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The most ‘underrated’ founder’s influence on America’s Constitution

The most ‘underrated’ founder’s influence on America’s Constitution

This article first appeared in The Hill.

This month marks the 250th anniversary of John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania — the landmark series of newspaper op-eds that laid out the colonial case against taxation without representation.

The letters were widely republished and made Dickinson for a time the most famous American in the world, second only to Ben Franklin.

The Farmer Letters should not, however, overshadow Dickinson’s immediate impact on the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution bears a much closer resemblance to his vision than to the pre-convention ideas of more celebrated founders.

Dickinson’s influence survives today in the structure of “the Hill” — that is, of Congress.

For example, Dickinson suggested the Great Compromise — equal representation of states in the Senate and “proportional” representation in the House — long before the convention adopted it. It also was Dickinson’s idea to moderate “proportional” representation by allotting to every state, no matter how small, at least one representative.

The House of Representatives enjoys the exclusive right of originating revenue bills only because John Dickinson, in company with Virginia’s Edmund Randolph, fought for it. They had to overcome the resistance of several skeptics, including James Madison.

Like most of the Founders, Dickinson opposed slavery. Unlike most of those convention delegates who had owned slaves, however, Dickinson already had emancipated his. Although he favored an immediate end to the international slave trade, he also recognized political reality. Thus, he helped negotiate the compromise by which Congress could abolish the slave trade, but only after 20 years.

Dickinson moved to permit, but not require, Congress to create federal courts below the Supreme Court and (despite some initial doubts) to allow Congress to impeach and remove the president.

The Constitution’s organization of the Senate largely followed Dickinson’s ideas. He suggested that Senators represent the states equally and be selected by state legislatures for long, staggered terms. He hoped the Senate would serve as a republican analogue of Britain’s upper chamber, protecting the states as the House of Lords protected the British aristocracy.

Just as important was Dickinson’s influence on American federalism. In pre-Independence writings, he outlined his ideal division of powers between the colonies and the central government in London. The division later ordained by the Constitution between the states and the federal government was remarkably similar.

On this subject of the federal-state balance of power, Dickinson’s views occupied the middle ground between “states rights” advocates such as Robert Yates of New York and centralizers such as Alexander Hamilton and (at that time) Madison. Dickinson proposed the Constitution grant the new government a generous list of powers while reserving all other authority to the states. His constitutional plans dated June 18, 1787 contain prototypes of Article I, Section 8, the constitutional provision enumerating most congressional powers. His June 18 plans also feature prototypes of the Constitution’s Necessary and Proper Clause, which recognizes Congress’s authority to pass laws to carry other powers into execution.

After the convention adjourned, Dickinson continued to further the Constitution’s cause. He penned nine op-eds known as the Letters of Fabius. They responded to the opposition charge that the Constitution would promote aristocracy. During the convention Dickinson had predicted this charge and warned other delegates to forearm themselves against it.

Modern constitutional interpreters often rely on statements by Founders who occupied the extremes of the political spectrum. Advocates of big government typically resort to Hamilton (who played only a minor role at the convention) and advocates of small government rely on Jefferson (who wasn’t even there). This practice overlooks the moderates who actually pulled the Constitution together and secured its ratification. Of these, Dickinson was the most significant.

Forrest McDonald, America’s greatest 20th century constitutional historian, characterized Dickinson as the “the most underrated of all the founders.” Indeed, it was not until Dickinson’s own convention notes were rediscovered in the early 1980s that his contributions became better understood even among scholars.

This much is clear: John Dickinson deserves much more of our national gratitude than we have given him.

Second in a Series: The Message of the Farmer Letters

Second in a Series: The Message of the Farmer Letters

This is the second of a five-part series on Founding Father John Dickinson, who published his highly influential “Farmer Letters” exactly 250 years ago. The series was first published by the Washington Post’s blog, The Volokh Conspiracy.

The Farmer letters are best understood when read in conjunction with Dickinson’s 1764 speech and his 1774 Essay on the Constitutional Power of Great-Britain Over the Colonies in America. The latter tract elaborated The Farmer’s comments about government. This discussion, although drawing principally on The Farmer, will mention all three works.

In political philosophy, Dickinson was essentially a Lockean. Government was founded on contract. It was a public trust erected to further human happiness. Necessary to human happiness was satisfaction of man’s social instinct. Any particular government was constitutional and legitimate only so far as its actions furthered human happiness. In his 1764 speech, Dickinson argued that the “liberties” (e.g., privileges) created by English law are “[f]ounded on the acknowledged rights of human nature.” In other words, the “rights of Englishmen” were positive law manifestations of natural rights.

According to Dickinson, immigrants to the colonies had effectively contracted to recognize the executive authority of the Crown and its authority over foreign affairs. Furthermore, by accepting Britain as the mother country and the moderator of the empire, colonists had impliedly agreed that Parliament could regulate trade with foreign nations and among units of the empire.

But Americans had never ceded their right to be taxed only by their consent, given individually or by their representatives: “We cannot be happy without being free,” Dickinson wrote in Farmer Letter XII. “We cannot be free without being secure in our own property … We cannot be secure in our property, if, without our consent, others may take it away.”

Parliament, where Americans were unrepresented, had imposed the Townshend duties to raise revenue rather than to restrict or regulate trade. As such, they were taxes: “A ‘TAX’ means an imposition to raise money,” Letter IV proclaimed. The Quartering Act, by which Parliament ordered colonial governments to provide lodging and other support to British troops, also was substantially a tax.

Although the “Farmer” necessarily focused on taxes, he addressed other political questions as well. One was how a free people should respond to governmental usurpation. Citizens should oppose small usurpations immediately to prevent them from acquiring the force of precedent. Letter XII proclaimed, “A perpetual jealousy regarding liberty is absolutely required in all free states … Slavery is ever preceded by sleep.”

However, opposition should proceed cautiously. Letter III contended that citizens must first petition for redress of grievances. Only if petitioning was unsuccessful should citizens proceed to peaceful civil disobedience. Only if both those steps failed, should they employ force.

Dickinson did not believe taxation was the only subject within the exclusive sphere of colonial control. Dickinson cited the court system as another example. Letter XII asserted, “The freedom of a people consists in being governed by laws, in which no alteration can be made, without their consent.” Obviously, this proclamation is not limited to taxes.

In his 1774 essay, Dickinson illustrated by example what he meant by “internal governance.” It included regulation of civil justice, criminal law, manufacturing, religion, the press, and many other activities. His list looks very much like the lists the Constitution’s advocates offered during the ratification debates when they itemized the powers the Constitution reserved exclusively to the states.

Like Dickinson’s later writings, The Farmer revealed an interest in the incentives motivating political officeholders. Letter VII observed that measures not affecting parliamentary constituents directly received less attention in the House of Commons than those of importance to constituents. Parliamentary taxation of the colonies in particular created bad incentives. Letter VIII cited as a principle of good government the maxim, Qui sentit commodum, sentire debet et onus: Who gets the benefit should bear the burden.

The “Farmer” supported his case heavily, both in the text and in footnotes. There were citations to the Bible, to political tracts, to leading classical authors, and to works of ancient and modern history. For example, to illustrate how the true incidence of a tax might fall on a person other than the nominal payer, Letter VII related an episode from the reign of the emperor Nero, drawn from the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus.

Incidentally, constitutional originalists may appreciate Dickinson’s preference for relying for on older records as legal authority rather than on recent trends or events. His 1774 essay asserted that it is best to resort to “those ‘dead but most faithful counsellors’ (as Sir Edward Coke calls them) ‘who cannot be daunted by fear, nor muzzled by affection, reward, or hope of preferment, and therefore may safely be believed.’ . . . ” This statement should be read in conjunction with Dickinson’s reason for adhering to the rule of law: “[M]iserable is the servitude when the laws are uncertain.”

Third in a Series: John Dickinson During the Continental and Confederation Periods

Third in a Series: John Dickinson During the Continental and Confederation Periods

This is the third of a five-part series on Founding Father John Dickinson, who published his highly influential “Farmer Letters” exactly 250 years ago. The series was first published by the Washington Post’s blog, The Volokh Conspiracy.

In 1774, John Dickinson was elected to the First Continental Congress. As he had in the Stamp Act Congress, he served as principal drafter of public statements. The following year he was returned to the Second Continental Congress, where he again served as principal drafter. He was the primary author of, among other papers, two petitions to the Crown and The Declaration of Causes and Necessity for Taking up Arms. Moreover, he chaired the congressional committee that drafted the Articles of Confederation: Our oldest draft of the Articles is in his handwriting.

Throughout this period he tried to steer a middle course between submission and rebellion. He was a firm believer in moderation, which he once called “a virtue, and the parent of virtues.” Another member of Congress, Thomas Jefferson, wanted to proceed more vigorously. In his Autobiography Jefferson relates a story pertaining to the Declaration of Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms and the second petition to the Crown, the Olive Branch Petition. The anecdote reveals how most of Dickinson’s colleagues perceived him:

I prepared a draught of the Declaration committed to us. It was too strong for Mr. Dickinson. He still retained the hope of reconciliation with the mother country, and was unwilling it should be lessened by offensive statements. He was so honest a man, & so able a one that he was greatly indulged even by those who could not feel his scruples. We therefore requested him to take the paper, and put it into a form he could approve. He did so, preparing an entire new statement, and preserving of the former only the last 4 paragraphs & half of the preceding one. We approved & reported it to Congress, who accepted it. Congress gave a signal proof of their indulgence to Mr. Dickinson, and of their great desire not to go too fast for any respectable part of our body, in permitting him to draw their second petition to the King according to his own ideas, and passing it with scarcely any amendment. The disgust against [i.e., distaste for] this humility was general; and Mr. Dickinson’s delight at its passage was the only circumstance which reconciled them to it.

This respect for Dickinson was not universal. John Adams, one of Congress’s leading hotheads, described him as “delicate, and timid” and representative of people of “great Fortune and piddling Genius.”

By the summer of 1776, Dickinson realized Independence was inevitable. He was certain, however, that publicly declaring it was premature. His July 1 speech in opposition to the Declaration, of which we have notes but not the text, shared with his 1764 Pennsylvania assembly oration a careful balancing of risks, probabilities, and benefits. Like his other productions, the July 1 speech was punctuated with sound bites. Thus, of his countrymen, he avowed, “I had rather they should hate me than that I should hurt them,” and he characterized advocates of an immediate declaration as wanting to “brave the storm in a skiff made of paper.”

A modern American may find it difficult to sympathize with Dickinson’s arguments against Independence. But a historian finds it difficult to disagree with all of them. Several of Dickinson’s predictions proved entirely accurate. One was that only American military successes, not the Declaration, would bring France into the war. Unfortunately, Dickinson’s prediction that his stance would destroy his popularity also proved accurate.

Dickinson’s speech against Independence, like his opposition to the 1764 Galloway-Franklin charter plan, illustrates the man’s enormous moral courage. There is no record—and I am not the first to make this observation—that John Dickinson ever backed down in the face of popular opposition when an issue was important.

When it became apparent that a majority of states in Congress would approve the Declaration, Dickinson remained a team player. He and Robert Morris withdrew so the vote could be unanimous. Unlike most in Congress, moreover, Dickinson served two stints in the Revolutionary armed forces.

Another insight into his character is offered by his 1781 decision to free his slaves. Most of the Founders opposed slavery. But Dickinson was one of the few to free his own slaves during his lifetime.

Dickinson’s loss of popularity kept him from political office for about three years. His political comeback began in 1779, when Delaware returned him to Congress. Two years later he was elected president of that state, and in 1783 president of Pennsylvania. He was re-elected to two additional annual terms, thereby serving the constitutionally-permitted maximum.

In 1786, he represented Delaware in the Annapolis Convention, and was elected president of that body. The Annapolis Convention, of course, was the assembly that recommended to the states a wider federal convention in Philadelphia the following May. Virginia (not Congress, as commonly claimed) responded by formally calling the Philadelphia conclave.

Delaware sent Dickinson to Philadelphia as the head of a five-man delegation. In that capacity he impacted the results significantly.

Fourth in a Series: John Dickinson’s Contributions to the Constitution

Fourth in a Series: John Dickinson’s Contributions to the Constitution

This is the fourth of a five-part series on Founding Father John Dickinson, who published his highly influential “Farmer Letters” exactly 250 years ago. The series was first published by the Washington Post’s blog, The Volokh Conspiracy.

John Dickinson believed the passions could be the source of evil, but “[d]uly governed, they produce happiness.” Indeed, “[t]he due regulation of the affections [emotions] is the perfection [completion] of man’s character.” One achieved “due regulation” through well-structured societal institutions, including constitutional institutions: “The best foundations of this protection, that can be laid by men, are a constitution and government secured, as well as can be, from the undue influence of passions either in the people or their servants.” (Observe the phrase “undue influence,” a concept common in fiduciary law.)

Dickinson’s 1764 speech to the Pennsylvania assembly showed he understood the difference between constitutions and ordinary legislation. The role of a constitution was to lay down procedures for managing the rights and powers citizens contributed to the central authority: “[A] constitution is the organization of the contributed rights in society.” A good constitution featured mechanisms to maximize human advantages and minimize disadvantages. It encouraged good results and discouraged bad ones—the “cultivation of virtues and correction of errors.”

Dickinson was in Philadelphia for nearly the entire convention, although illness apparently caused him to miss some of the proceedings. Notes taken by James Madison and others, as well as Dickinson’s own notes (not recovered until 1983) reveal a significant impact on the framers’ deliberations.

Dickinson’s views were more centralizing than those of other small state delegates, such as New Jersey’s William Paterson. Yet they were more “federal” than views of nationalists such as Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Dickinson spoke for the “preservation of the States in a certain degree of agency [action],” but was willing to go much farther than those who wished merely to amend the Articles. Thus, he pressed for an enumeration of federal powers two months before the Committee of Detail adopted one. The ultimate federal/state balance was much closer to his ideals than, for example, to the ideals of Madison, the putative “father of the Constitution.”

The list of constitutional provisions impacted by Dickinson is a very long one. Consider the Great Compromise by which Senators were allocated by state and Representatives by population. As Dickinson hinted in his ratification-era Fabius letters, he had promoted a formula of this sort long before the other delegates acceded to it.

Dickinson sponsored the resolution that allocated at least one Representative to each state. In his draft plan for a constitution, he inserted the first rudimentary version of the Necessary and Proper Clause. (It would have authorized Congress to “pass Acts for enforcing” other congressional laws.) Amid debate over whether the Constitution should create a federal judiciary below the Supreme Court, he suggested the compromise whereby Congress received power to decide the issue. Despite misgivings, he made the motion to permit the president to be impeached. An opponent of the slave trade, he eventually helped broker the compromise whereby the trade was left untouched for several years, with power in Congress to abolish it thereafter.

Of course, he did not always get his way. He initially favored allocating members of the House of Representatives by wealth and tax contributions rather than by population. Eventually, he yielded to the convention’s conclusion that population generally was a fair proxy for wealth. The exception to the link between population and wealth was slavery, because of the lower productivity of slaves compared to freemen, white or black. The three-fifths compromise was the convention’s effort to quantify the difference, but Dickinson unsuccessfully opposed it.

Perhaps his most notable contributions pertained to the structure of the Senate. He suggested terms of office both staggered and long—although his initial preference was for seven years rather than six. He proposed that the Senate equally represent the states and that Senators be selected by the state legislatures. He sought to adapt British precedent to American conditions: Just as the House of Lords was necessary to protect the nobility and the royal veto to protect the Crown, the Senate would protect the states. Dickinson could look simultaneously back to the past and forward to the future.

This faculty surfaced again during the debate over the Origination Clause. In British parliamentary practice (adopted in modified form in some of the new state constitutions) all money bills originated in the Commons. The Lords could approve or disapprove them, but could not amend them. In conjunction with Virginia’s Edmund Randolph, Dickinson successfully fought for a requirement that all revenue bills, but not all money bills, arise in the House of Representatives, with the Senate enjoying power to amend.

Some delegates believed limiting revenue origination to the House was irrational, and they buttressed their opposition by reciting difficulties experienced in a few states with origination clauses in their recently-adopted constitutions. Madison in particular launched a convoluted attack against an origination rule.

Dickinson’s response to Madison was his most famous speech of the convention. This is the version reported by Madison himself:

Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us. It was not Reason that discovered the singular & admirable mechanism of the English Constitution. It was not Reason that discovered or ever could have discovered the odd & in the eye of those who are governed by reason, the absurd mode of trial by Jury. Accidents probably produced these discoveries, and experience has give a sanction to them. . . . And has not experience verified the utility of restraining money bills to the immediate representatives of the people. Whence the effect may have proceeded he could not say; whether from the respect with which this privilege inspired the other branches of Govt. to the H. of Commons, or from the turn of thinking it gave to the people at large with regard to their rights, but the effect was visible & could not be doubted. Shall we oppose to this long experience, the short experience of 11 years which we had ourselves, on this subject. . . [A]ll the prejudices of the people would be offended by refusing this exclusive privilege to the H. of Repress. and these prejudices shd. never be disregarded by us when no essential purpose was to be served. When this plan goes forth, it will be attacked by the popular leaders. Aristocracy will be the watchword; the Shibboleth among its adversaries. Eight States have inserted in their Constitutions the exclusive right of originating money bills in favor of the popular branch of the Legislature. Most of them however allowed the other branch to amend. This . . . would be proper for us to do.

Here was a statement of Burkean conservatism three years before Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.

As sometimes happened during Dickinson’s career, his colleagues rejected his proposal at the time—only to adopt it later.