the imaginative conservative logo


Having studied eighteenth-century America all our adult lives, we are prepared to offer a generalization: the more one learns about the subject, the less prone one becomes to make categorical statements. Who were the first to resist British encroachments upon American liberties? who were the most important figures in bringing about independence? what were the causes of independence? what did the Framers of the Constitution intend? and hosts of lesser questions can be answered only, if they can be answered at all, with a great many qualifications, Indeed, when we read or hear a discourse upon any aspect of eighteenth-century America, our almost invariable reaction is, “It was more complicated than that.”

Nonetheless, there are a few exceptions. We would hold, for example, that one man, and one alone, was indispensable to the American founding: George Washington. Similarly, we would argue that in the absence of about eight delegates from Connecticut, Delaware, and the Carolinas, James Madison and James Wilson would have prevailed in the Federal Convention and that the resulting constitution would not have been ratified. And once the Constitution had been written and approved, the man who was most responsible for the establishment of a viable, durable government under it was Alexander Hamilton.

We would also insist—and shall attempt to show—that the most underrated of all the Founders of this nation was John Dickinson. Dickinson’s standing in the American pantheon is shamefully obscure in view of his contributions toward the establishment of an independent regime of limited government, federalism, and liberty under law. His rendering of the Biblical definition of liberty, quoted earlier, is our favorite: “They should sit every man under his vine, and under his fig-tree, and NONE SHOULD MAKE THEM AFRAID.” Few men labored as effectively as he did to bring that desideratum to pass.

Dickinson was born in Maryland in 1732, the same year as George Washington, but he grew up in Kent County, Delaware. His father, a wealthy tobacco planter, was a defector from the Society of Friends. John, like his father, refused to attend Quaker meetings, but he was nonetheless a devout Christian with strong Quaker leanings. At eighteen, after having received through private tutors a thorough education in Latin, ancient and modern history and mathematics, he went to Philadelphia to read law with John Moland, an eminent attorney. Then he was sent to London to study law at the Middle Temple of the Inns of Court. Unlike many a young man with ample means, unsupervised in the most exciting city in the world, he really did study. Upon his return after three years, he was almost awesomely learned.

Dickinson quickly became a great success at the Pennsylvania bar, and not long afterward he succumbed to the lure of politics—the occupational hazard inherent among lawyers in a representative government. In 1760 he was elected to the Assembly of Delaware, and two years later he was elected to the legislature of Pennsylvania (until the Revolution, Delaware and Pennsylvania were not entirely separate; they shared the same governors but had different legislatures). During the next three decades, Dickinson practiced law in Pennsylvania, maintained an estate in Delaware, and was active in the politics of both.

His first important stand in Pennsylvania politics was characteristic of the way he would act throughout his career. In 1764 Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Galloway were conniving to have the Penn family’s proprietary charter revoked and thus to change Pennsylvania into a royal colony. The colonists had genuine grievances, and revocation became a popular cause. But Dickinson was too steeped in British history to believe that kings and their agents were men of unalloyed virtue, and besides, he was instinctively wary of any sudden, irreversible actions. Accordingly, he fought Franklin and Galloway vigorously, arguing that, bad as the proprietors were, the charter did guarantee certain liberties, and Pennsylvanians could not trust the king or his ministers to improve their lot. Dickinson’s position brought him unpopularity for a short time, but soon he proved to be a prophet. In 1765 George Grenville’s ministry produced the Stamp Act, and worse measures were to follow.

In these circumstances, Dickinson rose to become the universally acknowledged leader of the American resistance, as the events of the next decade placed his particular combination of attitudes and abilities at a premium. For centuries, Englishmen had justified espousal or opposition to changes in the political order by insisting that they were seeking only to restore or preserve the traditional scheme of things. Now, in the imperial crisis of 1765-76, Americans needed a spokesman who could justify resistance to British authority in the same manner. They needed someone who could demonstrate that king and Parliament were making radical innovations and that the Americans were defending ancient traditions and rights. This was precisely the way Dickinson saw things, and few colonists could match his capacity to explain the position. As a writer, he was masterful. As an orator, he was adjudged by John Adams (who disliked him) to be the equal of Patrick Henry and there could be no higher praise than that.

The quantity, quality, and circulation of Dickinson’s writings on behalf of the American cause surpassed those of any others. In 1765 he wrote the resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress, insisting that Britain had no right to tax the colonies. In 1767 he took up his pen to compose his most celebrated tract, the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, written in opposition to the Quartering Act, the Townshend Duties, and the Declaratory Act. The first of these acts required the colonists to tax themselves to support British troops stationed among them; the second imposed import taxes on five basic commodities; the third, passed as a companion piece to the repeal of the Stamp Act, proclaimed that Parliament had the right to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever!’ The Farmer’s Letters were published in twelve installments in a weekly newspaper, the Pennsylvania Chronicle and Universal Advertiser (Philadelphia). As installments were issued, other American printers republished them, until they had appeared in all but four of the newspapers in the colonies. They were soon published in pamphlet form in Philadelphia (three editions), Boston (two editions), New York, Williamsburg, Paris, London, and Dublin.

The celebrity that Dickinson won through the Farmer’s Letters ensured that he would be the principal pensman for the First and Second Continental Congresses in 1774 and 1775 and that he would be among the foremost leaders in those bodies. He wrote most of their petitions to Parliament, to the Crown, and to the British people, including both the conciliatory “Olive Branch Petition” and, with Jefferson as coauthor, the bellicose “Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms.”

Then he came under a cloud. Dickinson wanted to preserve the empire if possible; and if this proved impossible, he thought it imprudent to declare independence until a national government had been created and foreign assistance had been obtained. But by July, 1776, a majority of the delegations in Congress favored declaring independence forthwith. Dickinson could not bring himself to vote for independence, but he and a few others decided to absent themselves when the vote was taken, so Congress could assert that the declaration was unanimous. Despite that, the British regarded Dickinson as responsible for the Revolution, and in December of 1776 their troops, on direct orders, burned his beautiful estate near Philadelphia—a vengeance that Sam and John Adams, John Hancock, the Lees, and Thomas Jefferson were spared.

Dickinson took the sting out of his action by departing immediately for military service. As a colonel of a volunteer battalion, he led the first group of soldiers northward to help defend New York against an expected British invasion. He subsequently resigned his commission, but later, on the occasion of the Battle of Brandywine, he again served on active duty as a private in the Delaware militia. Still later, he returned to Congress, and he served as president of Delaware and then of the Pennsylvania executive council.

Let us pause for a moment to consider a couple of “ifs.” If Dickinson had swallowed his scruples and voted for independence, it is probable that he, not Jefferson, would have been chosen to write the Declaration of Independence. We can only speculate as to what a Dickinsonian Declaration would have said, but it seems likely that it would have been based upon English constitutional history rather than, as was Jefferson’s, upon natural-rights theory—with vastly different implications. Another “if” concerns the national government. Dickinson drafted the first version of the Articles of Confederation, and his draft, though it reserved to the states control over most internal matters, provided Congress with summary powers in national concerns. An interplay of state and local jealousies resulted in the emasculation of the Articles. If Dickinson’s Articles had been adopted, the Constitution might never have been necessary.

But these ifs did not come to pass, and as history marched on, Dickinson had important roles yet to play. He, along with Hamilton and Madison, transformed the Annapolis Convention in 1786 into a call for a general constitutional convention. After the convention, he wrote an influential set of essays supporting ratification of the Constitution that he had so importantly helped to fashion. His last major public service came in 1791/92, when he was one of the main authors of a new constitution for Delaware. Thereafter, though he lived until 1808, he retired from public life. He did follow politics with keen interest, and to the surprise of many contemporaries and most historians, this reluctant rebel and staunch supporter of the Constitution became an ardent Jeffersonian Republican.

There should not, however, be anything surprising about Dickinson’s political sentiments during his later years, for if the components of his intellect and temperament are understood, he is to be seen as entirely consistent, start to finish. One seemingly contradictory element is clarified by reference to a rule he made for himself at the outset of his public career. He resolved that he would speak his mind no matter how unpopular his positions might be, but that whenever he was overruled by his countrymen, he would abide by their decision. Hence it was in character for him to have opposed the Declaration of Independence, thereby taking on the wrath of radical patriots, but then to have taken up arms and risked his life for the self-same cause. Precious few, indeed almost none, of those radicals in Congress who spoke most loudly for independence backed their words with deeds.

Somewhat more subtle is the influence of Dickinson’s religion upon his politics, for his religious beliefs defy easy categorization. He was a Biblical scholar of considerable depth, and his writings as well as his oratory teemed with quotations from scripture. As indicated, his orientation was toward Quakerism; he said that his real difference with the Friends was that he thought it every man’s duty to fight in a just war. On the other hand, he was thoroughly versed in the works of the skeptic David Hume: he could declare, as readily as Hamilton and Madison could, that most men were driven by ambition and avarice and that they must be governed accordingly. Where Dickinson parted company with the likes of Hume, Hamilton, and Madison was in his fundamentally Christian conviction that no matter what governmental institutions one might contrive, a people can be governed successfully only if they are bound together by ties of mutual affection.

More subtle yet is Dickinson’s conservatism. All of the major Dickinson scholars—including Charles J. Stillé,  J. H. Powell, Trevor Colbourn, David Jacobson, and Milton E. Flower—have agreed that Dickinson was a conservative, in some deep Burkean sense. Perhaps his most quoted line is one he uttered in the Constitutional Convention: “Experience must be our only guide,” for “Reason may mislead us!’ By experience he meant not only the events and circumstances that one has personally known but also the entire scope of recorded history (As he said elsewhere, after making a reference to ancient Greece, “What has been, may be.”) In rejecting reason, he was spurning the abstract process of thinking deductively from principles to particulars, the mode of reasoning that was fashionable among the philosophes of the French Enlightenment, and he was embracing the empiricism of Sir Francis Bacon, whom he regarded as a truly great thinker.

There is a paradox here, or rather what appears to be a paradox. Colbourn described Dickinson as a “historical revolutionary”; Flower called him a “conservative revolutionary.” In ordinary usage these are oxymorons: the adjectives and the noun are mutually exclusive, even if conservative be defined merely as cautious or prudential. Cautious and prudential men do not make revolutions, nor do men who are guided by the lamp of experience.

The mystery vanishes, however, when we take into account Dickinson’s particular understanding of history His caution and prudence, though doubtless arising in part from natural temperament, were also learned from history and had to do with the timing of actions, not with an unwillingness to act. Tacitus, Dickinson’s favorite among the ancient historians, taught him that “misfortune hath happened to many good men, who despising those things which they might slowly and safely attain, seize them too hastily, and with fatal speed rush upon their own destruction!’ Repeatedly on the eve of independence, Dickinson pointed to the example of the duke of Monmouth, whose premature rebellion against James II in 1685 had been crushed, whereas William III, “with a wise delay, pursued the same views and gloriously mounted a throne” three years later.

Other lessons that Dickinson learned from history were to be found in the Whig interpretation of history, sometimes called the Anglo-Saxon myth. Briefly, that interpretation runs as follows. The Anglo-Saxons, descendants of the noble race described by Tacitus in this Germania, long ago had established an agrarian paradise in England. Theirs was a society of landholders, both large and small, who enjoyed security in their liberty and property through the operations of a perfect constitutional system. They had an elective monarch who shared power with elected representatives; justice was dispensed according to the common law by juries and by elective, recallable judges. Men looked after their families and lands, respected one another, and worshipped God freely. When the nation was threatened, they defended it with their militias, to which all men owed service. Their society was untainted by artificial privileges in any form, and priestly castes and standing armies were unknown among them.

Then came the Norman Conquest, achieved not by superior force of arms but by treachery which taught the lesson that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. The Normans imposed a system of religion by force and replaced the Saxons’ militia and free land tenure with a feudal system of holding land from the king in exchange for military service. The English won back their liberty through Magna Carta in 1215, but from time to time, wicked and designing men oppressed them under new yokes. For more than four and a half centuries, English history was a seesaw struggle between defenders of the ancient constitution and conspirators who sought to impose despotism. The climax came with the seventeenth-century struggle against the Stuart kings and with the triumph of the English people in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 /89.

To that point in the story there was general agreement; as for what happened afterward, there was disagreement. The orthodox English view was that the Glorious Revolution meant the triumph of Parliament—understood to be Crown, Lords, and Commons in one—over would-be royal usurpers. Thenceforth, freedom of religion meant that no Catholic would be king; freedom of the press meant that there would be no prior censorship; freedom of speech meant that no member of Parliament could be prosecuted for anything he said inside Parliament. Otherwise, the liberties of Englishmen were whatever Parliament declared them to be. Said Sir William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, a work that Dickinson studied carefully, Parliament was “the place where that absolute despotic power, which must in all governments reside somewhere, is intrusted!’ Blackstone thought that the rights of Englishmen were adequately protected under such an arrangement.

There was, however, a minority, Oppositionist view in England: that the Glorious Revolution had been betrayed. This view was proclaimed shrilly and repeatedly in newspapers, pamphlets, and books by John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon, Viscount Bolingbroke, the historian Catharine Macaulay, James Burgh, and others in the “country party” school of thought. The heart of their accusation was that the Whigs, first under the leadership of Sir Robert Walpole (1721-42) and then under every subsequent prime minister, had corrupted the ancient constitution through bribery and distribution of places. The remedy was to restore the constitution by broadening the electorate, abolishing the rotten boroughs, and reinstituting the separation of powers.

Dickinson faced a choice. Which of these conflicting versions was he to believe? He had read the arguments on both sides; in fact Macaulay and Burgh sent him autographed copies of their works out of admiration for his own. And despite the persuasiveness of Blackstone’s reasoning), Dickinson clearly opted for the country-party view. Almost certainly the way he leaned was determined by his own observations of English politics. From London in 1754 he had written in horror about the parliamentary elections that were taking place. ‘There has been above £1,000,000 drawn out of this city already ‘for useful purposes at elections,'” he wrote to his father. “It is astonishing to think what impudence & villainy are practizd on this occasion.” He added that voters were required to take an oath that they had not been bribed, but it “is so little regarded that few people can refrain from laughing while they take it.” And to his mother he described this open mockery as “one of the greatest proofs perhaps of the corruption of the age.”

His propensity to accept the country-party view was reinforced by his knowledge of ancient history He had read most deeply in Roman history of the first century B.C., a time when the republic was wracked and eventually destroyed by a succession of conspiracies. There is evidence that he saw himself as an American Cicero (which incidentally is what Voltaire called him), and it is to be recalled that the climax of Cicero’s career had been the unmasking of Catiline’s conspiracy. Knowing what he knew of Rome, it was easy enough for Dickinson to believe that evil men had corrupted the English constitution and, from 1765 onward, had designed to destroy American liberty.

That is the key to the seeming paradox of Dickinson as a historical or conservative revolutionary. In his own eyes he was no kind of revolutionary at all; he was, rather, a historical conservative. From 1765 to 1776 he saw himself as laboring to preserve the empire and restore the ancient constitution. When his efforts failed, he addressed himself to the preservation of traditional American liberties through the instrumentality of the states and to the preservation of the Union through the creation of a substitute for the old and hallowed order.

That is what he went to Philadelphia to accomplish in May of 1787.

As one follows Dickinson through the convention there are a few immediate particulars to bear in mind. He had never been physically strong; he was frail almost to the point of emaciation; and he was ill throughout that summer. No doubt this explains why William Pierce, the member from Georgia who recorded his impressions of the delegates, was disappointed in Dickinson as an orator and why Dickinson did not deliver any extremely long speeches. Another point is that his personal experience in politics had taught him to be wary of excessive democracy: Delaware politics could be violent and vicious, and the political arena in Pennsylvania was, in the words of Benjamin Rush, a “dung cart.”

Furthermore, in the convention Dickinson represented Delaware, which had specific, tangible interests, most notably a desire to obtain a share in the vast domain of western lands claimed by several states and the Congress. But Dickinson had long since worked out principles to guide him when acting in a representative capacity. At base he followed his conscience and his best judgment of the public interest. Then, if the interests of his state conflicted with those of another state, he put his state first. If, however, his state’s interests conflicted with those of the nation, the nation took precedence.

Thus guided by principle, prepared by learning and experience, and motivated by the mission of conserving and restoring that had inspired him for more than two decades, John Dickinson took his seat in the convention on Tuesday, May 29, 1787.

On that day, Edmund Randolph “opened the main business” by introducing the fifteen resolutions known as the Virginia Plan. Though Dickinson thought much of the Virginia Plan acceptable, he found some features totally objectionable. He agreed that the national government should be reorganized by establishing executive and judicial branches and a bicameral legislature. He agreed that the legislature should be given a general grant of power “to legislate in all cases to which the separate States are incompetent, or in which the harmony of the United States may be interrupted by the exercise of individual Legislation,” for that is what he had proposed in his original draft of the Articles of Confederation. But he found intolerable the proposal to empower the national government to use force against any state “failing to fulfill its duty.” He also objected to the proposal that the executive and judicial branches should constitute a “council of revision” with power to veto acts of the national legislature; this he regarded as an improper violation of the principle of the separation of powers. And most vehemently, he was against the proposal to abandon the existing system, wherein each state had one vote, in favor of a system in which representation in both houses would be apportioned on the basis of population or wealth.

Nor did Dickinson find acceptable the alternative “small states plan,” which William Paterson of New Jersey proposed on June 15. The Paterson Plan would have granted Congress extensive enumerated powers and would have added executive and judicial branches, but Congress would have remained a unicameral body in which each state had one vote. When it was introduced, Dickinson said to Madison, “you see the consequences of pushing things too far:’ Madison and his allies had mistakenly assumed that every delegate who held out for equal representation in one branch of Congress was opposed to a national government. Dickinson tried to explain to him that many such delegates were “friends to a good National Government” but would “sooner submit to a foreign power” than be totally deprived of equal suffrage “and thereby be thrown under the domination of the large states.”

Dickinson himself had made his position clear. It was a wise one, and it was to prevail: he wanted the national legislature to be modeled as closely as possible upon the British Parliament, in which one house represented the “common” people and was periodically elected and the other represented the hereditary baronies in perpetuity. As it happened, most of the delegates admired the British constitution but could see no way by which Americans could adapt it to their use. During the first week of debates, Dickinson offered a profoundly helpful insight. Because of what he called the “accidental lucky division of this country into states,” America had a structural substitute for the English baronies: the states were, in a sense, both hereditary and permanent. It was, therefore, prudence and wisdom to draw one branch of the national legislature immediately from the people, as in the House of Commons, and to have the other branch represent the states and be chosen by the state legislatures, “through such a refining process as will assimilate it as near as may be to the House of Lords.” Such a mixed system, he added, “was as politic as it was unavoidable.”

It is commonly asserted that the scheme of representation in Congress—proportional to population in the House amid equally by states in the Senate—came about as the result of the “Connecticut compromise.” In fact, it was not a compromise, and it did not originate with the Connecticut delegation. Rather, it was the position advocated by Dickinson at the outset, one that gained adherents as other delegates came to appreciate the astuteness of his analysis.

Dickinson shortly won a major though incomplete victory. On June 7 he moved that the members of the Senate be elected by the state legislatures. The motion implied, but only implied, an equality of representation in the Senate, for it was generally understood that the Senate was to be much smaller than the House. Accordingly, the most ardent advocates of proportional representation in both houses—Madison, James Wilson, Gouverneur Morris, and Charles Pinckney—argued strongly against the proposal. Dickinson carried the point. His motion for election by the state legislatures was approved, eleven states to none, but that still left the basis of representation in the Senate undecided.

Indeed, it was the unwillingness of the large states to concede equality in the Senate that led delegates from the small states to formulate the Paterson Plan. The Paterson and Randolph plans were discussed and compared on Friday June Is and again on Saturday. It was clear to Dickinson that neither plan would work and that neither side was willing to compromise. He therefore spent the rest of the weekend fashioning a set of resolutions that combined the best of both plans with some ideas of his own. Dickinson’s proposals were closer to the finished constitution than was either of the two plans, and had his resolutions been adopted, they would have saved more than a month of debate.

But fate intervened: Alexander Hamilton had the same idea. On Monday June 18, Dickinson offered the first of his resolutions. But before it could be discussed, Hamilton, who had hitherto been reticent, took the floor to deliver a speech that consumed the whole day’s session: he concluded it by presenting a high-toned constitution of his own. In the circumstances, and after his first resolution was rejected the next day, Dickinson decided that it would be best to wait for a more seasonable opportunity.

During the next two weeks the delegates remained deadlocked, and as the heat of the summer grew daily more oppressive, tempers rose. On June 30 Gunning Bedford, another delegate from Delaware, alarmed the convention by declaring that if the large states stubbornly refused to accommodate the needs of the small states, “the small states will find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice.” That same day Dickinson was working feverishly on the notes for a speech urging compromise and moderation. The notes, which have come to light only in recent years, are full; from them it is clear that had he delivered the speech, it would have been one of the longest, most impassioned, and most eloquent of his career.

But he did not deliver it. Exhausted by his efforts, debilitated by the heat, and severely ill, he found it necessary to go home for rest and quiet. He seems to have returned briefly on July 9 or 10; on those days the convention debated a proposal to count slaves for purposes of representation (which he staunchly opposed), and notes of the debates in Dickinson’s hand have survived. But if so, he soon left again; the next time he is recorded as speaking was on July 25, and his remarks suggest an extended absence. Thus he was not present when Franklin proposed the real compromise, that the House of Representatives have exclusive power to originate money bills, in exchange for which representation in the Senate would be equal; and he was not present when the delegates from the Carolinas and Connecticut, who had supported his dual conception of the basis of representation, worked out the backstage deals that led to the approval of the compromise. But if the political achievement belonged to others, the idea nonetheless was Dickinson’s.

He was less influential in determining the make-up of the executive branch—except in a negative sense—for he was mistrustful of executive power. He wrote that he could find in history “no instance” in which the executive authority in a republic had been lodged “with safety” in a single person; accordingly, he was one of the dozen or so delegates who favored a plural executive. When a single executive was decided upon, he proposed that the president be removable upon application of a majority of the state legislatures. He opposed the election of the president by Congress, which remained part of the scheme of things until early September. At that time he was serving on a committee charged with taking care of unfinished parts of the constitution, and according to his later recollection (which may not be entirely accurate), he made a short, ardent speech before that committee which inspired its members to propose an alternative way of electing the president: the electoral-college system. Once that system had been adopted he no longer feared that the executive branch would jeopardize American liberty.

Dickinson was less optimistic about the judicial branch. He was convinced that a national court system needed to be established, but he was fearful of judicial usurpation. When it was suggested that the Supreme Court, as an inherent part of its duties, would have the power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional, he was appalled. Citing the medieval example of the kingdom of Aragon in Spain, he suggested prophetically that when judges began “to set aside the law,” they tended to expand their decrees until they transformed themselves into legislators. So fearful was he of judicial sell-aggrandizement that he proposed that judges be removable by the president on application by both houses of Congress.

Dickinson failed to have his way in another matter of importance to him. He firmly opposed slavery and he had freed the slaves that he had inherited from his father. In the convention, he sought to prevent the constitution from encouraging slavery in any way. Though he recognized that the institution of slavery was a matter of state, not national, concern, he argued that the importation of slaves was a “question which ought to be left to the National Govt. not to the States!” He had held that upon the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, slaves “could not afterwards be imported into these states,” and in the convention he declared it “inadmissible on every principle of honor & safety that the importation of slaves should be authorized to the States by the Constitution.” When the convention voted to exempt the slave trade from congressional regulation for twenty years, it avoided the word slave and referred instead to “the migration or importation of such persons as the several States now existing shall think proper to admit.” Dickinson thought this was rank hypocrisy, and he moved that the phrase “the slave trade” should be substituted instead. “The omitting of this word,” he said, “will be regarded as an Endeavor to conceal a principle of which we are ashamed.” His motion was unanimously rejected.

Dickinson’s contribution to the campaign for ratification was his Letters of Fabius, published in April of 1788. To appreciate the significance of his effort, we must consider the immediate political context. Five states had ratified quickly: Delaware first, Pennsylvania and New Jersey before the end of 1787, Georgia and Connecticut early in January of 1788. Then the momentum was broken. Massachusetts approved by a narrow margin early in February but New Hampshire’s convention adjourned without reaching a decision, though it resolved to reconvene in June. Meanwhile, after a feeble start, anti-Federalists began to be better organized and to grind out large quantities of propaganda against the Constitution. Alarmed by this development, Dickinson took up his pen.

Read two hundred years later, the Letters of Fabius do not have the power, the coherence, or the breadth of the Federalist essays; but in 1788 they may well have been as persuasive because of the nature of Dickinson’s rhetorical strategy. As a student of the classical rhetorical arts, he was aware that the first premise of an argument must rest on the “reputable beliefs of the audience.” The reputable beliefs to which anti-Federalists appealed, through their choice of phraseology, were those of the English country party Oppositionists and the American Patriots of the sixties and seventies. Dickinson was a past master of that idiom, and he turned it effectively against his anti-Federalist adversaries. He was also aware of the importance of zeal. In the Farmer’s Letters he had analyzed what it was that made the rhetoric of Lord Camden and William Pitt so powerful: “Their reasoning is not only just—it is . . . ‘vehement.'” In the Letters of Fabius, Dickinson himself was vehement, freely using, in addition to his trademark Biblical exhortations and classical citations, such emotionally ladened catchwords as licentiousness, vice, luxury, corruption, and tyranny and such scornful phrases as “foreign fashions” and “rebellion against heaven.”

But rhetorical strategy is one thing; the message is another. Characteristically, Dickinson justified the Constitution in terms of history and prudence, almost as if he were defending the ancient constitution of England. Indeed, astute readers would have noticed that he often employed well-known passages that had originally been used to praise that constitution. He paraphrased Blackstone, for instance, when he said that the Constitution united “force, wisdom, and benevolence,” and he paraphrased Burke when he wrote of “animated moderation” and when he described the Constitution as “ever new, and always the same.” Dickinson did so because he wanted his readers to understand what he understood—namely, that the American Constitution was the product of history not of theory. He reinforced that message, and incidentally made a summing-up personal statement, by identifying himself as Fabius, after the Roman general who had saved the republic through caution, prudence, patience, and persistence.

That is our penultimate comment. The last is this: John Dickinson was a man whose services to his country should ensure his enduring fame. Perhaps we can best enshrine his memory by taking seriously the concluding words of his second letter of Fabius. The Constitution, he pointed out, is written “in the most clear, strong, positive, unequivocal expressions, of which our language is capable. Magna charta, or any other law, never contained clauses more decisive and emphatic. While the people of these states have sense, they will understand them; and while they have spirit, they will make them to be observed.”

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
3 replies to this post
  1. I was somewhat familiar with Dickinson, but did not have the breadth nor scope of the man that this article has conveyed. I am deeply grateful for your effort to shed light on his life, work and legacy.

  2. There may be some truth in this but this viewpoint seems a bit distorted to me. I am descended from colonial people of the Delaware Valley; they believed in gender equality (Dickinson’s first draft of the Articles of Confed was built around the term Person, rather than Man, which was used in the Declaration and which he refused to sign). The English Bill of Rights is similarly built around the rights of Persons and was adopted by Parliament in conjunction with asking William and Mary to rule jointly after the Glorious Revolution.

    The Quakers were also very child-centric to go along with their gender equality. In addition to women owning property and voting, they believed in nurturing fathers. They were big believers in family planning.

    Most of Dickinson’s anti-tax writing was an objection to regressive taxation to support wars. (“Regressive” meaning the lower your income, the higher rate of tax you pay.) Conservatives in the United States, from Reagan to W. Bush, have actually implemented exactly this type of policy. Reagan shifted tax burdens to the payroll tax. Bush ran up $4 trillion in war debt (and more in Medicare Part D) and cut taxes on the wealthy. Moreover, the GoP taxes married women, and single people, at higher rates than married men because of Gingrich’s Contract with America blocking modernizing the joint return like nearly every other OECD country has done.
    And Justices like Scalia and Thomas have come up with the cockamamie idea that the word “Person” in the Const doesn’t mean women, despite it’s common English meaning AND all this history of clear intention of gender equality in politics. The GoP has also put in place a tax subsidy from wage earners, particularly high wage earners, to capital/property-based earners (the top wage rate is 39.5% plus payroll taxes; the capital/property-based earners pay a top rate between 15-20% even less during W’s reign. These GoP policies Dickinson would have loathed.

    The Quakers were from a region of England that was of Scandinavian descent that had been dissenting and objecting to the Christian Norman Conquest (based in their own fellow Norse who had gone to France and been corrupted by these views) for centuries. They hated the Blackstone common law doctrines like coverture. And they hated regressive taxation (a feudalist scheme).

  3. Ironic isn’t it, the country party that wanted to preserve the true English constitution unleashed the forces of mass democracy that would ultimately wipe all traces of it from English life.

Leave a Reply