Having spent perhaps more weeks than any of us intended discussing all things relating to Benjamin Franklin, it strikes me as almost natural to transition into an exploration of the life and works of another worthy Pennsylvanian whose fame at the dawn of the Revolution spanned the colonies from the Gulf of Maine to the Golden Isles. I speak, as I'm sure I don’t have to tell you, of one John Dickinson. In so many ways the equal of Franklin – both popular colonial advocates in their day, both having served as Presidents of Pennsylvania, and both having spent a significant number of years in Britain – one would yet be hard-pressed to find two men more unalike in temperament, origins, or treatment by posterity. For as hard-scrabble and self-made as Franklin’s rise to fame was, Dickinson’s was defined by privilege and prosperity. As unpretentious and sardonic as was Franklin’s public persona, Dickinson’s was markedly formal, restrained, and cautious. And while Benjamin Franklin has become wholly ensconced in the popular imagination, with his bifocals and kite-flying, John Dickinson languishes in comparative obscurity. For this reason, and because his pre-1770s writings were undeniably important to the discussions about sovereignty, liberty, and natural vs. traditional rights that took place during the subsequent meetings of the Continental Congresses, a sample of Dickinson’s work will form the topic of this forthcoming series of posts.
Specifically it is the third of Dickinson’s famed Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, published in 1767, upon which we will turn our critical eye. Written in response to the passage of the Townshend Acts, the twelve Letters very eloquently dissected the true nature of the challenge said legislation represented and encouraged the general population of the Thirteen Colonies to remain vigilant of their rights and guard them against potential abrogation. Though initially published anonymously, Dickinson’s authorship became well-known in short order and gained him considerable fame in the years immediately preceding the outbreak of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Consequently Dickinson became one of the most influential voices in the colonies, second perhaps to Benjamin Franklin, and was one of the leading lights of the First and Second Continental Congresses when they convened in 1774 and 1775. While any number of the dozen Letters that Dickinson penned between 1767 and 1768 present a potentially fruitful avenue of investigation, Letter III is of particular interest for the delicate balance it seems to strike between an outright call to resistance and a caution against rash action. Unlike Letter I or Letter II, both of which present fairly unambiguous cases against British actions aimed at one or all of the Thirteen Colonies, the third in the series seems far more characteristic of the restrained, principled, and at-times frustratingly equivocal position Dickinson found himself in once the crisis between the colonies and the Crown reached its tipping point in 1775/76. Attempting to understand the nature of the apparent contradiction in Dickinson’s outlook as recorded in Letter III may thus provide a deeper understanding of his general ideology, as well as shed light on the oft-ignored spectrum of beliefs that existed during the Revolutionary Era between Patriot and Loyalist.
But first, of course, some background.
John Dickinson was born in 1732 on his family’s long-established tobacco plantation in Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Named Croisadore (Cross of Gold), the farm had been established several generations earlier by his English, slave-owning, Quaker great-grandfather Walter Dickinson, who emigrated to Virginia in 1654 and purchased the initial 400 acre plot on the Choptank River in 1658. Walter’s son William and grandson Samuel between them increased the family holdings to 9000 acres spread across five farms in three Maryland counties, and purchased a further 3000 acres in Delaware along the St. Jones River. All of the Dickinsons’ plantations were predicated on the use of slave labour, and proved exceedingly profitable. John Dickinson, son of Samuel, thus entered the world in a position to want for very little. As was customary among the Southern planter class, Dickinson’s parents educated their son at home for the first dozen-or-so years of his life. Paid tutors were thus a frequent part of young John’s upbringing on his father’s Poplar Hall plantation in Kent County, Delaware, most notable among them Francis Alison (a Scottish-educated clergyman) and William Killen (later the first Chief Justice of Delaware). At age eighteen Dickinson departed for Philadelphia, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in British North America, where he studied the law under English barrister John Moland. In 1753, at age 21, he then departed for England to further his education at the fabled Inns of Court. Dickinson’s four-year sojourn in the seat of empire would prove to be one of the most influential experiences of his life, and greatly shaped his perceptions of Anglo-American relations and British culture and politics, as well as his own sense of self-identification.
For the record, the Inns of Court were, and are, a collection of four professional/educational associations (Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, Middle Temple, and Inner Temple) located in the City of London that hold certain exclusive privileges concerning members of the English legal profession. They are the sole authority permitted to call qualified students who have been properly examined to the bar; thus, no person may become a barrister in England or Wales without also being a member of one of the Inns. While this is no longer a major function of their existence, having become more professional guilds than schools, during John Dickinson’s lifetime the Inns were also the premier purveyors of a legal education in the British Empire. For an American colonial to receive an education at one of the Inns was considered a sign of particular wealth and refinement to which only the most well-to-do could aspire. The norm for most young men in the American colonies seeking to enter the legal profession was to study under an established barrister for a number of years, read the classic texts of the English Common Law (Blackstone’s Commentaries chief among them), and take the bar in their respective colony. Studying at the Inns was far beyond the means of the great majority of families in colonial America, and so Dickinson’s time at Middle Temple, between 1753 and 1757, represented both a personal as well as familial achievement.
In addition to an unparalleled legal education, Dickinson’s years in London also furnished him with a distinct affection for certain aspects of British culture as well as an appreciation for his own status as an American subject of the British Crown. Letters sent home to his parents, always addressed as “Honored Mother” and “Honored Father”, attest to the variety and depth of feelings that exposure to the sights and sounds of London elicited in the young lawyer-in-training. A visit to the House of Lords provoked disappointment, at the apparent shabbiness of the surroundings as well as of the men who occupied them, while attendance at the birthday reception of George II brought forth feelings of pity for the monarch who seemed rather despondent when not exchanging, “only banal pleasantries with those around him.” The nightlife, meanwhile, proved much more engaging. Between trips to the theatre to witness some of the finest actors of their generation ply their trade, walks in Vauxhall Gardens on the south bank of the Thames, and time spent on the Mall before St. James’s Palace, Dickinson expressed great delight in having the opportunity to experience what one of the great cities of the world had to offer. “It cannot be disputed,” he dutifully wrote his parents, “that more is learnt of mankind here in a month than can be in a year in any other part of the world.”
Yet, for all that he came to enjoy of London’s bustle and sophistication Dickinson expressed occasional reservations about the naked ostentation and unbridled displays of ambition he was daily presented. Raised by parents of devout Quaker sensibilities, he was accustomed to far more modest surroundings and manners. He accordingly came to question the purpose of attempting to attain advancement within Britain’s elite circles if the reward was only, “to see a king at a little nearer distance or to wear a blue ribbond[.]” Though his family connections allowed generous access to much of what the London had to offer, Dickinson seem unwilling or unable to forget that he was a native son of the British empire’s far distance colonial periphery. Poplar Hall was no St. James’s Palace and Philadelphia was a far cry from the seat of empire, yet they were, and always would be, home. The resulting feelings of ambivalence, of marvelling in the achievements of British culture while remaining fundamentally separate from them, would go on to inform much of Dickinson’s response to the crisis that emerged between the Crown and the American colonies in the 1760s.
Upon his return to Philadelphia in 1757 Dickinson took the colonial bar and began a practice of his own. After first building up a reputation for himself as a lawyer he entered the world of politics in 1760 by being elected to the colonial assemblies of both Delaware and Pennsylvania (possible due to his residency in both colonies). Four years later he became embroiled in a debate with one of Pennsylvania’s leading citizens, Benjamin Franklin, over the latter’s calls to do away with the proprietary model of colonial governance then in force. Unlike contemporary New York or Massachusetts, Pennsylvania was not a direct subject of the Crown, but rather continued to fall under the authority of the family of its founder William Penn. As of 1764 the proprietorship was held by William’s son Thomas, an English-born convert to Anglicanism who spent most of his tenure in office attempting to lessen the power of the long-established Quaker faction in the Pennsylvania Assembly. Thomas Penn’s wrangling with the Quakers led to calls for the abolishment of the proprietary government and the re-charter of Pennsylvania as a royal colony, to which effort Franklin lent his then-considerable prestige. Dickinson, a personal friend of the Penn family who had been regularly hosted by Thomas during his time in London, conversely found himself one of the most influential voices in favor of maintaining the status quo. While the conservative faction ultimately succeeded, in that Penn family rule remained in place, Dickinson’s public position cost him his seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly.
This, it turn out, was only a minor setback. The passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 once again thrust Dickinson into the forefront of Pennsylvania politics when said colony chose him as its representative at the resulting Stamp Act Congress. Convened in New York City in October, 1765, the Congress was the first meeting of elected representative from several of the Thirteen Colonies whose purpose was to decide upon measures of protest and resistance to British taxation. Members of the Massachusetts legislature set events in motion by submitting a letter to their fellow colonists recommending a meeting of representatives from the various colonies in order to “consult together on the present circumstances.” Though action taken by several royal governors, and in some cases a lack of interest, prevented every colony invited from sending delegates, nine ultimately responded in the affirmative: Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, and South Carolina. The Congress first convened on October 7th, 1765 at what was then New York City Hall (later renamed Federal Hall after it played host to the first inauguration of George Washington in 1789).
Though at 33 Dickinson was the youngest of the three Pennsylvania delegates – third-youngest overall after Delaware’s Thomas McKean at 31 and South Carolina’s John Rutledge at 26 – he was nonetheless chosen to pen the body’s petition/declaration of principles. Intended to assert to the Crown and to Parliament both the continued loyalty of the colonists as well as the limits to which that loyalty extended, the Declaration of Rights and Grievances also made a point of stating unequivocally that all Americans possessed the same rights as Englishmen, that trial by jury was one such inviolable right, and that there was to be no taxation of colonial commerce without proper representation of the colonies in Parliament. Though the British Parliament did ultimately repeal the Stamp Act in 1766, they did so largely in response to the boycotts on British goods organized in many of the colonies rather than in acknowledgement of the rights the colonists claimed they possessed. Indeed, the subsequent passage of the Declaratory Act, which asserted the authority of Parliament to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever”, and the Townshend Acts made it quite clear that the British government was by no means prepared to concede to its American subjects any portion of its accustomed authority.
Because the Townshend Acts were what Dickinson was responding to with Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, a brief description of exactly what they were would seem in order. First, as the name suggests, the Townshend Acts were a series of legislation passed by Parliament over the course of 1767. The first, approved in June of that year, was the Revenue Act, a measure devised by Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend (hence the name) in order to circumvent what he believed was the root of colonial objection to the previous Stamp Act. Townshend understood, incorrectly, that the colonists rejected the Stamp Act, a tax on almost all forms of paper sold in British America, because it represented an excise on their internal commerce. By instead taxing the importation of items that could not be produced in the colonies, including glass, lead, paint, and tea, Townshend believed the Revenue Act would be acceptable in a way the Stamp Act was not. This attempt to once more assert Parliamentary prerogatives was joined in the same session by the Indemnity Act, which cut taxes on tea imported to Britain so that it could more easily be re-exported to North America. Because tea was one of the items covered by the Revenue Act it was reasoned that the loss of revenue in Britain would be made up by that collected in the colonies. The logic Townshend initially deployed to back the passage of these acts was essentially the same as that of the Stamp Act, the collection of revenue in order to help defray the cost of maintaining a British military presence in North America. By the time the Revenue Act reached the floor of the House of Commons, however, the Chancellor had instead decided to use the accumulated returns of the new taxes to pay the salaries of the various governors and justices then serving in the colonies. As these salaries had previously been the responsibility of the colonial legislatures, this particular aspect of the Revenue Act was essentially a means by which the executive and judicial branches of the various colonial governments could be made beholden to Parliament rather than to the citizens of British North America.
The final two pieces of legislation usually included under the umbrella phrase “Townshend Acts” were the Commissioner of Customs Act and the New York Restraining Act. The former created an American equivalent to the British Board of Customs, to be headquartered in Boston and tasked with enforcing the collection of excise duties and guarding against attempts to circumvent taxation of imported goods by means of smuggling. While this proved in itself to be a highly inflammatory measure, particularly where it combined with the expanded search powers granted by the Indemnity Act, the New York Restraining Act was significantly more draconian. In response to the refusal of the New York Assembly to comply with the terms of the Quartering Act of 1765, whereby British troops were permitted to house themselves on private property and at colonial expense, Townshend determined to suspend the power of said Assembly until they agreed to acquiesce. This represented a complete abrogation of what colonists believed was their sovereign right to political representation, made all the more offensive by the fact that it was mandated by a legislature in which said colonists had no representation. Though the New York Assembly ultimately appropriated the proper funds in order to comply with the Quartering Act before the Restraining Act went into effect, they did so without any reference to either piece of legislation and in the same breath asserted that it was beyond the authority of Parliament to suspend the operation of any colonial legislature. Thus a potential crisis was averted, and the lengths to which Britain was willing to go to enforce obedience upon its American subjects was revealed. It was within this climate of mistrust and mutual intransigence that John Dickinson first sat and laid pen to paper in the creation of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. A potential turning point had been reached, he felt, and it was necessary for someone to take account of what came next and what was at stake.