John Dickinson

16 October 24-30, 2001
By David Schmidt
Main Line Life Correspondent

In a recent ceremony, the Merion Friends Meeting honored John Dickinson for his donation of two acres of land. The event was to dedicate a Pennsylvania State Historical marker on the property of the Merion Friends Meeting.

Francis Strawbridge, clerk of trustees of the meeting, welcomed attendees at the site, including Dickinson relatives John Wynn of Gladwyne and Sandy Cadwalader.

This came about through the efforts of members of the meeting, including Ross Mitchell, the Bala Cynwyd resident who presented the idea to the Historical Architecture Review Board of Lower Merion, in order to get their agreement. He then prepared the application sent to the state. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission authorized the placement of the official state historical marker.

Although not a Quaker, Dickinson’s views and persistence in maintaining his honor show his family’s lineage. He was the great- grandson of Edward Jones, the son- in- law of Dr. Thomas Wynne, who was one of the original Quakers to arrive in the Welsh Barony in the first shipload of Penn’s Welsh Quaker settlers in 1682. So his ties to Lower Merion were clear.

Dickinson married into one of the major families of Philadelphia ­ including the Quaker estates and plantations west and northwest of the city. The bride was Mary Norris of “Fairhill” in Philadelphia, and they were married in 1770. Shortly after that Dickinson expanded his land holdings to include 240 acres that had once belonged to Dr. Edward Jones, his maternal great-grandfather.

It was two acres of this former Edward Jones land that Dickinson deeded to Merion Friends in 1801 and 1804 to expand the burial ground and property. On this ground the caretaker’s house was built in 1804 and the Activities Building in 1950.

In spite of his generosity, John Dickinson never lived in Lower Merion. Meeting members Victorian Donohoe and Mary Wood researched the issue and they aren’t certain why he gave the land. There is no mention in meeting records of a reason, nor in Dickinson’s papers.

Since his grandfather was a member of the meeting and Dickinson’s land abutted the Merion Meeting’s property, perhaps that was enough of a reason. In any case it has been a part of the property for more than two centuries. The marker will eventually be located near the caretaker’s house, which dates from the era of Dickinson’s gift. It is currently undergoing renovation, and grading is needed to control storm water around the cottage.

So who was this man and why would he be so honored? Simply, John Dickinson was America’s first really popular political hero.

He was the commensurate American patriot, whose view of the world was truly democratic and whose actions were determined by his principles. His Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer caused a sensation. He was seen throughout the Colonies as the outstanding harbinger of American protest against arbitrary British measures and a true defender of liberty.

He received an honorary doctor of law degree from the College of New Jersey (later known as Princeton) and public thanks from a meeting in Boston. Patience Wright modeled him in wax. Paul Revere engraved his likeness from an earlier Philadelphia print. He was a man of principle, and those principles eventually brought about his fall from grace.

After being the voice of the rights of the American Colonies, he and Robert Morris stood in the back of Constitution Hall and watched others sign the Declaration of Independence. He refused to sign it as a matter of principle.

Knowing full well the import of such actions, he later asserted, “My conduct this day, I expect, will give the finishing blow to my once too- great and, my integrity considered, now too- diminished popularity.”

Nevertheless, he then became one of only two contemporary congressional members who entered military service, being granted the rank of brigadier general in the Pennsylvania militia. That didn’t last long, as others reacted to his failure to sign the Declaration. So he returned to his estates in Delaware and was shortly in its militia as a private. Luckily his honor was recognized and he was quickly named a general in Delaware’s militia.

After the Revolution, he served both as “president” of Delaware and later as the head of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania from 1782- 1785. This makes him the only man to serve as chief executive of two states.

He had been born the second son of Samuel and Mary (Cadwalader) Dickinson on Nov. 13, 1732, near the village of Trappe in Talbot County, Md. In 1741 his father moved the family to Kent County, Del., near Dover. John was 8 years old at the time. Young John was provided with private tutors for his early education.

In 1750, at the age of 18, he began studying law with John Moland in Philadelphia. After three years he traveled to London to continue his studies. He eventually returned to Philadelphia and quickly became a prominent lawyer in the city.

Dickinson’s education and talents propelled him into the world of politics.

In 1759 Dickinson was elected to the Assembly of the Lower Three Counties, as Delaware was known before the Revolution. He served through 1760 and was the speaker of that assembly.

He returned to serve in the Pennsylvania Legislature in the following year and was chosen to represent Pennsylvania as a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress and also to the Continental Congress. Beginning in 1762, he served both the Pennsylvania and Delaware assemblies. He became the leader of the conservative side in the colony’s political battles.

During 1767- 68, Dickinson wrote a series of newspaper articles in the Pennsylvania Chronicle that came to be known collectively as Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania . They attacked British taxation policy and urged resistance to laws Dickinson felt were unjust. They also emphasized the possibility of a peaceful resolution.

In 1770 Pennsylvania sent him to the Stamp Act Congress in New York where he drafted the declaration of rights and grievances. Subsequently he served in the First and Second Continental Congresses.

According to Thomas Jefferson, Dickinson was the author of the “Olive Branch,” a petition to King George from the Second Continental Congress, asking that he recall royal armies from America. It was sent in duplicate in two ships almost exactly one year before the Congress’ Declaration of Independence, although it didn’t stop the move toward independence and war.

Because of the Quaker values of his family, Dickinson was strongly committed to a peaceful solution of the argument. In spite of his fall from popularity when he refused to sign the Declaration of Independence, he returned to prominence after the war, becoming not only a framer of the American Constitution but also a signer of that document.

The Delaware Assembly elected him president (governor) of Delaware on Nov. 6, 1781. Demonstrating the high esteem held for him, Dickinson received 25 of 26 votes. The only negative vote was his.

As governor he attempted to straighten out Delaware’s financial relations with Congress, introduced the first state census, cleared the Indian River of snags and most of all revised the state militia.

The following year Dickinson learned that he had been elected as the governor of Pennsylvania. Resigning his seat in Delaware, he moved to Pennsylvania where he served through 1785. As governor he donated 500 acres of land in Adams and Cumberland counties to create what is now known as “Dickinson College” near Carlisle. In addition, he donated 1,500 books to the new college’s library.

After leaving office he retired from public affairs, devoting more time to private pursuits. This included furthering the abolition movement and looking after his extensive land holdings. He owned 1,279 acres in Pennsylvania and 5,587 acres in Delaware, making him a man of wealth.

Dickinson, however, shared much of what he had. The majority of his money, made as a legislator in both states, was donated to the “relief of the unhappy.” He helped pay for a number of his neighbors’ children’s education and regularly helped out with prison relief and a number of other personal charities. In 1801, he published two volumes of his collected works on politics.

Dickinson’s wife Mary died on July 23, 1803, and Dickinson died at his home in Wilmington on Feb. 14, 1808, at the age of 75. He was interred in the Friends Burial Ground in Wilmington, Del.