was consistent with the Quakerism of Pennsylvania politics from the found-
ing of the province until only very recently. âHeaven,â he wrote, âseems to
have placed in our hands means of an effectual, yet peaceable resistance, if
we have the sense and integrity to make proper use of them. A general agree-
ment between these colonies of non-importation and non-exportation faithfully
observed would certainly be attended with success.â87 And many Friends still
held these views. A good number of the Quaker merchants ultimately sided
with Dickinson in thinking that resistance in the form of boycotting was just,
but that violence or rebellion was not.88 And although Quaker merchants
as a group were slow to join intercolonial nonimportation committees, they
were some of the most active boycotters as individuals.89 Nonimportation in
Philadelphia, however, was never an entire success without the support of
PYM, the Assembly, and the whole merchant class.
The differences that were beginning to surface between Dickinsonâ™s position
and the Society of Friends were indicative of a growing rift in the Society itself.
For whatever reason â“ whether principle or proď¬t â“ the majority of Friends,
or at least the ones who controlled PYM, were becoming increasingly reserved
in their protest against Britain. Meanwhile, a signiď¬cant number were growing
more enthusiastic in their resistance. Almost a century after the Revolution,
Abraham Lincoln summarized their situation. âOn principle and faith, opposed
to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by
war,â he wrote. âIn this hard dilemma, some [Quakers] have chosen one horn
and some another.â90 Lincoln wrote these words in the midst of the Civil
War; but this very dilemma for Quakers had always been present to a degree.
Until now, however, there had been no incident great enough to endanger the
Society seriously. But with so much at stake, and after more than ninety years
of cultivated dissent in Pennsylvania, the time was ripe for a change.
85 Scott, Journal of the Life, Travels, and Gospel Labours, 53.
86 Mekeel, The Relation of the Quakers to the American Revolution, 34â“48; Schlesinger, Colonial
87 John Dickinson, âLetters to the Inhabitants of the British Coloniesâ (1774), in StillÂ´ and Ford,
Life and Writings, 2: 499.
88 Mekeel, The Relation of the Quakers to the American Revolution, 46â“47; Schlesinger, Colonial
89 Mekeel, The Relation of the Quakers to the American Revolution, 36â“40.
90 Abraham Lincoln to Eliza P. Gurney, September 4, 1864, in Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected
Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 7: 535.
âDickinsonian Politicsâ in the American Revolution 225
The Pivotal Years, 1774â“1775
Since the Farmerâ™s Letters, Dickinsonâ™s reputation in Pennsylvania had grown
exponentially, and by 1774 he could be rightly considered the leader of the
resistance movement, not just in that colony but, at least for the moment, in
America as a whole.91 Joseph Reed conveyed that âAt this time
Mr. Dickinson was in the highest point of Reputation, & possessed a vast inď¬‚uence
not only over the public at large but among the Quakers in particular . . . No person in
Pennsylvania ever approached as a rival in personal inď¬‚uence. In short he was of that
weight, that it seemed to depend on his being present at the meeting whether or not
there should be any measures in opposition to Britain in consequence of it.
Moreover, it was âowing to his â˜farmerâ™s letters,â™ and his conduct, that there
was a present disposition to dispose the tyranny of Parliament.â92
The progress and process of the resistance thus depended in large part on
him. The meeting to which Reed was referring was on May 20 to decide
Philadelphiaâ™s response to the Coercive Acts. The triumvirate who planned it,
Reed, Thomson, and Thomas Mifď¬‚in, knew that they would not have cre-
dence without Dickinsonâ™s approbation of the proceedings. They proposed in
advance, âif necessary that, the conduct should be carried to extremity.â Dick-
inson was reportedly âshocked.â He admitted that âopposition ought to be
used,â but âthat the public proceedings could not be too cautious and temper-
ate.â Accordingly, in the meeting itself, Dickinson made his appearance after
the others had exhorted the audience so passionately that Thomson fainted
from his efforts and âmoderate[d] that ď¬re, by proposing measures of a more
gentle nature.â âThe contrast between the two measures advised,â the report
reads, â& Mr. Dickinsonâ™s weight precipitated the company into an adoption
of the latter; which being so gentle in its appearance, was a great relief against
the violence of the ď¬rst.â Following the meeting, amidst turmoil and conď¬‚ict
between Quakers and radicals over how to express support for Boston, Dick-
inson appealed to the colonists to remember the success of their own peaceful
efforts in the Stamp Act controversy. Despite the fact there was great clamor for
nonimportation, in a series of letters in late May and early June, he praised his
countrymen in their handling of an earlier controversy, writing, âYou behaved
as you ought . . . You proceeded in your usual business without any regard to
[the Stamp Act] . . . The act [was] thus revoked by youâ before it was formally
repealed by Parliament.93 He called for the same âvirtual repealâ that Quakers
91 In âJohn Dickinson as President of Pennsylvania,â Pennsylvania History vol. 28, no. 3 (1961),
254â“267, J. H. Powell says that he âdominated the Congressâ (255). The editors of the Delegates
speak of âThe Farmerâ™s extraordinary fame and inď¬‚uenceâ (1: 194). It is puzzling how Eric Foner
can conclude that in the early 1770s Dickinson âlapsed into political silence as the movement
for independence acceleratedâ (Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, 108.).
92 âCopy of a paper drawn up by Joseph Reed for W. Henry Drayton,â n.d., Maria Dickinson
Logan Collection, HSP.
93 John Dickinson, âLetters to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies,â in StillÂ´ and Ford, Life
and Writings, 2: 475, 476, 479.
226 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
had always practiced. Their continued success in this vein against the Coercive
Acts was not unreasonable.
One of Dickinsonâ™s most signiď¬cant contributions to the resistance cause
arose out of Philadelphiaâ™s response to the Coercive Acts â“ the organization
of measures that would lead to the convening of the Continental Congress.
He proposed a broad-based committee of freeholders representing all segments
of society. This committee would then instruct Pennsylvaniaâ™s congressmen in
a colony-wide congress.94 Interestingly, Dickinson was not a member of the
First Continental Congress when it met for the ď¬rst time on September 5, 1774.
He could not become one until he was elected to the Assembly (which, it had
been determined, should appoint the delegates) on September 19. John Adams
approved, noting âthe Change in the elections for this City and County is no
small event. Mr. Dickinson and Mr. Thompson, now joined to Mr. Mifď¬‚in,
will make a great weight in favour of the American Cause.â95 But not being a
formal member of that body did not stop him from drafting the several of the
ď¬rst and most important documents.96
Congress among the Quakers
Quaker unity was failing rapidly about how to oppose oppression when the
delegates convened for the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. But at
ď¬rst, these differences were by no means clear to outsiders. As the delegates
gathered and deliberated in Quaker Philadelphia, they did not yet understand
the depths or complexities of the culture with its strong inclinations for both
unity and dissent. Neither did they yet see that the Society was dividing on
the best course to secure the rights for which they had always aimed. Instead
they were impressed with more readily visible things â“ the Quakerism that
permeated the city. They were fascinated, affronted, enticed, and perplexed
by Quaker proselytizing â“ the distinctive dress, speech, and manners of their
hosts â“ and commented frequently and favorably, at least at ď¬rst, on Quakers
being interesting, clever, and pleasing with their politeness and hospitality,
informal yet elegant manners, plain dress, and their âTheeâ™s and Thouâ™s.â97
94 See âNotes of a meeting of a number of Gentlemen convened on 10 June 1774,â in âMemoran-
dum Book, 1754â“1774,â 159â“62, Charles Thomson Papers, Simon Gratz Autograph Collection,
HSP; John Dickinson, Pennsylvania Journal, and the Weekly Advertiser, June 22, 1774. Also,
Ryerson, The Revolution Is Now Begun, 47â“48.
95 L. H. Butterď¬eld, ed., Diary and Autobiography of John Adams (Cambridge, MA: Belknap
Press, Harvard University, 1961), 2: 147.
96 These include the Bill of Rights [and] a List of Grievances, âMemorial to the Inhabitants of
the Colonies,â the First Petition to the King, and An Address from Congress to the Inhabitants
of Quebec. For discussion of the authorship of these documents, some of which had been
attributed to other delegates, see James H. Hutson, comp. and ed., A Decent Respect to the
Opinions of Mankind: Congressional State Papers, 1774â“1776 (Washington, DC: Library of
Congress, 1976), 50â“52; and Delegates, 1: 194.
97 Silas Deane to Elizabeth Deane, Aug. 31 and Sept. 3, 10â“11, 1774, Delegates, 1: 16, 23, and
62; John Adamsâ™s Diary, Sept. 7, 1774, Delegates, 1: 33.
âDickinsonian Politicsâ in the American Revolution 227
The inď¬‚uence Friends had on the delegates was both positive and negative,
social and personal, but also increasingly and profoundly political.
For some of the delegates, Quakerism was very appealing. Silas Deane of
Connecticut was especially taken with Philadelphia and its Quaker culture. He
wrote repeatedly to his wife of his positive impressions of the city and people.
âThe aspect of the Inhabitants, bespeak them, affable & Clever, and the Freind
[sic] or Quaker habit was always agreeable To me,â he admitted.98 Deane, so
charmed by the distinctive Quaker speech, could not refrain from quoting it:
â[E]very one of my Quaker Friends I meet tells Me, Thee lookest very well
Freind Dean.â99 Living in such close proximity to Friends and ď¬nding them
so agreeable made Deane consider becoming a convinced Friend himself. â[I]
have almost resolved,â he wrote Elizabeth, âif I alter To Turn Quaker.â100
For other delegates, however, the Quaker culture and customs were simply
strange. By way of excusing himself for not wishing his correspondent a merry
Christmas and happy new year, James Duane wrote, âI am in a Quaker Town.
No body has wished me the Compliments of the Season, & I forgot to pay
you that Respect.â101 John Adams was clearly fascinated with Friends and, as
his opinion about them ď¬‚uctuated from one extreme to the other, he recorded
his thoughts and observations of their peculiarities. âDined with the whole
Congress at the City Tavern, at the Invitation of the House of Representatives
of the Province of Pensylvania,â he wrote in his diary in October 1774. â[T]he
whole House dined with Us, making near 100 Guests in the whole â“ a most
elegant Entertainment. A Sentiment was given, â˜May the Sword of the Parent
never be Stainâ™d with the Blood of her Children.â™â Adams noted that âTwo or
3 broadbrims, over against me at Table â“ one of em said this is not a Toast but
a Prayer, come let us join in it â“ and they took their Glasses accordingly.â102
It is hard to know precisely Adamsâ™s thoughts on this scene. It may be that
he was commenting on the antiquated Pennsylvania laws against toasting and,
perhaps, the subtle hypocrisy of cloaking a toast in a prayer; or possibly the
Quaker support for the Revolutionary cause.
With such eminent men visiting their own city, Philadelphia Quakers were
not about to let the opportunity to exert their inď¬‚uence pass them by. The
Massachusetts Baptists, who had been undertaking a nonviolent campaign of
their own for religious freedom in Massachusetts, appealed to the Quakers to
confront the Massachusetts delegates on their behalf about the restriction of
their religious freedoms in that colony.103 After the delegates had convened,
98 Silas Deane to Elizabeth Deane, August 31, 1774, Delegates, 1: 16.
99 Ibid., September 19, 1774, Delegates, 1: 84.
100 Ibid., September 3, 1774, Delegates, 1: 23.
101 James Duane to Robert Livingston, January 5, 1776, Delegates, 3: 34.
102 John Adamsâ™s Diary, October 20, 1774, Delegates, 1: 221.
103 In her study of the rise of Baptists in the South, Christine Leigh Heyrman ď¬nds that Baptists were
greatly inď¬‚uenced by Quaker practice, to the point of emulating them in dress, deportment,
and meeting style. See Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1997). For more on the Baptistsâ™ civil disobedience in Massachusetts, see McLoughlin,
âMassive Civil Disobedience.â
228 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
Adams and a number of other men from Massachusetts were summoned to
appear before a committee of Quakers, headed by Israel Pemberton, meeting
in Carpenterâ™s Hall. Here Friends took the delegates to task because âthe laws
of New England, and particularly of Massachusetts, were inconsistent with
[liberty of conscience], for they not only compelled men to pay to the building of
churches and support of ministers, but to go to some known religious assembly
on ď¬rst days, etc.â104 Bernard Bailyn includes this event in his chapter on the
âContagion of Liberty,â calling it âan extraordinary episode, demonstrating
vividly the mutual reinforcement that took place in the Revolution between the
struggles for civil and religious liberty.â105 But in Pennsylvania history, this
episode was nothing very extraordinary. The âgreat number of Quakers seated
at the long table with their broad brimmed beavers on their headsâ were simply
doing what they had always done â“ treating in a solemn manner with a person
or group whom they hoped to convince of their principles and to persuade to
amend their ways to be âas they were in Pennsylvania.â106 It demonstrated to
the Revolutionary leaders that the Quakers were persistent and aggressive in
exerting what pressure they could to mold society in their image.
As America moved toward civil war with Great Britain, the political leaders
were anxious that the colonists unite and show support for the American
cause. They were eagerly attentive to the tenor of popular opinion in each
colony. At this crucial moment, the delegates looked to the behavior of the
Quaker population as a barometer with which to gauge the patriotic sentiment
of the whole country. With Quakers known for their caution and desire to
preserve peace, the delegates felt they could be sure the colonists were united
and ready for resistance when Quakers joined the cause. Indicative of the
Quakersâ™ continued ambivalence toward resistance, John Adams observed that
there was âa most laudable Zeal, and an excellent Spirit, which every Day
increases, especially in this City. The Quakers had a General Meeting here
last Sunday, and are deeply affected with the Complexion of the Times. They
have recommended it to all their People to renounce Tea.â107 The ď¬rst battles
of the war brought a wave of patriotism and support from even many of the
âstiff Quakersâ who had earlier opposed the resistance.108 In June of 1775,
the Pennsylvania Assembly, still more than half Quaker, recommended the
formation of a Military Association for the protection of the city.109
Throughout the spring and summer of that year, one delegate after another
remarked incredulously on the general enthusiasm for the coming conď¬‚ict, with
Quaker activity as the chief indicator. Joseph Hewes surely exaggerated when
104 John Adams quoted in Theodore Thayer, Israel Pemberton, King of the Quakers (Philadelphia:
Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1943), 209.
105 Bernard Bailyn, âContagion of Liberty,â in Ideological Origins of the American Revolution
(Cambridge: Belknap Press, Harvard University, 1967), 268.
106 John Adams quoted in Thayer, Israel Pemberton, 209.
107 John Adams to William Tudor, September 29, 1774, Delegates, 1: 130.
108 Christopher Marshall quoted in Thayer, Pennsylvania Politics, 165.
109 PA, 8: 7237â“7240; Thayer, Pennsylvania Politics, 166.
âDickinsonian Politicsâ in the American Revolution 229
he wrote that âAll the Quakers except a few of the old Rigid ones have taken up
arms.â â[T]here is not one Company,â he explained more realistically, âwith-
out several of these people in it, and I am told one or two of the Companies are
composed entirely of Quakers.â110 Congressman Richard Caswell compared
Pennsylvania to other colonies, writing, âHere a Greater Martial Spirit prevails
if possible, than I have been describing in Virginia & Maryland.â His proof
was that âthere are Several Companies of Quakers only.â Moreover, they were
enrolling âpromiscuouslyâ in other companies and rumor had it that âthey will
in a few days have 3000 Men under Arms ready to defend their Liberties.â111
Silas Deane was impressed by the âhigh Spiritsâ in the city, evinced by the fact
that âthe very Quakers have taken Arms, & imbodied themselves, & exercise
many of them Twice every Day.â â[B]ut,â he added cautiously, as though the
âď¬ghting Quakersâ were the secret weapon of the rebel army, âlet no hint of
this, get into the public papers.â112
But if these accounts are to be trusted, it would have been hard indeed to
hide the preparations underway. In addition to the large numbers of Quakers
forming into militias, several of the most celebrated Revolutionary military and
political leaders were either Friends, or had very close ties to them, including,
Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Wharton, Jr., Christopher Marshall, Thomas Mif-
ď¬‚in, Samuel Meredith, Owen and Clement Biddle, Samuel Morris, Jr., Thomas
Paine, Nathanael Greene, and Timothy Matlack. Quakers, together with the
rest of the city, âSeem Animated with one soul & Spirit for the most Vigorous
defence of American rights & Liberty.â113 With this demonstration of sup-
port from Quakers indicating the level of commitment of America as a whole
to the cause, the delegates were encouraged that Great Britain would have to
acknowledge them as a formidable enemy. Roger Sherman wrote conď¬dently to
Joseph Trumbull: âyou may be sure we are in earnest, when [Quakers] handle
But more than just serving as a barometer for popular sentiment, Quakers
were a concern to the delegates for other and contradictory reasons. In the
mid-1770s, Friends still held considerable political, economic, and social inď¬‚u-
ence over Pennsylvania. On the one hand, those ď¬ghting against the Americans
recognized this inď¬‚uence as a signiď¬cant force. A spy for the British reported in
June of 1775 that â[t]here was a general review of the militia of this City this
day . . . among them there was some Company of Quackers: this example (of
the quackers) will have a great effect over all the Country people.â115 Similarly,
Hessian ofď¬cer Johann Heinrichs wrote that â[t]hose true Americans who take
110 Joseph Hewes to Samuel Johnston, May 11, 1775, Delegates, 1: 342.
111 Richard Caswell to William Caswell, May 11, 1775, Delegates, 1: 340.
112 Silas Deane to John Trumbull, May 12, 1775, Delegates, 25: 553.
113 Eliphalet Dyer to Joseph Trumbull, May 18, 1775, Delegates, 1: 357. On the religious afď¬liation
of the radicals, see Ryerson, âPolitical Mobilization,â 578â“81.
114 A Delegate in Congress to a Correspondent in London August 24, 1775, Delegates, 1: 705.
115 Gilbert Barkly to Grey Cooper, June 7, 1775, in Geoffrey Seed, âA British Spy in Philadelphia,â
PMHB vol. 85 (1961), 3â“37, 10.
230 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
the greatest part [in the Revolution], are the famous Quakers. The most cele-
brated, the ď¬rst ones in entire Pennsylvania and Philadelphia and Boston, are,
properly speaking, the heads of the Rebellion.â116 The rebel army, in both its
good and bad attributes, was seemingly inď¬‚uenced by Quaker behavior that
Heinrichs found distasteful. The soldiersâ™ âbravery is surprisingly enhanced by
the enthusiasm engendered by falsehood and vagaries, which are drilled into
them, so that it requires but time and leadership to make them formidable.â
But their weakness was also a Quaker by-product: â[T]he great thing wanting
with them is subordination; for their very spirit of independence is detrimen-
tal to them; as Hans cannot concede that Peter, who is his neighbour should
This spirit of independence that Heinrichs observed was native to Pennsyl-
vania. Gordon Wood notes the interesting development within the Pennsyl-
vania political culture in the years leading to the Revolution. âIt is ironic,â
he writes, âthat both the Revolution and the rhetoric should have been so
violently extreme in Pennsylvania.â But as Wood hints at last, it was not so
very ironic that the freedoms of Pennsylvania would result in a heightened
revolutionary sentiment in that province. âBy its blend of natural rusticity and
Quaker simplicity,â writes Wood, âPennsylvania had become the epitome of
all that was good in the New World; . . . it was to America what America was
to the rest of the world â“ a peculiar âland of freedom.â âIts very elements
of freedom,â Wood concludes, âbred a revolutionary situation.â118 The âvery
elementsâ of Pennsylvania to which Wood is referring were endemic in Penn-
sylvania political culture. In the ď¬rst seventy years of the colonyâ™s life, Quakers
had cultivated a culture of dissent and resistance to what they perceived to
be arbitrary authority that spread well beyond the bounds of their immedi-
ate Society and party to permeate the entire political culture of the colony. It
was this radical dissenting culture that led to Benjamin Franklinâ™s campaign
for royal government, and which was now manifesting itself against the royal
government. It is no surprise, considering the extreme culture of dissent and
resistance that the Quakers fostered in their government, that many of the
most radical Revolutionaries would emerge from Pennsylvania. What Quakers
had wanted to instill was Christian morality, unity, ď¬delity to government, and
peaceful dissent. What they wanted were John Dickinsons; what they got were
Benjamin Franklins and Thomas Paines.119
This oppositional energy could and did work in favor of the American cause,
but, despite the highly visible military demonstrations of some Quakers and
116 Johann Heinrichs, âExtracts from the Letter-Book of Captain Johann Heinrichs of the Hessian
Jager Corps, 1778â“1780,â PMHB vol. 22, no. 2 (1898), 137â“70, 137â“38.
117 Ibid., 139.
118 Wood, Creation of the American Republic, 85â“86.
119 See also R. R. Palmer, who writes: âQuaker individualism and rational abstraction com-
bined to produce in [Paine] the pure type of cosmopolitan revolutionary,â in âTom Paine:
Victim of the Rights of Man,â PMHB vol. 66, no 2 (1942), 161â“175, 169. It should be
noted, however, that Palmer conď¬‚ates Quakerism and Puritanism. See also fn. 145 in this
âDickinsonian Politicsâ in the American Revolution 231
their apparent unanimity in the Assembly, it was clear to none yet exactly
where Friends as a body stood on the question of war and independence. Nor
was it clear to supporters of the war exactly how Quakers might use their sub-
stantial power of inď¬‚uence in this complicated political struggle. While most
of the delegates celebrated the Quakersâ™ example and leadership in the early
preparations for the conď¬‚ict, others, such as Joseph Hewes, were leery that
Quakers were the leaders of a capricious oppositional fervor that might easily
turn in any direction. âA military spirit has diffused itself in an extraordinary
manner throâ™ this Province,â wrote Hewes. â[I]t is said a Majority of the Quak-
ers have taken up Arms certain it is that many in this City have done it, some
of which are Ofď¬cers and appear in Uniform. This strong current of opposition
to ministerial measures in some instances bordering on licentiousness calls for
the most prudent and temperate deliberations of the Congress.â120
In the early phase of the conď¬‚ict during the taxation controversies when the
imbalance seemed to favor the crown and weight needed to be thrown behind
American rights, economic sanctions and other protests seemed reasonable and
appropriate to Friends. At this point, Quaker protest appeared to be a species
of Whiggism. By the mid-1770s, PYM, led by those who were inclined to with-
draw, was enacting its role as trimmer and shifting its weight to the other side
of the ship, away from resistance to preserve constitutional status quo. The re-
sult was the ď¬rst real separation in the history of Quakerism, based on the
divisions that began in the 1750s. A radical group calling themselves âFree
Quakersâ discarded the peace testimony by taking up arms and broke with
PYM. Also known as the âFighting Quakers,â it was these Friends whose mil-
itary preparations the delegates were watching with such interest. Philadelphia
Yearly Meeting declared in 1776: âUnder afď¬‚iction and sorrow we painfully
feel, for the deviation of some, who have made profession with us, from our
peaceable principles.â121 Accordingly, the Free Quakers were read out of PYM,
and they formed their own society in 1781.122 Several members then went on
to earn distinguished records in military leadership.
Because of PYMâ™s resistance to violence, eventually people articulated the
distinction between Quakers and Whigs that hinged on their paciď¬sm. Across
the Atlantic in 1780, Horace Walpole said, âI am a settled Whig; for if one
thinks, one must before my age have ď¬xed oneâ™s creed by the lamp of oneâ™s
own reason: but I have much Quakerism in my composition, and prefer peace
to doctrines.â123 As the conď¬‚ict advanced, the Revolutionary leaders ceased to
120 Joseph Hewes to Samuel Johnston, May 23, 1775, Delegates, 397.
121 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Minutes, 21st of the 9th mo. 1776, HQC.
122 Isaac Sharpless, The Quakers in the Revolution (1902); Facsimile (Honolulu: University Press
of the Paciď¬c, 2002), 209.
123 Horace Walpole to Sir Horace Mann, April 17, 1780, in W. S. Lewis et al., eds., Horace
Walpoleâ™s Correspondence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971), 25: 40. In a letter
to Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris makes a similar, though less charitable distinction,
identifying Samuel Howel[l?], a powerful merchant, as âA Quaker who would have been a
Whig, if he had not been afraidâ (Morris to Hamilton, January 27, 1784. The Papers of
Alexander Hamilton, Harold C. Syrett, et al., eds. [New York: Colombia University Press,
1967], 3: 498â“503. 500).
232 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
generalize Friends by the example of those who would ď¬ght and began char-
acterizing them by the ones who would not. Indeed, it was the case that most
Quakers were now more concerned with preserving their province of Penn-
sylvania than resisting British policy, and they attempted to quell the growing
radicalism among their countrymen.124 Since the early 1770s, PYM had begun
to publicize its concerns much more broadly and forcefully than before. For
example, leaders sent an epistle to New York Friends encouraging them to
maintain their peaceful principles, âsince by doing so might inď¬‚uence others to
follow a more peaceful course.â125 And they sent epistles and testimonies in
the same vein to the other colonies.126
One of the most notable Quaker-informed products of the period was writ-
ten by Joseph Galloway. His 1774 Plan of Union seems to represent a tra-
ditional Quaker stance on the conď¬‚ict. Galloway, like Dickinson and PYM
Quakers, was intent on preserving the relationship with Britain. In his Plan,
he proposed a new governmental structure for the colonies that would unite
it more ď¬rmly with Britain. Among other features of this new government, it
would give Americans representation in Parliament, but it would also make
the colonies clearly subordinate to Britain. Although the colonists would retain
some authority over local matters, the executive and upper house appointed by
the king would keep them ď¬rmly under British control. After Gallowayâ™s pro-
posal was rejected by Congress, he soon left Pennsylvania to support the British
in New York. This would seem to be the most likely path for conscientious
Quakers to take.
There were remaining Quakers and their ilk who, thinking like Dickinson,
were neither reluctant to defend their rights as Americans, nor, like the Free
Quakers, quick to take up arms. John Jones, a New York physician and John
Dickinsonâ™s cousin, was one of these.127 Jones expressed his opinion to Dickin-
son on the proper course to pursue during the conď¬‚ict. He desired âthe recon-
ciliation between England & her Colonies, upon . . . constitutional principles,â
because those âuninď¬‚uenced by party or selď¬sh viewsâ know that âpreserve[ing]
that union . . . alone must constitute our political salvation.â At the moment,
however, he felt âan equal mixture of shame & indignation at the contemptible
part which our own Province has exhibited to the world.â Accordingly, he laid
out to Dickinson âthe thing which is right.â Sending delegates to Congress and
124 Mekeel, The Relation of the Quakers to the American Revolution, 85.
125 Ibid., 47.
126 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Meeting for Sufferings Minutes, 1771â“80, FHL.
127 Dr. John Jones was the preeminent American surgeon in the colonies and early Republic, instru-
mental in organizing the medical department of the Continental Army during the Revolution,
attended to Washington, and was at Franklinâ™s deathbed. Charles A. Gliozzo, âJohn Jones,â
American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 12: 214â“16. He
is described as a âpious, almost a primitive Quakerâ by J. H. Powell, and also as a Quaker
in Gliossoâ™s entry, but the Dictionary of Quaker Biography in the Haverford College Quaker
Collection notes without elaboration that he was disowned. See also J. H. Powell, ď¬nding aid,
item 360, JDP/LCP.
âDickinsonian Politicsâ in the American Revolution 233
âstrictly adher[ing] toâ nonimportation was right; obstructing these measures
was not. Equally wrong, however, were the âignorant hotheaded Demagogues,
whose highest views extended no farther than leading a mob round the City.â
All parties should unite, he said, âin opposing such shameful violence.â He
looked to Dickinson to solve the problem: â[H]appy the man who couâ™d chalk
out a system of Legislative policy which would preserve to England her just
Authority, & secure to Americans the rights of Englishmen. Labour at it my
The year 1775 was a pivotal one for the cause â“ as Dickinsonâ™s stance
remained the same, the world around him turned. As he put it himself, his
principles and creed had not changed âa single Iotaâ since the conď¬‚ict began.
âI have never had & now have not any Idea of Happiness for these Colonies for
several ages to come, but in a State of Dependence upon & subordination to
our Parent State.â129 He was still in fundamental, though not total agreement
with most Friends. In February, congressional delegate and speaker of the
Pennsylvania Assembly Edward Biddle wrote, âWe are all in Confusion. The
Quakers are moving Heaven & Earth to defeat the Measures of the Congress
& introduce a Submission to Parliamt.â130 In this year, as the nation and
Philadelphia were precariously balanced between peace and war, Dickinsonâ™s
job as trimmer was the most delicate it would be.
Perhaps the best example of Dickinsonâ™s political philosophy and his stance
as trimmer during this period is his authorship of two apparently opposing
documents that appeared on consecutive days in 1775 â“ The Olive Branch
Petition, issued by Congress on July 5, and the Declaration for the Causes and
Necessity of Taking up Arms, issued the sixth. The Olive Branch Petition is the
best known of his efforts at reconciliation. A reluctant and impatient Congress
appointed a committee to draft a plea to the crown. John Jay produced a draft
with harsh language and threats of rebellion, but it was Dickinsonâ™s version,
proclaiming the coloniesâ™ suffering and their loyalty to the king and placing
the blame for the controversy with the kingâ™s ministers, that was adopted
and submitted.131 The king, of course, dismissed the petition, and the war
We must not forget, however, that Dickinson was not a Quaker; he was
not a rigid paciď¬st in the most basic sense of rejecting all violence in every
circumstance. He believed in the âlawfulness of defensive war.â He strove
for the best outcome, but prepared for the worst, continuing to press for
reconciliation, even as he prepared for war. In June he had become the chairman
of the Committee on Public Safety and in that capacity organized a company
128 John Jones to John Dickinson, March 20, 1775, Incoming Correspondence, Sept. 22, 1759 â“
June 23, 1782, JDP/LCP.
129 John Dickinson, âNotes for a Speech in Congress,â May 23, 1775, Delegates, 1: 378.
130 Edward Biddle to Jonathan Pott, February 25, 1775, Delegates, 1: 315.
131 John Jay, draft of the Olive Branch Petition, 1775, in Government Documents, Revolution and
Early National Period, 1765â“1788, JDP/LCP.
234 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
of Associators, the ď¬rst battalion of troops raised in Philadelphia, of which he
was the colonel.132
Accordingly, the next day, after approving the Olive Branch Petition,
Congress issued A Declaration for Taking Up Arms. Various drafts were pro-
duced in a tense collaboration between Thomas Jefferson and Dickinson. One
added ď¬ery and aggressive tones, promising a formidable threat from America
and a prolonged war. The other used language that was mild and conciliatory.
While logic would seem to suggest that Jefferson would have penned the more
bellicose lines and, indeed, he later claimed to have written them, the historical
record proved him wrong when the draft with the harsher language was found
in Dickinsonâ™s papers in Dickinsonâ™s own hand.133 And on closer inspection,
Dickinsonâ™s authorship of these portions actually makes more sense. Dickinson
was trying to avert war; Jefferson was, if not in favor of it, then at least not
opposed. Thus Dickinson, unlike Jefferson, had a motive to write a declaration
that would give the British pause. His tack was to produce such âapprehen-
sionsâ in England that they might âprocure Relief of all our Grievances.â134
There is thus a continuity of purpose between the Olive Branch Petition and
the Declaration that belies the superď¬cial impression either that Jefferson wrote
the Declaration or Dickinson had come to support rebellion.
Probably with the Olive Branch Petition in mind, some of his colleagues
began to murmur unfavorably. âMr Dickinson the Pensylvania farmer as he
is Called in his Writings,â said Congressman Eliphalet Dyer, âis lately most
bitter against us & Indeavours to make every ill Impression upon the Congress
against us but I may say he is not very highly Esteemd in Congress.â135 In the
same vein as the Petition, on November 9 Dickinson wrote the document that
would become the single biggest hindrance to the Revolutionary movement â“
the Instructions of the Pennsylvania Assembly to the Delegates in Congress,
which restricted this central-most colony to pursuing reconciliation and no
more.136 âHe has taken,â observed Dyer, âa part very different from what I
believe was expected from the Country in general or from his Constituents.â137
Misunderstanding Dickinsonâ™s principles, he would later write, âthoâ™ a whig
in principle . . . his nerves were weak.â138
132 âJohn Dickinson,â in Soldier-Statesmen of the Constitution (Washington, DC: Center of Mil-
itary History, U.S. Army, 1987), 82â“84, 83.
133 It does not appear that Dickinson and Jefferson sat down together to write this, as the term
collaboration would imply. Rather they seem to have only reviewed one anotherâ™s drafts. For a
fuller discussion of the genesis of this document, see Julian P. Boyd, âThe Disputed Authorship
of The Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms, 1775,â PMHB vol. 74
(1950), 51â“73. A close comparison of the drafts can be found in Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The
Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950), 1: 187â“219.
134 Dickinson, âNotes for a Speech in Congress,â May 23, 1775, Delegates, 1: 372.
135 Eliphalet Dyer to William Judd, July 23, 1775, Delegates, 1: 654.
136 âJohn Dickinsonâ™s Proposed Instructions of Pennsylvania Assembly to the Delegates in
Congress,â Nov. 9, 1775, Delegates, 2: 319â“21.
137 Eliphalet Dyer to William Judd, July 23, 1775, Delegates, 1: 654.
138 âCopy of a paper drawn up by Joseph Reed for W. Henry Draytonâ (1774), Maria Dickinson
Logan Collection, HSP.
âDickinsonian Politicsâ in the American Revolution 235
Last Resistance to Revolution, 1776
By the advent of 1776, Pennsylvania was the locus of the American Revolu-
tion. Although there were other colonies uncertain about the decision to revolt,
it was in great part this colony on which a declaration of independence and
success of the Revolution depended. The year began with a ď¬‚urry of activ-
ity. In Congress, Dickinson authored a myriad of instructions, proposals, and
speeches for negotiations with Britain.139 The delegates to Congress were soon
abuzz about Dickinson, âthe eldest Colonelâ in Pennsylvania who âcheerfullyâ
stepped forward and âinsisted on his right to commandâ a detachment being
sent to New York to meet the British.140 As Dickinson had said in 1775,
preparations for war âmust go pari passu with Measure of Reconciliation.â141
At the same time, a print war that would have major implications for the
progress of the cause was taking place in Pennsylvania. First, on January 8,
Thomas Paine published Common Sense. Within days, on January 20, PYM
responded with a testimony addressed to the âpeople in generalâ of America.142
If there were any lingering doubt about where Quakers as a body stood on the
issue of war and independence, this resolved it. The purpose of the Testi-
mony was for Friends to explain their position on religious duty, government,
and revolution, to present a model for non-Friends to follow and to absolve
themselves of any complicity with one side or another. Quoting from The
History of the Rise, Increase, and Progress, of the Christian People Called
Quakers (1722) by William Sewell, they explained their understanding of the
government as a sacred institution and how man ought therefore to relate
It hath ever been our judgment and principle, since we were called to profess the Light of
Christ Jesus, manifested in our consciences unto this day that the setting up, and putting
down kings and governments, is Godâ™s peculiar prerogative; for causes best known to
himself: and that it is not our business, to have any hand or contrivance therein; nor to
be busybodies above our station, much less to plot and contrive the ruin, or overturn
of any of them, but to pray for the king, and safety of our nation, and good of all
men; that we may live a peaceable and quiet life, in all godliness and honesty; under the
government which God is pleased to set over us.143
139 These include the Grievances and Resolves of Congress, the ď¬rst Petition to the King, and the
Letter to the Inhabitants of Quebec.
140 Joseph Hewes to Samuel Johnston, February 13, 1776, Delegates, 3: 247; and John Hancock
to George Washington, Feb. 12, 1776, Delegates, 3: 236. Others to comment on or soon
after February 13 were John Adams to John Trumbull; John Adams to Abigail Adams; Josiah
Bartlett to John Langdon; John Hancock to Thomas Cushing; Robert Morris to Charles Lee,
Delegates, 3: 241â“44, 267.
141 John Dickinson, undated notes, John Dickinson Correspondence, 1775â“98. Simon Gratz Auto-
graph Collection, HSP.
142 The Religious Society of Friends, The Ancient Testimony and Principles of the People Called
Quakers; Renewed, with respect to the King and Government; Touching the Commotions now
prevailing in these and other Parts of America, addressed to the People in General (Philadelphia,
143 Ibid., 4.
236 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
So problematic was this statement for the Revolutionary leadership that it
provoked a number of responses. The most notable of these is Paineâ™s often-
ignored appendix to Common Sense, published in April with his third edition,
that executed a biting attack on the Quakers.144 And he was perhaps the most
qualiď¬ed person to do so. If Dickinson was the representative of traditional
Quaker political philosophy that emphasized peace, reconciliation, and indi-
vidual rights within a uniď¬ed polity, Paine, drawing on the same heritage, was
his radical counterpart. Raised by a Quaker father and given a âguardedâ
Quaker education, Paine was intimately familiar with the theology of Friends.
Moreover, his revolutionary zeal was no doubt fueled by the sense of rights
and dissent instilled in him in his upbringing. Paineâ™s father was likely a strong
inď¬‚uence on his egalitarianism and his rejection of practices ranging from slav-
ery to dueling.145 Clearly Paineâ™s ď¬rsthand knowledge of Quakerism is what
allowed him to challenge Friends on their own beliefs and principles and effec-
tively preach Quakerism to the Quakers, even going so far as to quote Barclayâ™s
Apology to them. âWe do not complain against you because ye are Quakers,â
he wrote, âbut because ye pretend to be and are not Quakers.â146
Paine focused on the heart of the PYM Testimony as evidence of the
hypocrisy of Quaker withdrawal. He asked, âIf these are really your principles
why do ye not abide by them?â Although the Testimony does not categorically
deny the efď¬cacy and propriety of human agency in affairs of state, or the
Quakersâ™ own role in Pennsylvania government, they probably intended it to
be read as such. How much familiarity Paine had with Quaker political history
in Pennsylvania is uncertain; yet, insofar as their position on the Testimony
could work to his advantage, he was certainly willing to exploit any vagueness
in it. âThe principles of Quakerism,â said Paine, reiterating the Quakersâ™ claim
of neutrality, âhave a direct tendency to make a man the quiet and inoffensive
subject of any, and every government which is set over him.â Logically, then,
Friends should simply stand passively by and âapprove of every thing, which
144 Some of his sentiments echo those expressed earlier by Samuel Adams, writing as âCandidus,â
February 3, 1776, in William V. Wells, The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams: Being
a Narrative of His Acts and Opinions, and of His Agency in Producing and Forwarding the
American Revolution, with Extracts From His Correspondence, State Papers, and Political
Essays (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1865), 2: 360â“63.
145 Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, 3. Although it is clear that Paine had a close
afď¬liation with Quakers and was undoubtedly inď¬‚uenced in no small degree by Quakerism, it is
clearly going much too far, as some have done, to say that Paine was a âQuaker Revolutionaryâ
or that Common Sense is the âproduct of a â˜dyed-in-the-wool-Quakerâ™â (William Kashatus
III, âThomas Paine: A Quaker Revolutionary,â Quaker History vol. 73, no. 2 : 38â“61,
61). Paine himself wrote of his attitudes toward war and peace: âI am thus far a Quaker, that
I would gladly agree with all the world to lay aside the use of arms, and settle matters by
negotiations; but, unless the whole world wills, the matter ends, and I take up my musket,
and thank heaven he has put it in my powerâ (quoted in Moncure Daniel Conway, ed.,
The Life of Thomas Paine [New York: G. P. Putnamâ™s Sons, 1893], 1: 44). Thus, anything
in Common Sense that is speciď¬cally Quaker is virtually lost when it was blurred with the
Calvinist revolutionary theory, which alone disqualiď¬es it from being a Quaker tract.
146 Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776), 142.
âDickinsonian Politicsâ in the American Revolution 237
ever happened, or may happen to kings as being [Godâ™s] work.â For the Revo-
lutionary leadership, it would have been most preferable if PYM Quakers had
adhered to their stated principle. The inconsistency of Quakers, of all people,
writing a political pamphlet to disavow their political involvement was not lost
on Paine. His point, then, was apt: â[W]hat occasion is there for your political
testimony if you fully believe what it contains: And the very publishing of it
proves, that either ye do not believe what ye profess, or have not virtue enough
to practice what ye believe.â The bottom line for Paine was that â[w]herefore,
as ye refuse to be the means on one side, ye ought not to be meddlers on the
other; but to wait the issue in silence.â It was apparent to non-Friends that
PYM was not as neutral as it would like to seem. âYe appear to us,â he con-
cludes, âto have mistaken party for conscience.â He exclaimed, âO ye partial
ministers of your own acknowledged principles.â147 Not surprisingly, Paine
aligned himself with the Free Quakers.
Dickinson, meanwhile, had a decidedly different view of Friends and their
politics â“ different both from Paineâ™s and their own â“ and one that was more
historically accurate. According to him, the Quakersâ™ enemies objected, not
unrealistically, that their insistence on paciď¬sm created factional differences
in Pennsylvania so great that they would give the British the impression of
American âdisunity.â This, in turn, would encourage Great Britain to attack
the colonies and thereby make Pennsylvania liable for âall the Bloodshed &
Calamities, that may follow.â In his âanswer to these Objectors,â in the clearest
terms, Dickinson implored Pennsylvanians to look to the Quakers and their
history of peaceful protest in the province for guidance. He explained
that the good men who have promoted the paciď¬c Measures of this Province, have no
doubt duly considered their Objections; & as it appears to have had no weight with
them, we may fairly conclude from the great Proofs they have given of their wisdom in
this Affair, that it did not deserve the least regard.
We may therefore now justly rejoice, that we have reached the most consummate
Degree of virtue and Prudence in Politics. It is true, that those who have gone before
Us, in settling & constructing this Province, did tolerably well for the Times in which
they lived: but every impartial Reader of our public Transactions, that from the very
Beginning of the settlement, there was a certain turbulent Spirit in our Forefathers,
which never would suffer them to sit down in Silence and submission under any Attack
upon their Privileges or Liberties: Nor do I believe that the History of any People upon
Earth can shew Instances of a more steady attention to their Rights, or of quicker
Alarms, on any affront or Injury being offered to them.
However, tho they had their turbulent Disposition for maintaining their Rights,
as they were called, yet in Justice to their Memory we must acknowledge, that their
Turbulence was of such a kind, that no other turbulence can be compared with it. It was
the Turbulence of Sense, Spirit, Virtue, Meekness, Piety, employed â“ Mistaken Men!
as they thought, in Defence of publick Happiness. It was cautious: it was ď¬rm: it was
noble: it was gentle: it was religious devout:
147 Ibid., 53â“58.
238 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
In short, their Policy was like the Religion they professed; and it would not have been
Turbulence, if it had not been employed â“ Mistaken Men! as they thought, in Defence
of publick Happiness.
How must they be delighted, if Heaven permits them to take Notice of these worldly
Things, to observe their wiser, more virtuous Posterity, preserving the public Tranquility
by taking care of it.148
This account of the Quakers clearly comports better with their actual his-
tory than either PYMâ™s Testimony or Paineâ™s diatribe. Though historically many
devout Quakers were reluctant to enter politics, aware of the spiritual pitfalls
that abound, until the Revolution, they always considered it an obligation. In
Some Fruits of Solitude (1693), Penn mused about the ď¬ne line between accept-
able retreat and necessary engagement. âNeutrality,â he said, âis something
else than Indifferency; and yet of kin to it too.â It meant ânot to meddle at all.â
âA Neuter,â he continued, âonly has room to be a Peace-Maker: For being
of neither side, he has the Means of mediating a Reconciliation of both.â149
We have seen this claim about meddling before as Quakers defended their
government in early Pennsylvania.150 They parsed their words carefully, deď¬n-
ing meddling as partisanship, yet allowing interference in politics for the right
âCauses.â In the same way, Penn qualiď¬ed his remarks by saying, âthoâ™ Med-
dling is a Fault, Helping is a duty.â151 While the private life was preferable,
still, âthe Publick must and will be served.â152 Thus, while Penn seemed to urge
Quakers towards the neutral position that they adopted during the Revolution,
he ultimately gave them not just permission to engage, but a pointed directive
not to remain on the sidelines. Interestingly, Penn might well have sided with
Paine in his assessment of PYM. â[W]here Right or Religion gives a Call,â
Penn said, âa Neuter must be a Coward or a Hypocrite.â153
With Dickinsonâ™s statement, there can be no doubt as to his position advo-
cating traditional Quaker action â“ âturbulentâ but âpaciď¬c.â It is perhaps
this very idea that he had in mind when he scribbled cryptically in his notes,
âA peaceable War.â154 And with such sympathies, Dickinson did not emerge
unscathed in his efforts to balance âour little vessel.â155 As tensions rose and
he showed more signs of dissent from the increasingly bellicose attitude of his
countrymen, his reputation among those in favor of independence began to fal-
ter. John Adams infamously called him a âpiddling genius,â someone who was
148 John Dickinson, untitled document, n.d., Ser. I. b. Political, 1774â“1708, n.d. RRL/HSP.
149 Penn, Some Fruits of Solitude, 61. By indifferency Penn meant disinterestedness.
150 See Chapter 4, page 245.
151 Penn, Some Fruits of Solitude, 60â“62.
152 Ibid., 55.
153 Ibid., 61.
154 John Dickinson, untitled fragment, n.d., Ser. I. b. Political, 1774â“1708, n.d. RRL/HSP.
155 Wrongly cited in Colbourn, âJohn Dickinson, Historical Revolutionary,â 272, as appearing in
StillÂ´ and Ford, Life and Writings, 2:326.
âDickinsonian Politicsâ in the American Revolution 239
âwarped by the Quaker interest.â156 Others suspected that he might have been
unduly inď¬‚uenced in matters of governmental policy by the Quakerism of his
immediate family. Charles Thomson claimed that Dickinsonâ™s Quaker mother
and wife âwere continually distressing him with their remonstrances.â157 And,
indeed, Dickinson later said, âI took it for granted, that my Behaviour would
be supposed to be inď¬‚uenced by too strong an addiction to the [Society of
Friends], if that Society would approve my Conduct.â158
In a signiď¬cant sense, the ď¬nal contest over revolution came down to a
struggle between Dickinson and Adams. It was Dickinson who had almost
single-handedly stalled the Revolution for months with his instructions to the
Pennsylvania delegates. âTo them,â said Elbridge Gerry, âis owing the delay
of Congress in agitating questions of the greatest importance, which long ere
now must have terminated in a separation from Great Britain.â159 John Adams
added more bluntly that the government in Pennsylvania is âincumbered with
a large Body of Quakers,â which âclogg[s its] operations a little.â160 It was
Adams, then, long critical of the Quakers in general and Dickinson in particu-
lar, who had the greatest hand in bringing down the Pennsylvania Assembly.
In order to revoke and replace Dickinsonâ™s instructions with something more
agreeable to his designs, on May 10 Adams motioned in Congress to dissolve
all proprietary governments and replace them with ones friendly to the Rev-
olutionary cause; it passed and was published on the ď¬fteenth.161 âIt was a
measure,â he confessed, âwhich I had invariably pursued for a whole year.â162
When the radicals succeeded in supplanting the Quaker Assembly over the
course of only a few weeks, on May 29, John Adams wrote with what must
have been great satisfaction, âthese [Quaker] cloggs are falling off, as you will
Soon seeâ (Figure 8).163
156 John Adams to James Warren, July 24, 1776, Delegates, 1: 658; and John Adamsâ™s Diary,
Sept. 24, 1775, Delegates, 2: 50.
157 Thomson cited in Mekeel, The Relation of the Quakers to the American Revolution, 136.
158 John Dickinson to unknown, August, 25, 1776, Ser. I. a. Correspondence, 1762â“1808,
159 James T. Austin, Life of Elbridge Gerry (New York: Da Capo, 1970), 1: 179.
160 For a fuller account of this episode see Jack N. Rakove, The Beginnings of National Politics:
An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979),
161 Steven Rosswurm claims that â[e]ven Dickinson supported itâ and cites an unpublished
manuscript by [Jerrilyn Greene?] Marston entitled âCongress Grants Authority for Govern-
ment.â Yet neither the JCC or Delegates give any indication of individualsâ™ support or dissent
of the motion and, as we shall see in the next chapter, Dickinson later protested the illegality
of the displacement of the Assembly and fought against the new government (Arms, Country,
and Class: The Philadelphia Militia and the âLower Sortâ during the American Revolution,
1776â“1783 [New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987], 94).
162 John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life
of the Author, Notes and Illustrations Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co.,
1856), 3: 45.
163 John Adams to Benjamin Hichborn, May 29, 1776, Delegates, 4: 96.
240 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
figure 8. âQuakerism Drooping.â An early eighteenth-century depiction of an ailing
Quaker, propped up by âSinless Perfectionâ and âInfallibility.â (Francis Bugg, Quak-
erism Drooping, and its cause sinking . . . [London, 1703], 75. (FHL)
What the radicals and their representatives in Congress wanted were new
instructions that would cause Pennsylvania to support independence. Com-
pelled by the turn of events in his province, Dickinson obliged â“ partly. With a
committee, he drew up a new set of instructions that removed the restrictions of
the previous ones. But the instructions were not as clear cut as radicals wanted.
Putting his lawyerly skills to use, he did not prevent the delegates from voting
for independence, but neither did the language of the instructions give them
the express instructions to vote for it.164 This ambiguity was Dickinsonâ™s ď¬nal
procedural attempt to avert revolution, and the greatest extent to which he
would obstruct â“ as some saw it165 â“ the popular will. It was a subtle strategy,
but obstruction it was not. On the contrary, this wording gave the delegates a
164 John Paul Selsam, The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776: A Study in Revolutionary Democ-
racy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1936), 132â“33. See the Instructions in the
Pennsylvania Evening Post, June 8, 1776.
165 Robert Whitehall to friends, June 10, 1776 in âDelegatesâ™ Certiď¬cation of James Wilsonâ™s
Conduct in Congress,â June 20, 1776, Delegates, 4: 274.
âDickinsonian Politicsâ in the American Revolution 241
freedom that was heavy with responsibility. Rather than instruct them to vote
for independence, which he knew some of them and many of their constituents
were against, his intent, no doubt, was to lay the weighty decision on the con-
sciences of the individual delegates. Their true instructions would thus come
A matter of days after the new instructions were published, Dickinson began
preparing the country not just for war, but for independence. In spite of the
rising animosity toward him â“ one commentator observed that âDickinson,
Wilson, and the others, have Rendered them selves obnoctious to Every Whig
in town, and Every Day of theyr Existance are losing the Conď¬dence of the
peopleâ166 â“ he headed a committee to write the nationâ™s ď¬rst constitution.
On July 1, 1776, the day before the vote on independence, John Adams wrote
that â[t]his morning is assigned for the greatest Debate of all.â167 It was the
day Adams and Dickinson would confront one another directly in Congress to
convince their colleagues for or against Revolution. Dickinson began. Exem-
plifying the Quaker conviction that âwhatsoever tendeth to break that Bond
of Peace and Love, must be testiď¬ed against,â168 and in full awareness of the
consequences of his actions, he opened with the admission that âMy Con-
duct, this Day, I expect will give the ď¬nishing blow to my once too great, and
my Integrity considered, now too diminishâ™d Popularity.â Becoming a political
martyr to testify for âa Truth known in Heaven,â he said, âI might indeed,
practise an artful, an advantageous Reserve upon this Occasion [but] Silence
would be guilt. I despise its Arts â“ I detest its Advantages. I must speak, tho
I should lose my Life, tho I should lose the Affections of my C[ountrymen].â
Prefacing his speech with a prayer, he then passionately reiterated his previ-
ous objections. He was even more concerned than he had been in 1765 that
independence would result in âa multitude of Commonwealths, crimes and
Calamities â“ centuries of mutual Jealousies, Hatreds, Wars and Devastations,
until at last the exhausted Provinces shall sink into Slavery under the yoke
of some fortunate conqueror.â169 This common Quaker fear of disunion was
ultimately what differentiated Dickinson from his compatriots â“ he adhered to
the meaning of liberty that was synonymous with safety through union under
the British constitution. Those who pressed for independence effectively argued
that â[w]e ought to brave the Storm in a Skiff made of Paper.â170
167 Adams to Archibald Bulloch, July 1, 1776, Delegates, 4: 345.
168 Barclay, Apology, 57.
169 John Dickinson to William Pitt, 21 December 1765, from Jack P. Greene, âThe Background of
the Articles of Confederation,â Publius vol. 12, no. 4, The Continuing Legacy of the Articles
of Confederation (1982), 15â“44, 35.
170 John Dickinson, âNotes for a Speech in Congress,â July 1, 1776, John Dickinson Correspon-
dence, 1775â“1798, Simon Gratz Autograph Collection, HSP.
242 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
When Dickinson ď¬nished, the room remained silent. âNo Member rose to
answer him,â said John Adams, until he himself took up the task.171 With the
general sentiment favoring Adams, his argument won the day. Accordingly, on
July 2, Dickinson absented himself from the vote on independence. By such
an act, he knew from a poll taken the evening before that the vote would be
nearly unanimous and the Revolution would proceed. Of the seven Pennsyl-
vania delegates, one other absented himself, two voted against independence,
and three voted for it.172 This moment signaled a shift in American thinking
from deď¬ning liberty as security to it being freedom from authority, with the
corresponding release of democratic impulses.
What Dickinson did next compounded the enigma for his contemporaries
and historians. From this point on, they wanted very much for him to fulď¬ll their
expectations of a âloserâ in the debate, to see him defect to the British, and to be
able to call him a Loyalist. John Adams spoke with contempt of âthe timid and
trimming Politicks of some Menâ who would not approve independence.173
But immediately after the Declaration was passed, Dickinson took up arms
and led his battalion to Elizabethtown. Meanwhile, Adams hoped to âleave
the War to be conducted by othersâ and return home to Massachusetts.174
Disappointed, those in favor of independence persisted in attributing Dick-
insonâ™s stance to timidity or other self-interested motives. To this he said:
What can be more evident than that I have acted on Principle? Was there a Man in
Pennsylvania, that possessed a larger share of the public Conď¬dence . . . than I did? Or
that had a more certain Prospect of personal advantages from Independency, or of a
smaller chance of advantages from Reconciliation? . . . I knew most assuredly & publicly
declared in Congress that I should lose a great Part of my popularity and all the beneď¬ts
of an artful, or what some would call a prudent Man, might coin it into â“ I despised
them, when to be purchased only by violation of my Conscience â“ I should have been a
Villain, if I had spoken and voted differently from what I did â“ for I should have spoken
& voted differently from what I judged to be for the Interest of my Country . . . While
I was there voluntarily & deliberately, step by step, sacriď¬cing my Popularity . . . what
would be my object & whom was I trying to please?The proprietary People are known
to be & to have been uniformly my deadly foes throughout my Life. Was it to please
the People called Quakers? Allow it â“ What was I to obtain by pleasing them? All things
were converging to a Revolution in which they would have little Power. Besides, I had
as much displeased quieted them by other measures I took as I did others by opposing
the Declaration of Independence.175
171 Adams to Archibald Bulloch, July 1, 1776, Delegates, 4: 346.
172 Dickinson and Morris did not appear; Franklin, Wilson, and Morton voted in favor; and
Humphreys and Willing opposed (Ryerson, The Revolution Is Now Begun, 329).
173 John Adams to William Tudor, June 24, 1776, Delegates, 4: 306. There is no doubt Adams is
referring in particular to Dickinson as one of these âMen of large Property [in Pennsylvania
who], have almost done their Business for [the Quakers and Proprietarians]. They have lost
their Inď¬‚uence and grown obnoxious.â
174 John Adams to John Winthrop, June 23, 1776, Delegates, 4: 299.
175 John Dickinson to unknown, August, 25, 1776, Ser. I. a. Correspondence, 1762â“1808,
âDickinsonian Politicsâ in the American Revolution 243
Through all the turmoil, John Dickinsonâ™s political actions at the moment of
independence were complex, but hardly as enigmatic as many have suggested.
They are comprehensible when understood in the light of Quaker theologico-
politics. In a Quaker meeting, individual dissent was tolerated, and even encour-
aged, provided it followed a speciď¬c process. Those with minority viewpoints
were allowed and expected to try to convince their brethren that theirs was the
correct understanding of Godâ™s will; but only to a certain extent. If an interpre-
tation or âleadingâ was disavowed by the meeting as a whole, the individual
was obliged to submit his will to the meeting and not undermine its mission.
Since Dickinson, as a traditional âQuakerâ politician, was acting consistently
with the idea of the civil polity as the meeting writ large, his actions were
not only consistent but perfectly in keeping with appropriate Quaker political
behavior. In his description of the Quaker decision-making process, Michael
Sheeran explains how a Quaker may take the position of disagreement without
obstructionism: âThe meeting is left aware of the dissenterâ™s opinion, yet the
dissenter has indicated a wish not to keep the matter from moving forward.
Equivalently, the objector has thus endorsed the action of the group by implying
that in his or her own judgment the objection is not serious enough to prevent
action.â176 Therefore, after Dickinson spoke his mind, rather than continue
to dissent from the Declaration, which he knew was going to win majority
approval, he abstained from the vote in Congress and allowed Pennsylvania to
support the Declaration. Sheeran describes the interesting position in which this
act places the individual. It shifts him from a position of dissent to one of tacit
endorsement: â[He] tends to take some responsibility for the decision, even to
feel some obligation for making it work out well in practice.â177 Accordingly,
after the passage of the Declaration, Dickinson supported his country fully by
taking up arms and working to perfect an American constitution. As Dickinson
himself explained it: âAlthough I spoke my sentiments freely, â“ as an honest
man ought to do, â“ yet when a determination was reached upon the question
against my opinion, I regarded that determination as the voice of my country.
That voice proclaimed her destiny, in which I was resolved by every impulse of
my soul to share, and to stand or fall with her in that scheme of freedom which
she had chosen.â178 Sheeran calls this technique of withdrawing oneâ™s opposi-
tion, though not oneâ™s disagreement, âvirtually an art form of graciousness.â179
Reď¬‚ecting on political obligation and resistance in the next century, Quaker
theorist Jonathan Dymond conď¬rmed the propriety of Dickinsonâ™s actions. âIf
I had lived in America ď¬fty years ago,â he said,
and had thought the disobedience of the colonies wrong, and that the whole empire
would be injured by their separation from England, I should have thought myself at
176 Michael Sheeran, Beyond Majority Rule, 66. See also The Religious Society of Friends, Faith
and Practice: A Book of Christian Discipline (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting,
177 Sheeeran, Beyond Majority Rule, 67.
178 StillÂ´ and Ford, Life and Writings, 1: 204.
179 Sheeran, 67.
244 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
liberty to urge these considerations upon other men, and otherwise to exert myself
(always within the limits of Christian conduct) to support the British cause.
He then described the course of peaceful resistance Americans could have
pursued and the results it would have brought:
Imagine America to have acted upon Christian principles, and to have refused to
pay [the tax], but without those acts of exasperation and violence which they com-
mitted . . . Does any man . . . believe that England . . . would have gone on destroying
them . . . if the Americans continually reasoned coolly and honorably with the other
party, and manifested, by the unequivocal language of conduct, that they were actuated
by reason and by Christian rectitude? . . . They would have attained the same advantage
with more virtue, and at less cost.
And ď¬nally, he explained the position that the dissenter should take when the
people decide on their course:
But when the colonies were actually separated from Britain, and it was manifestly the
general will to be independent, I should have readily transferred my obedience to the
United States, convinced that the new government was preferred by the people; that,
therefore, it was the rightful government; and, being such, that it was my Christian duty
to obey it.180
Dickinson was not a perfect example of Quaker constitutionalism. He did
eventually take up arms. But for that one exception, Dymond would have done
what Dickinson did. And, indeed, that was also how most other Quakers at
the time proceeded, in support of the Federal government.181
180 Jonathan Dymond, Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political
Rights and Obligations of Mankind (New York: Collins Brothers and Co., 1845), 327â“29.
181 The behavior of the Society of Friends in the Revolution is undoubtedly problematic within
the context of their theories both of political engagement and constitutional perpetuity. If tra-
ditional Quaker thinkers were concerned with upholding the extant fundamental constitution,
why did they not all chose a path similar to Gallowayâ™s and become Loyalists? How could they
justify ultimately supporting the new American constitution, which they did overwhelmingly,
rather than the British? If they did indeed favor one side, why did they not continue their
political advocacy for the cause that they believed was more likely to preserve liberty? There
are no easy answers to these questions. The possible reasons are ideological and practical:
First, and most likely, is that, because of the lack of security for dissentersâ™ rights in the British
constitution, and the nonexistence of an American constitution, there was more of an incentive
to adhere to the only trustworthy constitution at hand, their Charter of Privileges. We will see
in the next chapter that, in this rough transitional period, localism prevailed over nationalism.
One might expect that they would have leaned toward a proposal by one of the leaders of their
Assembly, Joseph Galloway with his 1774 Plan of Union. But this would have been a disturb-
ing prospect. Although Galloway exempliď¬ed some traditional Quaker concerns, most notably
preserving the ancient constitution, he actually departed from other principles that were very
important to Friends. His proposal for a hierarchical restructuring of the government proved
that he was less concerned with liberty of conscience and productive dissent within the polity
than most Friends. Most Quakers were evidently less troubled about establishing a new Amer-
ican constitution than they were with being oppressed under a hierarchical and intolerant one.
âDickinsonian Politicsâ in the American Revolution 245
For Dickinson, as for the Quakers, a central constitution was a tool with which
to safeguard American liberties. When that tool was no longer accepted by his
countrymen, he went to work creating a new one, the Articles of Confederation.
His priority was always the preservation of American liberties by the surest
means. Dickinsonâ™s record, when situated in the context of his culture, reď¬‚ects
not hesitancy, indecisiveness, or pessimism, but unambiguous resolve in favor
of peace, liberty, and unity â“ and caution lest these things be lost in the heat of pas-
sion. Neither was his caution indicative of negativity, but rather the opposite â“
while some âdespair[ed] of seeing the [British] constitution recover its former
vigor,â Dickinson did not give up hope until his entire country had spoken.182
He has also been painted as a traitor or a lukewarm patriot, but if patriotism is
deď¬ned by a denial of self for the good of oneâ™s country, then his absence from
the vote on independence should be seen as one of the greatest patriotic acts of
the Revolution. Furthermore, as the religious dissenters he followed, he chose
derision and infamy rather than admiration and popularity. Very much in the
Quaker mentality, he reď¬‚ected on July 25, 1776, âI have so much of the spirit
of Martyrdom in me, that I have been conscientiously compelled to endure in
my political Capacity the Fires & Faggots of persecution.â183
Dickinsonâ™s contribution to American political thought is therefore both
different from and more signiď¬cant than what scholars have claimed. Advocate
of rights though he was, he was no intentional âPenman of the Revolution.â In
the 1760s and 1770s Dickinson was expressing an idea that most Americans
would not articulate until after the Revolution when they were faced with
creating their own state and national constitutions â“ the idea of the perpetuity
of a fundamental constitution along with an internal process of amendment.
In short, when Friends were forced to choose between a ď¬‚awed British constitution (that might
get worse if Galloway had his way) and the possibility of preserving their unique Quaker
constitution under a potentially perfect American constitution, they chose the what appeared
to be a safer course in the long run, and one that respected the voice of the âmeetingâ with
which they were most intimately bound, the American one.
A second possible reason for their acceptance of a new American constitution was practical:
Once independence had been declared and there was no return to the British constitution, it
was not difď¬cult for Friends to change course because of the federal system they were used
to in their meeting structure. As discussed in Chapters 1 and 8, it was a natural part of the
Quaker ecclesiastical structure that when a far-ď¬‚ung group became too physically remote from
the center, it would itself establish a new central government. It was also clearly in their inter-
est to support the new government and advocate their liberties under it. But none of these
explanations addresses their reluctance during the early years of the war to engage politically
to support either constitution. This is a problem that will be addressed in the next chapter.
182 Charles Caroll quoted in Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, 131.
183 John Dickinson to Charles Lee, July 25, 1776, quoted in Martha Calvert Slotten, âJohn
Dickinson on Independence, July 25, 1776,â Manuscripts 28 (1976), 189. Like Quakers who
believed persecution was a sign of divine chosenness, in the margins of his notes for his July 1
speech before Congress he wrote: âDrawing Resentment one proof of Virtue,â Delegates, 4:
246 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
These were ideas basic to Quaker political thought. Historians who have seen
the signiď¬cance of Dickinsonâ™s work as preparing the country for revolution
have been interpreting it both with the beneď¬t of hindsight â“ that America
did eventually revolt â“ and without understanding the context of Dickinsonâ™s
thought. Despite the fact that his writings did lead to the Revolution and he
was compelled to abandon his conciliatory stance, his place in history is not
among the leaders of revolutions, but rather, to the extent Americans used
nonviolence, as the ď¬rst leader of a national peaceful protest movement. In this
capacity, he actually did make a signiď¬cant contribution to the Revolution â“
John Adams noted that âthe delay of the Declaration to  has many great
advantages attending it,â not the least of which was that it served to âcement
the union.â184 But, as we shall see in the following chapter, his judgment in
this case was premature as the cement of the Union was not quite cured.
184 John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776, Delegates, 4: 376.
âThe Worthy Against the Licentiousâ
The Critical Period in Pennsylvania
If the progress toward the Revolution in Pennsylvania was untidy, the realiza-
tion of it was decidedly ugly. This chapter examines the extremely troubled
period between the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention in order to
shed light on John Dickinsonâ™s hopes for the new state and nation and his fears
as national problems were magniď¬ed in Pennsylvania.1 Earlier arguments both
in this study and elsewhere maintain that party lines were drawn based on
religion and that theology has a signiď¬cant âexplanatory potentialâ that needs
to be elucidated.2 We have already seen that, since the campaign for royal
1 See Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (New York: Hill and
Wang, 2007). Holton claims that because they did not include a Bill of Rights, the Framers of
the Constitution were not genuinely concerned with preserving rights and justice. He ď¬nds that
their complaints about the violations of rights and justice were empty, and they had no actual
cause for seeking a strong central government except for expanding their own economic power.
Likewise, there was no democratic excess, and historians mistakenly compare popular action
during this period to real tragedies such as slavery and the persecution of religious minorities
(16). What he fails to consider, however, is that there was, in fact, religious persecution and
denial of the civil rights of many Pennsylvanians. It was these things, this chapter will show,
that proved the claims of at least one Framer: that a strong central government was necessary to
control and unify the states.
2 Much has been written on this complex time in Pennsylvania, speciď¬cally the conď¬‚ict between
the radical âConstitutionalistsâ â“ those who supported the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776 â“
and the âRepublicansâ â“ those who sought to reform it. Most recently, see Terry S. Bouton,
Taming Democracy: âThe People,â The Founders and the Troubled Ending of the American
Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). This chapter follows Owen S. Irelandâ™s
interpretation in âThe Crux of Politics: Religion and Party in Pennsylvania, 1778â“1789,â WMQ
3rd ser., vol. 42, no. 4 (1985), 453â“75. 474; and Douglas Arnoldâ™s in A Republican Revolu-
tion: Ideology and Politics in Pennsylvania, 1776â“1790 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1989).
Before these studies on religion, assessments of party politics assumed the priority of class and
region as determining factors of factional alliance. The standard works on the period are John
Paul Selsam, The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylva-
nia Press, 1936); Robert L. Brunhouse, The Counter-Revolution in Pennsylvania, 1776â“1790
(Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1971); Jackson Turner Main,
The Sovereign States, 1775â“1783 (New York: New Viewpoints: A Division of Franklin Watts,
248 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
government in 1764, three Quaker-informed factions existed in Pennsylvania.
Inď¬‚uenced by the conď¬‚ict with Britain, two of them were gradually moving
away from traditional Quaker theologico-politics â“ one toward individualis-
tic, democratic, and armed radicalism; the other toward a withdrawn, pas-
sive stance, based on a new, narrower interpretation of the peace testimony.
These factions were now set against one another with resistance to the British
the apparent point of conď¬‚ict. The radical group, in its beginnings hostile to
Presbyterians in the campaign for royal government, now united with them,
ostensibly to further the American cause. The withdrawing group of Quakers
retreated from civic engagement and adopted a neutrality that was historically
uncharacteristic of their Society when rights were threatened.
As the previous chapter demonstrated, a few Quakerly types, such as John
Dickinson, maintained a stance more in keeping with traditional Quaker behav-
ior than either of these two strains â“ rights advocacy and peaceful protest for
reform. Now that the break with Britain was formalized, he could in good
conscience (not being a convinced Quaker) take up arms and defend America
against her attacks. But also, because of the alliance between radical Presby-
terians and former Quakers, he found himself ď¬ghting a battle at home as
challenging as extracting Americans from British rule â“ securing the funda-
mental rights of Pennsylvanians and Americans against the âpatriotismâ of the
new governors.3 Indeed, the localism of all parties often obscured the larger
In the spring of 1776 John Adams commented that Dickinson was both
an âAdvocate for Colony Governments, and Continental Confederation.â4
During this period, he struggled to establish constitutions for the state and
nation that would preserve the unique liberties that Quakers had enjoyed in
colonial Pennsylvania, as well as their traditional English liberties. Now, at a
time when there was no central constitution and only a weak and defective
state constitution, his fears for dissentersâ™ rights before independence were
realized as he, members of the Society of Friends, and others perceived as
hostile to the regime fell through a constitutional gap that left them without
protection from overly enthusiastic Patriots. At issue was the fact that the
Inc. 1973); Adams, The First American Constitutions; Anne M. Ousterhout, âControlling the
Opposition in Pennsylvania during the American Revolution,â PMHB vol. 105 (1981), 3â“34;
Rosswurm, Arms, Country, and Class; Ousterhout, A State Divided; Marc W. Kruman, Between
Authority and Liberty: State Constitution-Making in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: Uni-
versity of North Carolina Press, 1997). My argument will only touch lightly on the theological
and constitutional motives of the radicals, focusing instead on the priorities of Quakers and their
supporters during this period.
3 The argument here differs in some fundamental ways from that put forth by Bouton in Taming
Democracy. It agrees that the Revolutionary elites sought to limit the new popular power in
Pennsylvania; however, it disputes the claim that Pennsylvania during the Critical Period was the
âhealthyâ or âexpansiveâ democracy Bouton portrays, or that it could be seen as enlightened
exemplar for other states (6, 7).
4 John Adams to John Winthrop, May 12, 1776, Delegates, 3: 663.
Critical Period in Pennsylvania 249
national and state constitutions depended upon the stability of one another.
His attempts to prevent the problems began before independence with his
draft of the Articles of Confederation. Immediately after independence was
declared, he fought for a just and balanced constitution for Pennsylvania,
which culminated in his presidency toward the end of the period. The ideals he
espoused in his version of the Articles of Confederation and in Pennsylvania
government represented Quaker concerns, and his constant equation of liberty
with safety led to his presidency of the Annapolis Convention that met to
amend the national constitution. The following pages will highlight his ideals
within the context of the clash between withdrawn and traditional Quakers
and their supporters on the one hand, and radical Revolutionaries on the other,
many of whom had learned from radicalized Quakerism that had grown over
the last decades.
The 1776 Articles of Confederation
Although Dickinson wrote the Articles of Confederation for the nation, he did
so with an eye toward the increasing anti-Quaker sentiment in Pennsylvania.
The coup of the Pennsylvania government by the radicals and his recognition
of the reality that America would probably â“ though not âinexorablyâ â“ revolt
instigated his attempt to secure the Quakersâ™ constitutional rights.5 His fear
at this point was that the patriotic furor of the radicals, combined with their
deep-seated resentment of nonradical Quakers, would overrun any regard for
dissentersâ™ rights that had existed under the now-incapacitated 1701 Charter.
Not wanting independence, but in preparation for it, he took the lead imme-
diately before the Declaration in writing the Articles.6 Although there were
several attempts at an American constitution before Dickinsonâ™s draft, none
of these had a signiď¬cant inď¬‚uence on Dickinsonâ™s document.7 Earlier authors
were limited by their desire for reconciliation. They thought not in terms of con-
federation but of disparate colonies essentially independent from one another
and bound only by a distant and oppressive (or happily negligent) imperial
government.8 Dickinson on the other hand, despite his fervent hope for con-
tinued unity with Britain, did not let this wish interfere with his vision for the
future and what was necessary for an independent America. In fact, it was his
conviction that independence was dangerous and likely that prompted him to
5 Rakove, Beginnings, 152.
6 He was one of a committee of thirteen that included, among others, Josiah Bartlett, Edward
Rutledge, Samuel Adams, and Thomas McKean. The document that was submitted to Congress
on July 12 was originally written by Dickinson, and then revised by him according to the
critiques of his colleagues. This version was then debated and amended by Congress before it
was approved in late August. Rakove, Beginnings, 139.
7 Ibid., 138. Adams describes the a few points that resemble Franklinâ™s version (The First American
8 Ibid., 138â“39.
250 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
write it as he did and create a document that would bear a strong resemblance
to the 1787 Constitution.9
There are several proposals in the Dickinson Plan that scholars consider
âinnovative.â10 Among the most notable of his contributions are the provisions
for a powerful central government and religious liberty.11 These may have been
exceptional when compared to the work and thought of other Founders, but
most were standard in the context of Quaker political thought and practice.
Because there have been several competent analyses of the Dickinson Plan, what
follows is not exhaustive.12 Rather, as a preface to a deeper treatment of the
Constitution in Chapter 8, this discussion will only touch some of Dickinsonâ™s
The main issue in framing an American constitution was similar to the
question of the relation of the colonies to the British constitution â“ the power
of the states in relation to the central government. Dickinson was not alone in
his concern for such a power, but he was one of the most consistent advocates
of it, so much so that he has drawn suspicion from colleagues and historians
alike that he was an âardent nationalist.â13 The editors of the Letters from
Delegates consider his efforts in this regard to be âradical.â14 Such a perception
is unbalanced, however; as we shall see, he was no less concerned with stateâ™s
9 Jack N. Rakove, âLegacy of the Articles of Confederation,â Publius vol. 12, no. 4, The Con-
tinuing Legacy of the Articles of Confederation (1982), 45â“66; Harry W. Jones, âThe Articles
of Confederation and the Creation of a Federal System,â in George W. Corner, ed., Aspects
of American Liberty: Philosophical, Historical, and Political (Memoirs of the American Philo-
sophical Society) (Philadelphia, 1977), 126â“145; Robert W. Hoffert, A Politics of Tensions:
The Articles of Confederation and American Political Ideas (Niwot: University of Colorado
Press, 1992), 85.
10 Rakove, Beginnings, 139.
11 Not directly related to the topic of this chapter is Indian relations, which drew Dickinsonâ™s
attention more than the other Founders. As we have seen, while most Americans regarded
Indians little or with hostility, Quakers had a long history of intimate and amicable relations
with them. Accordingly, Dickinson addressed his fourteenth and ď¬fteenth articles to Indian
relations. The former restricts attacks against Indian nations to defense in the face of imminent
danger of invasion. The latter is concerned with peaceful dealings. It establishes in the ď¬rst
instance a âperpetual allianceâ between the entire Union and all other Indian nations. From
there, provisions were made for âtheir Lands to be secured, and not to be encroached onâ and
an ambassador from the United States to âreside among the Indiansâ to âtake Care to prevent
Injustice in the Trade with them.â Finally, the United States would establish a fund to provide
âoccasional Supplies to relieve their personal Wants & Distresses.â Isolated points concerning
Indians appeared in the ď¬nal version of the Articles and in the Constitution; however, none
consider their welfare.
12 For his draft, annotated with inclusion of his marginalia and edits on the ď¬nal product, see
Delegates, 4: 233â“55. For analyses of the Dickinson Plan, see Merrill Jensen, The Articles of
Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolu-
tion, 1774â“1781 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1940), 126â“39; Jones, âThe Articles
of Confederationâ; Rakove, Beginnings, 151â“58.
13 James H. Hutson, âJohn Dickinson at the Federal Constitutional Convention,â WMQ 3rd ser.,
vol. 40, no. 2 (1983), 256â“82, 258.
14 Delegates, 4: 253.
Critical Period in Pennsylvania 251
rights. Even at this early point, Dickinson had a sense for the relationship
between state and nation that eluded most of his colleagues. Others, too,
worried about the âmutual Jealousies, Hatreds, Wars and Devastationsâ that
might ensue with independence, but many were unconcerned, and none had
much to say, about how to address the potential for democratic problems in
America, which were already becoming reality in Pennsylvania.15 Dickinsonâ™s
priority was to create a primary central structure that would resolve problems
both in and between states and impose a coercive power that would compel
them to defer their own interests to that of the Union. The ultimate effect
would be twofold: A central power would protect the states and allow them
to ď¬‚ourish in their own unique ways. Conversely, stable states would ensure a
secure and perpetual union.
According to Dickinson, there were three primary ways to accomplish the
preservation of the Union. First, the states must submit to the Union and pro-
mote its good. To this end, he drafted articles that restricted the power of
states and secured the powers of the central confederation in negotiating war
and peace, regulating foreign and domestic trade, and regulating the statesâ™
relations with one another. The states would retain their discrete rights pro-
vided that these did ânot interfere with the Articles of this Confederation.â16
Signiď¬cantly, however, the directives from the central government were not
necessarily negative. States should actively contribute to the common good.
Article Twelve, for example, stipulates that âall Expences that shall be incurrâ™d
for the general Wellfare . . . shall be defrayed out of a Common Treasury.â Sec-
ond, the Union could not survive without peace between the states. Individual
states must therefore be restrained from wantonly exercising their own wills
and Congress empowered to mediate conď¬‚icts. Dickinson wrote that the cen-
tral government would have the right of â[s]ettling all Disputes and Differences
now subsisting, or that hereafter may arise between two or more Colonies.â
One area in particular in which Dickinson anticipated conď¬‚ict was over the
Western lands, over which multiple states laid claim. Congress would regu-
late their boundaries. As scholars of the Articles have noted, Dickinson was
laying the groundwork for a federal system.17 To do so, he drew on his experi-
ences with Quakerism, speciď¬cally, their history of mediating conď¬‚icts and the
structure of their church government.
A third way in which the central government should regulate involves indi-
viduals, speciď¬cally, protecting their rights. Jack Rakove implicitly acknowl-
edges the Quaker inď¬‚uence when he discusses what he considers to be the most
innovative aspect of Dickinsonâ™s Articles â“ religious liberty. As we have seen,
Quakers believed that civil union and liberty depended on civil safety, which
15 John Dickinson to William Pitt, 21 December 1765, quoted in Greene, âThe Background of the
Articles of Confederation,â 35.
16 All quotations from the Dickinson draft are from âJohn Dickinsonâ™s Draft Articles of Confed-
eration,â Delegates, 4: 233â“55.
17 Jones, âThe Articles of Confederation,â 130â“31. Hoffert, Politics of Tensions, 84.
252 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
they believed would be achieved by state-protected religious liberty. Dickinson
was focused on the sectarian problems in Pennsylvania at this time and wor-
ried that they would â“ as they did already â“ create problems in forming and
stabilizing the state governments that would be so essential to the survival of
the Union.18 His third article, therefore, preserved laws in the states exactly as
they had existed under the colonial governments. What he had in mind is clear
from the fourth article. There he enumerated the unique liberties Pennsylvania
Quakers had under their 1701 Charter, such as that individuals should not
be compelled âto maintain any religious Worship, Place of Worship, or Min-
istry contrary to his or her Mind,â and, signiď¬cantly, âwhenever on Election
or Appointment to any Ofď¬ces, or on any other occasions, the Afď¬rmation
of persons conscientiously taking an Oath hath been admitted in any Colony
or Colonies, no Oath shall in any such Cases be imposed by any Law or
Ordinance.â Both of these provisions were, of course, based on long-standing
Quaker testimonies and did not necessarily exist elsewhere in the colonies.
They were the same ones that he worried Pennsylvanians would give up by
changing to a royal government in 1764, and, with the hostility to Quakers
in Philadelphia palpable as he wrote, it was these he feared would evaporate
under the revolutionary government.
But Americans were not ready for this constitution. Edward Rutledge, one
of Dickinsonâ™s colleagues on the committee, believed that the Dickinson Plan
would destroy âall Provincial Distinctionsâ19 and consolidate the states âinto
one unitary polity.â20 Accordingly, after it was submitted to Congress on
July 12, it was reworked over the next months to remove all of the offending
passages, namely those that empowered the central government, restricted the
power of the states, and, most signiď¬cant to the purposes here, the article on
religious liberty.21 If the latter would have passed, observes John Witte, âit
would have been a remarkable step on the path toward creating a law on
national religious liberty.â22 Indeed, in his notes on a later version, Dickinson
questioned the absence of an article on religion. Anticipating the First and
Fourteenth Amendments, he asked, âShould not the ď¬rst Article provide for a
Toleration and agt. Establishments hereafter to be made?â23 Having joined his
battalion days after independence, and having been voted out of Congress by
18 See also Rakove, Beginnings, 153.
19 Edward Rutledge to John Jay, June 29, 1776, Delegates, 4: 338. Interestingly, Rutledge seemed
to fear that Dickinsonâ™s Plan would make the nation too democratic. He worried that it would
unleash the âleveling Principlesâ and âoccasion such a ď¬‚uctuation of Property as to introduce
the greatest disorder.â
20 Greene, âThe Background of the Articles of Confederation,â 41. Also Rakove, Beginnings,
21 For the revisions that were made, see Rakove, Beginnings, 158â“62; Rakove, âLegacy,â 45â“53;
Jensen, The Articles of Confederation, esp. 177â“84.
22 John Witte, Jr., Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment, 2nd ed. (Boulder, CO:
Westview Press, 2005), 75.
23 âJohn Dickinsonâ™s Draft Articles of Confederation,â Delegates, 4: 253, n, 3.
Critical Period in Pennsylvania 253
the new Pennsylvania Assembly, he was not present to defend his provisions.
A much weaker version emerged, the only sort that could win approval.
Rutledge complained famously that Dickinsonâ™s draft âhas the Vice of all his
Productions to a considerable Degree; I mean the Vice of Reď¬ning too much.â24
But clearly, considering how events unfolded in Pennsylvania, the excise of these
portions of the draft had grave implications for certain segments of society. As
they were being written, John Adams was sanguine that with these Articles,
âthe last ď¬nishing Stroke will be given to the Politicks of this Revolution.â25 He
might have been right, had the articles been implemented as Dickinson wrote
them; some scholars muse that if they had, the 1787 Constitution might not
have been necessary.26 But in reality, the politics had only just begun. More
prophetically, Abraham Clark of New Jersey remarked to Elias Dayton, âWe
are now Sir embarked on a most Tempestious Sea.â27
The Revolutionary Convention and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution
As soon as independence was declared, the radicals moved to establish formally
the new Pennsylvania government.28 Elections were held July 8 and the ď¬rst
meeting of the Convention was July 15. If it had not been clear before, the tone
of the proceedings was extreme â“ only fervent radicals were elected. Moderate
members of the Assembly were unceremoniously turned out, âall fallen, like
Grass before the Scythe.â29 Dickinson got the news on the front. âWhile I
was exposing my person to every hazard, and lodging within half a mile from
the enemy,â he explained, âthe members of the Convention at Philadelphia,
resting in quiet and safety, ignominiously voted me, as unworthy of my seat,
out of the National Senate.â30 But no sooner had the election taken place than
onlookers began to have doubts about the competency of the new government
and regret that a tone of moderation had not been preserved. Particularly,
they lamented Dickinsonâ™s absence. Charles Thomson wrote to him in the ď¬eld
saying, âI wish they had chosen better; & that you could have headed them.â31
Even John Adams was inclined âto wish that [Dickinson and others] may be
restored, at a fresh Election.â32
24 Edward Rutledge to John Jay, June 29, 1776, Delegates, 4: 338.
25 John Adams to John Winthrop, June 23, 1776, Delegates, 4: 299.
26 Forrest McDonald and Ellen Shapiro McDonald, Requiem: Variations on Eighteenth-Century
Themes (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988), 90.
27 Abraham Clark to Elias Dayton, July 4, 1776, Delegates, 4: 378.
28 For a concise narrative of the establishment and functioning of the new government and constitu-
tion, see Guide to the Microď¬lm of the Records of Pennsylvaniaâ™s Revolutionary Governments,
1776â“1790 (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1978), 1â“6.
29 John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 10, 1776, Delegates, 4: 243.
30 Dickinson quoted in StillÂ´ and Ford, Life and Writings, 1: 206. He did not resign, as Rakove
claims (Beginnings, 151).
31 Charles Thomson to John Dickinson, Aug. 16, 1776, quoted in Flower, John Dickinson, Con-
servative Revolutionary, 174.
32 John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 10, 1776, Delegates, 4: 423.
254 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
The radicalsâ™ ď¬rst job was to write a new constitution. The document was
the offspring of two men with Quaker-informed radicalism in their blood â“
Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. While Franklin was the president of
the Convention, he was busy with national affairs and did not devote much
time to the proceedings. Perhaps the real leader â“ in spirit if not in body â“
was erstwhile Quaker Paine. His partisans, James Cannon and George Bryan,
crafted a document that generally followed the guide laid out in Common
Sense.33 The delegates to Congress who had orchestrated and approved the
coup of the Assembly looked on as though they had not quite anticipated the
turn of events. They observed in horror as the ânumsculsâ who were âintirely
unacquainted with such high mattersâ took up their pens. Even some of the
members of the Convention themselves agreed that they were âhardly equal to
ye Task to form a new plan of Government.â34 Thomas Smith reported that
they were wholly uneducated on the matter of law. They âmight have prevented
[themselves] from being ridiculous in the eyes of the worldâ had some members
not prostituted themselves to the popular democratic sentiment. âThey would
go to the devil for popularity,â he said.35 They were farmers, artisans, and
mechanics, and they garnered their support from the same ranks and lower.
The constitution that the Convention produced was an anomaly among
state constitutions, but not for the reasons some scholars have claimed. It was
at once the legacy of Quakerism and hostile to it; it originated as a response
to hegemonic Quaker rule, but it drew some of its deď¬ning features from
the very constitution it replaced â“ the 1701 Quaker Charter of Privileges.
Commentators on the 1776 constitution often mention two supposedly unique
qualities.36 The ď¬rst is the unicameral legislature. But of course, this was one of
the distinguishing aspects of the colonial government. As we have seen, the
Charter of Privileges was created speciď¬cally to abolish the upper house of the
Assembly and nullify the powers of the proprietor.37 While the radicals claimed
to want to âreject everythingâ from the old constitution, âto clear every part
of the old rubbish out of the way and begin upon a clean foundation,â they
were actually preserving what had already existed in Pennsylvania for seventy-
ď¬ve years.38 The other notable provision, one that scholars almost universally
33 Selsam, Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, 49â“50; Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin
Franklin, 164; Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, 131.
34 Peter Grubb quoted in Selsam, The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, 149; Francis Alison to
Cozen Robert, Aug. 20, 1776, âNotes and Queries,â PMHB vol. 28, no. 3 (1904), 375â“84,
35 Thomas Smith to Arthur St. Clair, quoted in Burton A. Konkle, Life and Times of Thomas
Smith, 1754â“1809 (Philadelphia: Campion & Company, 1904), 75.
36 Kruman presents a fairly sanitized version of this process (Between Authority and Liberty,
37 American Archives, ser. 5, 2: 1149.
38 Thomas Smith to Arthur St. Clair, quoted in Selsam, Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, 205.
Bouton seems to have accepted this claim uncritically. He ď¬nds that the âsolutionâ that the
Radicals found to the undemocratic Quaker constitution was to implement exactly the same
Critical Period in Pennsylvania 255
laud, is its democratic quality.39 And indeed it was the ď¬rst constitution â“
and the only one at this time â“ to abolish property qualiď¬cations for voting.
Pennsylvania had always had a relatively liberal franchise because of the liberty
of conscience clause in the Charter, and the radicals expanded it even further.
But, as will become apparent, this democratic quality was not all it appears to
be on the surface.
Other provisions of the constitution stipulated the basic rights Pennsylva-
nians had long enjoyed. It speciď¬ed trial by jury and the inviolability of oneâ™s
house and papers from seizure without warrant. There was also a clause pro-
tecting religious liberty that grew directly out of Quakerism â“ Section Two
provides for freedom of worship and the right not to be compelled to support
any church or ministry. Signiď¬cantly, it also provided for civil liberties con-
nected with religion, including a provision for those principled against taking
an oath to take an afď¬rmation. The test would be whether these fundamental
laws would be upheld.
Protesting the Constitution
The 1776 constitution took effect on September 28. That autumn, having
resigned his commission in the militia to move his family out of the path of the
British Army, Dickinson returned to Philadelphia to oppose the constitution
and, he hoped, restrain the radicals. He wrote, spoke, and agitated strenuously
against both the process by which the constitution came into being, as well as
the speciď¬c provisions it enumerated, which he considered âconfused, incon-
sistent, and dangerous.â40 Dickinson expressed his constitutional priorities for
Pennsylvania in three main places. In the autumn of 1776 he published An
Essay of a Frame of Government for Pennsylvania and on October 21â“22, he
spoke at a public meeting about the constitution, out of which were published
thirty-one resolutions.41 He also made edits in his printed copy of the Pennsyl-
vania Declaration of Rights.42 Each of these instances shows both continuity
and evolution of thought as new problems became apparent. As one might
expect, each also shares many provisions with his Articles of Confederation.
features as that constitution â“ a unicameral legislature and a weak executive (Taming Democ-
racy, 55). By contrast, Selsam is clear that there was âpreponderant inď¬‚uence in favor of the
old constitutionâ (Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, 151).
39 Bouton is only the latest to argue that the 1776 constitution would âremove the barriers that
had kept their voices from being heardâ (Taming Democracy, 55).
40 Resolutions from the âMeeting in the State-House Yard,â in American Archives, ser. 5 (Wash-
ington, DC, 1837â“53), 1149â“52. Published in the Pennsylvania Gazette, Oct 23, 1776. (Here-
after referred to as Resolutions.)
41 It is unknown who penned the Resolutions; however, given his expertise and his history of
authoring most of the publications of Congress, it is probable that Dickinson took the lead in
writing these as well.
42 John Dickinson, handwritten notes on his copy of The Constitution of the Common-Wealth of
Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1776), 5â“9, LCP. (Hereafter referred to as âNotes.â)
256 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
As the October Resolutions state, the most fundamental objection to the
new constitution of the Republicans, as they would be called, was that the