John Dickenson, Founder and Revolutionary

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