The Age of George III

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John Dickinson, who refused to Sign

His own independence eclipsed his career for a time

This page is copied from article written by Will P. Frank, which was published on 24 April 1932. I am grateful to Joe Dickerson for sending me the item. Should its inclusion here be deemed to be a breach of copyright, I will remove the page from the web.

An obscure grave in the old Quaker graveyard in Wilmington, Del., holds the remains of John Dickinson, native of Talbot county, Maryland, perhaps the greatest penman of the American Revolution. While the nation hastens to honour her great sword bearer, Washington, on the bicentennial of his birth, scarcely a word is murmured in eulogy of Dickinson, who, too, was born in 1732, nine months after Washington.

Although a native of the Eastern Shore, Dickinson, scion of a prominent Maryland family, became a citizen of Delaware and Pennsylvania. His last years were spent in the quietude and peace of his Wilmington home, concluding a thirty-year turbulent and active public career which took him from the rank of a private in the Delaware militia at the Battle of Brandywine to the Governorship of Delaware, chief justice of Pennsylvania, author of most of the state papers of the continental Congress, author of the Articles of Confederation, delegate at the Federal Constitutional Convention and a signer of the Constitution.

* * * * *

Dickinson, who died in 1808, was a stanch Quaker [1] and was buried with the simple rites of his sect in the Friends' graveyard now in the heart of Wilmington. His last resting place is marked only by a small headstone with "John Dickinson, 1808", engraved thereon.

Unbounding fame might have been his but for the one great mistake of his career, his refusal to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Yet his refusal is the keenest clue to his character and led Hildreth, the historian, to write

{original obscured} life for the time. He sinks at once from {original obscured}.

In leading the opposition to the Declaration of Independence, Dickinson was associated with Robert Morris, financier of the Revolution and also a native of Talbot county. Later Morris signed the Declaration, but Dickinson was consistent to his theory that in 1776 the time had not arrived for independence. When the continental delegates were affixing their names to the famous document of freedom, which Dickinson might have been destined to have written, he was with his regiment in New Jersey, fighting for that which his conscience would not allow him to support in the halls of Congress, which is more than can be said of all save a handful who signed the Declaration.

Today the Dickinson home on the Choptank river is still the home of a Dickinson. The college at Carlisle, Pa., established when the town was practically a frontier settlement, bears his name. Biographies of him are few, however, and the laurels from a grateful nation are almost withered.


The Dickinson family was transplanted from England to the new soil of Talbot county. When John Dickinson was 8 his father, Judge Samuel Dickinson, moved to a farm below Dover, Del., and there the son was tutored in the classics by William Killen, who later became the first justice of the State. At 18, young Dickinson was sent to Philadelphia to read law and then, like all sons of prominent and well-to-do lawyers, he was sent to London to finish his studies.

Dickinson returned to Philadelphia, filled with the ideals of the English bar and schooled in its lore and traditions, but still at heart an American. In Philadelphia he practiced his profession and in a letter to his mother wrote that "the money was flowing in." In 1760 he was elected to his first public office, a seat in the General Assembly of the three Lower Counties, now knows as Delaware, and was chosen speaker. Two years later he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly, where he became one of the leaders, attaining considerable prominence by opposing the already famous Benjamin Franklin in a debate over the proprietary charter of the province.

In 1767 appeared the Letters from a Farmer, in which the attitude of the British parliament toward the American Colonies was exhaustively discussed. So extensive was their popularity that they were reprinted in almost all of the Colonial newspapers. Although the papers were conciliatory to the English people and filled with expressions of loyalty to the King, they furnished the basis on which all those who resented the crown's attacks on their liberty were able to unite.

In October 1774, he took his place in the first Continental Congress and was at once added to the committee to draft a petition to the King, informing him of the conditions in Massachusetts and elsewhere, and asking for relief from his ministers and soldiers. The committee had just reported a draft of the petition, which Congress rejected, and Dickinson drew up the next one, which was adopted after some slight amendments. His is the distinction, too, of having written most of the important papers and documents of the continental Congresses until the Declaration of Independence. celebrated among them were a declaration to the world of the reasons for the colonies taking up arms against, England, and the second petition to King George, asking him for relief. This second petition, known today as the "Olive Branch" petition, was adopted by the Continental Congress on 8 July 1775 after a stormy session. After the war Dickinson emerged triumphant over his political enemies as one of the prominent members of the Federal Constitutional convention, to become one of the stanchest supporters of the new Constitution.


But by leading the opposition in the Continental Congress against independence, Dickinson brought upon himself the odium of the zealous New Englanders {original obscured} ripe to declare the independence of the Thirteen Colonies.

The party for Independence was strong, but Dickinson was powerful. In June and July of that memorable year, he still controlled the majority votes of Pennsylvania, most important among the colonies, and his influence was felt in the counsels of other {original obscured} delegates. With a superhuman exertion, he might have swayed the undecided or wavering ones and at least might have delayed the declaration of American freedom. Had there been a delay, who knows what effect the defeats of 1777 and the rigours of Valley Forge might have wrought?

July 1, 1776, was the day set apart for considering the resolution of independence. Routine business in Congress was first transacted. A letter from Washington was read, giving the number of men he had ready and fit for duty. Another letter from Lee told of the arrival of British ships. Then came the critical moment when the Congress resolved itself into a committee of the whole to take into consideration the decisive resolution that these Thirteen Colonies would be free and independent of the mother country. John Adams delivered an impetuous speech in favour of severance from Great Britain.

There was a moment of silence before Dickinson rose to talk. All eyes were upon him and he no doubt took pride in having been an ardent advocate of freedom. He was conscious of the fame of his writings: The Letters From a Farmer, two petitions to King George and also the authorship of the declaration setting forth the causes and "necessity of taking up arms against the Mother Country."


Dickinson prepared not so much to argue against independence as to vindicate his opinions that the time was not auspicious for independence. The historian Bancroft says these are his words:

I value the love of my country as I ought; but I value my country more ... The declaration will not strengthen us by one man or by the least supply, while it may expose our soldiers to additional cruelties and outrages. Without some prelusory trials of our strength we ought not to commit our country upon an alternative where to recede would be infamy and to persist might be destructive {original obscured} abrogating for ever their connection with a warlike commercial empire. It might unite the different parties in Great Britain against us