware Convention Dover November 29, 1791 June 12, 1792 State Constitution
State Senator Delaware Legislature Dover January 6, 1793 January 6, 1794

Delaware General Assembly service
Dates Assembly Chamber Majority Governor Committees District
1781/82 6th State House non-partisan Caesar Rodney Kent at-large
1793 17th State Senate Republican Joshua Clayton New Castle at-large



  1. Various sources indicate a birth date of November 8, November 12 or November 13, but his most recent biographer, Flower, offers November 2 without dispute.
  2. Ehrlich, Eugene and Gorton Carruth. The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982: 217. ISBN 0195031865