A few years after the Orange Revolution, Ukrainians installed Viktor Yanukovych to power. Now, only about a decade later, they have removed him. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Such is the consistent fate of popular uprisings. From the English Civil War to the French Revolution to the Arab Spring, from czars and shahs to commissars and ayatollahs, bad is replaced by worse. So when Founding Father John Dickinson urged the American colonists to be cautious in cutting the cord to the Mother England, history was certainly on his side. But 238 years later, he doesn’t appear to have been on history’s side.
That helps explain why Dickinson doesn’t loom large in the American mine like, say, Alexander Hamilton or James Madison. Dozens of books have been written about both. The list on Amazon of books that focus on Dickinson includes just two. William Murchison fills the void by adding to that short selection a biography of the Delaware Valley farmer, 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 rubbed raw both certain colonists and certain 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 University after his twelve essays on the future of the colonies were published as a single, powerful pamphlet, Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania. 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 dramatically 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 that he had opposed his country’s waging. “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.” And there were, as there had been in refusing to sign the Declaration, consequences to bear.
The wealthy farmer led one unit as a brigadier general and served in another as a private. He personally waged the war that many Founding Fathers, remembered so fondly for their rhetoric, never bothered to actually fight. 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,” Murchison 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.” A man who had adhered to his “sacred honor” in refusing to endorse the Declaration had risked his life and sacrificed a good part of his fortune by fighting the war of independence that the document put in motion.
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 (not governor; the state’s executive branch was then a council) 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 trusted him to take the lead devising 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, so too did it push Dickinson to practice what he preached by manumitting his slaves.
The local Quaker faith, which Dickinson greatly admired but never completely embraced, influenced him here. “Dickinson had himself been a slave owner, holding as many as three dozen slaves at one point,” Murchison points out. “He was far from unusual in this respect among the delegates in Philadelphia. He was, however, unique in that he was the only one to have already freed his slaves.” That put Dickinson not only ahead of the nineteenth-century abolition crusade, but also George Washington and other eighteenth-century peers who ultimately released their slaves from bondage.
If he towered over contemporaries in his age, he has shrunk beside them in ours. John Dickinson remains the forgotten founder because his principle and example strike us as so foreign. His great victory during the deliberations in Philadelphia—that state legislatures, rather than their constituents, would elect senators—has been as erased from memory as it has been from the Constitution. That those letters from “a Farmer” came not just from Dickinson’s pen without a silent intermediary’s editorial hand, but also from an actual farmer rather than a politician who plays one on television, similarly seems out of step with our times (though very much in keeping with other statesmen of the 1770s). Transcending hypocrisy, a task beyond so many then and now, characterized Dickinson’s approach to, if not the great question of his day, then the great question four score and seven years later. Today, politicians vote for wars but sneak their sons into the National Guard. Dickinson did the opposite. And Americas today, who cannot say “no,” find it difficult to relate to an American who thought so much less of “yes.”
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,” he writes. “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.”
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