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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.

Fifth (and last) in a Series: John Dickinson and the Ratification of the Constitution

Fifth (and last) in a Series: John Dickinson and the Ratification of the Constitution

This is the last 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.

Ill-health motivated John Dickinson to leave the federal convention a day early. Before departing, he instructed his friend and Delaware colleague, George Read, to affix his signature to the document. There are, therefore, 39 signatures to the document but only 38 men physically signed.

In early 1788, Dickinson perceived that ratification momentum was slowing. Accordingly, he composed for publication nine letters written under the pseudonym, “Fabius.” The Letters of Fabius were well-received and widely reprinted.

Unlike The Federalist or the “Aristides” essays of Alexander Contee Hanson, Fabius made no attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of the Constitution. The letters focused primarily on answering the Antifederalist contention that the Constitution was too “high-toned,” and that its adoption would lead to aristocracy. If the reader reviews the Dickinson speech reported in my last post, he or she will see that Dickinson had anticipated this objection.

Fabius centered on a two-fold response. First, the rules governing the House, Senate, and president assured popular control. House members would be elected directly to short terms, and one third of Senators would be elected indirectly every two years. The president would be chosen by a method impervious to corruption; and although he enjoyed a veto, it was not absolute. The British had expanded and retained their liberties with far fewer democratic guarantees.

Second, freedom would be preserved by the confederal or federal (the words then were synonymous) nature of the system. In the original social compact, citizens donated certain rights or powers (words also then largely synonymous) to a central authority so as to protect retained rights/powers. Similarly, in a confederation, member states contributed rights/powers to a central authority so as to protect their remaining rights/powers.

But just as citizens are bound to be ever jealous of their rights and to check government accordingly, so also would the states be obligated to protect their reserved powers. “America is, and will be, divided into several sovereign states, each possessing every power proper for governing within its own limits for its own purposes, and also for acting as a member of the union.” Any states that allowed the federal government to interfere in their sovereign jurisdiction would be guilty of a breach of trust, for the “trustees or servants of the several states” were obliged to protect the authority citizens had placed in them. If state officials lose ground to the federal government, Dickinson maintained, “It will be their own faults.”

In addition to pressing his twofold argument, Dickinson made other points. One was the disadvantages of a confederation in which the central government had insufficient power. Dickinson cited both the Articles of Confederation and the fracture of two ancient Greek federations as examples. He also offered a positive case study: the 1707 union of England with Scotland. After reciting dire pre-union Scottish predictions his readers knew proved to be false, Dickinson identified the union’s benefits: the cultivation of virtues and correction of errors; protection for the lower classes; improvements in agriculture, science, arts, trade, and manufactures; the rule of law; peace and security at home, and increased respectability abroad. Amid the enjoyment of these benefits, the Scottish Church and laws, courts and judicature had remained established and secure.

A well-balanced confederation rendered all its members stronger. In modern terms, it reduced state shirking and free riding. Further, as in the human body, “A stroke, a touch upon any part, will be immediately felt by the whole.” A diseased member of the body severed from the rest could not recover, while one remaining connected could be saved.

Confederation was Dickinson’s answer to Montesquieu’s lament that a large territory cannot be governed by republican forms, and that attempting to do so resulted in fragmentation or tyranny. Confederation, said Dickinson, would ensure that government was effective throughout American territory while still checking the urge to centralize. No confederation had ever featured the protections contained in the Constitution. If they proved inadequate, the Constitution provided yet another response: a method for adopting “amendments on the authority of the people.”

* * * *

The author of Fabius was nearing the end of contemporaneous life expectancy, but in the event he was to live another two decades. During that time he maintained a large correspondence, including with Thomas Jefferson, who even as president always answered his letters.

In 1791-92, Dickinson served as president of the Delaware state constitutional convention, and briefly as a state senator thereafter. He wrote several articles and pamphlets, including new Fabius letters arguing for a pro-French foreign policy.

Most of his remaining life, however, was spent in retirement. He died in 1808, age 75.

John Dickinson’s ‘Farmer’ Letters on Their 250th Anniversary

John Dickinson’s ‘Farmer’ Letters on Their 250th Anniversary

This article originally appeared in the Washington Times.

This year, 2017, marks the 250th anniversary of one of the most influential series of writings in American history: John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, the first of which appeared in 1767.

These “Letters”—12 newspaper op-eds later collected in book form—asserted the colonial cause against imperial British overreach and helped to lay the groundwork for the U.S. Constitution drafted two decades later. The letters also presented important ideas about resisting usurpation.

John Dickinson (1732-1808) did not sign the Declaration of Independence, but in other respects, he was an American Founder of the first rank. With homes in Delaware and Pennsylvania, he served both states. Pennsylvania sent him to the 1765 Stamp Act Congress and, after publication of the Farmer letters, to the Continental Congress in 1774. Dickinson authored most of those assemblies’ public pronouncements. He also chaired the congressional committee that drafted the Articles of Confederation.

During the Revolution, Dickinson served two stints in the American armed forces, after which Delaware returned him to Congress (1779). In 1781, he was elected president (governor) of Delaware. The following year, he was elected president of Pennsylvania. In 1786, representing Delaware, he chaired the Annapolis Convention, which recommended a constitutional convention the following year. Delaware sent Dickinson to the latter meeting, where he impacted the results in ways not fully understood until his convention notes were rediscovered a few decades ago.

Dickinson wrote the Farmer letters in response to the British Parliament’s Townshend Acts (1767). (The Townshend Acts imposed duties on goods imported to America.) They explained why the Townshend duties were improper and how and why Americans should resist them.

The Farmer letters took America by storm. They were reprinted in Britain and Europe. In accordance with the Founding-era understanding of freedom of the press, Dickinson had written anonymously, but the authorship soon became known. Dickinson eventually became one of the most famous Americans in the world, second only to Benjamin Franklin.

The letters maintained that the colonists, as British subjects, had the right not to be taxed without the consent of lawmakers elected by them. They also contended the Townshend duties were “taxes” because they were imposed to raise revenue rather than to regulate behavior. Thus, only the colonists’ elected legislatures could impose them on Americans. Parliament, where Americans were unrepresented, could not.

Dickinson’s case was largely legal and constitutional, but he supported it with appeals to natural law and human welfare. “We cannot be happy without being free … 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,” Dickinson wrote.

In furtherance of the same principle, Dickinson worked two decades later to ensure the Constitution prescribed that revenue bills could originate only in the House of Representatives.

The Farmer letters went well beyond asserting the case against taxation without representation; they also helped clarify American constitutional thinking on other questions, including: Which government responsibilities should be exercised centrally and which locally?

Dickinson argued the central government should regulate commerce among the political units of the British Empire, but individual colonies should control civil justice and other domestic matters. In this respect, the letters foreshadowed the split between federal and state powers embodied in the Constitution 20 years later. Early in the convention, Dickinson advocated dividing federal and state authority by “enumerating” federal powers. His fellow delegates eventually adopted the idea.

The letters defended the existence of the British House of Lords by observing the nobility needed a separate legislative chamber to protect them against the king and the commons. At the Constitutional Convention two decades later, Dickinson persuaded his fellow delegates to extend similar protections to the states. He successfully advocated the United States adopt a Senate that represents the states equally and is composed of legislators who are selected by state legislatures for long, staggered terms.

The Farmer letters further examined how a free people should respond to governmental usurpations. Dickinson recommended opposing small usurpations immediately to prevent them from acquiring the force of precedent. “A perpetual jealousy regarding liberty is absolutely required in all free states … Slavery is ever preceded by sleep,” he wrote.

But Dickinson also emphasized opposition should be carefully calibrated, avoiding both under- and over-reaction. Violence should never be the first step. Citizens should begin by petitioning for redress. If that proved unsuccessful, the next resort was lawful resistance, followed by peaceable civil disobedience.

Dickinson, like other Founders, emphasized the need to protect liberty by frequently resorting to “first principles.” This 250th anniversary offers Americans an opportunity to do just that.