Declaration of Independence

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Monday, July 23, 2012

John Dickinson

                    John Dickinson had an interesting life.  He was an attorney and politician from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Wilmington, Delaware.  He served as a militia officer during the American Revolution, a Continental Congressman from Pennsylvania and Delaware, a delegate to the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, President of Delaware and President of Pennsylvania.  He was among the wealthiest men in the Colonies.  He is known as the "Penman of the Revolution" for his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.  
John Dickinson was born on November 8, 1732, on Croisadore, his family's tobacco plantation near the village of Trappe in Talbot County, Maryland.  His great-grandfather, Walter Dickinson, immigrated to Virginia from England in 1654.  Walter was a Quaker or a member of Society of Friends and settled with other Quakers on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay in 1659.  He began his plantation there with 400 acres and named it Croisadore, which means "cross of gold."  He purchased 800 acres on St. Jones Neck in what became Kent County, Delaware.

                    "Croisadore passed through Walter's son, William, to his grandson, Samuel, the father of John Dickinson.  Each generation increased the landholdings, so that Samuel inherited 2,500 acres … on five farms in three Maryland counties and over his lifetime increased that to 9,000 acres …, stretching along the St. Jones River from Dover to the Delaware Bay.  There he began another plantation and called it Poplar Hall.  These plantations were large, profitable agricultural enterprises worked by slave labor - until 1777 when John Dickinson freed the enslaved of Poplar Hall."

                    Samuel married twice.  He married Judith Troth (1689-1729) on April 22, 1710 and had nine children with her - William, Walter, Samuel, Elizabeth, Henry, Elizabeth "Betsy," Rebecca and Rachel.  William, Walter, and Samuel all died of smallpox while they were attending school in London, and other children apparently died before their mother.  Samuel was a widower with two young children, Henry and Betsy, when he married Mary Cadwalader in 1731 and had two sons with her - John Thomas and Philemon.  (Mary was the daughter of Martha Jones and John Cadwalader and the granddaughter of Dr. Thomas Wynne.)

                    Samuel left Croisadore to his eldest living son, Henry Dickinson, and moved Poplar Hall, placing his wife Mary closer to her relatives in Philadelphia.  Samuel served for some time as Judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Kent County.
                    John Dickinson was educated at home by his parents and by others who were employed for that purpose, including Presbyterian minister Francis Alison who later established New London Academy in Chester County, Pennsylvania and William Killen, who became a lifelong friend and had a distinguished career as Delaware's first Chief Justice and Chancellor.

                    John was "precocious and energetic" and loved Poplar Hall, but he was drawn to Philadelphia where he began studying law at age 18.  There he became friends with George Read and Samuel Wharton.  By 1753 John was in London for a three-year course of study at the Middle Temple where he studied the works of Edward Coke and Francis Bacon at the Inns of Court.  He was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar in 1757 and began his career as a "barrister and solicitor."

                    Dickinson married Mary "Polly" Norris on July 19, 1770; Mary was the daughter of Isaac Norris, a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker and Speaker of the Pennsylvania General Assembly.  John and Mary Dickinson became the parents of five children with only two of them surviving to adulthood:  Sarah Norris "Sally" Dickinson and Maria Mary Dickinson.  John did not formally join the Quaker Meeting because he believed in the "lawfulness of defensive war."

                    John was already a wealthy man when he married Mary and increased his wealth by his marriage.  John and his family lived at Mary's family estate called Fairhill, near Germantown, while in Philadelphia.  While living there he built an "elegant mansion" in which he never lived because it was confiscated and turned into a hospital while he was in Delaware in the 1776-1777 time period.  This mansion became the residence of the French ambassador and later became the home of John's brother Philemon Dickinson.  Fairhill was burned by the British during the Battle of Germantown.  While John served as State President, he lived at the confiscated mansion of Joseph Galloway in Philadelphia, and this mansion was established as the State President mansion. John lived at Poplar Hall" for extended periods of time in 1776-77 and in 1781-82.  It was sacked in August 1781 by Loyalists and badly burned in 1804.  The home is now owned by the State of Delaware and is open to the public.  After John served as President of Pennsylvania, he returned to Wilmington, Delaware, in 1785 and built a mansion there.

                    Dickinson was a delegate for Pennsylvania to the First Continental Congress in 1774 and the Second Continental Congress in 1775 and 1776.  He supported the cause by contributing declarations in the name of the Congress.  One of his most famous was co-authored by Thomas Jefferson entitled a Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms.  In it Dickinson concluded that Americans were "resolved to die free men rather than live slaves."  Another was the Olive Branch Petition, a final appeal to King George to resolve the dispute.  Dickinson preferred reconciliation with Great Britain rather than revolution and independence and felt that the dispute was with Parliament. 

                    On July 1, 1776, when the Continental Congress began the debate on the Declaration of Independence, John expressed his opposition to declaring independence at that time.  He felt that Congress should complete the Articles of Confederation and make a foreign alliance before issuing a declaration.  He either absented himself or abstained from voting for independence on July 2; he absented himself when voting took place on the formal wording of the Declaration on July 4.  He said, "My conduct this day, I expect will give the finishing blow to my once too great and, my integrity considered, now too diminished popularity."  He refused to sign the Declaration and voluntarily left Congress after a proposal was made "for our mutual security and protection," no man could remain in Congress without signing. 

Dickinson joined the Pennsylvania militia and was given the rank of brigadier general.  He led 10,000 soldiers to Elizabeth, New Jersey, to protect that area against British attack from Staten Island.  Two junior officers were promoted above him because of his unpopular opinion on independence.

John resigned his commission in December 1776 and went home to Poplar Hall for the next two years.  While there he learned that his home in Philadelphia had been confiscated and turned into a hospital.  The Delaware General Assembly tried to appoint him to be a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1777, but he refused.  In August 1777 he served as a private in the county militia under General Caesar Rodney at Middletown, Delaware, to help delay General William Howe's march to Philadelphia.  In October 1777, Dickinson's friend, Thomas McKean, appointed him Brigadier General of the Delaware Militia, but Dickinson declined the appointment.  Not long after declining this office, Dickinson learned that the British had burned his Fairhall property during the Battle of Germantown.

Dickinson was Delaware's wealthiest farmer and largest slaveholder in 1777 when he made the decision to free his slaves.  Even though he had only 37 slaves, this action took much courage.  His courage was probably bolstered by the effects of the Quaker abolitionist influences around him, but the action was probably easier because his property had replaced their tobacco fields with crops that needed less intensive care like wheat and barley.  The freeing of his slaves - manumission process - was a multi-year process, causing many of the workers to remain obligated to service.

John was again appointed on January 18, 1779, to be a Delaware delegate to the Continental Congress.  During this term he signed the Articles of Confederation - after writing the first draft of it as a delegate from Pennsylvania in 1776.  He was still in Philadelphia in August 1781 when he learned that Poplar Hall had been raided by a Loyalist and severely damaged.  He returned to his property to investigate the damages and stayed for several months.

In October 1781 Dickinson was elected to represent King County in the State Senate and shortly afterwards was elected to be President of Delaware by the General Assembly.  He took office on November 13, 1781, and served until November 7, 1782.  During his time in office he sought to bring "an end to the disorder of the days of the Revolution.  It was a popular position and enhanced his reputation both in Delaware and Pennsylvania."  While in office he introduced the first census.

John was lured back to Pennsylvania and was elected to the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania on October 10, 1782.  On November 7, 1782, he was elected President of Pennsylvania.  Having not resigned from being the President of Delaware, he was actually President of the two states at the same time.  "Even though Pennsylvania and Delaware had shared the same governor until very recently, attitudes had changed, and many in Delaware were upset at seemingly being cast aside so readily…."  John's constitutional successor was John Cook who "was considered too weak in his support of the Revolution;" Dickinson formally resigned on January 12, 1783, when Cook called for a new election to choose his replacement.  Dickinson resigned from the office of President of Pennsylvania on October 18, 1785, and returned to Wilmington, Delaware, to live.

Dickinson was promptly elected as a Delaware delegate to the Annapolis Convention where he served as president.  Delaware sent him as one of its delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  He supported the movement for a strong central government after the Great Compromise assured him that each state would have equal vote regardless of size.  Following the Convention, he promoted the new Constitution by writing a series of nine essays under the pen name, Fabius.

Delaware convened a convention in 1791 for the purpose of revising its existing Constitution drafted in 1776.  Dickinson was elected president of this convention but resigned after most of the work was completed; however, he remained highly influential in the content of the final document.  He remained neutral in an attempt to include a prohibition of slavery because he felt it was a matter to be taken up by the General Assembly.

 Dickinson returned to the State Senate for the 1793 session but resigned after one year due to declining health.  In his final years he was involved with abolition movement, donated a "considerable amount of his wealth" to the "relief of the unhappy", and published two volumes of his collected works on politics (1801).

                    John Dickinson died on February 14, 1808, at age 75 in Wilmington, Delaware, and was buried in the Friends Burial Ground.  An original letter from Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Bringhurst (Dickinson's caretaker in his later years) was discovered in November 2009.  In this letter, Jefferson wrote, "A more estimable man, or truer patriot, could not have left us.  Among the first of the advocates for the rights of his country when assailed by Great Britain, he continued to the last the orthodox advocate of the true principles of our new government and his name will be consecrated in history as one of the great worthies of the revolution."

                    Dickinson shares with Thomas McKean the distinction of serving as Chief Executive of both Delaware and Pennsylvania after the Declaration of Independence.  Dickinson College (for which he donated 500 acres) and Dickinson School of Law (separate institutions located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania), Dickinson Street in Madison, Wisconsin, and John Dickinson High School in Milltown, Delaware, were all named in his honor.  In addition to his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, Dickinson wrote The Liberty Song.

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