Childhood & Early Life
Dickinson was born on November 13, 1732, at his family’s plantation, ‘Croisador,’ Talbot County, Maryland. John was the son of Samuel Dickinson, a Judge, and his second wife, Mary Cadwalader. They were Quackers or members of ‘Society of Friends.’
In 1740, the family moved to Poplar Hall, Kent County, where his father was Judge of the Court of Common Pleas, and Justice of Peace. Dickinson was home-tutored by his parents and private tutors.
In 1750, Dickinson began studying law under John Moland in Philadelphia. In 1753, he went to London to study law at the ‘Middle temple,’ one of the four ‘Inns of Court.’
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Dickinson returned from England in 1757, and began his legal career at Pennsylvania. After his father’s death in 1760, he divided his time between Philadelphia and Kent County, Delaware. Soon, he earned recognition as one of the America’s able lawyers.
In 1760, Dickinson was elected to Delaware legislature and in 1762 to Pennsylvania legislature. He held properties and residences in both the colonies. As a politician, he had a knack for understanding both sides of any issue and then take a middle path.
In 1764, Dickinson opposed Benjamin Franklin who wished to turn Pennsylvania in a royal colony, but he lost the debate and his Pennsylvania Assembly seat as well. In 1765, the British Parliament enacted ‘Stamp Act’ to raise money from the American colonies, by which Americans had to pay taxes on legal and business documents. Dickinson perceived that agreeing to this could lead to more taxes. The colonists, too, were against this tax. Dickinson took a stance that was seen as being considerate to the colonists, and at the same time evaded violence.
Dickinson wrote a pamphlet that influenced the colonists to ask for repeal of act and to pressurize the British merchants to achieve that. Because of his restraining attitude, in 1765 he was sent as the representative of the colony to the ‘Stamp Act Congress’ in New York. He drafted the ‘Declarations of Rights & Grievances’ for the Congress, but he was also against any violence to oppose the ‘Stamp Act.’ British agreed to repeal the act.
This was followed by the ‘Townshend Revenue Acts’ (1767), which levied taxes on tea, paper, glass, paint etc. In 1767-68, Dickinson wrote a series of 12 essays, ‘Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania,’ under the pseudonym ‘Fabius,’ which were first published in the ‘Pennsylvania Chronicles.’ Later, these essays were published in many American newspapers and that of several other countries. The essays spoke against the British taxation and encouraged the Americans to oppose these laws, as this could lead to more such laws. These ‘Letters’ were his most distinguished work.
Dickinson condemned the ‘American Board of Customs Commissioners’ formed to implement the ‘Townshend Acts.’ In 1768, he wrote a song called, ‘Liberty song,’ and set it to the tune of ‘Hearts of Oak.’ The song became very popular.
Dickinson was re-elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1770. In 1771, he assisted in drafting a letter to King George III to persuade the British Parliament to repeal the taxes on the goods.
In 1774, the British Parliament passed ‘Coercive Acts’ (a series of political and economic measures), which the Americans perceived as a threat to their liberty and Dickinson arranged the protest of Philadelphians. He was selected as the representative of Pennsylvania to the ‘First Continental Congress’ in Philadelphia. The Congress deliberated upon the alternatives available for the colonists concerning their associations with the mother country.
Dickinson played a major role at the Congress, as he drafted two vital documents - ‘a redress of grievances through constitutional means,’ and an ‘Address to the Inhabitants of Quebec’ to stand united with the 13 American colonies. He was the only one to get this honor of writing 2 documents for the Congress.
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In 1775, the ‘Second Continental Congress’ met after the ‘battles of Lexington and Concord.’ Dickinson, along with Thomas Jefferson, wrote the ‘Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms.’ He was totally opposed to separation from Britain at that point. It became known as the ‘Olive Branch Petition.’
Dickinson continued his efforts and worked till July 1776, to make one more appeal to King George. He tried to moderate the actions of Congress to keep an option of reconciliation open. According to him, the independence & revolution were inevitable, but America was not completely ready for revolution. He wished the country would wait for all colonies to come together and also get cooperation from foreign colonies, before taking a revolutionary step. His moderate stand made him unpopular. Ultimately, he remained absent at the voting for independence, so that the vote could be unanimous.
In June 1776, Richard Lee (Virginia) put forward the motion for independence and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin wrote the ‘Declaration of Independence.’ As chairman of the Congressional committee, Dickenson drafted the ‘Articles of Confederation’ for the new nation, the precursor of the US Constitution.
Despite his opposition to revolution against Britain, Dickinson was on the forefront when the war began. He led the First Philadelphia Battalion to confront the British in New Jersey. Later, when he suggested some changes in the new constitution, his suggestions were rejected.
In December 1776, Dickinson resigned his military commission, and also from the assembly, and returned with his family to Delaware. Later, during the British threat to Philadelphia, he fought as a private soldier, along with the Delaware army..
In 1779, Dickinson was chosen to represent Delaware at the Continental Congress, and in 1781, he was elected President of Delaware, but he later resigned, as he was elected President of Pennsylvania, and to ‘Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania’ (1782-1785).
After his term in Pennsylvania, in 1787, he was chosen to represent Delaware at several conventions of the US states. He showed his support to the US Constitution through a series of letters, under pseudonym ‘Fabius.’ He also helped in drafting Delaware’s new constitution. In 1801, he collected two volumes of his writings, which were published after his death.