Wednesday, May 16

Penman of the Revolution

Widely known as the “Penman of the Revolution,” John Dickinson (1732-1808), wrote many of the most influential documents of the period—from the Declaration of Rights in 1765 and the Articles of Confederation in 1776 to the Fabius Letter in 1787 which helped win over the first States to ratify the Constitution: Delaware and Pennsylvania. 

Having studied law in England, Dickinson was devoted to the English common law system, and his writings before 1776 aimed to correct the misuse of power and preserve the union of the colonies and Britain.  His most famous works included the eloquent Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, which condemned the Townshend Acts and were widely read throughout the colonies.  He also penned Petition to the King which was a statement of grievances and an appeal for justice, with a pledge of loyalty adopted by Congress.  But perhaps his greatest manifesto was Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms—which Congress adopted as its own official statement on the matter—defended the colonies’ use of arms for “the preservation of our liberties,” and stated that the colonists were simply fighting to regain the liberty that was theirs as Englishmen. 

In the Continental Congress Dickinson opposed the idea of declaring independence at first, but, once it was done, he supported the cause and prepared a draft of the Articles of Confederation.  Although over forty, Dickinson enlisted in the militia and saw action in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  He returned to Congress in on this day in 1779, in time to sign the Articles of Confederation.

Because Delaware and Pennsylvania were under a single legal proprietor in those early days of independence, a citizen could hold office in either one, and Dickinson served as President of first Delaware and then Pennsylvania.  He played the important role of conciliator at the Constitutional Convention.  He saw the need for a stable national government, and so he joined Roger Sherman of Connecticut in supporting the idea of two legislative bodies—one with proportional, one with equal representation.  This became known as the Great Compromise which ultimately broke the deadlock between the large and small States. 

After the Constitution was sent to the States, Dickinson published a series of letters, which explained and defended the Constitution, and which helped win the first ratifications.  The penman had done his work well: Jefferson called him “one of the great worthies of the Revolution.” 

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