The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson
By William Murchison
(ISI Books, 252 pages, $25)
Nearly a decade after the Orange Revolution, Ukrainians removed the man they had installed just a few years after it. Such is the perpetual fate of popular uprisings. From the English Civil War to the French Revolution to the Arab Spring, worse replaces bad. So when Founding Father John Dickinson urged caution on the colonists in cutting the chord to the Mother Country, he had history on his side. But 238 years later, he doesn’t appear on the side of history.
That may explain why history hasn’t paid John Dickinson as much mind as, say, Alexander Hamilton or James Madison. William Murchison fills the void in The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson. Therein, Murchison characterizes his subject as “a man jealous for doing the right thing rightly, which is to say prudently, with minimal destruction to the contending parties and elements.”
Whereas John Hancock ostentatiously affixed his name to the Declaration of Independence, Dickinson affixed his name not at all. “To pull a tree by the roots was an act akin to murder,” Murchison says in summing up Dickinson’s disposition. “When it came to roots, the rights of Englishmen, wherever they lived, had the same natural character as trees.” Dickinson saw his fellow countrymen as Englishmen, a position that bristled both certain colonists and certain of their oppressors across the ocean.
Despite ultimately turning away from the Declaration of Independence, Dickinson earned fame as the “Penman of the Revolution,” which won him a doctor of laws from the college that became Princeton after his twelve letters from a “Farmer” appeared as a single, powerful pamphlet. The 1760s-era tracts sought to warn the British against a tyrannical course. Instead, they inflamed Americans. Dickinson helped bring about that very pivotal moment in July 1776 that defined both him and his country in very different ways.
Modern man has coined a word for Dickinson’s opposite, the “chickenhawk” — a warmonger who balks at becoming a warfighter. But, given our penchant for lambasting the cowardly rather than praising the heroic, we have not yet devised a word or phrase that describes the man who, without complaint, fights a war he opposed. “Dickinson willingly did what his state and country asked of him: the course of action fixed upon, the time for talking foreclosed,” Murchison explains. “There was no more to say; there were horses to mount.”
The wealthy farmer led one unit as a brigadier general and served in another as a private. He personally waged the war that so many Founding Fathers remembered more fondly for supporting never bothered to fight. And his treason to the crown came with cost. “In the neighborhood of the Germantown road, the British put the torch to seventeen American homes and estates,” The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson reports. “One was John Dickinson’s beloved Fair Hill, with its gardens, prospects, and enviable library, where various delegates to the First Continental Congress—among them John Adams—had enjoyed the city’s hospitality.”
Dickinson’s status after he declined to etch his name on the Declaration says as much about him as it does about his countrymen. His fellow citizens thought highly enough of him to elect him president of Pennsylvania near war’s end just as they had elected him to serve in the same office in Delaware closer to the war’s outset. His peers entrusted him to primarily devise the first draft of the Articles of Confederation. And Dickinson served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, where he spoke in support of a Senate that represented the states and in opposition to a system that enslaved human beings. Just as principle prodded him along his own unique course during the heady days of the summer of ’76, principle pushed Dickinson to practice his preachings in manumitting his slaves.
Murchison, a brilliant stylist and able historian, finds a life worth celebrating in a book that his readers will find worth celebrating. “The value of no in political affairs is less celebrated than the value of yes, a word that, unopposed, can initiate new trials larger than the old ones,” the biographer says in relation to his subject. “For which reason, no—or, as the case may be, slow—deserves to be heard and heeded more often. Saying it with conviction can require no more than stubbornness or perversity. Saying it with wisdom, grace, and courage is an activity that approaches art.”