A Magnificent Madness

John Dickinson was unquestionably a true patriot and a great man. Yet his obstinance in the summer of 1776 first perplexed and then exasperated his fellow delegates in the Second Continental Congress. As debates reached a consensus about separation from Great Britain, and the Congress almost unanimously prepared to declare American independence, Dickinson persisted in arguing against it. Those who had lionized him were suddenly chilly, and men in taverns who would have just weeks earlier beamed if Dickinson joined their table, went silent and looked away when he entered to dine, always now alone.

It had to be hard for a man shy by nature, private by habit, and steady by temperament. John Dickinson was friendly to all but familiar with few, an abiding habit from his early youth. Born on a cold November day in 1732, his childhood was framed in affluence on a Maryland plantation. However, he never reveled in comfort, for the Dickinsons were Quakers and embraced simplicity. Most of all, young John displayed a prodigious talent for focused study. While absorbing the extensive library provided by his parents, the boy occasionally caused his tutors to draw up short over his way of seeing old ideas in unexpected ways. They paused when he expressed abstract thoughts with surprising precision, and how he could untangle complexity with mature aplomb. Less refined teachers would have scolded the boy for an unseemly precocity; discerning men saw the acorn of a mighty oak.

His youth almost imperceptibly gave way to adulthood, for the turns of John Dickinson’s achievements were always measured and moderate, which had a way of disguising their brilliance. Like a star tracing a predictable course in a clear night sky, he read law in Philadelphia at age eighteen and three years later began completing his education in London at the Middle Temple of the Inns of Court. He saw Parliament but was not impressed. The idea was grand but the execution disorderly, and Dickinson thought even the most sterling idea was only as grand as its utility and application.

Mundane events followed ordinary ones to mark the path of a prudent man cautious about money (he was always frugal but never miserly), scrupulously professional (he became a renowned lawyer in Pennsylvania)l, careful about love (he waited until he was 38 to marry a woman as careful as he, for she was 30), and philosophical about what Tom Jefferson would call “the course of human events.” Caution, competence, care, and meditation informed John Dickinson’s judgment about the changes to British policies in the 1760s. Those changes aimed to have colonies help pay the staggering costs of a global empire, but colonial objections to the new taxes seemed to stem from nothing more than the age-old grousing of taxpayers everywhere. The Crown and Parliament understandably dismissed complaints as petty self-interest, but John Dickinson saw the old idea in an original way. In 1767-68, he published a series of closely reasoned essays under the title Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. They displayed his lifelong talent for making abstractions precise and tangible.

Dickinson showed that colonial protests were not petty but entirely justified. He conceded that Parliament had every right to regulate trade within the Empire by encouraging the consumption of British goods and discouraging foreign interlopers with tariffs. In short, a tariff (an import tax) was a legitimate exercise of power. But Dickinson showed how recent taxes were quite different. They were not meant to control trade but to raise revenue, and worse, they did this without the consent of the people being taxed. The immediate consequence was an unauthorized confiscation of property, but the more profound danger lay in a casual acceptance of the insidious principle that the government was the master and the people its slaves.

The distillation of this objection into the terse assertion “No taxation without representation” was less nuanced than Dickinson would have liked, but it captured the idea’s essence: An external tax in the form of a tariff was justifiable, but an internal one to raise revenue required consent.

However, Dickinson did not believe British policy intended to establish a tyranny. He instead thought it was a mistake. His observations of Parliamentary “deliberations” during his London sojourn made this plausible, and the type of oblivious men who became the king’s ministers made it likely. And because he believed that British policy was misguided rather than malicious, he expected the Pennsylvania Farmer to do more than make colonial protests coherent; the essays could reveal for cooler heads in London a better, less objectionable course. As increasingly abrasive and counterproductive British policies continued into the 1770s, however, Dickinson suspected stubbornness was guiding them, and when every British move made matters worse, he concluded these people were hopelessly stupid. The judgment guided Dickinson’s behavior in the summer of 1776.

By then, simmering colonial anger had reached a boil as delegates from the thirteen colonies assembled in the Congress at Philadelphia. Dickinson was one of them. He knew that, unlike His Majesty’s government in London, the men in Carpenter’s Hall were not generally stubborn and were not at all stupid. But they were angry and frustrated, and Dickinson watched with growing unease as they seemed to fall captive to a consuming madness. He drafted two petitions in as many years, directly imploring King George III to reconsider his ruinous administration. These were dubbed “olive branches,” supportively by his dwindling number of friends, derisively by opponents who saw them as timid. To this latter and growing group, he doggedly pointed out the delusions of its quest for independence.

Dickinson marveled that an assembly of intelligent people believed an underpopulated and largely ungoverned wilderness could forget that it depended on Britain for almost all manufactured goods. He could not fathom how these men could forget that only British arms protected their villages and farms from angry Indians and their sovereignty from predatory foreign powers. And that these men could seriously entertain the idea that in addition to surviving outside Britain’s imperial cocoon, a gaggle of farmers with fowling pieces could challenge England’s bottomless treasury, global fleets, and invincible armies.

The madness was so apparent to John Dickinson that when the decisive vote in the Continental Congress occurred on July 2, he sat silently with a face like stone. He would not endorse something he believed was dangerous as well as disagreeable. He refused to participate in the editorial revisions of Thomas Jefferson’s draft and refused to sign the engrossed document. This moral certainty came at great cost. Dickinson’s dissent during these pivotal moments in the American Revolution instantly erased a decade of courageous resistance to British policy for his fellow countrymen. Gauging his plunging status and ebbing renown, he wryly admitted that he had been entirely too popular before. But it was hard for him to see how he could be so disliked for exhibiting the same integrity that had made him acclaimed.

And on the face of it, John Dickinson was characteristically and precisely correct in his predictions that independence meant certain doom, at least under the weight of everything measurable. But immeasurable, as it turned out, were other factors. One was the restraint of men mad but not rabid in the things that mattered. A vindictive Pennsylvania government ousted Dickinson from Congress, but otherwise, he suffered no sanction except for social disapproval. No official injunction gagged his speech, nor did any judicial warrant cast him into jail. Despite his dissent from a decision that imperiled the lives of every man who signed it, he remained free and unencumbered during the most unusual revolution in the history of the world.

He was to be pleasantly surprised when the American dream did not become a nightmare. Neither oppressors from outside nor zealots from within would bring about that curse. Instead, Americans managed something extraordinary, as astonishing at its close as it was daring at its start. In the fateful summer of ’76, John Dickinson, for the only time in his life, mistook for a fatal error what was actually a magnificent madness. Men pledged their lives and fortunes and sacred honor to the idea of liberty. And from that idea, the Pennsylvania Farmer would not dissent. He was a true patriot and a great man. His name was not on the Declaration of Independence, but his pledge was implicit. The British burned his homes, but he kept his honor. And though a Quaker by birth, he became a warrior by necessity, bearing arms for the cause. Jefferson would later judge him superb, and John Adams, who had once derided Dickinson as a “piddling genius,” would, in the end, see the brilliance of a star, steady in its course across a clear night sky.