This is the first in a series of essays on the Bicentennial of the Constitution.
A review of John Dickinson: Conservative Revolutionary, by Milton E. Flower
John Dickinson, according to Milton Flower, was, in the decade preceding the Declaration of Independence, “recognized as the chief spokesman for American rights and liberty.” He won this distinction above all by a series of 12 letters written in response to the Townshend Acts (1767) and other acts of the British Parliament alleged to be in violation of the rights of the American colonists. Of the 23 newspapers published in the colonies in the winter of 1767-68, 19 printed all 12 of these Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies. Pamphlet editions were immediately published in Boston, Philadelphia, Williamsburg, London, and Paris. Dickinson was called “The American Pitt.” In Paris salons “the Farmer” was compared with Cicero. Not until Paine’s Common Sense appeared in 1776 was any product of an American pen so acclaimed, on both sides of the Atlantic, as the Farmer’s Letters.
Dickinson played a leading role in the successive continental assemblies that carried forward the American Revolution and Founding. He was a representative of Pennsylvania at the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, and was chief author of the “Declaration of Rights and Grievances” and the petition to the King adopted by that Congress. He was a member of the First Continental Congress, and again had a hand in drafting the official proclamations of that assembly, including the “Declarations and Resolves,” whose list of grievances would be echoed in the Declaration of Independence. In the Second Continental Congress, Dickinson authored the famous “olive branch petition” to the King and, with Jefferson, the “Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms,” intended to be read by the new Commander in Chief, George Washington, to his assembled troops in Cambridge.
Dickinson wrote the original draft of the Articles of Confederation, submitted to Congress on July 12, 1776. A decade later he was chosen president of the Annapolis Convention, which was the immediate catalyst of the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia in May 1787 to amend the Articles of Confederation. As a delegate from Delaware to the Constitutional Convention, Dickinson led the fight for equal representation of the states in the Senate.
Only a handful of the greatest Americans can be said to have evoked the spirit and molded the form of the American Revolution and Founding as tellingly as did John Dickinson, the Pennsylvania Farmer. And yet, what his contemporary, Ezra Stiles, prophesied of Dickinson in 1776 has-for some two centuries at least-largely proven true: “He now goes into oblivion or a dishonorable reminiscence with posterity.” “Until the year of Independence,” writes the Farmer’s recent biographer, “John Dickinson, apart from Benjamin Franklin, was probably the American known to more colonists than any other.” In the century following the year of American independence, more biographies were written of Benjamin Franklin than of any American statesman, including the Father of the Country, George Washington. In the same century John Dickinson was the subject of not one biography. Not until 1891 was a biography written of the illustrious Farmer. Following this, almost another century would expire before the appearance of a second biography.
In a brief recollection of the most historic moment in the deliberations of the Second Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson reveals the cause of the relative “oblivion” into which the name of Dickinson would fall. Of that Congress, Jefferson recalled, the American Declaration of Independence was “signed by every member present except Mr. Dickinson.”
In the eyes of his most recent biographer, Dickinson’s opposition to the Declaration of Independence epitomized the “conservative stance” the Farmer took toward all the great issues of the Revolutionary and Founding periods. “His devotion to the rule of law and to the principles of liberty linked him to the radicals in the early days of the Revolution.” His constitutional reluctance to cast off old traditions, institutions, and attachments caused him to be called a traitor by 1776. But it was changing times and circumstances that made Dickinson appear to his countrymen in such contrasting lights. “Dickinson never changed his principles.” He was from beginning to end a “Conservative Revolutionary.”
In so titling his book, Flower self-consciously subscribes to the established tradition. Dickinson’s first and only other biographer, Charles Stillé, wrote of his subject as “always an intense conservative.” James Truslow Adams, in the Dictionary of American Biography, describes Dickinson in almost exactly the same words, as “always intensely conservative.” “By temperament and breeding Dickinson was a conservative,” according to V. L. Parrington. More recently (1962), as editor of a new edition of the Farmer’s Letters, Forrest McDonald repeats that “Dickinson’s view is . . . conservative.” But in subscribing to this firmly embedded tradition, Flower adds nothing to it. In fact, he obscures it.
Dickinson has traditionally been reviled or revered as a conservative for very specific reasons. Friend and foe alike have found the essence of Dickinson’s conservatism in the Farmer’s stance toward the central idea of the American Revolution: the idea of natural rights. Dickinson is praised by his first biographer for understanding that the rights and liberty of the American colonists “were built, not, as many afterwards contended, on some vague theory of natural rights, but upon a much firmer and surer foundation, immemorial custom. . . .” In contrast to those revolutionaries who claimed to “follow the light of nature,” Dickinson was ever “guided by the lamp of experience.” From first to last, Dickinson is said by Stills to have resisted the measures of the British ministry because these acts were “violations of English, not of natural, law.” Parrington, with less admiration for Dickinson, nonetheless agrees wholeheartedly with Stille, that the Farmer’s arguments were directed not only against the British ministry but against “the natural rights advocates.” Dickinson’s “appeal was to the law and the constitution; never to abstract principles.” McDonald writes that “Dickinson’s view is historical, pragmatic, and in the Burkean sense, conservative.” “Throughout his life Dickinson explicitly rejected the rationalism of the 18th century,” which held that “Men are born with certain rights, whether they are honored in a particular society or not.”
All this is lost in Flower’s biography. He calls Dickinson the chief spokesman for American rights and liberty in the decade leading to the Declaration of Independence. But he sheds no revealing light on the question which, above all others, must be answered in judging Dickinson’s contribution to the American Cause: Upon what, in Dickinson’s mind, were American rights and liberty founded?
Flower calls Dickinson a conservative. But in Flower’s hands, Dickinson’s conservatism becomes largely affective: Dickinson was cautious, analytic, intellectual, and not unemotional; he was slow, measured, legalistic. Flower does not seem to endorse-certainly he does not explain or vindicate-the meaning of the term “conservative” as applied specifically to Dickinson by generations of historians, including Dickinson’s only other biographer.
In this, Flower does a disservice to the tradition which the title of his book seems intended to perpetuate. But by seeming to perpetuate that tradition, Flower does an even greater disservice to the memory of John Dickinson. A just biography of the Pennsylvania Farmer-which has still not been written-would overthrow this tradition.
John Dickinson would rather his name were consigned to oblivion than that he be remembered as a disbeliever in the natural rights of man. For the Pennsylvania Farmer, there could be no more “dishonorable reminiscence with posterity” than to be known as the enemy of the self-evident truths on which his country was founded. John Dickinson would have wished-as he deserved-to be remembered, as he was remembered by the author of the Declaration of Independence which he never signed:
Among the first of the advocates for the rights of his country . . . he continued to the last the orthodox advocate of the true principles of our new government. . . .