Having thus far explored the various intellectual, moral, and personal influences at play in John Dickinson’s Letter III, and discussed at length the way some of them seem to mesh quite successfully while others appear utterly contradictory, it might seem to be – how shall we say – gilding the lily to continue a further dissection of the above-mentioned document. Yes, it may be just that, brevity being the soul of wit, and so forth. But if my readers have learned anything about me at all, lo these many months, it’s that I don’t feel there can ever be such a thing as too many words set forth on a topic as rich and complex as the American Founding Fathers. So I expect that they’ll forgive me for deciding one last time in this present series to upend my cranium above the page in an attempt to shake lose what thoughts remain about Letter III and its estimable author.
Because there are, I feel, several more things to learn from a reading of the third of John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. In particular, there are elements of what Dickinson wrote in an attempt to make clear his position on the emerging crisis between the British government and the colonies that provide evidence as to some of his philosophical inclinations which have not already been explored. Several references that Dickinson put forward, for example, hint at an affinity for classical references that would appear to place Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania in the realm of the “high discourse” tradition of English political writing. This quite emphatically sets Dickinson apart from other American political activists of the era who tended toward the radical, such as Thomas Paine or Thomas Jefferson, and says a great deal about how he viewed himself and his efforts within the larger sphere of Anglo-American politics and philosophy. By the same token, remarks made by Dickinson in Letter III about the nature of Lockean social contract theory and its application to the American colonial context provide clear evidence of how he differed from his revolutionary colleagues in terms of philosophical outlook. By studying these instances of Dickinson giving voice to some of his less obvious intellectual preferences, it is possible to further pinpoint where exactly on the ideological spectrum of the American Revolution the “Farmer in Pennsylvania” sat, and in turn develop a broader, richer sense of just how many distinct points of view the Founders held between them.
As mentioned some weeks ago, the tone of John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania place them very much in league with the collection of 144 missives published between 1720 and 1723 in the London Journal known collectively as Cato’s Letters. The work of Englishman John Trenchard and Scotsman Thomas Gordon, both outspoken members of the reformist Country Party in 18th-century Britain, the Letters were concisely argued attacks against the perceived corruption of the government of George I following a financially disastrous investment scheme. In exchange for a series of bribes members of the government authorized a trade in early 1720 whereby holders of British securities (i.e. the national debt) could trade them to the South Sea Company in exchange for stock at a favorable rate of exchange. Because the company had been granted a trade monopoly for South America it was expected that its stock value would increase precipitously, thereby enticing bond-holders to make the trade. Thereafter the high-interest government securities that had been a constant drain on the Treasury would be redeemed, and both parties involved in the transaction would be beneficiaries of a financial windfall. For a time this seemed to work. In January 1720, South Sea Company stocks traded at £128 per share; by May they had increased to £500, and by June to a peak of £1050. Unfortunately this flurry of activity led to widespread speculation in the shares of other companies, and in an attempt to tamp down on runaway inflation the government passed the Bubble Act in June, 1720. This piece of legislation made all joint-stock companies that did not possess a Royal Charter illegal, and quickly put a stop to the rampant trading the South Sea Company’s success had encouraged. This had the unanticipated knock-on effect of driving down the value of South Sea stock as well, and vast sums of money were lost by some of Britain’s wealthiest and most influential citizens.
In view of this naked, and catastrophic, display of corruption and patronage, Trenchard and Gordon took it upon themselves to give vent to the public frustrations that resulted. After a dozen or so letters to that effect, the pair thereafter dedicated themselves to holding forth on any number of topics of public import, from incidents of contemporary significance (the threatened loss of recently-acquired Gibraltar) to general topics of universal application (the value of free speech, loyalty, and liberty). Over the many, many entries that followed the pair argued extensively and effectively for transparency in government, freedom of expression, and the inviolable nature of individual liberty, in the process deploying a raft of references to ancient Greek and Roman philosophers as well as to more contemporary figures like English republican theorist Algernon Sidney. Thereafter collected and reprinted, Cato’s Letters became a bestseller in Britain, going through six editions as of 1755. Significant to the present discussion, they also became a particular favorite of the North American audience. The text of the Letters were widely distributed in the Thirteen Colonies and were freely quoted in newspapers, and bound editions found their way into roughly half the private libraries on the continent. In homage, Cato became a common pseudonym for authors of tracts from across the political spectrum, including those who argued for and against the Revolution in the 1770s and the adoption of the Constitution in the 1780s. John Dickinson appeared to wear the influence of Cato’s Letters in his own Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, both in the latter’s use of classical references and the importance they attached to the ideal of disinterestedness.
Evidence of second tendency, of declaring the importance of political disinterestedness, can be found specifically in the second paragraph of Letter III. Therein, after first declaring in the opening paragraph that the only motives behind publishing his missives was, “a lively resentment of every insult and injury offered to you,” he clarified for his readers just where he stood in relation to the unfolding crisis between the colonies and the British government. “I am no further concerned,” Dickinson wrote, “in anything affecting America, than any one of you; and when liberty leaves it, I can quit it much more conveniently than most of you [.]” This probably sounds a bit strange coming from a man who claims to have the best interests of his countrymen at heart – it certainly did to me on first blush – but statements like this were meant to demonstrate a person’s impartiality, and therefore their credibility. While it has since come to have the same meaning as “uninterested,” the 18th-century connotation of “disinterested” was something closer to non-partisan. To be disinterested was considered a political virtue in an era that still demonized political parties and at least paid lip service to ideals like public service and self-sacrifice. Cato’s Letters are chock-a-block with references to disinterest as an ideal, and the nefarious influence of “the moneyed interest in England” and, “the destructive interests of societies of stock-jobbers, combined with publick plunderers [.]” Though Dickinson avoided using such unambiguous terminology in Letter III, the general sentiment he attempted to express falls under the same general category.
When he wrote, “I am no further concerned in anything affecting America, than any one of you,” he meant that he was not, for instance, a member of any branch of any colonial government, or a royal official of any kind, or the owner of a business that benefited directly from British patronage or trade policy. His claimed impartially thus stemmed from the fact that he was not bound to speak in favor of maintaining the Anglo-American relationship by any fear of reprisal or financial loss. A royally-appointed tax assessor could not say the same, nor could a merchant with strong ties to London, or a Crown attorney. In 1767 Dickinson was little more than a private citizen, and this fact he wanted to make clear. Lacking formal ties to any organization, decision-making body or sovereign authority, he believed that he possessed the ability to speak for the good of all rather than some narrow and parochial financial or political interest. If he did happen to speak favorably of the Crown, or Parliament, or of generally avoiding rash action, it would thus have been the result of an objective assessment of what was in the best interests of the colonial population rather than what would benefit his position or his designs.
He had much the same sentiment in mind when he added, “when liberty leaves it, I can quit it much more conveniently than most of you.” The significance of this passage is somewhat less obvious than the one that preceded it. Here Dickinson was attempting to point to his personal wealth as a positive factor in his impartiality. Someone who worked in a trade, like a farmer or an artisan, would naturally have felt that the quality of their life was strongly tied to the economic and political situation of the community in which their lived. Colonial trade and taxation, both policy areas that the British Parliament had claimed exclusive jurisdiction over, affected what most Americans were able to purchase in shops, how much money they were able to save, and in turn the general quality of their existence. Consequently, the average, workaday colonist might regard the mounting disagreement between British America and Parliament as bad for business and their life in turn, and thus seek a speedy remedy by whatever means were most convenient. No matter if this led them to support reconciliation or confrontation; whichever quickly reasserted the status quo was preferable. As of 1767 Dickinson was an independently wealthy barrister whose ability to live a comfortable life had little connection to the manner or logic of colonial taxation. Free from such pedestrian considerations, and by his own admission able to depart the colonies “more conveniently than most” if matters took an unpleasant turn, he evidently felt himself capable of speaking to more abstract concerns than the majority of his fellow colonists. Where they might be swayed by thoughts of price and profit, and eventual privation, he could consider loftier ideas, like truth, justice, and the laws of nature.
Patronising though this notion might seem – and make no mistake, it does – it was very much in keeping with the 18th-century ideals of public service and self-sacrifice that characterized the writings of the Country Party reformers. It was their firm belief that the administration of the British government was best left in the hands of the landed gentry because of the unique qualities that group possessed. As a species independently wealthy (in theory), they were the pawns of no other faction, individual, or interest, and could thus be depended on to make decisions based on an objective assessment of the greater good rather than their own personal financial needs. At the same time, the fact of their wealth made them both capable of engaging in public service and obligated to do so. Because they were blessed with advantages well beyond most people’s dreams, it was felt by members of the Country Party that the gentry were bound by a concomitant impulse of social responsibility to put those advantages to good use. Their wealth in turn allowed them to do this without sacrificing their comfort. John Dickinson, born into one of the wealthiest families in colonial America, seemed to both embody and personally support this conception of the link between wealth and impartiality, privilege and service. This, again, placed him very much in the same camp as purveyors of British “high discourse” political commentary like Trenchard and Gordon, and Country Party founder Lord Bolingbroke, and a good distance from "lowborn" activists like ideologue Thomas Paine and popular satirist Benjamin Franklin.
Another indication of the connection between Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania and the elevated, sober style of political commentary utilized by early 18th-century British reformers can be found in their common affection for, and use of, classical references. A cursory examination of the aforementioned Cato’s Letters reveals a particularly strong affinity for the same. Subjects under discussion in that 144-part series include the titular Roman statesman Cato the Younger, Julius Caesar and his assassin Brutus, ancient Persian king and conquer of Egypt Cambyses II, and the nature of corruption in the Roman Republic. Though Dickinson was not as absorbed as Trenchard and Gordon by the lessons embodied in these ancient exemplars, going only so far as to occasionally reference a classical figure or event in support of a broader argument, that he felt comfortable at all dipping his toe into this intellectual sphere is telling. Look, for example, to the ninth paragraph of Letter III. In it, Dickinson recalled the ancient Spartans as a people worthy of emulation by his fellow colonists because they were a, “brave and free people,” who were inspired by a, “happy temperament of soul [.]” He then went on to quote Greco-Roman historian and essayist Plutarch’s description of the Spartans, with the seeming intent of drawing a comparison between the virtues therein described and those Dickinson hoped his fellow colonists would embody.
In the sixteenth paragraph of Letter III, Dickinson made use of another explicit reference to figures from classical antiquity when he attempted to warn his fellow colonists against falling victim to the, “sway of the Cleons and Clodiuses, the designing and detectable flatterers of the prevailing passion [.]” Cleon, for the record, was an Athenian statesman who held sway during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) and was widely regarded as a warmonger and a demagogue. Publius Clodius Pulcher, meanwhile, was a Roman politician during the late Republic known for his radical populism. Dickinson’s intent was accordingly to project an image of flattery and corruption as a warning to the population of the colonies against what he believed would be the inevitable result of allowing anger and resentment to cloud their collective judgement. Give in to anger and inevitably fall prey to demagogues, essentially. Of course, in order to absorb this message a person would need to know who Cleon and Clodius were; the majority of the population of the Thirteen Colonies in 1767 almost certainly did not.
That Dickinson was familiar with the works of Plutarch, or the history of Athens or Ancient Rome, is not in the least bit surprising. He was, after all, the recipient of a classical education that emphasized the moral and rhetorical value of the great Greek and Roman poets, historians, and playwrights of antiquity. And he was far from the only one of the Founders to have been taught via this style of curriculum. What is noteworthy about the appearance of this kind of classical knowledge in his written political commentary, however, is how clearly it serves to differentiate Dickinson’s work from that of his revolutionary contemporaries. Consider, for instance, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Both received a similar education to Dickinson, both were intimately familiar with the classics, and both reportedly filled their private libraries with volumes by men like Cicero, Ovid, Livy, Tacitus, Demosthenes, and Aristotle (among others), almost certainly in the original Greek or Latin. In this sense, of belonging to a particular social and intellectual class of men in 18th-century Anglo-American world, they were cut from the same cloth as Dickinson himself. Yet an examination of Jefferson’s A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774) and Adams’ Thoughts on Government (1776) reveal not a single reference to any Ancient Greek or Roman figures or events. Though there could be any number of reason for this, there would seem to be at least one clear and undeniable consequence: portions of Dickinson’s Letter III required a degree of classical knowledge to fully grasp, while no part of either Jefferson’s or Adams’ aforementioned works asked the same of their audience. This important because of what it says about Dickinson’s intended readership; that is, who he wanted to reach, and why.
In many ways possessing a classical education in the 18th century was like being able to speak a language (besides Greek and Latin, of course) that was known only to a select few. Possessing a strong familiarity with Plutarch’s Parallel Lives or Demosthenes’ public orations signified the attainment of an elevated awareness of moral philosophy, history, and rhetoric, and being able to utilize these sources in order to craft a convincing argument signified one’s membership in a community of shared sentiment and means (education being mainly the province of the wealthy). Trenchard and Gordon, in this mold, knew that the average English person would not have the slightest interest in their meditations on the corruption of the Roman political classes in the late Republican era. It was not their intention to reach as wide an audience as possible, but to communication to those few who could grasp the source material that underpinned their reflections, and perhaps possessed the means to respond in a meaningful way. Though, again, Dickinson’s Letter III contains relatively few references to topics from classical antiquity, their modest inclusion nonetheless speaks volumes as to who the titular Farmer from Pennsylvania was trying to reach. By resorting in the arguments contained within Letter III to classical comparisons or analogies Dickinson actively made it harder, if not impossible, for certain people to read and understand what he was trying to say.
There are a number of potential reasons why Dickinson nonetheless proceeded in this way. He was, on the one hand, an 18th-century gentleman, educated and socialized to behave, think, and communicate in a certain way. He was, furthermore, a noted anglophile who attached particular significance to English traditions, English history, and English political thought. He may have intended, accordingly, to communicate to other gentlemen in the language he knew they all shared, and in a manner very much in keeping with the English political commentators with which he was surely familiar. Jefferson and Adams were gentlemen too, though they managed to avoid relying on some of the more esoteric elements of classical vocabulary when attempting to communicate a political message to their fellow colonists. Perhaps this was because the pair nurtured a self-image that was not quite so elevated above them common man as their education wold indicate – though in Adams’ case this seems unlikely. Or perhaps they chose to distance themselves from a mode of thought and expression that had become distinctly associated in the American mindset with a particular style of English political discourse. If this was the case, if they felt a self-conscious impulse to appear to their readers less British in tone and substance, then it is noteworthy indeed that their colleague Dickinson felt no such need to “dress down” his rhetorical style.
That being said, it is perhaps not all that surprising. As is hopefully clear by now, John Dickinson was, among the pantheon of the Founding Fathers, something of an odd duck. He was a man of conviction, sometimes to the point of stiffness; he as a pacifist whose moral aversion of violence ran very deep; he was a lover of Britain, its people, history, and culture. Though he shared with his revolutionary colleagues a common grounding in the classics and the philosophical ideals of the European Enlightenment, it seemed that the former traits most strongly defined his character, outlook, and actions. If the style of commentary he favored in his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania is any indication, he regarded himself as a gentleman in the mold of the British Country Party reformers whose works had been so warmly received by the colonial American elite. Accordingly, he favored calm, measured debate to rash action, abhorred corruption and tyranny, sought examples of proper or improper moral behavior in the classical texts of Ancient Greece and Rome, and endeavored always to maintain the traditions of British constitutionalism. Likely these principles were favored by many among the Founding Generation, but few seemed to hold to them as rigidly as John Dickinson of Poplar Hall.
And it’s this rigidity of conviction that makes reading and attempting to understand Dickinson’s work, like Letter III, such an interesting endeavor. Whereas certain among the early revolutionaries, like Massachusetts agitator Samuel Adams or Virginia rabble-rouser Patrick Henry, responded to perceived British injustices with increasing vitriol, John Dickinson ever maintained a mask of calm deliberation. Unwilling to be swept up in the anger that events in the 1760s and 1770s seemed to breed so readily, he attempted always to speak to the objective good, the reasonable, the just. While many in the colonies began to question the legitimacy of the bond between Britain and the Thirteen Colonies, Dickinson advised the need for peaceful petitions, warned against the evils that accompany blind anger, and preached loyalty to the royal regime that had for so long been the attendant of American prosperity. Truly, there seems not a trace of cynicism in Dickinson’s fervent calls for even-handedness and even-tempers, yet there appears a hint of thinly-veiled desperation.
Because the American Revolution was more than just a philosophical disagreement that could be solved if men of good conscience sat in the same room and exchanged obscure Latin quotations. The ideas at its root were, and are, fundamental to human existence: liberty, justice, authority, and community. Consequently the Revolution could not very long remain a debate about taxes or political representation. Dickinson’s contemporaries seemed to sense this, and responded accordingly. Men like Jefferson and Adams spoke plainly, of politics, and economics, and the inalienable rights of a free people. Their assessments tended towards the pragmatic; they began to speak not of avoiding war but of limiting its destructive effects. And they acknowledged that the relationship between Britain and America had run its course. Yet there was John Dickinson, clinging to a very British ideal of gentlemanly behavior, and an accompanying sense of decorum, loyalty, and morality that was quickly becoming outmoded.
And this too it what makes him such an intriguing figure. In spite his often fundamental disagreements with other members of the Founding Generation, he shared their essential dedication to public service and self-sacrifice. Few of the Founders compromised more than did Dickinson; few were forced to bend their ideals or silence their convictions to a greater extent in order to see through to the end their nation’s troubled birth. He was not a Loyalist, though it may have been easier for him if he had been. He believed, as did his cohorts, that the rights of man were inherent and irrepressible. He had not been willing to fight for those rights, or at least dreaded the thought of sending others to die for them. But his dedication to the great causes of the Revolution – to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – forced him to confront a great many things that he was not comfortable with. For that reason alone his is worthy of admiration, study, and contemplation. He was, after all, one the first to speak against the abuses of a distant government and call for unity among those who had the most to lose. And he was also one of the last to admit that the defenders of American liberty were no better than their oppressors.
Anyway, that’s how I see it. Take a look for yourself:
Letter from a Farmer in Pennsylvania III by John Dickenson: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/690