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Delmarva Heritage Series

* John Dickinson, Famous American

Salisbury Times - April 6, 1958

For many years one of America's greatest statesmen, a man of rare singleness of purpose and simple integrity, was not given his proper place in history because of one act of opposition. However, as the famous historian, Richard Hildredth said, "John Dickinson's opposition to the Declaration of Independence was an example of moral courage of which there are few instances in our history."

John Dickinson, the great colonial essayist, was born on Nov. 8, 1732 at "Croise-dore," near Trappe, Md. At the age of eight, the Dickinson family moved to Dover, Del., where the father, Samuel, served for 20 years as the president-judge of the Court of Common Pleas for Kent County.

After being tutored by William Killen, later Chancellor of Delaware, John Dickinson in 1750 went to Philadelphia to study law for three years. In 1753, he overcame his father's opposition to continue his studies in England and sailed for London where he entered the Middle Temple. Also studying at the Middle Temple then was the later famous poet William Cowper.

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WHEN HE returned to America in 1755 Dickinson built up a large and lucrative law practice: his first appearance before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court at the youthful age of 28. In 1760 he took a seat in the Delaware Assembly, representing Kent County where he owned property. The next year he took a seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly and served there on and off until 1777.

In the meantime he was also very active opposing the current British policies concerning her North American colonies. In 1767 his finest political work, the famous "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania," appeared in print. Charles Francis Adams has said, "The Farmers Letters were more practical, minute and skilful in style and strain, than the writings of either Otis, Adams, or Quincy. They had a much wider circulation, both in the colonies and in Europe." Considering Dickinson's earlier conservatism, his participation in the camp of opposition at this time was somewhat surprising.

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JUST TWO YEARS before, in 1765, John Dickinson thought that American independence from Great Britain would bring "a multitude of Commonwealths, Crimes, and Calamities, Centuries of mutual Jealousies, Hatreds, Wars of Devastation." Nevertheless his "Farmers Letters," which appeared in three newspapers in 1767-68, contributed to the growing belief that the Colonies were being wronged by the mother country. Within two years, at least 10 editions of these letters had appeared in pamphlet form. In these writings, the right of Parliament to levy internal and external taxes was discussed, and Dickinson pointed out a difference between the two which challenged the powers claimed by Parliament.

John Dickinson continued his fight for liberty and colonial rights during the 1770's, protesting the Tea Act and later going to Boston to attend a meeting opposing the closing the Boston port. Although he continued to hold a seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly and also was a member of the Council of Safety, he declined the speakership of the Assembly for he preferred to serve in the new Continental Congress.

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ALTHOUGH actuated by the highest and most patriotic motives Dickinson in 1776 opposed independence on the grounds that it was premature. In a way the disastrous American defeats at Long Island and White Plains supported his position. However, he did not vote against the Declaration of Independence but along with Robert Morris was purposely absent on that day, so Pennsylvania could vote in the affirmative. Although he was temporarily unpopular the calmer judgment of posterity has more than justified him.

John Dickinson was not satisfied with only serving his country in the debating halls of Congress; he served as a soldier at the Battle of Brandywine in September, 1777. Also in that year he was given a military appointment for service in the Delaware militia. In fact he was the only member of the Congress that adopted the "Declaration of Independence" that ever saw service on the field of battle during our War for Independence.

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