The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

May 24, 2018

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Dickinson, John
Forrest McDonald - 05/11/11
Lifespan: (1732–1808)

An early spokesman for the conservative tradition in America, John Dickinson practiced law in Philadelphia and entered politics in 1760 when he was elected to the Delaware assembly. He also served in the Pennsylvania assembly (1762–65, 1770–76), where he defended the proprietary government as preserving established liberties and argued that change could jeopardize liberty by destroying lawful order. As a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress (1765), Dickinson drafted the petition asking Parliament to repeal the tax, but he opposed violent resistance. In 1767, responding to the Townshend Duties, Dickinson published “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. . . .” The “Letters” conceded that conciliation was possible but denied Parliament’s right to tax. The king and Parliament were making radical innovations, Dickinson wrote, while Americans were defending ancient traditions and rights.

The “Letters” brought Dickinson to the forefront of the revolutionary movement. In 1771, acting for the Pennsylvania legislature, he wrote a “Petition to the King” seeking redress of grievances. He was the principal penman for the First and Second Continental Congresses. Among the many petitions he authored was the “Olive Branch Petition” (1775), the colonists’ final plea to the king. Even as he resisted English domination, Dickinson urged moderation and, in 1776, absented himself from the final vote for independence. That same day, however, he left Congress to serve as a private soldier. In December 1776, his home near Philadelphia was burned by British soldiers acting on direct orders. His was the only private home to be torched in retaliation for leadership in the “rebellion.”

During the war, Dickinson represented Delaware and drew up the first draft of the Articles of Confederation (1776). He was president of the Delaware Executive Council (1781) and president of Pennsylvania (1782–85). In 1787, he attended the Constitutional Convention as a delegate from Delaware. There, as throughout his entire life, he rejected the abstract theorizing of the Enlightenment, instead relying on the lessons of history. “Experience must be our only guide,” he said, for “Reason may mislead us.”

His earlier attempts to preserve the empire and restore the ancient constitutions having failed, Dickinson sought to preserve traditional American liberties through the creation of a substitute for the old order. He regarded the task of drafting a constitution as an essentially conservative one: recreating in America, as far as could be done with American materials, the ancient uncorrupted constitution of England. He wanted to model the new national legislature as closely as possible upon Parliament. It was Dickinson, too, who first saw that America had a structural substitute for the English baronies: the states were, in a sense, hereditary and permanent. It was prudent, therefore, to draw one branch of the legislature from the people and to have the other represent the states. Such a mixed system, he thought, “was as politic as it was unavoidable.”

Dickinson signed the new Constitution and supported it by a series of essays titled “The Letters of Fabius” (1797). In his Fabius letters, Dickinson justified the Constitution in terms of history and prudence. Paraphrasing Sir William Blackstone, he described the Constitution as uniting “force, wisdom, and benevolence.” He echoed Edmund Burke when he wrote of its “animated moderation” and described it as “ever new, and always the same.” And he offered, at the end of the second essay, a conservative challenge to future generations when he noted that the Constitution is written “in the most clear, strong, positive, unequivocal expressions, of which our language is capable. . . . While the people of these states have sense, they will understand them; and while they have spirit, they will make them to be observed.”

Further Reading
  • Bradford, M. E. “A Better Guide Than Reason: The Politics of John Dickinson.” In A Better Guide Than Reason: Studies in the American Revolution. La Salle, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden & Co., 1979.
  • Colbourn, H. Trevor. The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1965.
  • Dickinson, John. Empire and Nation: Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. . . . Edited by Forrest McDonald. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Press, 1999.
  • Flower, Milton. John Dickinson: Conservative Revolutionary. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 1983.
  • McDonald, Forrest and Ellen Shapiro McDonald. “John Dickinson and the Constitution.” In Requiem: Variations on Eighteenth-Century Themes. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 1988.
  • Stille, Charles J. The Life and Times of John Dickinson, 1732–1808. New York: Burt Franklin, 1969.
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