John Dickinson (1732–1808): Quaker Statesman?

John Dickinson, statesman, author. In influential writings 1765-74, argued against British policies. Later, as a member of Continental Congress, 1774-76, favored conciliation and opposed the Declaration of Independence; nonetheless, served the patriot cause as a colonel, 1st Philadelphia Battalion. President, Pa. Supreme Executive Council 1782-85. Delegate, U.S. Constitutional Convention, 1787; a strong supporter of the Constitution. Deeded land to Merion Meeting 1801-04.
—Penna. Historical and Museum Commission, 2001

These words appear on a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker next to Merion Meeting in Merion Station, Pennsylvania.

At the ceremony commemorating John Dickinson when the marker was placed, with local politicians in attendance, the speaker, Edward Fersht, originally from Great Britain, remarked that he was favorably impressed that the state would so honor a man who refused to sign our most "sacred" document: the Declaration of Independence.

There are a number of elements in the marker that cause both puzzlement and curiosity. Why should a man who argued against British policy in the period leading up to the Revolution refuse to sign the Declaration of Independence? If it was because he was raised as a Quaker and favored conciliation rather than war, and the Declaration was after all a declaration of war, why would he volunteer to join the militia? Several members of Merion Meeting began to feel the need to investigate further the thought and writings of John Dickinson. His apparent inconsistency intrigued us and seemed similar to our own meeting’s contemporary struggles about how we should respond to calls to wage war. Moreover, since he rejected the Declaration, how is it that citizens of both Delaware and Pennsylvania selected him to represent them at the Constitutional Convention?

A number of historians have asserted that John Dickinson was not a Quaker. For instance, David L. Jacobson, in John Dickinson and the Revolution in Pennsylvania, 1764-1776, writes, "His religious life was lived outside the discipline of the Society of Friends. The break between Samuel Dickinson [his father] and the Quakers meant that his son was not to be a member of the meeting."

A member of our meeting who faithfully maintains our archives has kept a book of articles on John Dickinson, clipped from various sources, and there it is recorded that he and his wife lie in the burial ground of Wilmington (Del.) Meeting. It is not uncommon for non-Friends to be buried in a Quaker burial ground, but the combination of his failure to sign the Declaration of Independence, his gift to Merion Meeting, and his burial at Wilmington led us to wonder about the assertions that he was not a Quaker. I wondered, if he was not read out of meeting, had he perhaps been read out of his proper place in history? So I set about to do a little historical sleuthing at The Quaker Collection at Haverford College and Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College. After all, it was the least we could do to acknowledge his generous gift to Merion Meeting of two acres of ground deeded in 1801 and 1804. I was, however, concerned that a romantic desire to see John Dickinson not only as a major contributor to our form of government but also as a Quaker might cloud my vision. I asked the archivists at Swarthmore and Haverford to help me unearth information on all sides of this issue.

John Dickinson was born in Talbot County, Maryland, in 1732. His was among the leading Quaker families of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. His mother, Mary Cadwalader Dickinson, came from the original Welsh tract settlers in Pennsylvania who founded Merion Meeting in 1682, and it was undoubtedly in honor of his mother’s family that John Dickinson gave his gift of land to the meeting. His mother was a faithful member of Third Haven Meeting in Easton for as long as the family lived in Maryland.

In 1740 John’s father, Samuel, became disaffected from Third Haven Meeting owing to disapproval of the marriage out of meeting of John’s half-sister. As a consequence Samuel moved his family to Kent County, Delaware, where he built a beautiful home on Jones Neck. This was to be the principal home for John Dickinson for the rest of his life. The house is still maintained as a historic landmark. The docent of the house will tell you that John Dickinson was not a Quaker.

John Dickinson was educated at home under the care of his mother and a private tutor. Mary Dickinson, it should be noted, was careful to transfer her membership from Third Haven to Duck Creek Meeting in Delaware after they moved. John was sent to Philadelphia to begin his training in the law, and eventually he went to England to read law at the Middle Temple in London.

Upon his return from England he began what became a lucrative law practice in Philadelphia and was soon active in politics. He was first elected to the Assembly in 1762 with the support of the Quaker faction. He became embroiled in a debate with Benjamin Franklin over the form of government that should obtain in Pennsylvania. Benjamin Franklin was disgusted with what he regarded as the greedy behavior of William Penn’s heirs. He hoped that the colony would fare better under the control of the Crown and Parliament rather than under the domination of the Penn family, who shared none of William Penn’s political and religious philosophy. While John Dickinson was not attracted to the Penn proprietors, he stated his opposition to Benjamin Franklin’s proposal as follows: "If the change of government now meditated, can take place, with all our privileges preserved, [emphasis added] let it instantly take place; but if they must be consumed in the blaze of royal authority, we shall pay too high a price."

The privileges that John Dickinson was loath to risk were those enshrined in William Penn’s Charter of Privileges of 1701 which, well before common acceptance, provided for religious liberty and separation of church and state. All the rest of the American colonies, with the exception of Rhode Island, had an established religion. In John Dickinson’s speeches of opposition to Benjamin Franklin’s plan he is revealed as a whiggish anti-Tory follower of both William Penn’s and John Locke’s philosophy of government. These speeches, enunciating principles to which he adhered throughout his life, earned John Dickinson the respect and admiration of his contemporaries.

John Dickinson opposed the Stamp Act and the Townsend duties. He claimed that they violated the principle of no taxation without representation several years before Patrick Henry uttered his famous dictum. His Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies advocated a greater degree of autonomy for the colonies. Its popular reception caused him to be elected to both the First and Second Continental Congresses. The Pennsylvania delegates to these Congresses came prepared with a common program largely formulated by John Dickinson, and it formed the basis for much of the ensuing discussions. He urged, however, that the cause of liberty should not be "sullied by turbulence and tumult." He authored the so-called Olive Branch Petition to the King as a last ditch effort to avoid revolution. There is no evidence that George III even received the petition, so this effort proved fruitless.

In July 1770, John Dickinson married Mary Norris, the daughter of the Quaker Speaker of the Assembly, John Norris. They had married in a civil ceremony because John informed her that he had no intention of going before the meeting. It is not known why he rebelled over the authority of the meeting. With considerable reluctance, Mary consented to the civil ceremony performed before a justice of the peace. However, in December of that year she presented a sincere apology for her conduct to Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, and she was excused. Never again did she depart from devout adherence to the Religious Society of Friends.

John Adams, who sought independence, feared that John Dickinson’s influence might cause the Pennsylvania delegation to vote against the Declaration. Hoping to persuade him to support revolution, he went to dine at Fairhill, the Norris estate where the Dickinsons lived when they resided in Philadelphia. He believed that John Dickinson’s position on independence came from "being bedeviled by the pacifist views of his wife and mother." Actually the older woman in the household was not Mary Dickinson’s mother but her aunt. Later, according to David McCullough in John Adams, the guest remarked that "if he had such a wife and mother he would have shot himself." Perhaps Abigail Adams did not express herself in company as forthrightly as the Quaker women in the Dickinson household.

John Dickinson absented himself from the Congress for the vote for independence. An interesting commentary is provided by a close examination of the painting by John Trumbull commemorating this historic event. In the background of the picture, almost out the door is a figure wearing a hat, identified in a key to the painting published many years later as Stephen Hopkins, colonial governor of Rhode Island. Irma Jaffe, in "Fordham University’s Trumbull Drawings: Mis-taken Identities in the Declaration of Independence and Other Discoveries" in The American Art Journal, Spring 1971, has concluded by comparing this hatted figure with two portraits of John Dickinson by Charles Willson Peale that the figure "is really John Dickinson, a Quaker Congressman from Pennsylvania who refused to sign the Declaration on the grounds that it would lead to war."

We can admire the courage John Dickinson displayed in his refusal to sign the Declaration. Actually he refused to attend the Congress sessions on that day in order to avoid splitting the vote of the Pennsylvania delegation. He stated that he felt that his action would forever ruin his political career, and indeed he did suffer heavy criticism for it. Perhaps that is why when the British actually attacked American shores, firing on American towns and burning homes including John Dickinson’s own estate on Jones Neck, he enlisted in the militia and subsequently returned to rebuild his home in Delaware.

He was elected to the national Congress, which formulated the Articles of Confederation, and two years later he was elected Governor of Delaware. Finally he was elected governor of Pennsylvania in 1788. In that year the state of Virginia proposed a convention, which met in Annapolis to create a stronger national government, and which subsequently met in Philadelphia. John Dickinson was chosen as the presiding officer at the initial meeting in Annapolis.

A close examination of his papers, letters, and the various documents which he submitted to the various founding conventions will reveal the great influence that he had on the outcomes. He was the author of the happy phrase that Thomas Jefferson adopted in the Declaration, "the pursuit of happiness," which he believed that government should facilitate. According to Jane Calvert, a Quaker historian who has studied his writings, John Dickinson brought to the deliberations of the founding of this nation a philosophy much influenced by the ideas of William Penn and other Quaker thinkers. Howard Brinton in Friends for 350 Years stated, "There can be no doubt that the Constitution of the United States, written in Philadelphia owed much to Penn’s ‘Holy Experiment.’ Penn’s theories, because they had been carried in practice and not just written about in books, had a powerful influence." That Quaker influence was transmitted in large measure by John Dickinson. According to the Dictionary of American Biography he said at the Convention, "Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us."

When John Dickinson retired from public life he lived in Wilmington, Delaware, where he attended the meeting there with his wife and daughter, both of whom were members of that meeting. His interests were focused on charitable contributions to Westtown School, to prison reform, and to other interests of Friends. This gave hope to many Friends that he might more directly associate himself. But he studiously avoided attendance at monthly meetings for business. In 1807 he wrote, "I am on all proper occasions an advocate for the lawfulness of defensive war. This principle alone has prevented me from union with Friends," according to Milton E. Flower, in John Dickinson: Conservative Revolutionary. At this period in his life, he dated all his letters after the manner of Friends, adopted simplicity of dress, freed his slaves, and advocated that others should do the same.

John Dickinson’s struggle to come to terms with the Peace Testimony is similar to the struggle today of many Friends. When he considered the possible dangers of a war between Great Britain and France, he said, in An Address on the Past, Present and Eventual Relations of the United States to France, "The rage for obtaining wealth by pillage is never sated. It grows, by being constantly fed, to a height altogether monstrous. Every conquest adds not only a new strength, but a new appetite to the devouring power. . . . The area is arrived when no nation can be safe that stands by itself." He went on to take up William Penn’s advocacy of a union of nations "cemented by noble sentiments and generous resolutions."

Reading his words and utilizing them to walk with him is instructive for us still. We owe him much. I found, in studying his life, reproof for my tendency toward the pessimistic attitude that the Quaker ideals are held only by a minority and that they have never been adopted in any positive or consistent manner. John Dickinson teaches us that this is far from accurate. Therefore we are called to persistence in struggling to adhere to our testimonies and to do so not by retreat but by action in the world. They will bear fruit if we but walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in every person. We are not responsible for the outcomes; they are in God’s hands. But we are called to the most prayerful adherence to our testimonies that we can muster.

Alice M. Hoffman

Alice M. Hoffman, a member and former clerk of Merion (Pa.) Meeting, taught labor history at Pennsylvania State University. She serves as the representative of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to the Pennsylvania Council of Churches' Pennsylvania Action Advocacy Team (PAAT), which advocates to the state legislature on issues of concern to the religious community.