John Dickenson, Founder and Revolutionary

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Though all
but overlooked now, John Dickinson (1732–1808) – birthday
November 2 – was among the most important of America’s Founders
and one of the most radical revolutionaries. He was a colonial
legislator, member of the Stamp Act, Continental, and Confederation
Congresses, chief executive of both Delaware (by a 25 to 1 vote;
his being the only opposed) and Pennsylvania, president of the
1786 Annapolis convention that led to the Constitutional Convention,
and among the most informed and seasoned statesmen to attend the
Constitutional Convention.

Dickinson,
however, was best known as the "Penman of the Revolution,"
for his writings in support of the colonies’ cause.

He composed
The Late Regulations Respecting the British Colonies…Considered,
in the debates over the Stamp Act in 1765. He wrote Letters from
a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies
in 1767 and 1768, which were then published as a pamphlet, reprinted
in most colonial newspapers, and read widely in both England and
the colonies; and not only helped incubate unity among the colonies,
but made Dickinson America’s first homegrown hero.

He even authored
the Liberty Song, which included the lines "Then join in
hand, brave Americans all! By uniting we stand, by dividing we
fall." He produced a 1771 petition to the King of England.
Along with Thomas Jefferson, he penned Declaration of the Causes
and Necessity of Taking Up Arms in 1775.

He was co-author
of the Articles of Confederation. He defended ratification of
the Constitution in the widely published Fabius Letters in 1788,
which some have considered almost as influential as the Federalist
Papers.

Because of
John Dickinson’s now forgotten importance, it is worth commemorating
his November 2 birthday by remembering some of his words that
were so influential in inaugurating America’s experiment with
liberty. Consider some excerpts from his three most famous writings.

Letters
from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British
Colonies

"From
my infancy I was taught to love humanity and liberty. Enquiry
and experience have since confirmed my reverence for the lessons
then given me, by convincing me more fully of their truth and
excellence. Benevolence toward mankind excites wishes for their
welfare, and such wishes endear the means of fulfilling them.
These can be found in liberty only, and therefore her sacred cause
ought to be espoused by every man on every occasion, to the utmost
of his power."

"…my
dear countrymen, rouse yourselves, and behold the ruin hanging
over your heads… [or] the tragedy of American liberty is finished."

"…while
Divine Providence, that gave me existence in a land of freedom,
permits my head to think, my lips to speak, and my hand to move,
I shall so highly and gratefully value the blessing received as
to take care that my silence and inactivity shall not give my
implied assent to any act, degrading my brethren and myself from
the birthright, wherewith heaven itself ‘hath made us free.’"

"The
cause of liberty…ought to be maintained in a manner suitable
to her nature. Those who engage in it should breathe a sedate,
yet fervent spirit, animating them to actions of prudence, justice,
modesty, bravery, humanity and magnanimity."

"A FREE
people therefore can never be too quick in observing, nor too
firm in opposing the beginnings of alteration either in form or
reality, respecting institutions formed for their security…the
forms of liberty may be retained, when the substance is gone."

"The
love of liberty is so natural to the human heart, that unfeeling
tyrants think themselves obliged to accommodate their schemes
as much as they can to the appearance of justice and reason, and
to deceive those whom they resolve to destroy, or oppress, by
presenting to them a miserable picture of freedom, when the inestimable
original is lost."

"For
WHO ARE A FREE PEOPLE? Not those, over whom government is reasonable
and equitably exercised, but those, who live under a government
so constitutionally checked and controlled, that proper provision
is made against its being otherwise exercised."

"Those
who are taxed without their own consent, expressed by themselves
or their representatives, are slaves. We are taxed without our
own consent…We are therefore – SLAVES."

"A perpetual
jealousy, respecting liberty, is absolutely requisite in all free
states…"

"Indeed
nations, in general, are not apt to think until they feel; and
therefore nations in general have lost their liberty: For as violations
of the rights of the governed, are commonly…but small at the
beginning, they spread over the multitude in such a manner, as
to touch individuals but slightly. Thus they are disregarded…They
regularly increase the first injuries, till at length the inattentive
people are compelled to perceive the heaviness of their burdens – They
begin to complain and inquire – but too late. They find their oppressors
so strengthened by success, and themselves so entangled in examples
of express authority on the part of their rulers, and of tacit
recognition on their own part, that they are quite confounded"

"…every
free state should incessantly watch, and instantly take alarm
on any addition being made to the power exercised over them."

"Some
persons are of the opinion, that liberty is not violated, but
by such open acts of force; but…Liberty, perhaps, is never exposed
to so much danger, as when the people believe there is the least;
for it may be subverted, and yet they not think so."

"If
any person considers these things, and yet thinks our liberties
are in no danger, I wonder at that person’s security."

"…we
cannot be HAPPY, without being FREE…we cannot be free, without
being secure in our property… we cannot be secure in our property,
if, without our consent, others may, as by right, take it away…"

"…YOU
indeed DESERVE liberty, who so well understand it, so passionately
love it, so temperately enjoy it, and so wisely, bravely, and
virtuously assert, maintain, and defend it."

"For
my part, I am resolved to contend for the liberty delivered down
to me…’How littlesoever one is able to write, yet when the liberties
of one’s country are threatened, it is still more difficult to
be silent.’"

Declaration
of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms (with Thomas Jefferson)

"If
it was possible for men who exercise their reason to believe that
the divine Author of our existence intended a part of the human
race to hold an absolute property in, and an unbounded power over
others…the inhabitants of these colonies might at least require
from the parliament of Great-Britain some evidence that this dreadful
authority over them has been granted to that body. But a reverence
for our Creator, principles of humanity, and the dictates of common
sense must convince all those who reflect upon the subject, that
government was instituted to promote the welfare of mankind, and
ought to be administered for the attainment of that end."

"By
one statute it is declared that Parliament can, ‘of right, make
laws to bind us in all cases whatsoever.’ What is to defend us
against so enormous, so unlimited a power?"

"…regard
these oppressive measures as freemen ought…"

"…our
attachment to no nation upon earth should supplant our attachment
to liberty."

"We
are reduced to the alternative of choosing an unconditional submission…or
resistance by force. – The latter is our choice. – We have counted
the cost of this contest, and find nothing so dreadful as voluntary
slavery. – Honor, justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to
surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors,
and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from
us."

"Our
cause is just…the arms we have been compelled by our enemies
to assume, we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating
firmness and perseverance, employ for the preservation of our
liberties; being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather
than to live slaves."

"In
our own native land, in defense of the freedom that is our birthright…for
the protection of our property, acquired solely by the honest
industry of our fore-fathers and ourselves, against violence actually
offered, we have taken up arms. We shall lay them down when hostilities
shall cease on the part of the aggressors, and all danger of their
being renewed shall be removed, and not before."

Fabius
Letters

"…the
question . . . will be – not what may be done, when the government
shall be turned into a tyranny; but how the government can be
so turned?"

"Worthy
is it of deep consideration by every friend of freedom that abuses
that seem to be but trifles, may be attended by fatal consequences."

"Delightful
are the prospects that will open to the view of United America – her
sons well prepared to defend their own happiness, and ready to
relieve the misery of others – her fleets formidable, but only
to the unjust – her revenue sufficient, yet unoppressive – her commerce
affluent, but not debasing – peace and plenty within her borders – and
the glory that arises from a proper use of power, encircling them."

"Can
any government be devised that will be more suited to citizens
who wish for equal freedom and common prosperity; better calculated
for preventing corruption of manners; for advancing the improvements
that endear or adorn life; or that can be more conformed to the
understanding, to the best affections, to the very nature of man?"

Modern Americans
may not have heard of John Dickinson, but when he died, President
Jefferson expressed his sorrow and both houses of Congress wore
black armbands in mourning. Why? Because he recognized that the
essential purpose of government was to maintain liberty against
others’ predatory acts. Further, he knew that without liberty,
"the loss of happiness then follows as a matter of course."
And he helped motivate our founders to be "protectors of
unborn ages, whose fate depends upon your virtue."

November
5, 2005

Gary M.
Galles [send him mail]
is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.

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