John Dickinson: Delaware’s - and America’s - unsung superhero

New book opens windows to this man’s profound contributions to nation’s founding
July 3, 2018

Many Delawareans are familiar with the signs on Route 1, just south of Dover Air Force Base, for the John Dickinson Mansion. Few, however, know much about the man behind the signs.

Most don’t know that in the years leading up to the American Revolution, the three most widely known people in the American Colonies were George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and John Dickinson.

They don’t know that the phrase “taxation without representation” is often attributed to Dickinson.

They don’t know that he was the major contributor to the writing of the Articles of Confederacy that formed the first formal governing documents for the United States after the 13 original Colonies declared their independence from Great Britain.

They don’t know that he, and only he, served as a representative of either Delaware or Pennsylvania to every convention involved in the founding of this nation. They don’t know that he served both Delaware and Pennsylvania as president and governor, at one time simultaneously.

And they don’t know of his extensive contributions to the writing of the ultimate Constitution for the United States, nor that he is largely responsible for the fact that each state - even little Delaware - has two U.S. senators.

In the formation of the two legislative bodies for our nation, Dickinson wanted to make sure that small states like his home state of Delaware weren’t completely outgunned by the larger states. He pressed for the two-senators representation from each state and offset that considerable power with the provision that the number of representatives each state would have in the House of Representatives would be determined by population.

That two-senators provision is often cited as one of the main reasons why Delaware wasted no time in being the first state to ratify the nation’s new constitution in 1787. It’s why Delaware is often known as The First State.

And most don’t know that the reason why Dickinson isn’t widely known is not because of what he did, but because of what he didn’t do.

For 10 years leading up to the Revolution, Dickinson became well known for his writings that articulately outlined all of the grievances the Colonies had against England and the reasons why the Colonies should be free from their attachment to the mother country.

But time wasn’t “ripe”

In the debates leading up to the Declaration of Independence, Dickinson was a strong but minority voice against the timing of the declaration. He felt the time was not “ripe”; he thought there was little chance of gaining any foreign support for a war against the world’s mightiest power at the time, and he felt more effort should be made to peaceably reconcile the differences between the Colonies and England before seeking independence.

When it came time for the Pennsylvania delegation to vote on the Declaration of Independence, Dickinson - who lived in Philadelphia at the time -  stayed away. He didn’t feel he could support the declaration, but he also wanted Pennsylvania’s vote to be unanimous, so he decided against voting no.

After the vote, he was given the chance to sign the declaration but felt that would have violated his principles.

However, once the Declaration was signed, he closed ranks and was one of only a few of the delegates to the Philadelphia convention who then joined the compatriots in his militia to fight against the British.

All of that and much more is revealed in the latest book published by the Delaware Heritage Commission: “Delaware’s John Dickinson: The Constant Watchman of Liberty.”

Dick Carter, chairman of the commission, explains in a letter about the book that it represents a collaborative effort between the Delaware Heritage Commission and the Friends of the John Dickinson Mansion in honor of the 250th anniversary of the publication of Dickinson’s ‘Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies.’

“While not a formal biography,” says Carter, “the book does look at Dickinson’s whole life and career. It is centered around a collection of talks given to the Friends group over the last 60-plus years by various noted Dickinson scholars and eminent Delawareans: Govs. Boggs, Terry, Peterson and Carney, Judge Richard Rodney, former Delaware Supreme Court Justices James M. Tunnell Sr. and Randy Holland, and Gloria Henry and Vertie Lee of the Dickinson Plantation staff, among others.”

The 168-page hardcover book filled with photographs and historic illustrations is accessible and engaging. With each of the collected talks taking three to five pages, the book makes for an easy and informative read that will open many windows into Dickinson’s life and times in Delaware and Pennsylvania.

Former News Journal editor John Sweeney edited the collection. A Dickinson scholar in his retirement, Sweeney also contributed a number of articles for the book. Battle Robinson of Georgetown, an immediate past president of the Friends group, helped with choice and placement of the contents as well as proofreading, while Dick Carter, of Millsboro, author, former editor and publisher, handled layout, design, picture selections and supporting information.

Those who take the time and effort to search out this book will be richly rewarded with what they learn, and likely as amazed as I was, at the breadth of Dickinson’s contributions to, as Carter notes, American liberty and our nation’s constitutional form of government.

The book, at $20 through Delaware Public Archives, 121 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Dover, is a tremendous bargain. It is also available online at for an additional $5.

Either way, having and reading this new book about John Dickinson will make you even prouder to be a Delawarean.

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