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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.