he might face because of them. There is a duty, said Dickinson, âto testify
of [Godâ™s] Truth even against those whom he made instruments in preserving
them.â49 He had repeatedly upheld his duty in this regard through the major
controversies of which he was a part â“ the campaign for royal government, the
Revolution, and the constitutional turmoil in postindependence Pennsylvania â“
and endured harsh treatment from his countrymen as a result. Now, in the
debates over the Constitution, he was once again giving his own âimperfect
testimony.â50 Speaking, however, was not the only obligation; as we shall see
momentarily, it is important to note that if man were not commanded by his
Master to speak, he âought not to open his mouth.â51
In order that all might participate in the discernment process, Dickinson
believed that all needed to be able to understand the issues at hand. There-
fore, one important Quaker testimony was plainness â“ clarity, simplicity, and
45 Ibid., 71. On other Americansâ™ acceptance of custom, see Reid, Authority to Tax, 181â“93.
46 Barclay, Apology, 365â“66.
47 Barclay, Anarchy, 56â“57.
48 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 3.
49 Dickinson, âReligious Instruction of Youth.â
50 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 54.
51 Barclay, Apology, 365.
288 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
honesty in all things, including speech. They wore plain clothing; used thee
and thou; and refused to swear oaths, engage in haggling over prices, or use
frivolous greetings such as âgood day.â They demanded that laws and other
ofď¬cial political proceedings be conducted and written down in English so all
could have knowledge of them.52 In this important matter of the ratiď¬cation of
the Constitution â“ this âplain-dealing workâ53 â“ Dickinson thought it impor-
tant that everyone in the nation, not only the elite, be conversant with the
issues under consideration. âWhat he wishes,â wrote Fabius of himself, âis to
simplify the subject, so as to facilitate the inquiries of his fellow citizens.â54
Where the Federalist Papers described and defended the Constitution in sophis-
ticated detail, Dickinson took on the task, as he did in his Farmerâ™s Letters,
of addressing the âunpolished but honest-heartedâ Americans.55 Where the
elite were concerned, another sort of plainness must be used. In his Apology,
Barclay had written to King Charles II that Quakers had âfaithfully discharged
their consciences towards thee without ď¬‚attering words.â56 Fabius now went
farther to say that âď¬‚attery is treasonâ in the momentous affairs of state.57
This popular decision-making process was as important as the ends for
which it was used. It determined whether or not the discernment was accurate
and, therefore, whether the decisions reached by the body were binding. In a
Quaker meeting, when the discernment process was functioning correctly, the
meeting was led directly by the âinfallible spiritâ of God. In this way, God
had sovereignty by proxy through the people. In secular terms, we think of
this simply as popular sovereignty. If the process functioned correctly and the
discernment was accurate, the people were bound by the decisions made by the
group. If, on the other hand, the process were ď¬‚awed, the people would not
be bound, and the meeting should not move forward. It was only recently that
other Americans began thinking of popular sovereignty as the Quakers did, as
the âvoice of God.â58
52 All of these practices were for the same end. Not swearing oaths had to do with not taking Godâ™s
name in vain, but also was a testimony for their honesty. Similarly, as merchants, Quakers set
prices and refused to haggle on the principle that it was dishonest â“ not plain speaking about
the true cost â“ and caused goods to be either under- or overvalued. On honesty in business, see
Tolles, Meeting House and Counting House, 58â“61.
53 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 12.
54 Ibid., 4.
55 Ibid., 18. See also the second of his Farmerâ™s Letters, which he addresses particularly to those
âwhose employments in life may have prevented your attending to the consideration of some
points that are of great public importanceâ (Letters, 38). Dickinsonâ™s concern for the partic-
ipation of the lower sort in the polity, evinced here and later in this chapter, deď¬es Holtonâ™s
generalization in Unruly Americans that the Founders were entirely antidemocratic. While Dick-
inson certainly was concerned to stem the excesses of democracy that had led to the abuses of
rights in Pennsylvania, he had no desire to silence the people or to pronounce a âslur on the
capacities of ordinary citizensâ (278).
56 Barclay, Apology, v.
57 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 13.
58 Morgan, Inventing the People, 13; and Jensen, The Articles of Confederation, 4.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 289
Although unity of the political body was an ideal commonly expressed in
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for Quakers it was more than an
expedient measure for the defense of property, the defensibility of policy, or
even as assurance of spiritual chosenness. It was, rather, an organizing principle
that expressed a commitment to the inclusive spiritual process that should
animate the polity. Legal discernment could come only through the unity of
the body. Quakers call this unity âcorporate witness.â59 Because unity was so
important, how individuals conducted themselves in the discernment process
was crucial. Beyond simply being obliged to speak plainly and honestly, oneâ™s
mode of delivery was equally important. To ď¬nd the true fundamental law,
Dickinson said, âBefore this tribunal of the People, let every one freely speak,
what he really thinks, but with so sincere a reverence for the cause he ventures
to discuss, as to use the utmost caution, lest he should lead into any errors, upon
a point of such sacred concern as the public happiness.â60 One of the greatest
errors man could commit was intemperance in public discourse. âHot, rash,
disorderly proceedings,â Dickinson warned in his Farmerâ™s Letters, âinjure the
reputation of the people as to wisdom, valor, and virtue, without procuring the
least beneď¬t.â61 It could disrupt the very means by which the law was discerned.
The goal was twofold â“ accuracy in determining the law and preservation
of concord in the group. Dickinson therefore counseled, âMay our national
character be â“ an animated moderation.â62 His Quakerly moderation was a
means of gentle persuasion to preserve unity. It was neither coercive nor a way
to disengage for the sake of merely conserving the existing system. Rather it
was a way to engage more intimately with the community in order to facilitate
greater understanding and avoid oppression of one faction by another. In this
process, there would be more security for the rights they would achieve and
less risk of losing everything in a schism or revolution. Barclay wrote that
one must not âbreak that Bond of Love and Peaceâ that held the meeting
together.63 Thus agreement and harmony should take precedence over dissent
if it threatens to disunite the body. âIn political affairs,â wrote Fabius, âis it not
more safe and advantageous, for all to agree in measures that may not be the
best, than to quarrel among themselves, what are best?â64 As Barclay asserted,
âThe Honor of Truth [is] prostrated by Divisions.â65 Dickinson thus chose to
speak to Americans as âFabius,â the Roman politician who was known for
59 Braithwaite, The Second Period of Quakerism, 345.
60 Letters, 4.
61 Ibid., 17.
62 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 53.
63 Barclay, Anarchy, 57.
64 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 25.
65 Barclay, Anarchy, 20.
290 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
preserving the state through his cautious methods, with the intention to act as
a model for the process he advocated.66
Signiď¬cantly, this emphasis on unity did not preclude dissent. Dissent within
the body was desirable, but a matter to be handled very delicately. The onus
was on the dissenter ď¬rst to deliver his message, to express his understanding
of the law or the correct decision to make concerning the polity. Second, he
must deliver it in a way that was as inoffensive as possible. And third, even
if the body chose another path against his counsel, he must submit his will to
that of the collective rather than try to obstruct it. Finally, he must support the
body in its goals. Barclay explained that the speaker must have âForbearance
in Things, wherein [the others] have not yet attained; yet . . . [the dissenter]
must walk so, as they have him for an Example.â Although some individuals
may have a more advanced understanding than the group, in time, Quakers
believed, God would eventually reveal the Truth to all.67 Dissent thus should
be a process of persuasion and convincement through speech-acts, not coercion
through threatening or disruptive behavior. On several occasions, Dickinson
expressed clearly his sense of how to achieve the balance between speaking as
one is moved and expressing oneâ™s dissent without disrupting the unity of the
body. He demonstrated this sort of moderation in action during the Revolution
and in words:
Two Rules I have laid down for myself throughout this Contest [with Britain], to which
I have constantly adhered, and still design to adhere â“ First â“ on all occasions where I
am called upon, as a Trustee for my Countrymen, to deliberate on Questions important
to their Happiness, disdaining all personal advantages to be derived from a Suppression
of my real Sentiments, and defying all Dangers to be risked by a Declaration of them,
openly to avow them; and secondly â“ after thus discharging this Duty, whenever the
public Resolutions are taken, to regard them, tho opposite to my opinion, as sacred,
because they lead to public Measures in which the Common Weal must be interested,
and to join in supporting them as if my voice had been given for them.68
Dickinson followed Penn, who said, âNor is there any Interest so inconsistent
with Peace and Unity, as that which dare not rely upon the Power of Persua-
sion.â69 There is in this theory of civic engagement a sense of humility, peace,
and self-sacriď¬ce that is alien to modern republicanism.
Constituting a Polity and the Purpose of Government
In the interest of clarity and openness in legal matters, the unity that the
people achieved through the collective discernment process must eventually be
66 Dickinson may have had further and more personal reasons for choosing âFabius.â The Roman,
while ridiculed at ď¬rst for his tactics, was later vindicated as a hero for them. This choice may
have been Dickinsonâ™s subtle way of suggesting that his initial approach to an American con-
stitution in the Articles was the appropriate one and that this fact should be widely recognized.
67 Ibid., 55â“56.
68 John Dickinson to president of Congress [John Jay] on peace negotiations with Britain, July 22,
1779, Ser. 1. b. Political, 1774â“1807, n.d., RRL/HSP.
69 Penn, Englandâ™s Present Interest Discovered, 32.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 291
codiď¬ed in a written document. Insofar as the people have been led by the
correct guides â“ higher authorities and not their own selď¬sh interests â“ the
written constitution was valid and binding. Insofar as it represented the polity,
it too was sacred. This was by no means a ubiquitous understanding of a
constitution. Some Framers, in fact, derided this notion of the Constitution as
sacrosanct. In 1816 Thomas Jefferson wrote, âSome men look at Constitutions
with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them, like the ark of the covenant,
too sacred to be touched.â70 Dickinson, like other Quaker political thinkers
before him, would have agreed with some of this sentiment, but not all. In 1682
William Penn wrote that âGovernment is sacred in its institution and end.â In
1788, Dickinson agreed that â[Government] is founded on the nature of man,
that is, on the will of his Maker, and is therefore sacred. It is then an offence
against Heaven, to violate that trust.â71 He emphasized, âIt is [the peopleâ™s]
duty to watch, and their right to take care, that the constitution be preserved.â72
Part of constructing a written constitution involved the creation and estab-
lishment of governmental structures. While most political theory held that the
institution of government was necessary primarily because of manâ™s propensity
for evil, Quakers believed that just as political society was designed to facili-
tate good works, so was their government designed for benevolence more than
punishment. It was not, as it was to Thomas Paine and many other Americans
then and since, a ânecessary evil.â73 Rather, for Dickinson and other Quaker
thinkers, it was a âsacred obligationâ designed to produce âpublic Affections,â
âUniversal Benevolence,â and âInď¬nite Kindness.â74
Because of the understanding Quakers had of the relationship of individuals
to one another and their government, Dickinson did not often speak of govern-
ment or constitution in terms of a contract, as did Puritan-informed thinkers in
the covenant tradition.75 Rather, he spoke of it as a âtrustâ given by Heaven,76
70 Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kerchival, July 12, 1816, quoted in Charles Warren, The Making
of the Constitution (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1937), 781.
71 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 19.
72 Ibid., 21.
73 Garry Wills points out that it is a âvulgarizationâ of Lockean theory to believe that no good
can come from government (A Necessary Evil, 299â“308). Nevertheless, he says, this has been
the dominant understanding Americans have had of government. The issue here is not so much
whether government is good or evil, but whether man himself is and what the governmentâ™s
role is in regulating manâ™s behavior.
74 John Dickinson, notes, n.d., Ser. 1. e. Miscellaneous, 1761â“1804, n.d., RRL/HSP.
75 This is not to say he never referred to the relationship of the governed to the governors as a
contract. See Dickinson, An Essay on the constitutional power, 10â“11. We might understand
this change of language and concept arising from the different purposes for which Dickinson was
writing. In urging colonists to resist encroachments on their liberties by the British government,
breach of contract is a straightforward way to convey the idea of injustice done. On the other
hand, in attempting to encourage submission to the authorities, the metaphor of a trust connotes
an irresistible quality of the institution as a whole. Earlier Quaker thinkers also used the idea
of contract sparingly. Barclay referred to contract in regards to the obligations of members of
a civil society, but not their rights (Anarchy, 42). In his political treatises, Penn used the idea
more frequently than the other two.
76 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 19.
292 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
and himself, as a politician, âa Trustee for my Countrymen.â77 The concept of
government â“ or, more speciď¬cally, the legislature â“ as a trust was a common
theory, especially in the second half of the eighteenth century. But there was a
difference between Dickinsonâ™s trust theory and those of his contemporaries.
There were two main trust theories in circulation, which have their ori-
gins in the ancient and modern understandings of a constitution discussed
in Chapter 2. Many Englishmen adhered to a theory that we might call an
âirrevocable trust.â Such a model imposed a duty on the governed to entrust
their welfare to their legislators because, as their betters, they were inherently
trustworthy. To change the terms of this trust was problematic, and neither
could the relationship be abolished because the governors were placed in the
Great Chain to lead. The strictures within this theory are on the governed to
obey. The second theory, to which most American Revolutionaries adhered, we
might call a âcontractâ or âď¬duciary trust.â It imposed limitations on the gov-
ernment that were negotiated at the advent of the system. If the government
overstepped its bounds, the trust was broken. A breach of the trust would
dissolve the obligations of the governed to the governors because there was
no internal means to repair the relationship, to renegotiate the terms of the
Dickinsonâ™s Quaker theory borrowed from both of these understandings of
âtrust.â At ď¬rst glance, however, it appears to bear a stronger resemblance to
an irrevocable trust. Along with other Quaker thinkers, he believed that God
ordains government itself as the steward of the people, and the people must
honor it. When the liberty of the people is in jeopardy, said the Farmer, âit
is our duty, humbly, constantly, fervently, to implore the protection of our
most gracious maker.â79 The trust was irrevocable. For Dickinson, a trust was
a term of possession and protection. His vision for the American government
was that it âwill bear the remarkable resemblance to the mild features of
patriarchal government.â80 He described the relationship of the states to the
central government in almost Filmerian terms as âA Father surrounded by a
Family of hearty, affectionate strong sons . . . attached to him and each other
not by fear or servile dependence but by a generous tender participation of
Blessings and a Reciprocity of Kindness and Advantages.â81
Dickinsonâ™s understanding of the negative and positive legal implications
for man in this irrevocable trust are in keeping with Quaker thought on the
77 John Dickinson to president of Congress [John Jay] on peace negotiations with Britain, July 22,
1779, Ser. 1. b. Political, 1774â“1807, n.d., RRL/HSP.
78 On trust theories in the eighteenth century, see John Phillip Reid, Constitutional History of the
American Revolution: The Authority to Legislate (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press,
1991), 87â“96. On Dickinsonâ™s trust theory, see also Natelson, âThe Constitutional Contribu-
tions of John Dickinson,â 432-36. He rightly emphasizes the importance of impartiality, the
idea that the trust was above faction in Dickinsonâ™s thinking.
79 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 38.
80 Ibid., 46.
81 John Dickinson, âNotes on a Speech (IV),â in Hutson, Supplement, 139.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 293
paternal benignity of government. On the surface, it is much like contract theory
of government; but with emphases on different aspects, the theories played
out quite differently in practice. Dickinson argued that when God constitutes
society, he commands two things of man: the contribution of his rights and
submission of his will to society. For Dickinson, rights and will were related but
different things. The language he uses is important. First, man âcontributesâ his
rights. Contribution is a term with positive connotations. Unlike the Lockean
language that man âhath quitted [his] natural power,â that he loses something
when he enters into political society, Dickinsonâ™s is a term of enablement.82
When man âcontributesâ or âdelegatesâ rights to the âcommon stock,â he
enables himself to be a beneď¬t to society, to participate in it, to contribute to it.
Where rights are concerned, political society is not created merely to give man
negative liberty, although there is an important way in which it does, so much
as it is for positive liberty. By contributing, Dickinson said, man gains
[T]he aid of those associated with him, for his relief from the incommodities of mental
or bodily weakness â“ the pleasure for which his heart is formed â“ of doing good â“
protection against injuries â“ a capacity of enjoying his undelegated rights to the best
advantage â“ a repeal of his fears â“ and tranquility of mind â“ or, in other words, that
perfect liberty better described in the Holy Scriptures, than any where else, in these
expressions â“ âWhen every man shall sit under his vine and his ď¬g-tree, and none shall
make him afraid.â83
The idea of entering society to do good is, of course, one of the fundamental
bases of all Christian communities. Contributing his rights to society thus
âprompts [man] to a participated happiness.â84 This understanding of rights
and happiness are signiď¬cantly different from how Jefferson articulated them
in the Declaration of Independence. Although Jefferson undoubtedly had the
welfare of the whole in mind, the âpursuit of happinessâ is an individual right
that may take an ambitious person in any direction.85 âParticipated happiness,â
by contrast, is an explicit link of the individual to the collective, a drawing
of individuals together, not a protection of their right to separate and solitary
quests. Participated means active engagement in the polity for the good of all.86
82 Locke, Second Treatise, sec. 87.
83 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 14.
84 Ibid. Emphasis added.
85 John Patrick Diggins mistakenly generalizes this individualistic impulse to all Americans when
he writes that â[i]ndividualism provided the means by which Americans could pursue their
interests, pluralism the means by which they could protect them.â The Lost Soul of American
Politics: Virtue, Self-Interest, and the Foundations of Liberalism (New York: Basic Books,
1984), 5. In his interpretation, community thus becomes nothing more than a useful tool for
the satisfaction of individual desires.
86 In secular terms, Dickinsonâ™s sense of rights and liberty seem to be something in between
Jeffersonâ™s and an Old Whigâ™s understanding of them as public things. Dickinson certainly saw
the right to participate and liberty in individualistic terms, but there was a regard for the public
as a whole, the collective that was falling out of use. Speciď¬cally, see Gordon Wood on liberty
(The Creation of the American Republic, 609). On changes in this and other political terms at
294 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
And, as we can see in each instance in which he uses the word, happiness
for Dickinson was not a secular good as it was for Jefferson. An example
Dickinson used is trial by jury. While we normally understand trial by jury
to aid the defendant in a trial, Dickinson was as concerned with the right of
men to sit on a jury. This right to unfettered participation on a jury was a
concern that was at the top of the Quakersâ™ list of reforms in the seventeenth
century, and they were at the forefront of a movement to protect that right and
the ability of the jurymen to exercise it. In Bushellâ™s Case, the trial of William
Penn and William Mead for public preaching, they asked, as Dickinson did,
âCan freedom be preserved, by keeping twelve men closely conď¬ned without
meat, drink, ď¬re, or candle, until they unanimously agree . . . until under duress
they speak as they are ordered?â87 Dickinson held that serving on a jury was a
âblessingâ that would lead to the security of other liberties.88 Throughout his
unpublished papers, he repeated incessantly the primacy of manâ™s duty to do
good and the godly unity this creates in a society. âAs every Duty is allied to a
Beneď¬t (Blessing), so every Right is allied to a Duty â“ there is a [social?] sacred
Relationship that binds mankind together in a system consistently merging
(drawing them) nearer & nearer to the Divine Author, all the powers, faculties,
Functions, and Enjoyments, which they possess or can exercise.â89
Of course, joining political society also necessitated that man give something
up. Man âsubmitsâ his will to society: âHe must submit his will in what
concerns all, to the will of all, that is of the whole society.â Submission, of
course, is a negative term. Dickinson devotes only one line to describing what
he gives up: âThe power of doing injury to others â“ and the dread of suffering
injuries from him.â90 While this idea of the âwill of societyâ sounds much like
Rousseauâ™s âgeneral willâ with its ominous potential for democratic despotism,
as we will see later, it is not exactly the same. Dickinsonâ™s vehement arguments
against submission to the injustices of the British before the Revolution clearly
indicate that there are limits to manâ™s acquiescence to government in speciď¬c
instances. When man submits his will, he is not necessarily depriving himself of
rights, he is depriving himself of a certain kind of agency, in this case unlimited
autonomous decision making. To submit oneâ™s will to the whole, therefore, also
means to subject oneself to a process of deliberation. The difference between
an oppressive general will and one that is liberating lies in how the government
is structured and how the decision-making process is undertaken. It is not
directed by man, but by God.
this time, see Terrence Ball, âA Republic â“ If You Can Keep It,â in Terrence Ball and J. G. A.
Pocock, eds., Conceptual Change and the Constitution (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas,
87 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 22â“23.
88 Ibid., 23.
89 John Dickinson, âGovernment,â n.d., Ser. 1. b. Political, 1774â“1807, n.d., RRL/HSP. The
words I have put in parentheses Dickinson wrote above the preceding word.
90 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 14.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 295
With God working through the community practicing synteresis, the ulti-
mate will to be obeyed was not manâ™s, even embodied in the entire community,
but Godâ™s discerned by man, both by the individual and the whole. There were
thus limits to manâ™s control over man. For example, as we have seen, an indi-
vidual may or may not have the legal right (according to man) to dissent. But
for Quaker thinkers, how and when a person dissents is regulated by no human
law: speech â“ both content and mode â“ is regulated by God for the beneď¬t of the
polity. As Dickinson exclaimed, âO Ye people of United America, I embrace
and love you; but I will obey God rather than you; and if my Life was exposed
to Danger and you would save it or if you would bestow on Me all that you can
give; on Condition that I should not address to my Fellow citizens my present
sentiments, I would rather dye than accept the proposal.â91
The system that would ensure this God-given right to speak involved both a
constitution (ď¬rst in a sense of solidarity among the people and then also a writ-
ten document) and a governmental structure. The construction of these related
things by man was a âlabour of public love.â92 As Dickinson explained, âIf it
be considered separately, a constitution is the organization of the contributed
rights in society. Government is the exercise of them.â93 It was in similar terms
that Barclay described the form and function of the Quaker church govern-
ment â“ the âorderâ and âmethod.â These categories explain the structures and
decision-making process of the constituted polity. It was not just any kind of
government that Dickinson and Quakers had in mind. The way the constitu-
tion was ordered and the way the government exercised rights were âoffered
to us by our Creator.â94 There was a particular mode, as Dickinson put it, of
âholy conversation.â95 He explained further that âwe never consult our own
happiness more effectually, than when we most endeavor to correspond with
the divine designs.â96
âA More Perfect Unionâ â“ Creating the Constitution
When contemplating a new constitution, the Framers disagreed whether the
Union existed in spite of the demise of the Articles of Confederation. The
question at hand was, if the Articles constituted a perpetual union, then was not
the Union destroyed with the Articles? Some believed that it had existed before
the Articles and would continue to exist without them. But others held that the
Union had been abolished and needed to be reconstituted.97 The latter was a
91 John Dickinson, notes, n.d., Ser. II, Miscellaneous, 1671â“1801, n.d., RRL/HSP.
92 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 22.
93 Ibid., 19.
94 Ibid., 46.
95 John Dickinson, notes, n.d., Ser. II, Miscellaneous, 1671â“1801, n.d., RRL/HSP.
96 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 13.
97 See Kenneth M. Stampp, âThe Concept of a Perpetual Union,â The Journal of American History
vol. 65, no. 1 (1978), 5â“33. Stampp makes clear that these issues were not resolved in the minds
of most Framers.
296 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
problematic argument since, without a polity that was previously constituted
in spirit, the perpetuity of the Union would always be in doubt.98 And so it
was for many years until after the Civil War. But Dickinson was certain on
this point. âDid not our Hearts dictate our Words[?] Our Hands conď¬rm the
stipulation by subscription for perpetual Remembrance[?]â he asked. âDid we
not call the Nations of the Earth and Heaven itself to witness our agreement
with each other?â The agreement for union may no longer be convenient to
some, he explained, who wished to pursue their economic interests unfettered,
â[b]ut does this [in]convenience outweigh the Considerations for an adherence
to sacred Obligations?â99
For Dickinson and the Quakers, constituting a polity was not a discrete
event with a beginning and an end. There was not a stark separation between
man in the âstate of natureâ and man under government, between prelapsarian
man and fallen man. The formation of government (as the spiritual progress
of man) was rather an on-going providential process; man answering the call
to enter society was only the ď¬rst step. The process was one of continual
improvement of society with the possibility of a perfect union. As Barclay
put it, God âhath also gathered and is gathering us into the good Order,
Discipline, and Governmentâ of Christ.100 The way toward perfection was to
order the polity correctly. Dickinson thought of it in the same terms. âHerein
there is a progression,â he explained. âAs a man, he becomes a citizen; as
a citizen he becomes a federalist.â101 Because America had been constituted
as a people before the Articles of Confederation were written, that document
was simply an attempt to codify that unity. But, as ratiď¬ed, they turned out
to be an incomplete and insufď¬cient structure of government. The government
was failing, and the written constitution was therefore abandoned. But in the
Quaker view, the abandonment of the written constitution did not dissolve the
constituted polity. As Penn said, the paper constitution is ânot the Original
Establishment, but a Declaration and Conď¬rmation of that Establishment.â102
The fundamental constitution, the Union, and the processes that animated it,
still existed, although imperfectly. The written expression of it, the formal
organization of the Union, simply needed to be made more perfect.
Some Americans considered the actions of the Annapolis Convention and the
Constitutional Convention to be illegal in that they met to amend the Articles
98 Rakove notes that âthe idea that the confederation was essentially only a league of sovereign
states was ultimately a ď¬ction. Congress was in fact a national government, burdened with
legislative and administrative responsibilities unprecedented in the colonial pastâ (Beginnings,
184â“85). It is probable that this was how Dickinson perceived it.
99 John Dickinson, âNotes on a Speech (II), in Hutson, Supplement, 136.
100 Barclay, Anarchy, 9. Emphasis added.
101 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 15.
102 Penn, Englandâ™s Present Interest Discovered, 29. If Michael Warner is correct in arguing that
Americans considered themselves rightly constituted only through a written document, then the
Quaker theory was a signiď¬cant departure from the norm. For Quakers, textuality was for the
purpose of reference, not legitimation of the union. See Warner, âTextuality and Legitimacy
in the Printed Constitution,â 97â“117.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 297
but ended up abandoning them entirely. But this was to take a fairly narrow
view of the constitutional process. How the U.S. Constitution was created
was very similar to the Quaker process that brought the 1701 Pennsylvania
Charter of Privileges into being. The polity was already constituted, but the
ď¬rst few written constitutions and the governments they established did not
meet the needs of the polity. This was in keeping with how Barclay described
the evolution of the Quaker ecclesiastical government:
Things commanded and practiced at certain times and seasons fall of themselves, whenas
the Cause and Ground for which they were commanded is removed . . . We confess we
are against such, as from the bare Letter of the Scripture seek to uphold Customs,
Forms, or Shadows, when the Use for which they were appointed, is removed, or the
Substance itself known and witnessed.103
But Quakers did not overthrow the Pennsylvania government. Rather, they
retained the unity of their polity, rewrote the constitution from a better under-
standing of what they needed, and restructured the government accordingly.
At no time did they consider that their union or unwritten constitution was
abolished. This was how Dickinson saw the situation in America. The creation
of a âmore perfect union,â presumed the existence of a union in the ď¬rst place.
It also presumed the idea of change toward perfection.
The mechanism by which change could happen â“ whether in the case of
Pennsylvania or America â“ was premised on the idea that the people were
already constituted regardless of what paper documents did or did not exist,
and that the power to discern the law lay with the people as a body. Samuel
Beer explains, however, that Western political thought had historically rejected
popular rule in favor of hierarchy. âClassical philosophy had taught the rule
of the wise,â he says, âChristianity taught the rule of the holy.â104 The latter
was also true of Quaker political thought. The crucial difference was that, in
the Quaker view, all could be holy. Divine competence was in the people. They
had what Beer calls a âconstituent sovereigntyâ; that is, when a government
dissolves and must be renewed, the people do not return to a state of nature,
a state of anarchy.105 Rather, the power that they invested in the law-making
body reverts to them and they can recreate â“ reconstitute â“ their political
In this way, we see that Dickinsonâ™s trust theory of government, although
similar to the âirrevocableâ model, was not identical to it. It bore an important
resemblance to the contract trust in that negotiation was possible. The main
difference here was that the negotiations were not ď¬nished at the Founding â“
they were continual. Dickinson therefore knew that the conventional contract
trust theory of government, as articulated by Locke, in which revolution was
rightful when the contract was violated by the government, was neither an
103 Barclay, Anarchy, 29.
104 Beer, To Make a Nation, 139.
105 Ibid., 171.
298 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
appropriate nor a legitimate basis on which to found the American govern-
ment. In the ď¬rst place, Americans were no longer represented by a parliament
that was distant from them in both interests and geography. In the second, they
had a theory of a constitutional change that was absent from British constitu-
tionalism. They had what their British counterparts did not â“ both constituent
and governmental sovereignty. In other words, the government and governors
were no longer something separate from the people. The people were the gov-
ernment and they could change themselves, their laws and institutions, as they
This had always been the Quaker way of addressing the problem of the
origin of governmental authority in relation to the people. And later it was the
theoretical and practical problem Americans needed to solve in constituting
the federal government. Quaker theory, and what Americans would discover,
was that, as Michael Warner explains, â[t]he legal-political order would be
transcendent in its authority but immanent in its source. The trick was to see
how law could be given to the people transcendently and received from it
immanently at the same time.â106 Quakers dealt with this problem by claiming
that those who were already the de facto leaders of the informally constituted
polity (âsuch whom [God] hath made use of in gathering of his Churchâ) were
to be the ones who wrote the constitution and laws (to whom God âcommu-
nicat[ed] his Will under his Gospelâ).107 The people, who remained part of
the legal-political process after the initial âgathering,â had consented to this
arrangement by obeying Godâ™s command to come together and follow his des-
ignated leaders. In this way, Quakers employed the same process that Gordon
Wood describes legitimated the constitutional conventions of the Founding
period â“ the conventions were legitimate precisely because their legality was
in a speciď¬c sense inferior to that of the provincial assemblies â“ they had no
ordinary legislative powers; but in other ways superior â“ they had the power
As in the pre-Revolutionary American Congresses, Quaker meetings were
illegal under civil law as well as contrary to the Church of England. But
although they were illegal by man-made standards, Quakers believed that they
actually were sanctioned by a higher authority, and thus had greater legitimacy
if not positive legality. Thus for Dickinson and his fellow Quaker thinkers, the
âbizarre new American project of writing charters as fundamental law for all
government [that] aimed at removing the circular legitimation of representative
assembliesâ was not actually bizarre at all.109 The idea of popular sovereignty
thus allowed the creation of the Constitution. But it did more than that. It
prepared the way for the American system of government, federalism.
106 Warner, âTextuality and Legitimacy in the Printed Constitution,â 101.
107 Barclay, Anarchy, 68.
108 Wood, Creation, 337â“38.
109 Warner, âTextuality and Legitimacy in the Printed Constitution,â 102.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 299
The Order and Method of the Polity: Popular Sovereignty
in a Federal System
In the early years of Quakerism, there was the sense that all individuals should
have a direct role in the decision-making process of the meeting. Before the
establishment of London Yearly Meeting and its subsidiary meetings, Friends
generally believed that if there were unity and consensus at the local level,
the decisions they produced were infallible and binding. This arrangement
did not work, and neither did the American experience with democracy and
weak central government in the Critical Period. Dickinson therefore asked,
âHow are the contributed rights to be managed?â His purpose in the Letters
of Fabius was precisely the same as Barclayâ™s in The Anarchy of the Ranters â“
to answer this question by explaining the concept of a balanced polity and
persuade them to accept it. Barclay hoped Quakers would be âvindicated from
those that accuse them of Disorder and Confusion on the one Hand, and from
such as Calumniate them with Tyranny and Imposition on the other.â110 Both
Barclay and Dickinson had to prove to their readers that there was a way
to maintain order in a democratic system that did not result in tyranny. For
Quaker thinkers, order, union, safety, and liberty had always been inextricably
intertwined.111 The solution for Barclay and Dickinson was the same â“ a strong
central government made up of a quasi-aristocratic element in a federal system.
Dickinsonâ™s plan would âmelt tyrants into men, and . . . soothe inď¬‚amed minds
of a multitude into mildness.â112
The Quaker ecclesiastical polity was founded for four primary reasons:
to allow the collective process of discerning Godâ™s will to function properly;
to facilitate good works; to prevent encroachments on the Society from the
outside; and to keep the centrifugal forces inherent in the doctrine of the
Inward Light from atomizing the Society. A strong central power for America
seemed a necessity to Dickinson for similar reasons. The most challenging
issues of the moment were the latter two. The nation had to deal with these
ď¬rst in order to facilitate the former two. America was young and vulnerable,
especially with regards to Britain. His fears after the Revolution were the same
as before â“ factionalism, strife, disunity. As Fabius, however, his purpose was
to emphasize the commonalities Americans shared. He described them as a
âpeople who were so drawn together by religion, blood, language, manners
and customs, undisturbed by former feuds and prejudices.â113 Dickinson was
not opposed to a large republic, but in such an expansive geographical area as
America, it was not realistic to suppose that Americans would cohere without
110 Barclay, Anarchy, title page.
111 In Spheres of Liberty: Changing Perceptions of Liberty in American Culture (Madison: Uni-
versity of Wisconsin Press, 1986), Michael Kammen ď¬nds that the American equation of
liberty and order did not arise until the nineteenth century (âOrdered Liberty and Law in
Nineteenth-Century America,â 65â“126).
112 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 13.
113 Ibid., 43.
300 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
a centralizing force. And with such a danger of âlicentiousnessâ in democracy,
neither was it realistic to think that everyone necessarily should have a direct
role to play in the government. Anything short of a system that managed
both the great size of the country and the passions of its people, Dickinson
believed, would result in the downfall of the country. He therefore saw the
central government as a âsuperintending sovereign willâ over the states and
individuals.114 The method and the structure of the government would settle the
question of the locus of authority â“ individual or group; local unit or central â“
and facilitate the deliberative decision-making process.
The federal structure that Dickinson advocated shared some distinctive fea-
tures with the Quaker church government, which was itself unique among
church governments. The Quaker polity was organized on the dual bases of
geography and the calendar. There were local meetings at the county level that
met on a weekly and monthly basis. The monthly meetings sent representatives
to quarterly meetings. Then, once a year, representatives met at the yearly meet-
ing. The yearly meeting was the central governing body for all the subsidiary
meetings. The Discipline, then, was the constitution that governed the whole
Although other religious groups in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
also used systems of representatives, none had the same kind of geographically
based structure. Unlike other churches, such as the Congregationalist, which
did not have a central organizing structure for multiple bodies and tried in
vain to keep members from settling too far away to attend meeting regularly,
the Quaker arrangement allowed Friends to expand their church and its inď¬‚u-
ence across great distances and remain uniď¬ed.115 When Quakers moved to the
frontiers, they simply established new meetings whenever a few of them were
together.116 Eventually, when there were enough members and meetings, the
government would reproduce itself in that region with a central structure that
was separate, yet still in close contact with the others. London Yearly Meeting
was established ď¬rst, then New England, Philadelphia, Baltimore, North Car-
olina, Indiana, and Western Yearly Meetings followed. This system encouraged
Friends to maintain a corporate identity primarily as members of a central body
as they spanned geographic boundaries, rather than as members of a particular
local or monthly meeting.117 Quakers thus solved the problem of âperipheries
114 Ibid., 17.
115 For a case study that exempliď¬es the difď¬culties of expanding Congregationalist churches in
New England, see Kenneth A. Lockridge, A New England Town: The First Hundred Years,
Dedham, Massachusetts, 1637â“1736 (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1970).
116 A case study that follows one frontier meeting is Karen Guenther, âRemembâ™ring our Time
and Work is the Lordsâ: The Experiences of Quakers on the Eighteenth-Century Pennsylvania
Frontier (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2005).
117 The other churches that also spread and established themselves around the colonies, most
especially the Catholic and Anglican, had the least amount of egalitarianism and popular
participation in the church government. Moreover, as a result of having the governing authority
so far away, the distant branches were less uniď¬ed as they depended on all their order coming
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 301
and centerâ quite easily with âa network of societies in a federated system
similar to the United States government.â118
Part of establishing the central governing structure in the Quaker meeting
was creating a system of representation to replace the pure democracy that
had tyrannized their early church. Although all had a measure of the Light of
God in his or her conscience, and thus a voice in the meeting, it had become
clear that all voices did not carry equal weight.119 There were those who had
a greater measure of the Light, and it was they who had a greater power
and responsibility to determine the direction of the meeting. Barclay wrote,
âThat God hath ordinarily, in the communicating of his Will under his Gospel,
imployed such whom he hath made use of in gathering of his Church, and
in feeding and watching over them; though not excluding others.â120 Neither
did any of the Framers envision America as a pure democracy. It should be,
many of them agreed, a natural aristocracy in which the leaders should have,
as Dickinson said, âwisdom and integrity,â and âgenius.â121 In the Quaker
hierarchy, Barclay said, everyone has a place âand so in this there ought to
be a mutual Forbearance, that there may neither be a coveting nor aspiring
spirit on the one hand, nor yet a despising or condemning on the other.â122
Likewise, Dickinson believed that there were some people who were more
suitable to be leaders, while others ought to be primarily followers. He argued
that the âworthyâ should prevail âagainst the licentious.â123 It would be the
duty of the people not to make the critical decisions of government directly,
but rather to choose their betters to do it for them. This was their voice, and
it was vital that they discern the proper person for the job. They should be,
as Dickinson explained to Americans, âreligiously attentiveâ in choosing their
The hierarchical and representational structure of the government would
act as a sieve, as Gordon Wood has described the Constitution, or a âreď¬ning
process,â as Dickinson put it, to let only the most worthy individuals â“ the most
âvirtuousâ in republican language, the most âweightyâ in the Quaker â“ into
from the top. Michael Sheeran explains that â[the Quaker foundersâ™] action opened the door
for Friends to metamorphose from a sect of locally sovereign communities to a church with
a central polity. The transition involved a substitution of central for local divine guidanceâ
(Beyond Majority Rule, 15).
118 Jack. P. Greene, Peripheries and Center: Constitutional Development in the Extended Polities
of the British Empire and the United States, 1607â“1788, (New York: W. W. Norton and Co.,
1990); Isenberg, âPillars in the Same Temple,â 109. Barbara Allen describes Quaker ideas of
federalism as ââ˜federal libertyâ™ without reference to federal theologyâ (Tocqueville, Covenant,
and the Democratic Revolution, 59).
119 And, it should be noted that although women did have a voice in the ecclesiastical polity, they
did not in the civil. This, however, would change. See the Epilogue for further discussion.
120 Barclay, Anarchy, 69.
121 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 33, 53.
122 Barclay, Anarchy, 63.
123 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 12.
124 Ibid., 7.
302 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
positions of leadership.125 There would, therefore, be an element of the gov-
ernment that would, as Dickinson said in the Convention, âconsist of the most
distinguished characters, distinguished for the rank in life and their weight of
property, and bearing as strong a likeness to the British House of Lords as pos-
sible.â126 Later, however, he reconsidered the property qualiď¬cation for ofď¬ce
holding. Madison reported,
[Dickinson] doubted the policy of interweaving into a Republican constitution a ven-
eration for wealth. He had always understood that a veneration for poverty & virtue,
were the objects of republican encouragement. It seemed improper that any man of
merit should be subjected to disabilities in a Republic where merit was understood to
form the great title to public trust, honors & rewards.127
On the other hand, he held fast to a property qualiď¬cation for voting, arguing
that the freeholders were âthe best guardians of libertyâ and the restriction
of suffrage to them was âa necessary defence agst. the dangerous inď¬‚uence
of those multitudes without property & without principle.â But, he reminded
the Convention, âthe great mass of our Citizens is composed at this time of
Despite the spiritual aristocracy in the Quaker meeting, there was still a
democratic component and egalitarianism based on the idea of the universality
of the Inward Light. Each member of the meeting had the potential to contribute
to the process that members of other religious bodies did not necessarily have
in their churches. In keeping with this popular model of governance, Dickinson
saw the people, endowed as they were with the capacity to discern the law, as
the key to the order, strength, and safety of the American polity. He âdetest[ed]
the position, that different ranks are necessary for our welfare. It is an idea,
borrowed from the errors or vices of other centuries,â he said. âIt is a rank
high enough for a mortal, to be a trustee for his fellow citizens.â129
In keeping with this egalitarian principle, Dickinson had a ď¬rmer stance
on the immorality of slavery than any member of the Constitutional Conven-
tion.130 Having manumitted his own slaves ten years prior, he reiterated the
sentiments he expressed in his Essay of a Frame of Government for Pennsylva-
nia that he âconsidered it inadmissible on every principle of honor and safety
that the importation of slaves should be authorized by the Constitution.â131
He worried that American hypocrisy on the slavery issue would compromise
125 Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 512; and Farrand, Records of the Federal
Convention, 1: 136.
126 Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention, 1: 150.
127 Ibid., 2: 123.
128 Ibid., 2: 202. We should note here Dickinsonâ™s use of the term âmassâ here as contradistinct
from his use of âweightâ earlier.
129 John Dickinson to Benjamin Rush, February 14, 1791 John Dickinson Materials, John Harvey
Powell Papers, APS.
130 Rakove, Original Meanings, 88.
131 Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention, 2: 378. He freed them conditionally in 1777,
unconditionally in 1786. In 1800, he also paid some slaveholders to manumit their slaves. See
Miscellaneous Notes, John Harvey Powell Papers, APS.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 303
the national reputation. âActing before the World,â he wrote, âWhat will be
said of this new principle of founding a right to Freemen on a power derived
from Slaves,â who were âthemselves incapable of governing yet giving to other
what they have not. The omitting the Word will be regarded as an Endeavor
to conceal a principle of which we are ashamed.â132 In the Convention he pro-
posed a motion that would allow the national government to determine when
intervention on the slavery issue was necessary. It was defeated.133
For Dickinson, the popular principle extended to the highest level of govern-
ment. There was no executive in the Quaker polity. With no formal ministry,
the leadership was collective and ď¬‚uid. There was a clerk of every meeting, who
had a great deal of weight, but he was as much a bureaucrat as a leader, and his
leadership was not autonomous. Moreover, there were elders and overseers,
who, along with the clerk, could come from any rank of society. Dickinson
was therefore the most vocal critic of the proposed executive ofď¬ce. In the
Convention he again expressed his opinion that âthe business is so important
that no man ought to be silent or reserved.â He expressed his belief that âsuch
an Executive as some seem to have in contemplation was not consistent with
a republic.â He went on to compare the ofď¬ce of a single executive to that of
a monarch and warned that it was not the ofď¬ce that people would revere, but
rather the person. Such an attachment, of course, could eventually undermine
the liberty of the people if they allowed a single individual to hold too much
sway over the affairs of the state. âIn place of these attachments,â he coun-
seled, âwe must look out for something else.â The proper place for loyalty was
not in a single ď¬gure, but in the legislature, the individual states, and in âone
great Republic.â He preferred an executive council to an individual; but this
idea was not on the table long. He called for the executive to be removable
by a national legislature at the request of a majority of the states. The motion
was rejected.134 He later opposed the election of the executive by a national
legislature and instead âleaned towards an election by the people, which he
regarded as the best and purest source.â135
Because a strong central authority was a feature of every Quaker govern-
ment, ecclesiastical or civil, it is no surprise that Quakers generally favored
the proposed system. In the debates over the Constitution, Benjamin Rush
observed that Friends were âall (with an exception of three or four persons
only) highly fĹ“deral.â136 The question was: How would the representational
structure function on a practical level? Where would the preponderance of
132 Hutson, Supplement, 158.
133 Paul Finkelman, âSlavery and the Constitutional Convention: Making a Covenant with
Death,â in Richard R. Beeman, ed., Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and
American National Identity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 188â“225,
134 Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention, 1: 86â“87.
135 Ibid., 2: 114.
136 Benjamin Rush to Jeremy Belknap, 28 February 1788; John Kaminski and Gaspare J. Saldino,
eds., The Documentary History of the Ratiď¬cation of the Constitution, vol. 16, Commentaries
on the Constitution Public and Private (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1986),
304 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
power lie and how would it be organized? In this regard, Dickinson has been
described both as an âardent nationalistâ and a champion of statesâ™ rights.137
But to consider him one or the other supposes a stark distinction in his thin-
king between federalism and nationalism. Merrill Jensen articulates the differ-
ence: true Federalists âbelieved that a federal government was one created by
equal and independent states who delegated to it sharply limited authority and
who remained superior to it in every way.â On the other hand, âa national
government was a central organization with coercive authority over both the
states and its citizens.â138 Dickinson, characteristically uncategorizable, was
advocating a bit of both and neither in its entirety â“ a hybrid system. For the
sake of unity and process, he wanted a national authority with a degree of coer-
cive power over the states. But, as we will see later, he also wanted a federal
system that would preserve a signiď¬cant degree of liberty and give protection
for all states; he believed among the most âDangerous symptoms to Americaâ
were âAttempts to consolidate the states into one power.â âThis,â he said, âis
a favorite Measure of the large States,â which wanted âthe aggrand[izement]
of some states at the Expense of others.â139
Dickinson was therefore not an extreme nationalist without any regard for
statesâ™ or individual rights. He did not want an authoritarian government.140
Liberty, he wrote, is a âsacred, salutary principle.â141 This is why we ď¬nd
Dickinson on both sides of the debate â“ to preserve statesâ™ and individual rights
but also to secure a strong central government. Not just liberty, but directed
and moderated liberty was Dickinsonâ™s aim. In spite of this aristocratic check
on the people, weight should be with the democratic side of the equation. The
beneď¬ts of British government, Dickinson reminded his skeptics, âare derived
from a single democratical branch.â142 In America as well, the strength of the
polity came from the democratic element: â[The people] have held, and now
hold the true balance in their government. While they retain their enlightened
spirit, they will continue to hold it.â143 In his personal notes he reiterated that
âthere never was upon Earth a Body of Nobility, who had such a Regard for
the Rights and welfare of their fellow Citizens, as the Nobility of G.B. and
250â“52. When Quakers did oppose the Constitution it was mainly because it did not prohibit
slavery. See also 403â“04.
137 James H. Hutson refutes earlier claims that Dickinson was an advocate of statesâ™ rights over
nationalism. He attributed this to Dickinson being âtoo much a student of Blackstoneâ to have
thought otherwise. âJohn Dickinson at the Federal Constitutional Convention,â 258.
138 Merrill Jensen, âThe Idea of a National Government during the American Revolution,â Polit-
ical Science Quarterly vol. 58, no. 3 (1943), 356â“379, 357.
139 John Dickinson, notes, n.d., Ser. II, Miscellaneous, 1671â“1801, n.d., RRL/HSP; and John
Dickinson, notes, n.d., Government Documents, Revolutionary and Early National Periods,
140 It is worth noting in this regard that after the ratiď¬cation of the Constitution and despite his
dislike of parties, Dickinson sympathized with the Democratic-Republicans.
141 John Dickinson to Thomas McKean, 4th of the 3rd mo., 1801, in StillÂ´ and Ford, Life and
Writings, 1: 286.
142 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 49.
143 Ibid., 51.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 305
yet it would be better for us to encounter all the Calamities of a Civil War,
than that a Nobility should be established among us.â144 Dickinsonâ™s thought
exempliď¬es what Beer calls âthe national theory of American federalism.â145
This is the balanced theory that eventually animated the Constitution.
Few ideas of the Convention can be traced solely to one individual; the cre-
ation of the Constitution was a collaborative effort, and ideas put forth by one
man were often held simultaneously or were developed beyond their infancy
by the body. But there were some notable instances in which a delegate pro-
posed an idea that was not initially approved by the rest of the Convention,
but that was ultimately persuasive. At a pivotal moment early on, Dickinson
provided what Forrest McDonald calls âone of the crucial conceptual break-
throughsâ of the Convention.146 As the delegates stalled in their discussion
about the form and function of the government â“ whether and how to move
away from a confederation and to a national government, Dickinson provided
the solution that is the essence of the national-federal system. He advocated
a structure in which âone Branch of the Legislature shd. be drawn immedi-
ately from the peopleâ and âthe other shd. be chosen by the Legislatures of
the states.â147 In this system, the states would have equal representation in
the senate. This was the ď¬rst suggestion of the kind.148 His proposal arose out
of a concern for the welfare of the small states. In his notes he wrote, âWhat
will be the situation of the smaller, if in both branches, the Representation is
in the apportionment? They will [be] deliverâ™d up into the absolute power of
the larger.â And âRepre[sentation] in both Branches founded on numbers â“
unreasonable & dangerous.â149
While his insistence on the election of senators through the state legisla-
tures was accepted and implemented, this structure, of course, only lasted
until the early twentieth century.150 But the fundamentals of his system that
would preserve the agency of the states while also representing the people
in a strong national government prevailed over the opposition of a number
of other prominent Framers, including Madison, who at ď¬rst advocated a
purely national system.151 Later, however, Madison and others such as Wilson
adopted Dickinsonâ™s metaphor of the national-federal plan as a solar system,
âin which the States were the planets, and ought to be left to move freely in
144 John Dickinson, âGovernment,â Ser. 1. b. Political, 1774â“1807, n.d., RRL/HSP.
145 Beer, To Make a Nation, 21.
146 Forrest McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution
(Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1985), 260. The other was Pierce Butlerâ™s idea of
the Electoral College.
147 Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention, 1: 136.
148 M. E. Bradford, Founding Fathers: Brief Lives of the Framers of the United States Constitution
(Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1994), 102.
149 John Dickinson, notes, n.d, Government Documents, Revolutionary and Early National Peri-
ods, 1765â“1788, LCP.
150 It was repealed by the Seventeenth Amendment.
151 On Madison, see McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum, 276â“77. For a fuller discussion of the
debates on Dickinsonâ™s role in this debate, and from which this summary is drawn, see 212â“15,
230â“32, 233, 260, 277.
306 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
their proper orbitsâ around the central government.152 Dickinson argued that
âa government thus established would harmonize the whole.â153
Dickinson also had a divergent conception of factions from others. While
Madison is usually the ď¬gure historians look to for the advent of this the-
ory, Dickinson held to a similar idea â“ pressing it further in some cases
than did Madison. Like Penn, Dickinson believed that diversity within the
polity was a salutary thing. Penn believed that a diversity of interests would
â[b]allance factions, not . . . Irritate or give Strength to them.â154 Likewise,
Dickinson thought the Senate would be better off with more and diverse mem-
bers, something Madison found too dangerous.155 But more importantly, the
two men supported their theories on different bases. On the surface, both men
saw the need to balance competing interests and let them check one another.
They also believed that the Senate should be a body composed of the âbetter
sortsâ to check the excesses of democracy. One way they differed, however,
was where and how this checking by faction should take place. Dickinson
wanted it throughout the system, both among the people and in both houses
of Congress; Madison, by contrast, wanted it among the people, but not in the
Senate. Dickinson therefore advocated a Senate that was elected through the
state legislatures â“ to ensure the âTalentâ of the senators; and, to provide for
the interests of the small states, he did not object to a large number of sena-
tors. Madison, on the other hand, did not care to have the states represented,
or, if so, thought the numbers must be very low, so as to imitate the Roman
Tribunes. âWhen they multiplied,â he argued, âthey divided, were weak, and
ceased to be that Guard to the people which was expected in their institution.â
Dickinson responded in two ways. He argued that â[w]e cannot abandon the
statesâ and reiterated his solar system metaphor. He also replied that if they
used the model of the Tribunes, there would be no logical limit to how small
the Senate should be. Finally, he said that a complete unity of interests was
not desirable. âThe objection is that you attempt to unite distinct Interests,â
he replied to Madison. âI do not consider this an objection, Safety may ď¬‚ow
from this variety of Interests.â156 This system, he explained, âwill produce that
collision between the different authorities which should be wished for in order
to check each other.â157
Thus, although Madison and Dickinson shared the theory of competitive
factions, it is clear that they had different ideas of how they should function.
Although âcollisionâ is a more violent image than we are used to seeing from
Dickinson, it is tempered by his many other comments on the importance of
peaceful deliberation in political process. He saw civic engagement as ideally a
152 Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention, 1: 153, 157.
153 Ibid., 1: 157.
154 William Penn quoted in Schwartz, âA Mixed Multitude,â 39.
155 Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention, 1: 153.
156 Ibid., 1: 158â“59.
157 Ibid., 1: 153. Ultimately, of course, Dickinson was compelled to make the greater compromise
and did so with his proposal of equal representation in the Senate.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 307
cooperative, disinterested, and persuasive endeavor â“ one motivated by a sense
of love and obligation. Dickinson later lamented the development of the Party
System and reiterated his concern for âparticipated happiness.â âI do hope,â
he elaborated, âthat a Disposition to Reconciliation, and mutual Kindness, &
just Attentions will prevail, and that the chief Contest among Us will be, who
shall most strenuously exert himself in doing Good to all. I wish, We were well
rid of the Words Federalists and Republicans as Titles of Opposition.â158
On the other hand, Madisonâ™s hope for the competitive system, as articulated
in Federalist nos. 10 and 56, lay not in the populace possessing republican virtue
enough to engage disinterestedly in policy making but rather in their exercising
sufď¬cient reason to recognize that the welfare of the individual was bound up
with the welfare of the whole, what Tocqueville would later call âself-interest
properly understood.â159 As we have seen, Dickinson suspected reason as the
sole guide for determining the public welfare. He believed that individuals
might well rationalize their motives to pursue ends that would beneď¬t only
themselves rather than the public. He would have been skeptical of the claim
that individual and factional competition alone and with ambition unchecked
could prevent the atomization of the polity. It ultimately could not be a reliable
unifying force.160 As we have seen, he held that individualsâ™ behavior must be
regulated by multiple guides â“ foremost âdivine Goodness,â in concert with a
balanced federal system that encourages a kind of consensus.
Thus, in the American system, neither Rousseauâ™s general will nor Lockeâ™s
majority would prevail; both could lead to democratic despotism. The system
of national federalism included a measure of consensus based on âcontributed
rightsâ that would prevent it. Of course, the decision-making process was
not the pure consensus â“ the âsense of the meeting,â as Friends said, without
voting â“ that Quakers used in their ecclesiastical polity. In a body so large and
diverse as the United States, complete unanimity is never possible and voting
must take place. The representational model that Dickinson proposed based
the general will neither on a majority vote system nor a pure consensus, but
rather a mixture of both. His system is one in which all voices were heard and
all views represented as much as possible. This way, as he put it, the âsense of
158 John Dickinson, untitled document [1802?], Government Documents, Revolutionary and Early
National Period, 1765â“1788, n.d., JDP/LCP.
159 See Beer, To Make a Nation, for example: âFor Madison, although men differed greatly in
their â˜faculties,â™ they all had â˜reasonâ™ sufď¬cient to enable and to entitle them to live a free,
republican lifeâ (365).
160 Dickinson would not have been alone in his concerns on this point. Beer notes that the
shortcomings of this very rational theory were widely recognized at the time and tempered
by the theories of others, such as James Wilson (Dickinsonâ™s former law student), on public
âaffectionsâ that would reconcile citizens to a common interest (To Make a Nation, 363â“77).
Wilsonâ™s theories look much like secular versions of Dickinsonâ™s. Beer notes, for example,
Wilsonâ™s belief in an inward moral âguideâ (366); that âthe heart of the political processâ
for Wilson âwas individual reď¬‚ection and collective deliberationâ (370); and the âdanger of
perfectionismâ that âlurk[ed] in Wilsonâ™s exalted view of social passionâ (367).
308 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
the peopleâ161 as a whole, and the âsense of the statesâ were used to determine
the direction of the polity, rather than merely a count of individual opinions.
âIn this way of proceeding,â he said,
[T]he undoubted sense of every state, collected in the coolest manner, not the sense
of individuals, will be laid before the whole union in congress, and that body will be
enabled with the clearest light that can be afforded every part of it . . . forthwith to
adopt such alterations as are recommended by the general unanimity; by degrees to
devise modes of conciliation upon contradictory propositions.162
America would be protected from the natural aristocracy turning into tyranny,
Fabius explained, by âthe power of the people pervading the proposed sys-
tem, together with the strong confederation of the states, [which] forms an
adequate security against every danger that has been apprehendedâ â“ anarchy,
democratic despotism, or tyranny by a nobility or an executive.163
There were three factors that made Dickinson the natural leader on the sub-
ject of a national-federal government. First, he was one of the few framers, if
not the only one, who had been studying and writing about constitutionalism
since the days of Empire and struggling with how federalism could work under
this model. His colleagues had come of age politically in an era that sought to
destroy a central government; Dickinson, by contrast, had always been con-
cerned with preservation. Second, he was the only delegate who had interests in
both one of the largest states (Pennsylvania) and one of the smallest (Delaware),
thus giving him a unique perspective on the debate. Third, his life in the Quaker
community made him intimately familiar with a workable federal system.164
This model was perhaps the best from which to formulate the solution to the
problem of majority and minority expressions.165 Within this context, then, he
was not as innovative as some have claimed. He was not ârebellingâ against
earlier traditions of hierarchical thought, as American republicans were.166 He
was doing what he recommended to other politicians of the time â“ drawing
on history and experience. There was not, therefore, as some have claimed, an
entire âabsence of positive examplesâ of a federal system.167 As conversant as
Dickinson was with ancient history and philosophy, the Quaker system was a
tangible example close at hand.168
161 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 20.
162 Ibid., 47â“48.
163 Ibid., 6.
164 Beer acknowledges that the origins of the âdelegate convention model of political organizationâ
can be traced back to âcertain Protestant sects.â He does not, however, mention which ones
165 With Dickinsonâ™s close ties to Delaware, it is not likely a coincidence that it was the ď¬rst state
to ratify the Constitution.
166 Beer, To Make a Nation, 22.
167 Greene, Peripheries and Center, 161.
168 J. C. D. Clark in The Language of Liberty, 1660â“1832: Political Discourse and Social Dynam-
ics in the Anglo-American World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) suggests that
Americans might have drawn on the Holy Roman Empire as a model, but anti-Catholicism
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 309
Yet Dickinson did not advocate a Quaker model in its entirety or indiscrim-
inately. When he wrote that â[t]he best Philo[sophy] is drawn from Exper-
iments[;] The best Policy from Experience,â he had the âHoly Experimentâ
in mind.169 He seems to have learned from both the mistakes and the salu-
tary principles and practices of Pennsylvania Quaker government and church.
The Pennsylvania Charter was decidedly unbalanced in favor of the popu-
lar branch, yet the government was controlled by the powerful hand of the
Quaker spiritual aristocracy, which, many inhabitants of Pennsylvania argued,
had become an oligarchy not just of spirit but of wealth. If we remember, in
the controversy over royal government, Dickinson lauded the lop-sided Penn-
sylvania constitution. âOur legislation,â he said, âsuffers no checks, from a
council instituted, in fancied imitation of the House of Lords.â170 But this sys-
tem created a population that was restless under the supervision of the Quaker
church in part, ironically enough, because of the antiauthoritarianism of its
teachings, which in turn necessitated more control from above. In other words,
because the democratic and aristocratic elements of the government converged
in one house, although Pennsylvaniaâ™s government had been stable for decades,
it was increasingly unsteady because there was not a system of real popular
control that had checks and balances. Then when the Pennsylvania Conven-
tion adopted the same governmental structure, but without the Quaker check,
disorder ensued. Nevertheless, at one time, the elements of popular sovereignty
and aristocratic representation were there, and insofar as they worked â“ or had
potential to work â“ Dickinson drew on them.171
âprevented colonists from exploring the federal implications of Roman-law traditions: feder-
alism was not a common topic of American speculation before 1776â (103). If we remember
Dickinsonâ™s thought in the Farmerâ™s Letters, however, speciď¬cally his argument concerning
internal and external taxation (101), we see that he was already working toward this concept.
He revived his old argument in the Constitutional Convention (132).
169 John Dickinson, notes, n.d., Government Documents, Revolutionary and Early National Peri-
ods, 1765â“1788, LCP.
170 Dickinson, A Speech, 16.
171 Also, when considering Dickinsonâ™s concern to control democratic impulses, one should not
make the mistake of assuming that he shared the oligarchic inclinations of some Quakers. With
their privileged position in society, Friends were sometimes willing to engage in heavy-handed
tactics to achieve their theologico-political aims â“ tactics that, while not necessarily illegal,
could involve ď¬‚outing conventions of civil or legal process and honorable behavior. As we
have seen, in England they obstructed the courts by overattention to legal technicalities; and in
Pennsylvania they subverted the governor by petitioning the king in secret, and they imposed
the afď¬rmation on non-Friends in courts rather than the oath. Although Dickinson shared most
of the theologico-political aims, he paid greater heed to civil processes and conventional ethics
than Friends. A notable example of the differences between them was when Dickinson and
Quakers were suing a man for establishing a theater on land Dickinson sold him, in violation
of an agreement to the contrary. In order to prevail, the Quakers encouraged Dickinson to use
his greater wealth either to bribe the defendant or to prolong the trial and win by draining his
opponentâ™s purse. But Dickinson refused to use his wealth and abuse the judicial system in this
way, even though it meant losing this particular battle. A series of letters over the course of
1791 on this matter between Dickinson, Charles Jervis, Henry Hill, and George Read can be
found in Ser. 1. a. Correspondence, 1762â“1808, RRL/HSP.
310 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
When the Constitution was in the process of being ratiď¬ed in 1788, and
when the Quaker 1669 Discipline was instituted, neither the Framers nor the
Quaker leaders sought consensus or complete popular approval. Had they done
so, they knew that no constitution would ever have been implemented. When
Quakers created their ecclesiastical Discipline, some individuals who consid-
ered themselves good Quakers opposed it bitterly. Therefore, after Barclay
wrote his treatise explaining and defending the creation of the Discipline, it
was imposed on the entire body over the objections of some. Likewise, after
the Federalist Papers and the Fabius Letters, as well as other popular appeals
on behalf of the Constitution were published, when it was ratiď¬ed, there was
mixture of persuasion and coercion as Anti-Federalists were made to accept a
framework that seemed to them un-American. The Framers of both constitu-
tions expected that those who disagreed would abstain from obstructionism
and agree to support the new government, regardless of their disapproval. Of
course, such graceful acquiescence was not always forthcoming, and in both
polities, the threat of schism has always lurked where unity was weak.
Conclusion: The Flexible and Perfectible Constitution
Some scholars deny that Dickinson was after a âtheoretical perfectionâ in the
Constitution.172 On the contrary, he did believe that perfection was theoreti-
cally possible. But he was also willing to accept momentary imperfection that
would allow the polity to move forward to its goals. Temporary imperfec-
tion was acceptable and theoretical perfection possible for the same reason.
Dickinson explained the on-going process of constitution making:
If all the wise men of ancient and modern times could be collected together for deliber-
ation on the subject, they could not form a Constitution or system of government that
would not require future improvements. The British government which some persons so
much celebrate is a collection of innovations. There is a continual tide in human affairs,
a progression still towards something better than what is possessed. The unceasing rea-
son has carried man to delightful discoveries, greatly ameliorating his condition. There
are other discoveries yet to be made and perhaps more favorable to his condition.173
The U.S. Constitution was thus designed to be a living, ď¬‚exible document
that would change as the polity matured to reď¬‚ect âthe living Elasticity within
Man.â174 The delegates, he said, ânot only laboured from the best plan they
could, but, provided for making at any time amendments on the authority of the
people, without shaking the stability of the government.â175 Beer calls Edmund
Burke âone of the ď¬rst political thinkers to recommend prudent, gradual, but
continual adaptation and improvement.â176 This attribution is perhaps more
172 Ahern, âThe Spirit of American Constitutionalism,â 57â“76, 75.
173 John Dickinson, notes, n.d., Ser. 1. b. Political, 1774â“1807, n.d., RRL/HSP.
175 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 47.
176 Beer, To Make a Nation, 141.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 311
applicable to Dickinson and other Quakerly thinkers and politicians since the
seventeenth century. Likewise, while Americans in general had ď¬nally come to
see a âdistinction between a constitution and ordinary law,â it had existed for
over a century in Quaker theory and practice.177 âThus, by a gradual process,â
said Dickinson, âwe may from time to time introduce every improvement in
our constitution, that shall be suitable to our situation.â178 He believed that the
United States would eventually be a âperfect bodyâ that âcorresponds with the
gracious intentions of our maker towards us his creations.â179 This idea allows
Americans to continue the on-going process of constitutional âgathering.â The
polity would be, Dickinson explained, âever new, and always the same.â180
177 Rakove, Original Meanings, 130.
178 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 47.
179 Ibid., 45.
180 Ibid., 23.
The Persistence of Quaker Constitutionalism,
In undertaking a study of the origins of ideas and the inď¬‚uence of groups and
individuals on movements and events, deď¬nitive evidence is often difď¬cult to
come by. Moreover, parallel strains of thought often arise from similar sources
and develop independently from one another, allowing individuals moving
in different circles to come to similar conclusions without knowledge of one
another. Unless the historian ď¬nds solid evidence, such as well-used books in
a personal library or that rare explicit statement bestowing credit, much of
the inď¬‚uence must be deduced through the practical expression of a strain of
thought and the ubiquity of the culture it created. It is clear, for example,
that despite the absence of a succinctly articulated theory of civil disobedience
in the early modern period, Quakers were the ď¬rst practitioners of it. By the
late-eighteenth century, this language and tradition was concrete enough that
it could be recognized and explicitly referenced as an example, as Dickinson
did during the Revolution.
To the extent American resistance to Britain remained peaceful, inspired by
Quakerism, Dickinson became the ď¬rst leader of a national peaceful protest
movement, a position that would later be held by Gandhi and Martin Luther
King, Jr. But because until now he has not been recognized as such, we cannot
properly consider him the âfounderâ of this tradition of leadership. He was not
their model; he was merely the ď¬rst. Some might object that this designation is
inaccurate because the cause he led ultimately resulted in war. But we should not
forget that both Gandhiâ™s and Kingâ™s peaceful protests had the same unintended
effect of encouraging violence among their followers. Moreover, although he
did admit the necessity of defensive war in rare cases, and although he ultimately
joined the cause by ď¬ghting, at no point did Dickinson ever advocate war or
revolution for America. And as to the question of going to war compromising
his paciď¬st principles, even Gandhi admitted the necessity of defensive violence
to stop certain kinds of assailants.1 The paciď¬st stance need not be an absolute
1 Namely snipers and rapists. See Mark Juergensmeyer, âNonviolence,â The Encyclopedia of
Religion, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 6645â“49, 6646.
Persistence of Quaker Constitutionalism 313
one, and Dickinsonâ™s happened to be more pragmatic, though no less sincere,
than that of his Quaker brethren.2
But although Dickinson led the peaceful protest against Britain, and it is
clear that he exerted strong and direct inď¬‚uence early in the conď¬‚ict, because
the violence continued to escalate, and the Revolutionary War did eventually
take place, his inď¬‚uence was short-lived and circumscribed. When we consider
that even in the twenty-ď¬rst century, when Quaker dissent and paciď¬sm are
still mistaken for disloyalty to the country, it is not surprising that his paciď¬sm
diminished his reputation considerably and cost him his place in American
history.3 Before the Constitution, Americans were simply not ready â“ and
perhaps had little pragmatic need â“ for peaceful protest. As Josiah Quincy, Jr.,
told Dickinson in 1774, âthose maxims of discipline are not universally known
in this early period of Continental warfare.â4 But this would change.
When Americans came to the understanding that a constitution needs to
be permanent, but changeable through peaceful measures, John Dickinsonâ™s
thought and the Quaker tradition out of which he was writing immediately
became vitally relevant. A political theory such as Whiggism that allows con-
stitutional change through revolution is a ď¬ne idea if a people wants to start
completely anew. But a different approach is needed if the object is to preserve
the fundamental constitution and achieve reform within the existing structure
of government. As Herbert Storing notes, after the Revolution the Federal-
ists became acutely aware of the need for moderation in reforming the new
Republic. Quoting Dickinson to the effect that ââ˜a people does not reform
with moderation,â™â Storing explains that â[i]t is necessary that every precau-
tion be taken not to upset that original patriotic act and to preserve and foster
reverence for the laws, and particularly for the highest law.â5 An anonymous
newspaper article occasioned by the Whiskey Rebellion, found among Dickin-
sonâ™s papers, proclaimed:
If our Constitution should prove either deď¬cient or oppressive, it contains within itself
the seeds of its own reformation; if laws are either impolitic or unjust, a complaint
2 See Jane E. Calvert, âPaciď¬sm,â in Gary L. Anderson and Kathryn G. Herr, eds., The Encyclope-
dia of Activism and Social Justice (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2007), 3: 1075â“78.
3 Shortly after September 11, 2001, but before the commencement of the Iraq War, the govern-
ment began illegal surveillance of Quaker meetings, individuals, and organizations in various
parts of the country for their peaceful protest activities. See American Civil Liberties Union,
âACLU of Colorado Seeks to Close Denver Police â˜Spy Filesâ™ on Peaceful Protesters, Includ-
ing Quakers and 73-Year-Old Nun,â March 28, 2002, http://www.aclu.org/freespeech/protest/
11056prs20020328.html. Accessed February 19, 2008. For later reports in addition to those
from the ACLU, see, for example, Lisa Myers, Douglas Pasternak, Rich Gardella, and the
NBC Investigative Unit, âIs the Pentagon spying on Americans? Secret database obtained by
NBC News tracks â˜suspiciousâ™ domestic groups,â December 14, 2005. http://www.msnbc.msn.
com/id/10454316/. Accessed January 12, 2008.
4 Josiah Quincy, Jr., to John Dickinson, August 20, 1774, Ser. 1. a. Correspondence, 1762â“1808,
5 Herbert J. Storing, What the Anti-Federalists Were For (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
314 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
of our grievances or change of our representation, open the path to every desirable
amendment. In countries where the interest and authority of government are distinct
and independent from the interests and will of the people, insurrection may have been
ranked among the most sacred of duties; in ours who can hesitate to regard it as the
most pernicious of crimes?6
Thomas Jeffersonâ™s theory that âa little rebellion now and then is a good thingâ
was quickly becoming obsolete.7 Indeed, Paul Douglas Newmanâ™s work on the
1798â“99 Friesâ™s Rebellion, with its peaceful, constitutional protest, indicates
that there was an important change in attitude and behavior that was due in
large part to Quaker inď¬‚uence.8
Despite Dickinsonâ™s considerable presence at the Constitutional Convention,
it is difď¬cult to ascertain the inď¬‚uence of his Quakerism on the proceedings.
By this time, many of the delegates had similar ideas. About the concept of the
perpetual and amendable constitution, for example, one can only argue that
the idea originally developed in Quaker thought. That it came to be expressed
by other Americans at the Founding may or may not have been coincidental.
With a few exceptions, such as his original proposal for state and national
representation, Dickinsonâ™s role may only have been to reinforce and encourage
the direction to which his countrymen were already inclined. Because illness
took him from the Convention early, we cannot know what more he might
Quaker Inď¬‚uence beyond the Founding
Whereas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries hard evidence of direct
Quaker inď¬‚uence on the polity is limited, in the nineteenth century it is abun-
dant. Despite their claims of rejecting politics, not only did Quakers themselves
step to the fore on the national scene to advocate their traditional causes, but
there also appeared explicit statements by non-Friends of how Quakers and
Quakerism shaped their thought and action. In fact, in signiď¬cant ways, Quak-
ers became more, not less, political after their withdrawals from politics in
1756 and 1776: Where early on their stated cause had been spiritual equality
of the poor, women, blacks, and other oppressed groups, it had now evolved
6 Ser. 1. b. Political, 1774â“1807, n.d., RRL/HSP. The language and message are indicative enough
of his writings that we have reason to suspect his authorship. The clipping included no title or
indication of the paper in which it was published.
7 Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, January 30, 1787, in Julian P. Boyd and Barbara B. Oberg,
et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001),
29: 280. This is not to say that violence as a tool for change was no longer used. We know
that it has been used even through the twentieth century, but now, few would justify it. One
might also argue that the Civil War complicates this conclusion. Certainly it demonstrates that
the question of unity and how to dissent was not unanimous (if it ever has been) until after
the mid-nineteenth century. But we must remember that although revolution of a sort and
separation seemed acceptable to half the country, the other half disagreed. And the view of the
8 Paul Douglas Newman, Friesâ™s Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).
Persistence of Quaker Constitutionalism 315
into a conscious struggle for civil equality for these same groups. Quakers were
the founders and among the most active leaders of the movements for civil
rights in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.9
Not only were Quakers continuing their grassroots activism with renewed
fervor, their efforts were facilitated and their inď¬‚uence deepened by a new pub-
lic image. By the early nineteenth century, the public had forgotten their ranting
enthusiasm of the seventeenth century, and even the memory of their alleged
Loyalism in the Revolution had faded considerably. Much to the contrary, a
new image of the virtuous Quaker began to take a wide hold. Their moral
uprightness was interpreted by some as priggishness, and jokes and cartoons
surfaced that poked fun at Quakersâ™ rigidity and linguistic idiosyncrasies, not
to mention their religious dilemma in the Civil War. By most, however, the
Quaker was now seen as a paragon of virtue. As the language of republicanism
became diffuse through the new nation, Americans came around to the French
understanding of Friends as representing all that republican citizens ought to
be â“ simple and plain, frugal, industrious, trustworthy, honest, concerned with
the rights of man, and patriotic. One might look to the popular literature of the
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to see the American fascination with
Friends. It is replete with Quaker intonations such as âThe Quaker Settlementâ
in Harriet Beecher Stoweâ™s Uncle Tomâ™s Cabin, Meg as pretty as a Quakeress in
Louisa May Alcottâ™s Little Women (1869), Melvilleâ™s Nantucket Quakers in
Moby Dick (1851), and characters such as Old Broadbrim and Young Broad-
brim in the dime detective novels at the turn of the century.10 By the time
of the Civil War, Quakers were once again used as a barometer, not, this
time, to gauge popular sentiment so much as to indicate the righteousness
of the Northern cause. As the âNew Quaker Bonnetâ indicates, Americans
had come to recognize â“ at least intuitively â“ that the Quakersâ™ twin concerns
were liberty and union (Figure 9). Far from being subversive of government, in
the popular mind, they now represented the core values of American political
Another powerful indicator of the American fascination with Quakerism
is found in commerce and popular culture. Since the Quakersâ™ ascent into
respectability, Americans have capitalized on their name and image, using
it to sell everything imaginable: clothing of all sorts, ď¬reď¬ghtersâ™ protective
9 Lest one is inclined to associate Quaker activism too closely and simply with modern liberal
social activism, Howell John Harris has offered a caution in âWar in the Social Order: The
Great War and the Liberalization of American Quakerism,â in David K. Adams and Cornelis A.
Van Minnen, eds., Religious and Secular Reform in America: Ideas, Belief, and Social Change
(New York: New York University Press, 1999), 179â“203.
10 For more instances of Quakers in popular literature, see Anna Breiner Caulď¬eld, Quakers in
Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography (Northhampton, MA: Pittenbruach Press, 1993).
11 The Quaker image was hardly as uncomplicated as I have represented it here. Not surprisingly,
because of their peace testimony, their advocacy of the Northern cause and participation in
the war was problematic and heavily qualiď¬ed. This led to substantial public ridicule by non-
Quakers. For a rich discussion of the Quaker image in the popular mind that deals with this and
other topics, see Jennifer Connerley, âFriendly Americans: Representing Quakers in the United
States, 1850â“1920â (Ph.D. Thesis, University of North Carolina, 2006).
316 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
figure 9. âThe New Quaker Bonnet, 1861.â Covers such as this were sent through
the mail as envelopes or postcards during the Civil War era. A similar image is also
represented by Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier in âBarbara Frietchie.â After Fri-
etchie protects the American ď¬‚ag from Confederate invaders, he writes, âOver Barbara
Frietchieâ™s grave,/ Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!/ Peace and order and beauty draw/
Round thy symbol of light and law[.]â
figure 10. Old Quaker Whiskey label, n.d. No doubt related to this brand is âAn Old
Quaker â˜Healthâ™: Hereâ™s to thee and thy folks/ From me and my folks./ Sure there never
was folks,/ Since folks was folks,/ Ever loved any folks,/ Half as much as me and my
folks,/ Love thee and thy folksâ (postcard, 1910). One must suspect that the irony on
the part of the Schenley Corporation and this health was intentional, considering the
close association of Quakers with the temperance movement.
Persistence of Quaker Constitutionalism 317
figure 11. Hart Brand Little Quaker Wax Beans can label, n.d.
gear, table cloths, silver, heaters, canned vegetables, insurance, beer, doors
and windows, cornmeal, rubber, Coca-Cola, pottery and tableware, pens, wall
paper, bird calls, brake ď¬‚uid, macaroni, cocoa, anti-freeze, scissors, model
airplanes, cooking ranges, birdseed, rugs, pet food, bitters, postcards, oil and
grease, milk, safety matches, bread, handbags, knives, coffee, and chili powder,
among other things. Of course, the best-known Quaker logo is the Quaker
Oats man, the very picture of the honest and trustworthy citizen, framed, of
course, in red, white, and blue.12 And then there are less wholesome products,
such as cigars and whiskey. Some of these items bear the image of a steady
âOld Quakerâ or an innocent and blushing âQuaker maidâ (Figures 10â“13).
âPureâ and âhonestâ are adjectives that often accompany the images, as seen
in the advertisements for Little Quaker Wax Beans and Armstrongâ™s Quaker
Rugs (Figures 11 and 12). There are also plays, a ď¬‚ower, a color, a moth,
restaurants, popular songs, âsilent guns,â13 and a breed of parakeet that carry
the name of Quaker. No other religious group has held such a sway over the
national imagination. Although this fascination has waned considerably since
the mid-twentieth century, there are still vestiges of an idea of Quakerly purity.
The rock band the Red Hot Chili Peppers depicts this purity sullied with
their lyrics, âPushing dirt into a Quaker.â14 And a Quaker Oats television
commercial shows a statue of an eighteenth-century Quaker with a tray of
presumably wholesome granola bars, accompanying children to school and
12 It is interesting to note that Quakers themselves were profoundly unhappy with their name and
image being represented and used in this way. In 1910 they sued the Quaker Oats Company
and lost. See ibid. on the Quakersâ™ frustration with the use of their image (226â“27).
13 âQuaker Gunsâ were logs painted to look like canons that the Confederate Army used in the
Civil War to give the impression of a strongly fortiď¬ed position. See Jane Chapman Whitt,
Elephants and Quaker Guns . . . A History of Civil War and Circus Days (New York: Vantage
14 Red Hot Chili Peppers (Michael Balzary. John Fruscianti, Anthony Kiedis, Chad Smith), âWe
Believe,â Stadium Arcadium Disc 2: Mars (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Records, Inc., 2006).
318 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
figure 12. Armstrongâ™s Quaker Rugs advertisement. (The Saturday Evening Post,
1934.) Used with permission from Armstrong World Industries, Inc.
Persistence of Quaker Constitutionalism 319
figure 13. Quaker Cigar label, n.d.
play while singing a jolly tune. On the other hand, today many people think
Quakers live in Utah and build nice furniture.15
The main difď¬culty in dealing with Quakerism from the nineteenth century
forward is not lack of evidence of their inď¬‚uence on American popular and
political culture, but rather, because of an event in Quaker history known as
the Hicksite Separation of 1827â“29, exactly what the range and quality of that
inď¬‚uence was.16 Before this, Quakerism, while not homogenous, had at least
been able to strike that delicate balance between unity and dissent; or, if the
balance was off, the dissent was never strong enough to challenge the unity
seriously or permanently, and the Society remained whole. The Separation was
the loss of this balance.
The remaining pages will touch on the thought of a few of the most inď¬‚u-
ential Quaker reformers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with an
overview of some of the changes and continuities in political or âcivilâ Quak-
erism.17 To unravel the complexities of modern Quakerism and its inď¬‚uences
15 Dickinson, when remembered, has not fared as well in contemporary popular culture. He serves
mainly as foil to John Adams in the Broadway musical and ď¬lm 1776 (1969, 1972). More
recently he has appeared in cartoon form on PBSâ™s Libertyâ™s Kids and on Comedy Centralâ™s
South Park as a âsoft pussy [war] protesterâ (Episode 701: âIâ™m a Little Bit Country,â April 9,
2003). Most recently, he is cast as the villain opposite hero John Adams in the HBO mini-series
based on David McCulloughâ™s biography, John Adams (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001).
16 The two works that form a pair in dealing with this topic are H. Larry Ingle, Quakers in Conď¬‚ict:
The Hicksite Reformation (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986); and Hamm, The
Transformation of American Quakerism.
17 Once again, I am intentionally neglecting mention of the myriad Quaker reform organizations
that existed during these periods. As in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they were
established or maintained for giving aid to various unfortunate and disenfranchised groups,
such as blacks, alcoholics, women, Indians, and the poor. In addition to carrying on many
320 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
on American culture would require at least another book and certainly more to
follow the various threads to their conclusions. With this epilogue, therefore,
I hope only to give a sense of the import of Quakerism for modern American
political culture and suggest further avenues for thought.
The Transformation of Quaker Political Thought in Antebellum America
In 1764 Quaker minister George Churchman proclaimed, âLet none neither
male nor female be discouraged, who may feel an engagement for Israelâ™s
welfare: Let not your Lights be hidden under any bed of ease, nor under
Mammonâ™s bushel, but let them be set up on the candlestick in sight of your
neighbors, that others may be thereby incited to look at their own indolence.â18
Lucretia Mott, prominent womenâ™s rights advocate and abolitionist, answered
Churchmanâ™s call eighty-six years later when she preached, â[L]et our lights
so shine that men may see our good works and glorify our father which is in
But Mott and many other Quaker reformers of this age had a different
understanding of the Light, as well as many other theological principles, than
did Churchman.20 The activism of Quakers is usually at least mentioned by
historians of Antebellum reform movements, but an in-depth treatment is often
lacking. Although scholars have explored the lives and works of ď¬gures such
as Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and fellow travelers such as William
Lloyd Garrison and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, few have analyzed the theologico-
political philosophy that drove them into the public sphere and conditioned
their mode of civic engagement.21 Likewise, there is little mention in the
literature of the fact that the inspiration for the Seneca Falls Convention grew
from the Junius Friends Meeting in New York.22
of these concerns, they also organized to face new ones such as the Vietnam and Gulf Wars,
nuclear proliferation, environmental issues, and the death penalty.
18 Journal of George Churchman, 1764, 2: 46, HQC.
19 Lucretia Mott, âKeep yourselves from Idols,â in Dana Greene, ed., Lucretia Mott: Her Complete
Sermons and Speeches (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1980), 178â“79.
20 The following argument challenges conventional interpretations of Quaker history that agrees
with Mott and ď¬nds that her Quakerism corresponded with that of earlier Friends. See Margaret
Hope Bacon, Valiant Friend: The Life of Lucretia Mott (New York: Walker and Company,
21 See, for example, Nancy A. Hewitt, Womenâ™s Activism and Social Change: Rochester, New
York, 1822â“1872 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984); and Zigler, Advocates of Peace
in Antebellum America. Exceptions include Thomas D. Hamm, Godâ™s Government Begun:
The Society for Universal Inquiry and Reform, 1842â“1846 (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1995); and Nancy Isenberg, âPillars in the Same Temple.â Likewise, Anna M. Speicher