The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson
© 2013 William Murchinson
“Experience must be our only guide; reason may mislead us.”
Can you claim to be a Founding Father if you didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence? What if not signing it is your crowning moment of infamy? This biography of John Dickinson is part of a series on the lives of forgotten founding fathers, but his name may ring a bell moreso than the rest .Who beyond revolutionary historians has any idea who Luther Martin is, for instance? But Dickinson was the antagonist of both 1776 and an episode or two of John Adams, where he opposes the titular solon’s argument that independence is the only route left to the American people. In 1776, he is cast as a sneering and aloof aristocrat, more concerned with protecting his money than with rights and liberties. In the other, he is a sniveling knave, horrified at the prospect of having to take a stand against the Mother Country. The Cost of Liberty gives the lie to both accounts, delivering an portrait of a man who knew how to fight for his principles, and would – before his peers at the bar and in Congress, or on the field of battle. John Dickinson made his name infamous by resisting the Declaration of Independence, but he was a leader of the Revolution even so , putting pen to paper to cry “Injustice” against Parliament long before Congress was ever assembled. Though after 1776 he never achieved any national greatness, he had already made himself a champion in the eyes of his contemporaries.
While he never signed the Declaration of Independence, nor would he play a part in the national government, Dickinson was nonetheless a leader in the revolution. For Dickinson, of course, it was less a revolution than a restoration.
Brought up in a well-placed Quaker family, he sought advancement in the law, studying at the Inns of Court in London. His upbringing and this experience on the home isle gave him a keen appreciation for deep English roots; though he and Thomas Jefferson would eventually become friends, even collaborating on the Virginian’s Necessity for Taking Up Arms
, they approached human liberty from different perspectives. Whereas Jefferson believed in natural rights,
Dickinson had a
less idealistic conviction. They might be instilled in us by the Creator, but they were guaranteed only through law and force. Hundreds of years of excellent strife had given the colonists their rights as Englishmen, and it was for that dignity Dickinson would fight. He was a constitutionally prudent man; when the people of Pennsylvania asked the king to assume direct control over their colony, overriding the Penn family which ‘owned’ it in a propriety charter, Dickinson resisted: Pennsylvanians had lived and contended with the Penns for decades, and had earned a status as the freest colony on the seaboard. Were the king to assume direct control, all those accomplishments could be cast to the wind; even if the king were the noblest of fellows, his governors might not be, and Pennsylvanians could find themselves set back to square one, having to fight for their freedoms all over again, and this time against a far stronger authority. The resistance Dickinson would later display against the Declaration of Independence did not stem from any special loyalty to the king, but more to an acute sense that great changes have unpredictable results.
William Murchinson takes readers through the pivotal early years of the Revolution, where Dickinson takes the lead. His Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania not only gave strength to resistance against the Tea and Coercive acts at home, but generated popular support in England. Dickinson was never one for rabble-rousing, urging mobs to commit violence against the authorities, but he did argue passionately for civil resistance. Dickinson’s fall from grace came in 1776 when the American temper was so aroused against Britain that war had already erupted. Dickinson continued to hope that changes might be effected cautiously, still in connection to England, but the blood shed at Lexington and Concord lit a fire under the king, as well. The rebels would pay for their defiance, and so the path of reconciliation was ignored by both the patriots and the king, to the dismay of men like Dickinson in America and Edmund Burke in Britain.
After the war, Dickinson would continue to lead at the local level in both Pennsylvania and Delaware, but he would not assume great office and his name has faded with the ages. Murchison’s reappraisal of this man of peace, prudence, and principled resistance is a welcome balm.
In the words of his friend, Thomas Jefferson…
“A more estimable man, or truer patriot, could not have left us. Among the first of the advocates for the rights of his country when assailed by Great Britain, he continued to the last the orthodox advocate of the true principles of our new government and his name will be consecrated in history as one of the great worthies of the revolution.”