John Dickinson of Delaware
by Gregg MacDonald, Staff Writer
John Dickinson just might be the most important Founding Father you’ve never heard of.
Although in his day, he was one of the most famous of them all, he is much less known today primarily because he refused to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Scholars have largely attributed Dickinson’s refusal to do so as cowardice, indecisiveness or Loyalism. Jane E. Calvert, associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky, has a different theory.
Calvert, founding director and chief editor of the John Dickinson Writing Project, is writing a trilogy of books about Dickinson, and she says the actual reason that he refused to sign is likely a bit more complex.
Dickinson was born Nov. 8, 1732 in Talbot County, Md. In 1741, he moved with his family to his father’s plantation, Poplar Hall, on the St. Jones Neck just southeast of Dover, the present site of the Dickinson Plantation in Kent County, Del.
Dickinson’s political career began at age 27 in 1759 when he was elected to the Delaware Assembly representing Kent County; his service lasted 34 years until his retirement.
In 1767-1768, he gained worldwide fame as an author for his “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies” in American newspapers.
In them, Dickinson protested the Townshend Acts, saying they represented taxation without representation.
“‘Letters from a Farmer’ was the first resounding call for American unity in the face of British oppression,” says Calvert. “And they propelled John Dickinson into becoming America’s first political celebrity.”
A TRUE REVOLUTIONARY
Dickinson became known as the “Penman of the Revolution” for his Farmer letters and his rewriting of the Articles of Confederation, where for the first time, he named the new government “The United States of America.”
But Calvert points out that scholars have largely missed Dickinson’s true message, which was one of attempting to achieve freedom through peace and not war.
“They have failed to observe that, although his writings led to the American Revolution, not one of them advocated separation from Britain or violent protest of any sort,” she says.
Calvert says that Dickinson lived among Quakers his entire life, but never became one. “Quakers call people like us ‘fellow travelers’,” she says. “People who promote a lot of the same causes and hold a lot of the same beliefs, but for some reason or other, don’t want to take the plunge. In his case, I believe it was because he was not a thorough-going pacifist; he believed in the lawfulness of defensive war.”
At the same time, Calvert says Dickinson wanted to resolve the conflict between Britain and American colonists, without separation or war of any sort, due to his Quaker-like sensibilities.
This, she says, is why he adamantly refused to sign the Declaration of Independence, but later agreed to sign the Constitution of the United States, though because of failing health, friend and fellow delegate George Read signed for him.
“Of all the Founding Fathers, he was the only one to free all his slaves during his lifetime and work for abolition,” says Calvert. “He was also the only one to advocate for women’s rights and for Native American rights.”
DICKINSON’S CHILDHOOD HOME TODAY
The John Dickinson Plantation, where Dickinson grew up and which he owned until his death, is in Kent County, Del. The property is open to the public and admission is free.
Site supervisor Gloria Henry says the plantation was home to a variety of people. “In addition to Mr. Dickinson’s story, we also tell the stories of the tenant farmers, indentured servants, free and enslaved Black men, women, and children who lived, worked and died on the plantation.”
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One in a series of holiday-inspired destinations in co-op country.
This month: the Fourth of July.