. 7
( 12)


to France as an ambassador for the American colonies in the 1770s, Franklin
presented himself as a Quaker.41 Designing to reap the advantages of the French
obsession with Quakerism and their association of it with republican virtue,
Franklin dressed in the plain Quaker costume, adopted the grave simplicity
of Quaker manners (only to the extent that it would amuse the French court,
that is), and made no efforts to correct misperceptions that he was not a
member of the Society. “This Quaker wears the full costume of his sect,”
proclaimed one Frenchman.42 With this sort of blatant manipulation of the
Quaker image, Franklin was not beloved among Friends. It was he, partnered
with Joseph Galloway, who would lead the Assembly into the controversy over
royal government.
Yet even as Quaker-informed politics was splitting into the extremes of
withdrawal and radicalism, we can see the persistence of a traditional strain of
thought and behavior. There were a few men, who, although not necessarily
formally af¬liated with the Quaker religious Society, represented the historic
Quaker cause more than many of their own members. The most important of
these men for the next several decades was John Dickinson.

John Dickinson™s Quaker Connections
Although John Dickinson was never a convinced member of the Society of
Friends, he was what Quakers call a “fellow traveler.” With both parents being
Friends in good standing, he was born a “birthright Quaker” in 1732 and raised
in a Quaker household. Although his father™s relationship to the Society became
remote, he was never disowned. His mother continued a devout Quaker her
whole life. Dickinson himself was always very aware of and interested in his
family heritage.43 In 1770 he married into one of the most prominent Quaker
families in the colonies. His wife, Mary (Polly) Norris, was the daughter of

41 Franklin™s Quaker persona in France is well-known. See, most recently, Gordon Wood, The
Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Penguin, 2004), 180, 181. Also see Alfred
Owen Aldridge, Franklin and His Contemporaries (New York: New York University Press,
1957), 59“60; Verner W. Crane, Benjamin Franklin and a Rising People (Boston: Little, Brown,
1954), 174; David Schoenbrun, Triumph in Paris: The Exploits of Benjamin Franklin (New
York: Harper & Row, 1976), 95.
42 Edward Everett Hale, Franklin in France (Boston: Roberts Bros., 1887“88), 90.
43 Flower, John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary, 1.
190 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

Isaac Norris, Jr., and was herself a paragon of Quaker virtue. Dickinson™s entire
immediate family, his wife and two daughters, were much stricter Quakers than
his parents had been.44
In his younger days, Dickinson™s Quaker leanings were not as apparent or
as fully developed as they would become in his later years. As a young man, he
refused any af¬liation with the Society of Friends, including marrying “under
the care of the meeting,” as Quaker Discipline dictated. His stubbornness on
this point occasioned a rift between him and his bride-to-be that illuminates his
thoughts about religion at the time. In a letter to his future sister-in-law, Dickin-
son spelled out his reasons for resisting the supervision of Friends and his views
on organized religion. At ¬rst, he seemed to have a dislike of Quakerism in par-
ticular, writing that Mary “has been brought up, I fear, with such a Veneration
for the Society of Friends, as teaches one to revere all its Rules as equally invi-
olable.” Dickinson was troubled by his conviction that Mary™s judgment had
been skewed by not thinking for herself and rather, that “by always conversing
with people who think & speak in one way,” she had become complacent “
and, in effect, brainwashed “ by having “the same sentiments perpetually
repeated to [her], & therefore believe[ing] them to be universally right.” But as
he explained his views further, it became clear that Dickinson was not objecting
to the principles of Friends per se, but rather to conducting one™s life accord-
ing the “the Rules of a private Society” instead of a general understanding of
“Virtue & Honor.” “[I]f an Act is not contrary to the Laws of Virtue or of our
Country,” he asked, “can any Rule of a particular Society, however positive it
may be, make that act improper or dishonourable?” Therefore, he reasoned, a
civil marriage should be suf¬cient to satisfy Mary™s sense of propriety. “Let her
only determine to consider,” Dickinson pleaded to her sister, “the Reason of
any opinions inculcated by Education, and she will distinguish between those
essential to Virtue & Piety, and those merely arbitrary & derived only from
Rules of private Men.”45 Perhaps it was this argument to reject the “rules of
men” in favor of a higher understanding of moral law gained from one™s own
or collective understanding “ very Quakerly itself “ that convinced Mary. She
and John were eventually married in a civil ceremony (but with a Quaker-style
marriage certi¬cate46 ), for which she was disowned by her meeting. Not much
later, however, Mary returned to her meeting and was reinstated after she for-
mally apologized for her transgression from the Discipline.47 From that point
she remained a member in good standing.
But Dickinson™s sympathy with Quakerism would emerge clearly over the
years as he, according to one observer, “became much more of a Friend than

44 Ibid., 148.
45 Draft of letter from John Dickinson to Sarah (Sally) Norris [1769], Ser. I. a. Correspondence,
1762“1808, RRL/HSP.
46 In the Maria Dickinson Logan Collection, HSP.
47 Philadelphia Monthly Meeting Minutes, 12th mo, 28th day 1770, FHL.
Political Schism and Rise of John Dickinson 191

formerly.”48 There was an evident progression in his thought and behavior
from someone who functioned on the spiritual outskirts of the Society of
Friends to a man who embraced Quakerism in almost every aspect of his
life. So much of a Friend did he become that by 1789 a family acquaintance
suspected that he would not approve of a non-Quaker husband for his daugh-
ter.49 Not surprisingly, the turning point in his adherence to Quakerism seems
to have been at the Revolution. Before the Revolution, for example, he saw a
clear distinction between religion and politics, writing, “Religion and Govern-
ment are certainly very different Things, instituted for different Ends” and they
should be “kept distinct and apart.”50 After the war, and what must have been
a traumatic time personally and professionally, he gradually accepted more
Quaker tenets until he was among the most serious and publicly demonstra-
tive among Friends. This in itself is telling, since, as we shall see, it was his
Quakerism that caused much of his travail during this period. Nevertheless, he
wrote after the Revolution that “[t]here is a Relation between the Principles of
Religion and the Principles of Civil Society.”51
Those unfamiliar with Quakerism ¬nd the idea of an “attender” or “fellow
traveler” a perplexing one, and this lack of understanding of Quaker culture has
occasioned much confusion on the part of scholars about Dickinson™s religious
proclivities, namely, whether he was a member of the Society of Friends.52 He
was not. He never joined the Quaker meeting. In 1807 he wrote to Reverend
Samuel Miller, “I am not, and probably never shall be united to any religious
Society, because each of them as a Society, hold principles which I cannot
What is important in de¬ning Dickinson™s religion is that, unlike most reli-
gious groups, Quakers had a very ¬‚uid community in which individuals were
accepted into their midst or rejected based on their behavior and beliefs more
than their of¬cial status as recorded members. Friends and their friends moved
constantly between grace and disgrace, and the line between who was and who

48 Susanna Dillwyn to her father, September 20, 1789, quoted in Flower, John Dickinson, Con-
servative Revolutionary, 273.
49 Ibid.
50 Dickinson writing as “A. B.” Pennsylvania Journal, May 12, 1768.
51 John Dickinson, notes on government, n.d., Ser. I. b. Political, 1774“1807, n.d., RRL/HSP.
52 Quakers and non-Quakers alike have perpetuated the myth of Dickinson as a convinced Friend
for centuries. His contemporaries, including John Adams and Benjamin Rush, believed him to
be a Friend. See Bernard Knollenberg, “John Dickinson vs. John Adams,” 107; and Benjamin
Rush to John Armstrong, March 19, 1783, in L. H. Butter¬eld, ed., The Letters of Benjamin
Rush (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951), 1: 294“97. One of the earliest incidents
of this mistake appearing in the historiography is in William Wade Hinshaw The Encyclopedia
of American Quaker Genealogy (Ann Arbor, MI: Edwards Brothers, Inc, 1938), 505. Isaac
Sharpless names him among the Quaker politicians in Political Leaders, 224“43. Bernhard
Knollenberg corrects this misperception in “John Dickinson vs. John Adams,” 142.
53 John Dickinson to Samuel Miller, 8th mo. 10th day 1807, Ser I. a. Correspondence, 1762“1808,
192 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

was not a Quaker was decidedly blurry. James Bringhurst expressed a com-
mon understanding among Friends: “I am not for con¬ning [all real Christian
followers] within the limits of our Society[,] believing they are amongst vari-
ous religious societies who endeavour to act consistent with all the knowledge
receiv™d and so far I believe are right.”54 There was a formal membership pro-
cedure, but beyond that, there were no rituals performed on a daily basis that
demarcated members from attenders of the meeting. When no records exist
about the formal membership application of an individual, we can consult the
minutes of the meeting for business, in which usually only full members were
recorded. There were, however, many people such as Dickinson whose name
never appeared in the minutes, but who were more Quakerly than many con-
vinced members. These people, who adopted most theological tenets, customs,
and principles of the Society without joining, were embraced by Quakers as
one of their own. They were something less than full members, but something
more than merely “ethnic Quakers.” This is the mold into which Dickinson
¬t. True to all fellow travelers, as we shall see, he chose what he liked from
Quakerism and rejected other aspects. For Dickinson, there was one main tenet
he could not accept. As he wrote the year before his death, “I am on all proper
occasions an advocate for the lawfulness of defensive war. This principle has
prevented me from union with Friends.”55 We should note, however, that this
was the same position held by a number of prominent Quakers when Dickin-
son entered Pennsylvania politics, including his father-in-law, Isaac Norris, Jr.,
who was never disowned by the meeting. And the peace testimony, as we have
seen, encompassed much more than simply war. It was a way of moving in the
Without an understanding of the language and practice of Quakerism, it
is dif¬cult to recognize Dickinson™s expression of them in his public political
works, in which he was reserved (one might say politic); but it is hard to over-
look his af¬nity for them in his private writings and personal deportment. His
writings are suffused with religion as an organizing theme and a means for
discerning the way to civil happiness. Although his interest in religion was ecu-
menical, his inclinations were not; they were mainly, though not exclusively,
Quaker. He wrote about “the Light that Lighteth every Man that cometh into
the World”; about being “holy in all manner of conversation”; and he collected
newspapers clippings such as “SOME REMARKS, On SILENT WORSHIP or DEVOTION;
Seriously recommended to mankind universally for their most weighty con-
sideration.” He also demonstrated the unique ability of Quaker thinkers to
combine an abiding piety with a fascination with and promotion of scien-
ti¬c enquiry. His essay A Fragment, published for “the religious instruction

54 James Bringhurst to Jeremiah Wadsworth, 1st mo. 21st day 1801, Bringhurst Letters, FHL.
55 John Dickinson to Tench Coxe, January 24, 1807, quoted in Flower, John Dickinson, Conser-
vative Revolutionary, 301.
Political Schism and Rise of John Dickinson 193

of youth,” was steeped not only in Quakerly language but used religion to
explain the latest and most important scienti¬c principles.56
Over the years his outward behavior changed as well to mirror that of hon-
ored Friends, such as Anthony Benezet and the Pembertons. He adopted the
testimony of plainness, including in his speech “ using “thee” and “thou,”
taking an af¬rmation instead of an oath when he assumed the presidencies
of Delaware and Pennsylvania, and using the traditional Quaker practice of
naming the days and months by number “ and thereby made a public statement
of his af¬liation.57 James Bringhurst observed in 1799 that “he has now taken
up the cross so far as to use the plain language to all people & is diligent in
attending our religious Meetings for worship.”58 Indeed, Dickinson believed
that although “Christianity is an active, affectionate, & social Religion,” in
order to ful¬ll our “Duties to our fellow creatures[, i]t therefore requires sep-
aration from them, tho enjoining ˜that we be not conformable to the vain
fashions & Usages of the World [Rom. 12.2.].™” Dickinson worried, however,
that some Friends might have taken these testimonies too far: “In following
[the testimonies],” he cautioned, “the utmost Attention is necessary, least dis-
tinction from others by plainness of Manners & Customs assume the place of
Virtues, and become snares.” Others too had made this criticism of Quakers
throughout the decades. Yet he ultimately believed that Quaker testimonies
“may be exceedingly bene¬cial, by promoting ˜moderation™ in ourselves and
others, & especially in young persons.”59
In addition to adopting the testimonies and attending meeting several times
a week, he also assumed many of the main Quaker causes as his own, such
as abolitionism, prison reform, education, and opposition to the establishment
of theaters. For example, his “desire to prevent a continuance of slavery” was
strong enough that in 1777 he provided for the manumission of his slaves.
Recollecting the occasion, a witness noted that “his conviction of duty, on this
subject, was so strong, that it seemed to him ˜The recording Angel stood ready
to make Record against him in Heaven, had he neglected it.™”60 Bringhurst
hoped that in this regard Dickinson would undertake “an exertion of his Tal-
ents & in¬‚uence with others in high places in the World, such as General
Washington, etc. who yet hold the black people as Slaves, as his own exam-
ple would preach loudly to them.”61 And, indeed, as president of Delaware,

56 John Dickinson, manuscript notes for A Fragment (1796), Ser. I. e. Miscellaneous, 1761“1804,
n.d., RRL/HSP.
57 Flower, John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary, 200“01.
58 James Bringhurst to Thomas Pole, 26th of the 7th mo, 1799; and to Elizabeth Coggeshall, 8th
of the 10th mo. 1799. Bringhurst Letters, FHL.
59 John Dickinson, religious notes, n.d., Ser. I. e. Miscellaneous, 1761“1804, n.d. RRL/HSP. The
crossed out portion is Dickinson™s mistaken addition to Romans 12. 2. The language is typical
of what is found in Quaker journals of the period.
60 John Dickinson, May 12, 1777, Ser. I. e. Miscellaneous, 1761“1804, n.d., RRL/HSP.
61 James Bringhurst to Thomas Pole, 26th of the 7th mo, 1799. Bringhurst Letters, FHL.
194 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

Dickinson drafted a bill for the gradual emancipation of slaves, and he protested
it more vehemently than others in the Constitutional Convention.62 Prominent
Friend Warner Mif¬‚in wrote approvingly to Dickinson in 1786, praising his
testimony of plainness and af¬rming the Quaker belief that it is more impor-
tant to act like a Quaker than to become one in name: “in as much as thou
hast been favoured to do so much toward unfettering thy self from the delusive
entanglements of Temporal and Uncertain Riches, may thou be strengthened
and encouraged, (I don™t mean to come to bear the name of a Quaker[;] this
the least of my concern for thee).”63 There were, of course, still some Friends
who wistfully imagined what “a vigilant advancer of [Quaker causes] into
execution” Dickinson would be “[i]f thou wast became a member of [the]
By the end of his life, Dickinson had begun to proselytize in the style “ that
is to say, cordially but ¬rmly “ of the most devout Quakers of his time such
as George Churchman, Robert Pleasants, and James Bringhurst, who implored
powerful ¬gures including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Patrick
Henry to adopt Quaker concerns as an example to others. In an 1801 letter to
Thomas Jefferson, for example, Dickinson wrote, “My Belief is unhesitating,
that by his superintending Providence a Period greatly favorable is commencing
in the destiny of the Human Race. That he may be pleased to honor thee as
an Instrument for advancing his gracious purpose and that he may be thy
Guide and Protector, is the ardent wish . . . of thy affectionate Friend.”65 When
Dickinson died in 1808, he was buried in the cemetery of Wilmington Friends
In discussing Dickinson™s political thought, there is no argument here that
he adhered strictly to all tenets of traditional religious or political Quakerism,

62 John Dickinson, “An Act for the gradual Abolition of Slavery,” Logan Papers, n.d., vol. 30,
63 Warner Mif¬‚in to John Dickinson, 8th mo. 11th day 1786, Ser. I. a. Correspondence, 1762“
1808, RRL/HSP.
64 Ann Emlen, Jr., to John Dickinson, December 21, 1787, quoted in Sharpless, Political Leaders,
65 John Dickinson to Thomas Jefferson, 21st of the 2nd mo., 1801, Ser. I. a. Correspondence,
1762“1808, RRL/HSP.
66 The work that describes Dickinson™s Quaker connections most thoroughly and begins to make
a case for the interpretation of his political thought as part of his Friendly beliefs is Frederick
Tolles™s “John Dickinson and the Quakers,” 67“88. Although many cite the importance of
Quakerism in Dickinson™s life, says Tolles, “no one has ever tried to say with exactness just
what that Quaker in¬‚uence was or just how it expressed itself in his thought and action” (67).
Tolles has made the best attempt to date to assess this in¬‚uence, and my interpretation agrees
with his; nevertheless, he did not venture to explore the deeper meaning of Quaker political
thought that animated Dickinson™s intellect. Only a few historians have followed in this vein “
of identifying Dickinson™s Quakerism but they too neglect analysis. In his Pamphlets of the
American Revolution, 1750“1776. vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA: The Belkap Press of Harvard Uni-
versity, 1965), Bernard Bailyn cites Tolles, agreeing with him about the in¬‚uence of Quakerism
on Dickinson™s thought, but then proceeds to analyze it strictly in terms of Whig republicanism
Political Schism and Rise of John Dickinson 195

especially in his early years. He was indeed “too large a man to be bound in
his opinions by [Quaker] practices.”67 Likewise, many of his beliefs toward
the end of his life were commensurate with those of the other Founders and
not uniquely Quaker. There are, however, a number of principles and concerns
he espoused that were found almost exclusively among Friends. But as much
as the speci¬c doctrines he held, what makes his political theory Quaker are
the processes and methods he advocated and practiced. In most instances, even
when he appeared to be spiritually distant from Friends, he nevertheless held to
a traditional mode of Quaker political theory and practice that he had imbibed
from the culture around him. During the 1760s, he would step to the fore of
Pennsylvania and then national politics to become the Quakers™ most visible
spokesman for their political principles.

The Campaign for Royal Government
Since 1757 a controversy had been brewing between the Assembly and the
Proprietary, one which would for the ¬rst time accentuate the three strains of
Quaker-informed politics in Pennsylvania. Known as the campaign for royal
government, for many reasons, this controversy would become more extreme
than previous disputes.68 Antagonism between the Proprietary and the Assem-
bly had always been present and growing, especially in the late 1750s as defense
and ¬nance issues became more pressing. The immediate issue concerned the
Assembly™s contention that Thomas Penn™s land should be taxed and that
he should share the burden of the public revenue. Governor Andrew Hamil-
ton insisted that he would approve no laws to that effect except by royal
order. Meanwhile Penn, resentful of the Assembly™s control of the provincial
purse, instructed Hamilton to interfere with the Assembly™s power to raise
funds through taxes and interest on loans until the governor received a veto
power over their expenditure of money. With its source of income gone, the
Assembly™s existing funds dried up quickly, and by 1763, Penn thought it
would simply acquiesce to his demands. But it did not. Instead it launched
its most vehement attack against the proprietor in Pennsylvania history. The
Assembly™s goal became not just to subvert the authority of the governor and
manipulate the proprietor as in the past. This time it sought to overthrow
the government entirely, abolish their charter, and replace them both with a
royal government. The matter ultimately turned on a question that would come

67 Still´ and Ford, Life and Writings, 1: 304.
68 For the sake of focusing on the issue of constitutionalism and Dickinson™s philosophy, what
follows is a simpli¬cation of this episode in Pennsylvania history. The complexities of motive
and action in both the Assembly and the electorate have been addressed in detail elsewhere. See
James H. Hutson, “The Campaign to Make Pennsylvania a Royal Province, 1764“1770, Part I,”
PMHB vol. 94 (1970), 427“63; Hutson, Pennsylvania Politics; Marietta, The Reformation of
American Quakerism; David L. Jacobson, “John Dickinson™s Fight against Royal Government,
1964,” WMQ 3rd ser., vol. 19, no. 1 (1962), 64“85, 64.
196 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

to the fore again during the Revolution “ which constitution should Quakers
privilege? Their local provincial constitution, or the Imperial British one?
Popular sentiment against the campaign and Quakerism, fueled in part by the
Paxton incident, quickly heated up.69 “Nothing else than a King™s government
will now suit the stomach of a Quaker politician,” wrote an opponent of it.
This author seems to have a fairly clear vision of the new radicalism of the
Quaker Party:
Not that you love his Majesty neither . . . many who now push for a King™s government,
have never paid a farthing of a tax for the King™s use . . . But whether it proceeds from
a love to his Majesty, from a hatred of the Proprietor, from some hopes of keeping the
people under a Quaker-yoke for ever by this scheme, or from a desire to throw down
the whole fabric together, if you must fall, “ whatever the motive, “ you are determined
on having a King™s government.70

Other writers came out in defense of the plan. “The Quakers, when they found
Life, Liberty and Property were no longer secure under a P”“y Government,
did, from a perfect Con¬dence in their Sovereign, unite in petitioning for a
Royal Government.”71 What neither side recognized was that the Society of
Friends was not the originator of the campaign nor were most individual
Friends proponents of it.
The campaign for royal government was, in fact, a signi¬cant departure from
traditional Quaker political practice. At times when situations were tense, the
idea of resorting to a royal government had been bantered about, but it was
essentially empty talk. Friends had never seriously entertained the possibility of
putting their fate into royal hands. On the contrary, for example, when word
got out that Penn, in his frustration with the Assembly in 1704, was considering
selling Pennsylvania to the crown, the idea was met with opposition from
the Assembly.72 Likewise, when later proprietary governors had ambitions
toward a royal governorship in Pennsylvania, Quakers resisted.73 They were
afraid of losing their privileges under the crown, but it was more than that.
The extent of Quaker resistance had always remained within the bounds of
their own constitution. They con¬dently denied their proprietor his rights,
evaded royal commands, and petitioned for the removal of their governors.74
But it was not within their purview either ideologically or constitutionally to
overthrow their entire government. Despite this tradition of privileging their

69 See Beeman, Varieties of Political Experience, 241“42.
70 Williamson, The Plain Dealer, 9“10.
71 An Address to the Rev. Alison, the Rev. Mr. Ewing, and others, Trustees of the Corporation
for the Relief of Presbyterian Ministers, their Widows and Children: Being a Vindication of
the Quakers from the Aspersions of the said Trustees in their Letter published in the London
Chronicle, No. 1223, By a Lover of Truth (Philadelphia, 1765), 15.
72 See PWP, 4: 257, 381.
73 Tully, Forming American Politics, 260“61.
74 They attempted this most recently in 1742 and in 1755 Isaac Norris wrote in his letterbook that
“nothing will unite ye different Branches of ye Legislature but a removal of [Governor Robert
Hunter Morris].” Isaac Norris Letterbook, Nov. 27, 1755, 93, HSP.
Political Schism and Rise of John Dickinson 197

local constitution, in the 1740s with Kinsey™s extreme politics, Richard Peters
could write prophetically: “It is my sincere opinion that the managers of the
Opposition wou™d resign their All than give up their Power, & wou™d rather
see the Governmt. in the Hands of the Crown than the Pro[prietors]. And
on the other hand some People would rather give up the Constitution than
have the Quakers in the Legislation.”75 In one stroke, Peters predicted the two
biggest events in late-eighteenth century Pennsylvania constitutional history “
the move for a royal government in 1764 and the abolishment of the Charter
of Privileges, accomplished by Revolutionaries in 1776.
Despite popular conceptions and the continued Quaker domination of the
Assembly, the Society of Friends as a body was moving farther away from
the political scene. Beginning with that powerful epistle in 1756, they had
attempted to dissociate themselves from the dissenting culture that it had cre-
ated and that was now moving forward without it. The move for royal govern-
ment was the most salient example of the dissemination of the Quaker ethic
and the incident that accentuated a temporary break between the Society of
Friends and the Quaker Party. The Party at this time was led by two men, Ben-
jamin Franklin and lapsed Quaker Joseph Galloway.76 The ¬rst man prominent
Quaker Israel Pemberton considered to be a danger to Quakerism, and the sec-
ond he called “a weak & bad man.”77 The move for a royal government was,
in some ways, the logical culmination of Quaker dissent, but it was nothing
most Quakers ultimately advocated.
Initially, however, there was a difference of opinion within the Society on
which way to go “ with the Quaker Party as it was now manifest or with a
more traditional Quaker political practice. The split among Friends on this
issue, both in and out of of¬ce, ran to a great degree along generational lines.
Early on in the controversy, many older members, including weighty Friends
on both sides of the Atlantic, took the traditional view of Quaker politics and
opposed the petition. Among these were Isaac Norris, Israel Pemberton, John
Fothergill, and David Barclay. So vehemently did Norris object to the petition
that he resigned over it “ twice. Meanwhile, similar to twenty years earlier when
“the young fry of Quakers” were making “insolent rude Speeches . . . against all
in Authority, the King not excepted,” now a young “Set of Hotspurs” favored
the petition.78 It is important to note, however, that for a time many Quakers
in good standing, tempted by the radicalism of the leaders, believed that a
change of government was their best chance for securing religious liberty “
always their main concern. At ¬rst, members of the Assembly found Franklin™s
proposal appealing.79 Moreover, early on in the controversy, most Friends

75 Richard Peters Letterbook, 353“56, HSP.
76 Galloway was a birthright Friend but had left the Society and gravitated toward Anglicanism.
See Newcomb, Franklin and Galloway, 22.
77 Hutson, Pennsylvania Politics, 166; Israel Pemberton quoted in Marietta, The Reformation of
American Quakerism, 202.
78 Richard Peters Letterbook, 17, HSP; and Norris, quoted in Hutson, Pennsylvania Politics, 156.
79 Hutson, Pennsylvania Politics, 137.
198 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

understood that the issue was complex and they moderated their criticisms
of Friends who disagreed with them.80 Ultimately, however, PYM came out
against the change, urging London Meeting for Sufferings not to support the
petition either. Finally, most Friends rejected the Franklin-Galloway plan.81
A key ¬gure in their decision was John Dickinson. In the debate, he was
typical of the portion of the Assembly that opposed the petition with one
notable exception “ his age.82 At age 32, Dickinson sided ¬rmly with the
traditional position held by older Friends. After 1766 he would take over as
the new leader of the Quaker Party; but already in 1764, he stepped forward
and advocated the traditional Quaker priorities of constitutional perpetuity
and peaceful reform of injustice. On May 24, 1764, he made his case in A
Speech Delivered in the House of Assembly of the Province of Pennsylvania.
In what one perplexed historian calls “an odd mixture of conservative max-
ims and radical political doctrines,”83 Dickinson pled not just for the preserva-
tion of the 1701 Charter and traditional Pennsylvania Quaker liberties, but also
for the continuance of the Quaker process of peaceful resistance to oppression
rather than fundamental change. The mixture might have blended conservatism
and radicalism, but it was not odd at all. He ¬rst laid out his view for orderly
and peaceable walking, arguing that men in the throes of emotion cannot pos-
sibly govern effectively. He explained that “those who deliberate of public
affairs, that their minds should be free from all violent passions.”84 Drawing
on the Ancients (a neutral source) to make his case, he quoted Tacitus, remind-
ing the Assembly “[w]hich misfortune hath happened to many good men, who
despising those things which they might slowly and safely attain, seize them
too hastily, and with fatal speed rush upon their own destruction.”85 He then
proceeded to enumerate the many reasons why the change would not work to
their advantage.
For Dickinson, as for most Quakers, the 1701 Charter of Privileges was the
embodiment of Pennsylvania™s unique liberties, especially in that it secured all
of the Quakers™ rights as a dissenting sect. He then proceeded to enumerate the
privileges they had enjoyed, the ¬rst and most important being “a perfect reli-
gious freedom.” Giving voice to a perennial Quaker fear, Dickinson suggested
the possibility of Pennsylvania losing its religious liberty. With the switch to a
royal government, they could very well be taken over by the Church of Eng-
land, which was eager to establish itself more ¬rmly in America, “especially,”
he said, “in those colonies, where it is overborne, as it were, by dissenters.”86

80 Marietta, The Reformation of American Quakerism, 197.
81 Ibid., 200.
82 Hutson, Pennsylvania Politics, 156.
83 Jacobson, “John Dickinson™s Fight,” 64.
84 John Dickinson, A Speech Delivered in the House of Assembly of the Province of Pennsylvania
(Philadelphia, 1764), 1.
85 Ibid., 4“5.
86 Ibid, 18. See also Richard J. Hooker, “John Dickinson on Church and State,” American Liter-
ature vol. 16, no. 2 (1944), 82“98.
Political Schism and Rise of John Dickinson 199

In Pennsylvania history, the crown had at times been as much of a threat to
Quaker liberties as the proprietors. He reminded them of the privileges they
currently enjoyed and how these contrasted with traditional English liberties
and royal prerogatives: “Posts of honor or pro¬t are unfettered with oaths
or tests” and are open to men who pay “strict regard to their conscientious
persuasion.” “In what other royal government besides the Jerseys,” he asked,
“can a Quaker be a witness in criminal cases and bear of¬ces? In no other.”
And in New Jersey it was allowed only because at the founding of that colony
there was an “absolute necessity, from the scarcity of other proper persons,
to make use of the people called Quakers in public employment.” That scarcity
no longer existed either there or in Pennsylvania. Dickinson highlighted the
fact that Quakers were no longer the majority in any colony, and thus needed
to guard their rights even more closely. “Any body of men acting under a char-
ter,” he warned, “must surely tread on slippery ground, when they take a step
that may be deemed a surrender of that charter.”87 He explained, in sum, how
unreasonable it would be to think that their “extraordinary privileges” would
be preserved in any change of government.88
After reminding the Assemblymen of their unique charter and privileges,
Dickinson noted the distinction between the traditional British interpretation
of the fundamental law and the divinely inspired laws of Quakers by writing,
“how contradictory some of these privileges are to the most ancient principles
of the English constitution, and how directly opposite others of them are to
the settled prerogatives of the crown.”89 If they changed from the Charter of
Privileges to a royal government, they would be in the untenable position of
requesting more freedom for themselves than inhabitants of England possessed.
“It will not be an easy task to convince [Parliament],” he argued, “that the peo-
ple of Pennsylvania ought to be distinguished from all other subjects, under
his Majesty™s immediate government.”90 Moreover, it was unknown what ills
might arise as a consequence of this change. In what would become a leitmotif
of Dickinson™s writings, the danger of precedent, he warned, “We may intro-
duce the innovation [of a royal government], but we shall not be able to stop
its progress. The precedent will be pernicious.”91 The solution, then, was to
act slowly and cautiously. Appealing to the traditional way in which Quaker
politicians had redressed their grievances and secured their rights, he suggested
retaining the Charter, if at all possible, and seeking mediation. “Let us desire
his Majesty™s judgment on the point, that has occasioned this unhappy differ-
ence between [us]. This may be done without any violence, without any hazard
to our constitution.”92

87 Dickinson, A Speech, 11.
88 Ibid., 20.
89 Ibid., 16.
90 Ibid., 22.
91 Ibid., 29.
92 Ibid., 24.
200 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

Although at ¬rst glance, it would appear that Galloway, in his zeal to abolish
the Charter, had none of the traditional Quaker respect for the constitution.
But like Dickinson, Galloway also honored it; the two simply differed on which
constitution. Like most convinced Quakers, Dickinson privileged the Pennsyl-
vania constitution for what it gave Quakers; Galloway looked instead to the
British, which may have protected their property rights against Penn, but, as
Dickinson argued, would not guarantee their rights as Quakers. It was not just
the rights embedded in the constitutions that were at stake; it was also the
process by which they were advocated and secured. In addition to abandoning
the Quaker constitution, Galloway also left behind other Quakerly concerns
and practices, such as popular sovereignty. In advocating a royal government,
Galloway claimed to be drawing on the proven ability and right of represen-
tatives to change the constitution. He cited the usual Quaker arguments for
amendment: that “every government in the civilized world, has been changed”;
Dickinson retorted, “by force and injustice.” Galloway argued that “the ¬rst
frame of our government was altered”; Dickinson expounded, “being found
impractical, and,” repeating Galloway™s point, “its ˜privileges could hardly be
exercised or enjoyed.™”93 Quoting William Penn at length, Dickinson rejoined
with the explanation of the Quaker understanding of a constitution, that the
government is not a contract to be broken but a trust put in place for the good of
the people and the trustees do not have the right to abandon their position. The
trust, quoted Dickinson from Penn, “should not be invaded, but be inviolably
preserved, according to the law of the land.”94 In other words, the constitution
may allow amendment, but not the dissolution of itself. Moreover, Dickinson
challenged Galloway™s un-Quakerly suggestion that the representatives could
change the government without the approval of the people. Drawing from
Sully™s Memoirs, he wrote that “no step should be taken, without carefully
and deliberately consulting the people . . . who would be affected by their mea-
sures.”95 As if to punctuate his argument about popular consent, Dickinson
took his concern to the public, and an election in the middle of the contro-
versy decided it. The Franklin-Galloway contingent was ¬rmly put down with
Franklin and Galloway themselves removed from the Assembly. Thus the cam-
paign for royal government failed. Before this point, Quaker behavior toward
the British government might have led us to suspect that they preferred their
own provincial constitution over the imperial one. With the controversy now
resolved, it is clear that was the case.
Throughout the controversy, Dickinson advocated the traditional aims and
principles of Quaker theologico-political thought. It is easy to see how his

93 In this instance, we must understand here that there is a difference between “change” and
“alter.” Here “change” means abolition of one constitution and adoption of another; “alter”
means adapting an existing constitution. Dickinson rejected change but approved of alteration.
94 William Penn quoted in John Dickinson, A Reply to a Piece called The speech of Joseph
Galloway, Esquire (Philadelphia, 1764), 30.
95 Dickinson, quoting Maximilian of B´ thune, Duke of Sully, Memoirs, in A Reply to a Piece, 30.
Sully™s Memoirs advocated a plan for peace in Europe through a federation of powers.
Political Schism and Rise of John Dickinson 201

position was exemplary of some key aspects of “civil Quakerism” and why
his argument for the Charter was ultimately successful.96 Other historians™
conclusions that Dickinson eventually “arrived on the side of the Proprietary
Party,” which, for obvious reasons, also opposed the campaign, are simply
mistaken.97 He was no more a supporter of Thomas Penn than the Quakers,
who had always resisted the Proprietary, and who had also resisted the change
in government. But this is the usual interpretation of Dickinson™s role in this
controversy, and one that has contributed to the confusion about his polit-
ical thought in toto.98 That the Proprietary Party celebrated and promoted
Dickinson™s speech is merely proof of their using his words for their political
advantage, not proof of his allegiance. “No man,” he assured his colleagues,
“can be more clearly convinced than I am, of the inconveniencies arising from
a strict adherence to proprietary instructions.” He elaborated that the “dis-
tinct and partial mode of taxation” that the proprietors were imposing on the
Province was “granted on all sides to be unequal.” Furthermore, he af¬rmed
that he was not in league with the proprietors, writing that despite his dis-
agreement with the Assembly on this point, “I always receive satisfaction from
being on [the Assembly™s] side.”99 Years later he would add, “The proprietary
People are known to be & to have been uniformly my deadly foes throughout
my Life.”100 He admitted that simply agreeing with Franklin and Galloway
“would have been the most politic part for me to have acted,” but that he was
bound to dissent from the majority and obey “the unbiassed dictates of my
reason and conscience.”101 Both were aligned with the traditional balance of
Quaker principles.102
Scholars sometimes misinterpret Dickinson™s politics in another way in the
wake of this controversy. The election that ousted Franklin and Galloway
brought Dickinson to the fore of Pennsylvania politics. He was elected by a
landslide in 1764, supported by the so-called New Ticket, which was composed
of Presbyterians, who had always opposed the Quaker Party, and others against
royal government. After so recently identifying Dickinson as a partisan of the
Proprietary, now scholars consider him the leader of the Presbyterian Party.

96 Tully makes this observation in Forming American Politics, 304.
97 Flower, John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary, 36.
98 See, for example, Theodore Thayer, Pennsylvania Politics and the Growth of Democracy:
1740“1776 (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1953), 94, 177;
Jacobson, “John Dickinson™s Fight”; G. B. Warden, “The Proprietary Group in Pennsylvania,
1754“1764,” WMQ 3rd ser., vol. 21, no. 3. (1964), pp. 367“89, 368; Bernard Bailyn, ed.,
Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 660, 661; Flower, John Dickinson, Conservative
Revolutionary, 36; and Arthur J. Mekeel, The Relation of the Quakers to the American
Revolution (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1979), 34.
99 Dickinson, A Speech, 30.
100 John Dickinson to unknown, August 25, 1774, Ser. I. a. Correspondence, 1762“1808,
101 Dickinson, A Speech, 30“31.
102 Marietta calls him a “kindred spirit” with Quakers (The Reformation of American Quakerism,
202 Quaker Constitutionalism in Theory and Practice

But contrary to those who claim a “marriage” between the two, Dickinson was
no partisan.103 Like traditional Quakers, Dickinson was a trimmer in, I argue
here and in the following chapters, the principled sense.

At heart, Dickinson was a “Quaker politician” and as ecumenical in politics
as his Quaker forebears. They believed, as Penn wrote, that “[a] wise Neuter
joins with neither [Party]; but uses both, as his honest Interest leads him.”104
They accordingly allied themselves with Whigs or King James II as it suited
their cause. Likewise Dickinson pursued a middle way that was based not on
party af¬liation but on the principle of preserving charter liberties. With this
destination in sight, he navigated a straight course by shifting slightly toward
whatever side needed his weight. Rather than considering Dickinson as joining
different parties, it is more accurate to say that parties gravitated toward him,
as in the case of the Presbyterians. As we shall see, however, his political
convictions denied him a home in any camp, and, in the rough political seas
of the 1760s and 1770s, his principles soon became realigned, although not
permanently or without tensions, with the Quaker Party.
As Quakers ¬rst entered politics in seventeenth-century England, they did
so as martyrs for their theologico-political cause. The persecution they experi-
enced was not only because they adhered to radical religious doctrines but also
because they resisted permanent factional alliances. They were thus accused of
Ranterism by one side and of popery by the other. When Dickinson™s enthusi-
astic engagement with Pennsylvanian, and later American politics, earned him
the same confused charges of partisanship, he re¬‚ected on his stance. He wrote
that his “sentiments perhaps may prove destructive to one, who designs his
reputation on the basis of a party “ since it is highly improbable, that any man
may be esteemed by a party, unless he is bound to it by prejudices as well as by
principles.”105 Dickinson™s identi¬cation with the culture of martyrdom that
pervaded Quakerism began to surface at this time. He was aware of the course
he was taking by following his conscience. He wrote that “A good man ought
to serve his country, even tho™ she resents his services.”106 Several years later in
the contest with Britain as he again found himself the advocate of unpopular
causes, he re¬‚ected on his choices in life and his role in the royal government

103 Hutson, Pennsylvania Politics, 212“13. On the contrary, in the previously cited letter from
Dickinson to an unknown Presbyterian (fn. 100), he allays the concerns of his recipient that
he might be biased against people of that religion, which indicates the perceptions of his
104 William Penn, Some Fruits of Solitude (London, 1693; rpt. Richmond, IN: Friends United
Press, 1978), 61.
105 Dickinson, A Reply, 34“35.
106 Ibid., 31.
Political Schism and Rise of John Dickinson 203

I reconcile myself to my Lot the more easily perhaps, because, from my ¬rst outset in
Life, I had laid down to Myself these maxims, to which, thro the Divine favor, I have,
I think, invariably adhered throughout the part that is past . . . ““Never to sollicit or
seek directly or indirectly any Post of Pro¬t or Honor “ In public affairs, to pursue
solely the good of my Country, and to defy the World” . . . Is it possible for a Man to
give greater proofs than have been given in other Instances that he is govern™d by the
Dictates of his Conscience & Judgment in public Affairs? What a Torrent of Passion
did I oppose several years ago, disdaining the protection of the Proprietary Faction,
while at the same Instant I brought on myself the utmost Indignation of the ruling
Faction in Assembly? . . . Indeed by that single step, I cast myself out of a certain Income
of several Hundreds of pounds a Year, besides losing the promising Prospects that
presented themselves of my rising by the Power of the Factions!107
Despite this political independence, interestingly, because of a passionate
temperament and, no doubt, the contentious political culture in which he
moved at this early stage of his career, Dickinson™s personal deportment was
not always in keeping with stated Quakerly principles of peaceful discourse
and moderation. Despite his counsel of moderate behavior to the Assembly, he
did not practice what he preached; the disagreement with Galloway provoked
him to decidedly rash behavior. In his Reply to Galloway, for example, he
spent little time on the constitutional debate, focusing instead on defending
his reputation and criticizing in a taunting and sarcastic tone his opponent™s
lack of skills in writing and argumentation. More than this, however, after
a particularly contentious session of the Assembly, he and Galloway came to
blows on the steps of the State House.108 Over the next two decades however,
as Dickinson™s faith matured with his politics, he managed to become more of
an “orderly walker” and example to others of “peaceable conversation.”

107 Dickinson to unknown, August 25, 1774, Ser. I. a. Correspondence, 1762“1808, RRL/HSP.
108 Flower, John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary, 42.


Turbulent but Paci¬c
“Dickinsonian Politics” in the American Revolution

With the controversy over royal government decided, Pennsylvania turned its
attention to the problems with Britain. In the next decade, the same issues at
stake in the provincial debate over the Charter would be writ large in a national
debate “ how best to unify the polity and preserve rights in the face of an unjust
government. This and the following chapter form a pair as they describe how
the three factions of Quakerism persisted and exerted a tremendous in¬‚uence
on the course of national events. The traditional faction, supported by the with-
drawers “ who were hardly withdrawn at this point “ dominated the Assembly
until days before independence and infuriated the Revolutionary leaders. After
the royal government controversy was decided, the radical faction temporar-
ily lost all in¬‚uence in the Assembly, and instead merged with other radical
groups. As in this earlier controversy, the coming Revolution raised the ques-
tion of which constitution Quakers of all sorts and their followers ultimately
preferred “ their local and peculiarly Quaker constitution or the remote and
non-Quakerly constitution of the British Empire, or neither.1 Throughout it all,
Dickinson would remain a mediator and counsel the same course for Amer-
ica as he had for Pennsylvania, adherence to the constitution and peaceful
advocacy of rights.
The story of Dickinson™s via media between the extremes of withdrawing
Quaker paci¬sm and revolutionary radicalism unfolds in ¬ve main episodes:
The ¬rst is the period of the Stamp Act Controversy in 1765. The second is
from the Townshend Acts and the publication of his Letters from a Farmer
in Pennsylvania in 1767“68 until 1774. The third is the pivotal years just
prior to independence, 1774 and 1775. The fourth is the spring months of
1776, immediately preceding the Declaration of Independence. The ¬nal phase,
treated in Chapter 7, is the Critical Period, when Pennsylvania suffered its
own revolution. At various points, Dickinson was embraced and rejected by

1 “Non-Quakerly,” as opposed to “un-Quakerly.” The British constitution, while no longer hostile
to Quakers, did not, as Dickinson argued, secure their liberties as Quakers.

208 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

all factions. Ultimately, without deviation, he ended up where he began, a
Quakerly Patriot. As he explained it, “My Principles were formed very early in
the Course of this unhappy Controversy. I have not yet found Cause to change
a single Iota of my political Creed.”2 This and the next chapter will describe
what his opponents would call “Dickinsonian Politics,” noting especially the
position of the Quaker community and his stance in relation to it.3

The Stamp Act Controversy, 1765
Contemporaneous with the campaign for royal government in which Dickinson
was embroiled was the Stamp Act controversy, into which he entered with
equal vigor. The peaceful resistance to the Act began not in Philadelphia, but
in Boston. After days of almost-uncontrolled rioting, destruction of property,
and other civil misconduct, Bostonians ¬nally realized that violent protest was
achieving nothing and was, in fact, counterproductive. They were compelled
by their own extremism to reexamine their use of violence and force as a
political tool. In this way they happened upon the use of nonviolent protest
techniques such as boycott and nonimportation. But their abandonment of
violence was also prompted by the demise of the Grenville ministry, which
seemed to lessen the tyrannical inclinations of the British government.4 Their
peaceful techniques, in other words, were born of necessity and convenience,
not principle. They did not disavow their earlier violent acts. Neither, as some
scholarship would have it, did they engage in civil disobedience.5
At this point in the controversy with Britain, the Quaker position was gen-
erally uni¬ed in favor of resistance. The Pennsylvania Assembly resolved that
it was their duty “to remonstrate to the Crown against the Stamp Act, and
other late Acts of Parliament, by which heavy Burdens have been laid on the
Colonies” and that they would send a committee to the Stamp Act Congress
in New York.6 Dickinson was nominated to be on the committee, and they
were “strictly required to take Care that such Addresses, in which you join,
are drawn up in the most decent and respectful Terms, so as to avoid every
Expression that can give the least occasion of Offense to his Majesty, or to
either House of Parliament.”7
In New York, Dickinson served as the de facto leader of the Stamp Act
Congress and the draftsman of the Resolutions of the Congress. He then began

2 John Dickinson, “Notes for a Speech in Congress,” May 23, 1775, Delegates, 1: 378.
3 William Whipple to Josiah Bartlett, February 7, 1777, Delegates, 6: 236.
4 See Maier, From Resistance to Revolution, 53“70.
5 The less violent activities of Bostonians, such as the Boston Tea Party, are often noted as examples
of civil disobedience. See, for example, Harry W. Jones, “Civil Disobedience,” Proceedings of the
American Philosophical Society vol. 111, no. 4 (1967), 195“98, 196; William G. McLoughlin,
“Massive Civil Disobedience as a Baptist Tactic in 1773,” American Quarterly vol. 21, no. 4
(1969), 710“727, 710; Michael Couzens, “Re¬‚ections on Violence,” Law & Society Review
vol. 5, no. 4 (1971), 583“604, 597.
6 PA, 7: 5767.
7 Ibid., 5769.
“Dickinsonian Politics” in the American Revolution 209

a campaign to publicize Quaker resistance tactics through a number of pub-
lications. Although Bostonians had realized that peaceful protest would get
them farther than violence, they still had not mastered the subtleties of their
technique. They resigned themselves to avoiding business that required the use
of stamps.8 Dickinson proposed a remedy to this passivity. There were two
modes of peaceful resistance that he advocated, both of which were at the
core of Quaker political behavior. One was the “business-as-usual” model;
the other was economic sanctions. Both were tactics Quakers had been using
in a variety of situations for years to resist unjust laws and customs. Indeed,
the business-as-usual model of resistance was as old as Quakerism itself, and
almost synonymous with it.
In an address on the Stamp Act to “Friends and Countrymen” (1765),
Dickinson called for immediate resistance. His concern was that after all the
initial violence, the new passivity was extremely hazardous. In continuation
of the theme of the danger of precedent he expressed in the royal government
controversy, he wrote, “They will have a Precedent furnished by yourselves, and
a Demonstration that the Spirit of Americans, after great Clamour and Bluster,
is a most submissive servile spirit.”9 He reiterated that “Your compliance with
this Act will save future Ministers the Trouble of reasoning on this head, and
your Tameness will free them from any Kind of Moderation when they shall
hereafter mediate any other Tax upon you.”10 Insofar as precedents established
the constitutionality “ and hence the permanence “ of an act, Englishmen
were generally wary of them. In this regard, Quakers were similar to their
countrymen, though not identical. To Englishmen, legal “innovations” were
potentially dangerous because they were measures that had never been tried
before and did not have the weight of custom behind them. Precedents, on the
other hand, had constitutionality because they were accepted and put to use.11
To Friends, suspicious of human traditions, both innovations and precedents
were dangerous because neither determined de¬nitively the constitutionality of
an act.12
Rather than risk the entrenchment of unconstitutional laws, then, Dickinson
counseled civil disobedience by simply ignoring the act and continuing publicly
about their business. “It appears to me the wisest and the safest course for
you,” he explained, “to proceed in all Business as usual, without taking the least

8 Maier, From Resistance to Revolution, 71.
9 John Dickinson, “Friends and Countrymen” [Address on the Stamp Act], (Philadelphia,
1765), 1.
10 Ibid. On the doctrine of precedent during the con¬‚ict with Britain, see John Phillip Reid,
Constitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority to Tax (Madison: University
of Wisconsin Press, 1987), 122“34.
11 According to Reid, “The doctrine of innovation warned that an action was legally dubious
because it had not been done before. Precedent was evidence of legality or constitutionality
because something had been done before” (Authority to Tax, 123).
12 Dickinson wrote, “Another argument for the extravagant power of internal legislation over us
remains. It has been urged with great warmth against us, that ˜precedents™ shew this power is
rightfully vested in parliament.” Essay on the constitutional power, 105.
210 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

Notice of the Stamp Act.” In a Quakerly plea to the denizens of Pennsylvania,
he suggested the salutary consequences of this course of action. “If you behave
in this spirited Manner, you may be assured, that every colony on the Continent
will follow the Example of a Province so justly celebrated for its Liberty.” It
had always been the goal of Quakers to set an example to others “ whether
in religious belief, personal deportment, or political action “ as a form of
proselytizing. The end result, reasoned Dickinson, could not be anything but
favorable for the colonists. He calculated carefully the degree of resistance
necessary to achieve their ends without too much disruption. “Your Conduct
will convince Great-Britain, that the Stamp Act will never be carried into
execution, but by Force of Arms; and this one Moment™s Re¬‚ection must
demonstrate, that she will never attempt.”13
Dickinson™s pamphlet Late Regulations Respecting the British Colonies on
the Continent of America Considered (1765) took a slightly different approach.
It also departed from other publications on British policy at the time that
focused on the theories of republican government and the injustice of taxation
without representation.14 The purpose of this pamphlet was not to discuss
rights in the abstract or what constituted proper parliamentary representation,
although these too concerned him. Rather, he laid out the issues “ the sufferings “
and then a plan of action. Quaker theory was, as we have seen, a theory
of action. In all his writings on the controversy, Dickinson stopped short of
calling for an outright economic boycott of British goods by all the colonies
in unison. This was something that Friends generally considered too harmful
and disruptive to the polity when conducted en masse. Rather, the best choice
seemed to Dickinson to be more subtle, “to promote manufacturers among
ourselves, with a habit of conomy, and thereby remove the necessity we are now
under of being supplied by Great-Britain.”15 He elaborated by suggesting that
the colonists “keep the British manufactures we purchase longer in use or wear
than we have been accustomed to do” and “supply their place by manufactures
of our own.”16 Frugality and industriousness were far from being disruptive
or illegal; they were republican virtues. They were also Quaker testimonies. In
issuing this call for peaceful resistance through economic sanctions, Dickinson
was drawing on Quaker practice, following in the footsteps of ministers such as
John Woolman who boycotted products made by slave labor. A few scholars
have appropriately noted that the nonimportation of the pre-Revolutionary
period “appeared to be a Quaker method of resistance.”17

13 Dickinson, “Friends and Countrymen,” 2.
14 See James Otis, Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (Boston, 1764); Daniel
Dulaney, Considerations on the Propriety of Imposing Taxes on the British Colonies (New
York, 1765).
15 John Dickinson, Late Regulations Respecting the British Colonies on the Continent of America
Considered (1765), 25.
16 Ibid., 26.
17 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution, 1763“1776 (New
York: Atheneum, 1968), 191. Arthur J. Mekeel ¬nds that over eighty Quaker merchants signed
(The Relation of the Quakers to the American Revolution, 20). Bauman™s and Sharpless™s
“Dickinsonian Politics” in the American Revolution 211

The main concern of Friends was that resistance activities seemed close to
being out of control. “In hopes to prevent the ill Effects” of riots in Philadelphia,
Joseph Galloway reported that “near 800 of the sober Inhabitants [were] posted
in different Places, ready to prevent any Mischief that should be attempted by
the Mob, which effectively intimidated them, and kept all tolerably quiet.”
He was careful to note, however, that this Friendly intimidation was “not by
any Order of the Government of the City.”18 This same concern for peace
likely accounts for why Dickinson downplayed the not-insigni¬cant violence
in much of the protest, dismissing the destruction of property and assaults
against British of¬cials as isolated incidents perpetrated by “mobs composed
of the lower ranks of people in some few of the colonies.”19 Although the
resistance may have ended on a peaceful note, the reality was that the violence
likely had much to do with the ultimate repeal of the Act in February of 1766.
Nonetheless, Dickinson would later emphasize the civil disobedience, praising
his countrymen for persisting in their “usual business” and effectively repealing
the act themselves.
Dickinson™s role in the Stamp Act controversy was merely a prelude for his
much greater part in the disputes to come. With the passage of the Town-
shend Acts, he would step beyond his sphere as a Pennsylvania politician to
become a recognizable American ¬gure. He would also come to be seen as a

The Townshend Acts and Letters from a Farmer in
Pennsylvania, 1767“1768
Dickinson™s Farmer™s Letters have been heralded by his contemporaries and by
historians as one of the greatest pieces of writing in the Revolutionary era and
the one that served to unite the colonists against Britain as never before. With
its publication, he became America™s ¬rst political hero “ her “best son”20 “ and
one of the most powerful political leaders in the colonies. With his publication
of America™s ¬rst hit song, “The Liberty Song,” at the same time, he was indeed
a “popular idol.”21 In the Letters, he articulated the fullest expression of his
constitutionalism to date and with that became the most eloquent spokesman

¬ndings concur with Schlesinger™s that their resistance “accorded fairly well with the Quaker
tradition.” See Sharpless, A Quaker Experiment in Government, 2: 77; and Bauman, For the
Reputation of Truth, 128. Robert M. Calhoon ¬nds that “[t]he Quakers conducted the most
strenuous and conscientious and the only truly collective pursuit of reconciliation in the pre-
Revolutionary period.” Calhoon, The Loyalists in the American Revolution, 1760“1781 (New
York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1973), 170.
18 Joseph Galloway to unknown, Sept. 20, 1765. Treasury Papers, Class I, Bundle 439, Public
Record Of¬ce, Library of Congress Transcripts. My thanks to Josh Beatty for bringing this
document to my attention.
19 John Dickinson [as “A North-American”], An Address to the Committee of Correspondence in
Barbados (Philadelphia, 1766), 16.
20 “Son of Liberty,” Pennsylvania Journal, January 7, 1768.
21 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Prelude to Independence: The Newspaper War on Britain, 1764“1776
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958), 42. This term was no doubt taken from Still´ and Ford,
212 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

for the traditional Quaker theologico-political process “ one™s opinion voiced
in a calm demeanor, advocacy of the people™s rights, peaceful resistance to
oppression, and reform to preserve the sanctity and unity of the constituted
polity. The Letters proceeded from a sense of duty to testify. As Dickinson
proclaimed, “the Dictates of my Conscience command Me boldly to speak
on the naked Sentiments of my Soul.”22 This refrain of not remaining silent
when obliged to speak “ a Quaker injunction that applied to all people in
the religious polity “ recurs throughout Dickinson™s writings, speeches, and
personal correspondence. Despite the way these Letters have been interpreted
by contemporaries and historians, they were not a call for revolution; they were
written to prevent revolution by giving Americans a peaceful and productive
outlet for their frustrations with British policy.
Thinking within the framework of Quaker constitutionalism, Dickinson
treated the civil polity like the religious polity writ large. In the ¬rst place, he cast
America in the same role in relation to the rest of the world as Quakers did their
meeting. He wrote, “Let us consider ourselves as men “ freemen “ christian
freemen “ separated from the rest of the world, and ¬rmly bound together by
the same rights, interests and dangers.”23 This is very similar to how Friends
referred to themselves “ as a “peculiar people,” a group “hedged off” from the
rest of the world, distinguished and united by their unique behaviors, customs,
and understanding of God and the world. They were further bound together by
their insistence on their rights and their martyrdom for their cause of liberty. In
the Quaker understanding of their religious polity, however, the uniqueness and
separateness of their body were conditional. These qualities were dependent
upon the protection the body received from the British constitution. Therefore,
although Quakers and British North Americans may each have been a “separate
people” in some ways, Dickinson did not consider the colonies disconnected
and autonomous entities from Britain with a special charge to pursue their
own interests contrary to the will of the government. Rather, he spoke of the
colonies as “parts of a Whole,” as limbs that must “bleed at every vein” if
separated from the body.24 The colonies and Britain, he repeated, “form one
political body, of which each colony is a member. Their happiness is founded
on their constitution; and is to be promoted by preserving that constitution

Life and Writings, 1: 108. Richard Alan Ryerson calls him “an indispensable symbol of uni-
¬ed resistance to Great Britain” (The Revolution Is Now Begun: The Radical Committees of
Philadelphia, 1765“1776 [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978], 51). On the
popularity of “The Liberty Song,” and it being a “model” for later patriotic songs, see Kenneth
Silverman, A Cultural History of the American Revolution: Paintings, Music, Literature, and
the Theatre in the Colonies and the United States from the Treaty of Paris to the Inauguration
of George Washington, 1763“1789 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 117, 115.
22 John Dickinson, “Notes for a Speech in Congress,” May 23, 1775, Delegates, 1: 378.
23 John Dickinson, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, To the Inhabitants of the British
Colonies (1767“68), in Forrest McDonald, ed., Empire and Nation: Letters from a Farmer in
Pennsylvania (John Dickinson); Letters from a Federal Farmer (Richard Henry Lee), 2nd ed.
(Indianapolis: The Liberty Fund, 1999), 80.
24 Ibid., 7, 19.
“Dickinsonian Politics” in the American Revolution 213

in unabated vigor, throughout every part.”25 Happiness lay in the security the
constitution provided for their rights, a security that could only be preserved
through unity. “The legal authority of Great Britain may indeed lay hard
restrictions upon us; but, like the spear of Telephus, it will cure as well as
wound.”26 In other words, the remedy for their ills was to be found in the same
place as the cause “ the British government. This understanding of a unique
people protected as part of a perpetual constitutional polity is reminiscent
of William Penn™s vision of religious diversity within the polity. The religious
liberty of all should be safeguarded by the “true Principles” of civil government.
The preeminent principle was that of liberty of conscience, and union upon
this principle protected the religious rights of all. “Men embark™d in the same
Vessel,” said Penn, “seek the safety of the Whole in their Own, whatever other
differences they may have.”27 Like other thinkers in the Quaker tradition,
Dickinson wrote, “Our vigilance and our union are our success and safety.”28
Like Quaker theorists William Penn, Robert Barclay, and Isaac Penington
before him, Dickinson clearly argued that although the constitution was per-
petual, the power of the government was not unlimited. Similarly, he made a
distinction between laws that were constitutional and those that were not. The
imperative that Dickinson expressed in the Letters was adherence to the ¬rst
principles of the constitution regardless of subsequent statutes or acts that had
misrepresented it in the past, or might do so in the present, and a return to them
when necessary.29 In keeping with the Quaker tradition of following the living
spirit of the law as opposed to the dead letter, Dickinson persisted in cautioning
against Parliament™s legal innovations. He echoed the distinction made by Penn
between fundamental immutable laws and super¬cial, alterable ones. Also like
other Quakers thinkers, he differed from most Americans in his attitude toward
the law. He was not an unmitigated supporter of the common law tradition.
“Custom,” he said, “undoubtedly has a mighty force in producing opinion, and
reigns in nothing more arbitrarily than in public affairs. It gradually reconciles
us to objects even of dread and detestation.”30 It was like ritual in religious
practice “ a path that appeared to lead to salvation, but really took the traveler
in the opposite direction. He suspected that many innovations were inspired
by false guides and thus departed from the divine spirit. “Nothing is more
certain,” he explained, “than that the forms of liberty may yet be retained,
when the substance is gone.” Repeating the Quaker attitude toward dogma of
any kind, he wrote: “In government, as well as in religion, ˜The letter killeth,
but the spirit giveth life.™” When the spirit is ignored, there is a great potential
for “manifest violation of the constitution, under the appearance of using legal

25 Ibid., 80“81.
26 Ibid., 81.
27 William Penn, A Perswasive to Moderation . . . (London, 1686), preface.
28 Letters, 79.
29 Ibid., 69.
30 Letters, 71. On other Americans™ acceptance of custom, see Reid, Authority to Tax, 181“93.
214 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

prerogative.”31 His sentiments concur with Penn™s, who wrote “That Coun-
try which is False to its ¬rst Principles of Government . . . must Unavoidably
In a line that would be much quoted in the Constitutional Convention,
Dickinson wrote, “A perpetual jealousy, respecting liberty, is absolutely req-
uisite in all free states.” He then articulated the importance of bringing the
polity back to its foundational elements. “Machiavel,” he wrote, “employs a
whole chapter in his discourses, to prove that a state, to be long lived, must be
frequently corrected, and reduced to its ¬rst principles.” Dickinson reiterated
throughout the Letters that the Townshend Acts were a dangerous legal prece-
dent. But like his Quaker forebears, he was not advocating a return to ¬rst
principles through violence, which many came to believe was the only way to
resist British tyranny. “To talk of ˜defending™ [the principles], as if they could
be no otherwise ˜defended™ than by arms” was nonsensical to him.33 Yet some
historians have interpreted the ominous statement at the end of his fourth letter,
“We have a statute, laid up for future use, like a sword in the scabbard,”34 as a
threat of violence against Britain and indicative of Dickinson™s “revolutionary”
message.35 But although it is true that this statement is a threat, it is a threat
with a nonviolent weapon, a legal threat. Here Dickinson has secularized the
Quaker call for “spiritual” rather than “carnal” weapons and said that the
weapon should be on paper and in principle “ such as the “American ˜bill of
rights™” that New York produced to delineate the extent of Britain™s right to
tax the colonists.36 To back up these words and principles, Dickinson advo-
cated a plan of nonviolent measures that ranged in severity from humble pleas
in petitions, to nonimportation, to open disobedience of the offending laws.37
But the latter was the furthest extreme Quaker constitutionalism would allow.
In keeping with proper behavior within the Quaker meeting “ that is, with
the aim to preserve liberty, peace, and constitutional perpetuity “ Dickinson
very carefully outlined the colonists™ rights and obligations in the face of royal
oppression. In conducting protest, there was a duty to be upheld and a partic-
ular process to be followed. He encouraged his countrymen to action based on
the Quaker process of dissent. He suggested that not revolution, but reformed
relations with the crown could solve their problems. It seemed to Dickinson,
however, that at the early phase of the controversy, the colonists were vulner-
able to either total submission to the injustice, on the one hand, or war, on

31 Ibid., 36.
32 Dunn, Politics and Conscience, 49.
33 Letters, 16“17.
34 Ibid., 26.
35 Richard M. Gummere calls it a threat against the British government “that rings like the clashing
of steel.” “John Dickinson, the Classical Penman of the Revolution,” Classical Journal vol. 52,
no. 2 (1956), 81“88, 84.
36 Letters, 23.
37 See Larry Kramer on the various forms of pressure the people could put on the government for
change (The People Themselves, 25“29).
“Dickinsonian Politics” in the American Revolution 215

the other. A middle ground seemed lacking. He was equally concerned about
both extremes of behavior, either of which could destroy the constitutional
relationship. Importantly, because the polity belonged to the people, it was
their responsibility to behave in a way that would preserve it.
The ¬rst danger was that the colonists™ passive acceptance of the unjust laws
would cause “a dissolution of our constitution.”38 Accordingly, the ¬rst ill to
be combated was their submissiveness to the new act. Dickinson was surprised
that “little notice has been taken of [the Townshend Acts],” although they were
“as injurious in principle to the liberties of these colonies, as the Stamp Act.”39
In keeping with the Quaker belief in a popular review of laws, he wrote,
“Ought not the people therefore to watch? to observe facts? to search into
causes? to investigate designs? And have they not a right of JUDGING from the
evidence before them, on no slighter points then their liberty and happiness?”40
He concluded that their neglect of this duty was based in the ¬rst place on a
misunderstanding of the legitimate reach of government. “Millions entertain
no other idea of the legality of power, than it is founded upon the exercise
of power.” He continued, “They voluntarily fasten their chains, by adopting
the pusillanimous opinion ˜that there will be too much danger in attempting a
remedy™ “ or another opinion no less fatal “ ˜that the government has a right
to treat them as it does.™”41 This opinion was based on the understanding of
government as something that cannot be resisted by the people as a whole or
individuals. Dickinson™s stance was that resistance was not only acceptable,
it was a constitutional duty; it was the people™s responsibility to keep the
government within its proper bounds and preserve the constitution, and if they
did not resist unconstitutional laws, the polity would be destroyed by their own
There was also a second explanation for Americans™ submissiveness: a
“deplorable poverty of spirit, that prostrates the dignity bestowed by divine
providence on our nature.”42 Certainly Dickinson was using the word spirit
here as we understand it to mean courage or will; however, in the context of
his time and culture the meaning was deeper. It was, as he suggests, something
related to divinity, a God-given motivating force “ in Quaker parlance, the
Inner Light. Conformity or submission to ungodly laws was a denial of the
spirit of God itself. Immediate resistance against injustice, in other words, was
a divine injunction that supersedes human law. It was a spiritual as much as a
political act “ the two were, in fact, the same. And it was for the good of the
country. Dickinson said, “In such cases, it is a submission to divine authority,
which forbids us to injure our country; not to the assumed authority, on which
the unjust sentences were founded. But when submission becomes inconsistent

38 Dickinson, Essay on the constitutional power, 53.
39 Letters, 4.
40 Ibid., 37.
41 Ibid., 72.
42 Ibid.
216 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

with and destructive of the public good, the same veneration for and duty to
the divine authority, commands us to oppose.”43 He reiterated, “God has given
us the right and means of asserting [our freedom]. We may reasonably ask and
expect his gracious assistance in the reasonable employment of those means.
To look for miracles, while we abusively neglect the powers afforded us by
divine goodness, is not only stupid, but criminal.”44 When ignoring the call
to defend liberty and protect the country, Americans were “pusillanimously
deserting the post assigned to us by Divine Providence.”45 Resistance against
injustice was thus an act in keeping with a sacred constitution.
Because the Townshend Acts were as unconstitutional as the Stamp Act, he
argued in Quakerly language that “we should have born our testimony against
it.”46 Because Quakers believed in “publishing” injustices and oppression in
order to heighten awareness and encourage reform, Dickinson did not believe
that evading the oppression, as Bostonians had done in the Stamp Act crisis,
was suf¬cient for Americans.47 Certainly it would be possible for a time, he
acknowledged, to “elude this act” by inventing other materials to serve in place
of the ones taxed by Britain. But, he warned, “[America™s] ingenuity would
stand her in little stead; for then the parliament would have nothing to do but
to prohibit such manufactures.”48 Dickinson™s solution was more direct and
de¬nitive. The law must be challenged and changed; the demonstration must
be public and visible. This approach was rooted in the ancient Quaker practice
of bearing public witness to their persecution, testifying openly as martyrs for
God™s law against corrupted human law.
Dickinson™s success in rousing Americans to resistance is well known; but
he also anticipated the dangerous enthusiasm of their response. Although there
was no serious thought of revolution at this early date, Dickinson looked ahead,
keenly aware of the rapidity with which passion could overwhelm prudence.
The other threat to the country, therefore, was that the people would destroy
the constitutional relationship through their aggression: When “oppressions
and dissatisfactions [are] permitted to accumulate,” he explained, “if ever the
governed throw off the load, they will do more. A people,” he warned, “does
not reform with moderation.”49 The danger was not simply that Britain would
violate American rights, but that Americans would turn violent because of it.

43 Dickinson, Essay on the constitutional power, 105.
44 John Dickinson, “Letters to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies in America” (1774), in Still´
and Ford, Life and Writings, 2: 499.
45 John Dickinson, “Instructions of the Pennsylvania Convention” (1774), in Peter Force, ed.,
American Archives, ser. 4 (Washington, DC, 1837“53), 1: 595.
46 Letters, 7.
47 Maier describes how Bostonians began with violent resistance, but eventually settled on evasion
of the law as the most expedient way to handle the oppression (From Resistance to Revolution,
48 Letters, 25.
49 Ibid., 69.
“Dickinsonian Politics” in the American Revolution 217

Dickinson™s other point, then, articulated with like force, was to convince his
countrymen to restrain themselves in their protests. It was a delicate balance
to achieve, and a solution that most of Dickinson™s readers then and now have
overlooked. His remedy to the injustice was paci¬sm without passivity. “The
constitutional modes of obtaining relief,” he explained, “are those which I wish
to see pursued on the present occasion.” Just as there were laws that were con-
stitutional and unconstitutional, so were there actions that are in keeping with
the spirit of the constitution and those that departed from it. Working through
the established machinery was constitutional. Likewise, civil disobedience and
other nonviolent resistance, though illegal, were constitutional. Violent protest
and revolution were not. In the spirit of harmony within the polity, there-
fore, Dickinson presented himself as someone who was “by no means fond of
in¬‚ammatory measures” and explained that he would be “sorry that anything
should be done which might justly displease our sovereign.”50
Dickinson did not leave it to his readers to guess at, and perhaps miscon-
strue, his intentions in the heat of their passion for rights. He announced: “I will
now tell the gentlemen, what is ˜the meaning of these letters.™” “The meaning
of them,” he continued, “is to convince the people of these colonies, that they
are at this moment exposed to the most imminent dangers; and to persuade
them immediately, vigorously, and unanimously, to exert themselves, in the
most ¬rm, but most peaceable manner for obtaining relief.” But this is what
most readers today have missed. His aim was to impress upon them that rights
were important, but so was the process by which they were asserted. “The
cause of liberty,” he explained, “is a cause of too much dignity, to be sullied by
turbulence and tumult.”51 Those who believe that “riots and tumults” are the
only way to solve the problem are, says Dickinson, “much mistaken, if they
think that grievances cannot be redressed without such assistance.” He reiter-
ated the idea of political obligation that was at the core of Quaker political
thought: if a “government at some time or other falls into wrong measure”
this nevertheless “does not dissolve the obligation between the governors and
the governed.” “It is the duty of the governed,” he explained, “to endeavor to
rectify the mistake.”52 Like Penington and Penn, who argued throughout their
lives and works for orderly, yet dramatic constitutional change without revo-
lution, Dickinson suggested that a people “may change their king, or race of
kings, and, retaining their ancient form of government, be gainers by chang-
ing.” Because the colonies were not an independent nation, they had to be
especially careful as such change could result in independence, destruction of
the fundamental constitution, and the demise of America as it succumbed to
external threats and internal chaos.53

50 Ibid., 6.
51 Ibid., 17
52 Ibid., 18.
53 Ibid., 19.
218 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

Like other American founders, Dickinson had his eye on history for a guide,
but he used it differently from most of his countrymen. While Whig thinkers
used the English Civil War as an example of oppression rightly and effectively
resisted,54 Dickinson, following his Quaker predecessors, used it as a negative
example. Writing during and after the upheaval of the Civil War, Penington
saw not revolution but an orderly process of reform as a “last remedy,” and
Penn warned that when ¬rst principles were not preserved, “the Civil Gov-
ernment must receive and suffer a Revolution.”55 Likewise, Dickinson admon-
ished against the overt disrespect for the law that the Puritans demonstrated
in the revolt against Charles I. They could not, he argued, distinguish between
instances of the king™s legitimate exercise of the law and an imagined “system
of oppression.” Furthermore, “It was in vain,” he observed, “for prudent and
moderate men to insist that there was no necessity to abolish royalty.”56 He
agreed with those thinking in the Quaker tradition that it was a “subversion of
the constitution.”57 It was precisely this dif¬culty in delineating the boundaries
of gubernaculum and jurisdictio that made any resistance dif¬cult and peaceful
resistance essential.
Dickinson then described several steps that the colonists should take to tes-
tify against the British government. First, they must organize themselves for
their own protection, to eliminate the “confusion in our laws” that made the
colonies vulnerable to oppression by the crown;58 maintain “a perpetual jeal-
ousy” of their liberty; and exercise “utmost vigilance” against new oppressive
laws.59 This was the very purpose for which Quakers organized under the
name of the Meeting for Sufferings in 1676 to oppose their persecution, with
due respect to the government. They must retain power in themselves in order
to resist oppression. At ¬rst, however, a people™s rights were closely circum-
scribed in the beginning of a disagreement with the secular authorities. “[The
people] have not at ¬rst any other right,” he explained, “than to represent
their grievances, and to pray for redress.”60 Dickinson™s method would have

54 Bernard Bailyn emphasizes that the political thought of the English Civil War and Common-
wealth period brought the “disparate strands of thought together” for the Revolutionary leaders
(Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, 34).
55 Penington, Right, Safety and Liberty, 7; Penn, One Project, 1.
56 Letters, 70.
57 John Jones to John Dickinson, October 15, 1774. Small Manuscript Collection, John Dickinson
Letters, DPA.
58 In this instance, Dickinson was questioning parliamentary authority over the colonial legisla-
tures and arguing that the latter, along with the colonial courts, had the right to determine
which aspects of the British common law and statutes ought to apply to them in their particular
circumstances. His recommendation in practical terms was to pass laws in America delimiting
the extent of English laws in the colonies and allowing the courts to determine rules for their
regulation and practice (ibid., 55).
59 Ibid., 68.
60 Ibid., 18.
“Dickinsonian Politics” in the American Revolution 219

been very familiar to those who had attended a Quaker meeting “ to ful¬ll the
obligation to speak when led by God to do so, to “publish” one™s dissent:
[W]hile Divine Providence, that gave me existence in a land of freedom, permits my
head to think, my lips to speak, and my hand to move, I shall so highly and gratefully
value the blessing received, as to take care, that my silence and inactivity shall not give
my implied assent to any act, degrading my brethren and myself from the birthright,
wherewith heaven itself “hath made us free.”61

After they were suf¬ciently organized and in agreement about their grievances,
Dickinson then advised speaking through the ancient British tradition of “peti-
tioning of our assemblies.”62 But this was only the beginning of a process that
was increasingly informed by Quaker principles.
Should petitioning not be effective, there were other means of a “¬rm, but
modest exertion of a free spirit” on a “public occasion.”63 Only after all the
conventional measures had failed did “opposition become justi¬able.” But by
“opposition” Dickinson still did not mean violence or disruptive activities,
such as the mob uprisings so common at this time. Rather, he favored opposi-
tion “which can be made without breaking the laws, or disturbing the public
peace.”64 The course he outlined from there was one of peaceful resistance:
“This,” he explained, “consists in the prevention of the oppressors reaping
advantage from their oppressions, and not in their punishment.” Dickinson
suggested that “If . . . our applications to his Majesty and the parliament for re-
dress prove ineffectual, let us then take another step, by withholding from
Great Britain all the advantages she has been used to receive from us.”65 This
subtle suggestion would not have been lost on the colonists. It would have
been clear to his audience that Dickinson was referring to the boycotts and
civil disobedience against the Stamp Act only three years earlier.
They would also exert pressure on Parliament through the power of their
own provincial assemblies. With their “purse strings” the people “have a con-
stitutional check upon the administration, which may thereby be brought into
order without violence.” Using their own power, he argued, “is the proper and
successful way to obtain redress of grievances.” He asked, “How often have
[kings] been brought to reason, and peaceably obliged to do justice, by the
exertion of this constitutional authority of the people?”66 This is “the gentlest
method which human policy has yet been ingenious enough to invent.”67 This
is in part what he meant by bearing their testimony against the injustice. Only
if all these measures had been exploited and failed should revolution even be

61 Ibid., 16. Dickinson is citing St. Paul™s Letter to the Galatians 5:1.
62 Ibid., 20.
63 Ibid., 6.
64 Ibid., 18.
65 Ibid., 20.
66 Ibid., 51.
67 Ibid., 56.
220 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

considered. But these cases, he assured the colonists, are rare.68 In advocating
such peaceful means “ passing laws, petitioning, boycotting, engaging in civil
disobedience, and using monetary leverage “ Dickinson™s underlying message
was that the power and right are ultimately with the people to limit the gov-
ernment, but that they must do so as members of the constituted polity. Their
protest might be extralegal, but it should not be extraconstitutional.
If Dickinson™s overall message about resistance was emerging as different
from the political thought and methods of his countrymen, so too was his
patriotism of another sort. He expressed it as a God-given spirit of loyalty to
the British constitution that was not incompatible with a love of rights. It was
a “spirit that shall so guide you that it will be impossible to determine whether
an American™s character is most distinguishable for his loyalty to his Sovereign,
his duty to his mother country, his love for freedom, or his affection for his
native soil.”69 To Dickinson, those who might rush to revolution did so only
“under pretenses of patriotism.”70 He agreed with Penn who wrote, “Let us
go together as far as our way lies, and Preserve our Unity in those Principles,
which maintain our Civil Society . . . [I]t is both Wise and Righteous to admit
no Fraction upon this Pact, no violence upon this Concord.”71 In a prophetic
moment, Dickinson made a ¬nal attempt in his last letter to clarify his position
and preempt what would become the accepted interpretation of this work: “I
shall be extremely sorry, if any man mistakes my meaning in any thing I have
said.” “If I am an Enthusiast for any thing, it is in my zeal for the perpetual
dependence of these colonies on their mother country.”72 He closed the Letters
with the admonition to Americans to

call forth into use the good sense and spirit of which you are possessed. You have
nothing to do, but to conduct your affairs peaceably “ prudently “ ¬rmly “ jointly. By
these means you will support the character of freemen, without losing that of faithful
subjects “ a good character in any government “ the best under a British government.
You will prove, that Americans have that true magnanimity of soul, that can resent
injuries, without falling into rage.73

The Farmer™s Letters were thus intended for more than simple suggestions
on how to resist the British. They advocated change, but they were certainly not
intended to foment revolution. Rather, they were intended to do the opposite “
to save the constitutional relationship between Britain and America as the best
means to protect American liberty. This was clearly recognized by some, as
Dickinson was once portrayed leaning on a copy of the Magna Carta (Figure 7).
While super¬cially there is much in Dickinson™s argument that looks whiggish,

68 Ibid., 18.
69 Ibid.
70 Ibid., 17.
71 Penn, One Project, 6.
72 Letters, 82.
73 Ibid., 84.
“Dickinsonian Politics” in the American Revolution 221

figure 7. James Smither, “The Patriotic American Farmer” (1768). (LCP)

ultimately Whigs could justify revolution as legitimate; Dickinson, in this case,
did not.

Withdrawing Quakers and the Townshend Acts
The publication of the Farmer™s Letters marks a turning point in Dickinson™s
relationship with many Philadelphia Quakers. Although the Letters mobilized
most Americans to undertake economic sanctions, they did not sway many
Friends to acquiesce. In fact, while many agreed with the message of the Letters,
some disapproved of the timing and, as far as they were concerned, “impru-
dent” tone.74 Two months after the Letters appeared in the newspapers, Dick-
inson spoke to the reluctant Quaker merchants and appealed to their sense of
right and patriotism. He drew a comparison between the Stamp Act and the
current policy and urged that economic sanctions were necessary and that the
less aggressive measures pursued by the Pennsylvania Assembly, now led by

74 Mekeel, The Relation of the Quakers to the American Revolution, 35.
222 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

Dickinson™s political enemy, Joseph Galloway, were sure to fail. “Our Assem-
bly,” said Dickinson, “has applied for Relief from their Acts of Parliament. But
having nothing left to give, they could not enforce their Application by with-
holding Anything.” He continued, “It is, however, in our Power in a peaceable
Way, to add Weight, to the Remonstrance and Petition of our Representatives,
by stopping the Importation of Goods from Britain, until we obtain Relief and
Redress by a Repeal of these unconstitutional Acts.”75
Although Dickinson was greatly respected among the Quaker merchants,
many still were not convinced. Charles Thomson, soon-to-be secretary of the
Continental Congress, chastised Quakers for their lack of attention to the pub-
lic interest by quoting “the Farmer” and reminding them that the eyes of God
were upon them.76 Then ensued a vigorous public debate in the newspapers
between Thomson and Galloway, in which Dickinson also joined. Dickin-
son attacked the merchants for their inconsistent behavior. Whatever religious
grounds Friends may have claimed for this new stance, Dickinson would not
accept it. He charged them with sacri¬cing their patriotism to their self-interest.
During the Stamp Act, he explained,

Your Patriotism and private Interests were so intimately connected that you could not
prostitute the one, without endangering the other: and you would have been particularly
fortunate, if Great-Britain, when she repealed the Stamp-Act, had redressed all your
Grievances; and had never thought of imposing new ones “ You would, then, have been
distinguished, in the Annals of America, among her best and most virtuous sons, for a
timely and resolute Defense of her Liberties; . . . But Charles Townshend, with an artful
and penetrating Eye, saw clearly to the Bottom of your Hearts . . . To this Gentlemen,
you must attribute the Loss of your Reputation.77

Although Dickinson himself was a wealthy man and potentially had much
to lose from either severing ties with Britain or defeat at her hands, he believed
that, insofar as the two could be distinguished, rights were sacred while prop-
erty was replaceable.78 In 1775 he wrote to Arthur Lee, “Our Towns are but
brick and stone, and mortar and wood; they, perhaps, may be destroyed; they
are only the hairs of our heads; if sheared ever so close, they will grow again. We
compare them not with our rights and liberties.” The “Quaker Reformation”
of 1756 was an indication that many Friends believed that, over the course of
the eighteenth century, the Society had come to privilege money over other-
worldly concerns. But Dickinson clearly thought that they had not reformed
enough as a body. He held to an earlier understanding of Quaker priorities

75 Dickinson, “An Address Read to a Meeting of Merchants to Consider Non-Importation”
(1768), in Still´ and Ford, Life and Writings, 2: 415.
76 Schlesinger, Colonial Merchants, 118“19.
77 Dickinson, “Letter to the Philadelphia Merchants Concerning Non-Importation” (1768), in
Still´ and Ford, Life and Writings, 2: 441.
78 John Phillip Reid, Constitutional History of the American Revolution: The Authority of Law
(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 214.
“Dickinsonian Politics” in the American Revolution 223

and applied them to the current political situation. “We worship as our fathers
worshipped,” he explained, “not idols which our hands have made.”79
This dispute highlights the differences between Dickinson™s priorities and
methods and those that PYM was coming to advocate. Despite Dickinson™s
charges, many in PYM were interested in protecting liberties “ both religious
and economic. But these Quakers had a narrower scope in mind than did
Dickinson. Thomson complained that “[t]he Quakers oppose from various
motives.”80 Although there were Patriots among them, some were primarily
concerned with their particular interests in Pennsylvania.81 What “Loyalism”
existed among Quakers was more likely to be loyalty to their 1701 Charter
rather than the British constitution. In addition to the unique liberties that
the Charter provided them, Pennsylvania was ¬‚ourishing economically in spite
of the new taxes, and Quakers might have reckoned that some taxation was
a small price to pay for stability. The alternatives did not look promising. If
America should lose a struggle with the British, they might ¬nd themselves
under Anglican rule. If, on the other hand, America prevailed, Presbyterians
and others hostile to Quakerism might overwhelm the province. As it was, the
animosity that had been building against Quakers for years and was coming
to a head in the current contest boded ill for Friends and their religious liber-
ties. As John Jones put it, “all wise & virtuous men so ardently wish for an
accommodation, for if wee come to blows, I must sorely own I shou™d dread a
victory almost as much as a defeat.”82 In either case, Quakers would be much
worse off than under their own Charter. Other Friends, while they supported
the American cause, simply could not take part in resistance they believed
would lead to violence.83 But there were also those Quakers who genuinely
wished to remove themselves from the tumult of the world. “They want to
do nothing,” said Thomson, “& withdraw themselves from the general cause
for fear their religious principles may be affected by the struggle.”84 Minister
Job Scott con¬rmed this: “I had no desire to promote the opposition to Great
Britain; neither had I any desire on the other hand to promote the measures

79 John Dickinson to Arthur Lee, 29 April 1775, in American Archives, 2: 445. Similarly, a Quaker
wrote, “God dwelleth not in temples made by hands, neither is worshipped with mens hands.”
George Bishop, The Burden of Babylon and the Triumph of Zion as it was seen in the Valley
of Vision (1661), 5.
80 Charles Thomson Memorandum Book, June 10“11, 1774, Simon Gratz Autograph Collection,
HSP. On this occasion, Dickinson proposed a plan for electing delegates to the congress that
was the same as how representatives to the Assembly were elected.
81 For a discussion of the practical concerns of many Quakers, see Thomas M. Doer¬‚inger,
“Philadelphia Merchants and the Logic of Moderation, 1760-1775,” WMQ, 3rd Ser., vol. 40,
no. 2 (1983): 197“226.
82 John Jones to John Dickinson, March 20, 1775, Incoming Correspondence, Sept. 22, 1759“June
23, 1782, JDP/LCP.
83 See also Anne M. Ousterhout, A State Divided: Opposition in Pennsylvania to the American
Revolution (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987), 29“32.
84 Thomson Memorandum Book, June 10“11, 1774, HSP.
224 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

or success of Great Britain.”85 The Society as a body thus began to revive its
1756 stance and adopted a more reserved position than Dickinson. By 1769
its of¬cial policy was that the increasingly strict economic sanctions should be
avoided. Philadelphia Monthly Meeting and Philadelphia Meeting for Suffer-
ings advised against taking part in nonimportation and threatened disownment
of those who transgressed the peace testimony.86
In his Letters, and then in his subsequent efforts to convince Quaker mer-


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