In 1764, Benjamin Franklin conspired to revoke the Penn’s family charter and replace it with a royal charter. John Dickinson, a young Pennsylvania lawyer, feared the corruption of the crown and vigorously opposed Franklin’s plan. Dickinson pleaded with the people to keep their proprietary charter, for at least under it, some liberties were protected; whereas, under a royal charter their liberties rested on the whim of the king.
Many colonists had all but forgotten the Proclamation of 1763, limiting land settlement to East of the Appalachians, and had dismissed the Sugar Act of 1764, being loosely enforced. Yet, as Dickinson challenged that clever old man, he blew the sounding trumpet to awaken a latent people.
Dickinson went beyond provoking his little Pennsylvanian plot: after the Stamp Act passed in 1765, suddenly, his warning rang throughout the colony, echoing throughout all thirteen colonies. As he addressed the Stamp Act, John Dickinson produced his most transformative work—Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer. His pen bled across the colonies, warning them that the British had neglected common law, tradition, and the organic understanding of rights. The Anglo-Saxon understanding of common law rights, as a particular expression of Divine rights, had come to define the colonists, and the threat of removing them challenged the thousands of settlers who had sacrificed everything to preserve their heritage.
Dickinson’s wise eye projected the impending threat, and as a result of his broad outlook and his eloquence with words, he prepared the colonists to resist British tyranny. It was this glimpse into the future that slowly began to strengthen the ties between the Pennsylvanian Quaker and the Massachusetts Puritan, between the Virginia farmer and the Maryland merchant, between the South Carolina slave owner and the New York investor. As the ink seeped throughout the colonies, militias formed in local provinces, and people united to protect their rights. His letter was the most widely read pamphlet until Thomas Paine published Common Sense in 1776.
As Dickinson himself concluded in his letter, “Small things grow great by concord.” And indeed they did, soon forming the First Continental Congress and electing him as the primary writer. Dickinson soon drafted the “Olive Branch Petition” and the “Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms.” He summoned the people to peacefully petition their mother country for the rights that they had squandered.
Yet, on that momentous day–July 4, 1776–Dickinson had no pen in hand, and the very man who’s ink had marked each colony with a proper call to petition could not bring himself to sign the very parchment that would sever any hope of restoring the mother country to her colonies. Dickinson believed they had not exhausted their efforts in petitioning and he also believed that the colonies needed more time to prepare for an imminent war while also creating a government separate from a military cause.
He lost this battle, and history seems to have forgotten this great man because of the one time he put his pen down. Yet, his absent signature did not stop the British from burning down his estate a few months later. And his initial resistance did not stop Dickinson from immediately volunteering for military service, risking everything for his British rights.
Dickinson stands as an embodiment of the people: a people who fought not for lofty ideas, but for the land they had cultivated and the communities they had formed. While some lofty-minded people did reside in their abodes and proclaim that this revolution embarked the people on a new era–an era beyond their community and tradition–an era of reason above revelation, the men in uniform knew very little of these ideas. What they did know was that they would fight in honor of the soldiers who stood on the green at Lexington, and defended their property despite the brutish acts of the redcoats.
While we celebrate independence today, let us remember the pen that first united the colonists, and let us not forget the man who foresaw the British tyranny long before “common sense” dictated separation.
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