‚Äúassumed and exercised powers with which they were not entrusted by the
people.‚ÄĚ Although it was a legal truism that, as Dickinson wrote in his notes,
‚Äúno Laws can bind the People but what they assent to by themselves or by their
legal Representatives,‚ÄĚ43 the Convention ignored it. That body had grown
out of the coup of the old government and was representative of the will of
only some people. Also, the constitution was not voted on by the people ‚Ä“ it
was proclaimed as a fait accompli. Beyond this, however, the document was
troubling to Dickinson on many levels.
Four main criteria for an effective and legitimate constitution recur through-
out Dickinson‚Ä™s criticisms. The order in which they appear varies; thus it is
difÔ¬Ācult to tell which, if any, he thought should take precedence. One is that
the laws and structure of the new government should not ‚Äú[deviate] from all
resemblance to the former Government of this state, to which the people have
been accustomed,‚ÄĚ44 and, looking as far back in the state‚Ä™s history as pos-
sible, he stipulated that they ought not subvert the basic constitution given
William Penn by Charles II in 1681.45 But his references tend toward the more
recent 1701 Charter. Many of his calls for constitutional continuity came in
the context of another top priority ‚Ä“ civil rights and liberties for religious dis-
senters. Like his fourth section of the Articles, he stipulated that the people
of Pennsylvania ‚Äúshall for ever enjoy the same rights, privileges, and immu-
nities, and exemptions, unchanged, unrestrained, and altogether undiminished
by any law or ordinance whatever, for or on account of any religious persua-
sion, profession or practice, which they now enjoy, or have been accustomed
to the charter and laws of this colony.‚ÄĚ46 With every mention of religion,
special attention was given to the matter of oaths ‚Ä“ that no ‚Äúperson con-
scientiously scrupulous of taking an oath [shall] be obliged or required by
any law whatsoever . . . in order to be admitted into any ofÔ¬Āce whatever‚ÄĚ but
‚Äúshall be permitted to take an afÔ¬Ārmation, according to the ancient, legal and
laudable usage in this colony.‚ÄĚ47 It is interesting that Dickinson and other
Republicans felt compelled to emphasize these provisions; after all, they were
enumerated in the new constitution. It suggests that they were not secured well
enough in their language to preserve them against the current climate in the
Another recurring point in Dickinson‚Ä™s writings is the separation of powers ‚Ä“
or lack of it. On this matter, the Resolutions are somewhat contradictory. They
demand continuity with the ancient laws of Pennsylvania, but they also deride
the new constitution for establishing a unicameral legislature, with the judicial
43 ‚ÄúNotes,‚ÄĚ 6.
44 Resolutions, 1149.
45 ‚ÄúNotes,‚ÄĚ 6.
46 John Dickinson, Essay of a Frame of Government for Pennsylvania (1776), 13.
47 Dickinson, Essay of a Frame, 13.
Critical Period in Pennsylvania 257
and executive branches dependent on the legislative. This is a clear point where
we can see an important evolution in Dickinson‚Ä™s constitutional thought. Dur-
ing the 1764 campaign for royal government, he argued for the preserva-
tion of the 1701 Charter by touting its distinctive unicameralism and legisla-
tion unchecked by ‚Äúa council instituted, in fancied imitation of the House of
Lords.‚ÄĚ48 But by now, Dickinson had undergone a similar ‚Äústriking change of
mind‚ÄĚ to that of other Founders, though perhaps earlier ‚Ä“ he turned away from
the idea that the popular branch should bear the preponderance of power.49
But it did not take ten years of turmoil under the new Articles for him to realize
it. Although he had been in favor of a more egalitarian or democratic structure
before, he now advocated one that was more hierarchical, or at least placed
new checks on the popular branch.
Dickinson‚Ä™s change of mind in this regard could be traced to a variety of
factors ‚Ä“ the fractiousness of the Pennsylvania government under Quakers and
the fact that this is what almost led to a drastic and potentially damaging change
of government in 1764; the current difÔ¬Āculties with parliamentary supremacy
in England; or the current democratic despotism in Pennsylvania. Regardless
of the impetus, it is important to remember that Quakers had never ‚Ä“ or
not since their earliest years ‚Ä“ advocated a pure democracy that would make
unicameralism so dangerous. As we have seen, their government, while more
‚Äúliberal‚ÄĚ than some, was premised upon the idea of a spiritual aristocracy
that would result in a sort of representative democracy and a check on the
people. They believed in egalitarianism of a sort, but we might consider it
as equal opportunity rather than equal liberties and privileges by default. In
other words, individuals might all potentially speak publicly (i.e., vote and hold
ofÔ¬Āce), but each must prove that his voice was worthy of being heard, and only
those whose did would lead. For the government to function otherwise would
lead to licentiousness. On the other hand, because of this fundamental sense
of the possibility of equality, Quakers tried to bring individuals along with
education to the point where all voices had weight. However, they ultimately
believed that a government conducted by men who were in power solely on
the basis of their earthly equality with others as human beings rather than on
spiritual merit was a dangerous and unacceptable foundation. In recent years
and in various ways, Dickinson had likewise seen problems with an immoderate
popular voice. And he saw it now.
Excessive popular power notwithstanding, in their arguments for separa-
tion of powers, the Republicans‚Ä™ greatest concern was the service of judges
at the pleasure of the Assembly. This was actually an important difference
from the colonial government, which had given judges more independence.50
The Resolutions cite two of Dickinson‚Ä™s earlier writings for the Continental
48 John Dickinson, A Speech, 18.
49 Lance Banning, The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology (Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 1978), 89.
50 Justices of the peace could only be removed after being found guilty in a trial. See Marietta and
Rowe, Troubled Experiment, 166‚Ä“67.
258 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
Congress, the First Petition to the King and the Letter to the Inhabitants of
Quebec, to show how America had long disagreed with such an arrangement.
Dickinson‚Ä™s Essay of a Frame spends considerable time explaining how ‚Äúvest-
ing the Supreme Legislature in three different bodies, has a great tendency to
give maturity and precision to acts of legislation, as also stability to the state, by
preventing measures from being too much inÔ¬‚uenced by sudden passions.‚ÄĚ51
In this regard, the Republicans were unhappy with the constitution because
it was an anomaly among state constitutions. ‚Äú[I]t differs,‚ÄĚ they complained,
‚Äúfrom others lately formed.‚ÄĚ52
A Ô¬Ānal repeating theme of Dickinson‚Ä™s criticisms was that the new constitu-
tion had no provision for amendment. He would have had the Declaration of
Rights read ‚Äúthe People have a Right and ought to establish a new or reform
the old Government in such Manner as shall by the Community be judged
most conducive to the public Weal.‚ÄĚ53 What the Convention did instead was
to mandate that it was to be accepted in toto by the people without a vote,
that it was not to be changed for the Ô¬Ārst seven years, and then not by the
people, but rather by a Council of Censors established for that purpose. What
was worse, it demanded that all inhabitants of Pennsylvania take an oath or
afÔ¬Ārmation so that they could not ‚Äúdirectly or indirectly do any act or thing
prejudicial or injurious to the constitution or government thereof, as estab-
lished by the Convention.‚ÄĚ54 Accordingly, the Republicans resolved that no
one should swear to or afÔ¬Ārm any such thing and urged resistance.
These were the consistent arguments that appeared in all Dickinson‚Ä™s con-
stitutional writings.55 But there were some that were unique to a particular
document. For example, he ended his Essay of a Frame by suggesting some pro-
visions that might eventually be added to the Frame. Two deserve special note.
The Ô¬Ārst is ‚Äú[t]o prohibit the punishing of any crime but murder, or military
offences with Death.‚ÄĚ56 Such a law would revive one of the oldest laws in Penn-
sylvania from the days when the Quaker colony stood out as the most gentle to
criminals of all British governments. The other law would stipulate that ‚Äú[n]o
person coming into, or born in this country, to be held in Slavery under any pre-
tense whatever.‚ÄĚ57 With the abolition movement beginning among Quakers in
51 Dickinson, Essay of a Frame, 3 (page unnumbered).
52 Resolutions, 1150.
53 ‚ÄúNotes,‚ÄĚ 6.
54 The Proceedings Relative to Calling the Convention of 1776 and 1790 (Harrisburg, 1825), 54.
55 The one exception to this is that, oddly enough, a provision for amendment does not appear in
Dickinson‚Ä™s draft of the Articles. The very fact that this omission is so out of keeping with all
his other writings on the subject, we must assume its absence here is due to some other reason
than that he did not consider it important. Indeed, is clear that he was thinking about the issue
of change. In his notes on the draft, he wrote, ‚ÄúThe Power of Congress interf[ering] in any
Change of the Const[ituti]on? Also the Propeity of guaranteeing the respective Constitutions
& Frames of Government.‚ÄĚ (‚ÄúJohn Dickinson‚Ä™s Draft Articles of Confederation,‚ÄĚ Delegates, 4:
252, n. 2.)
56 Dickinson, Essay of a Frame, 16.
Critical Period in Pennsylvania 259
Pennsylvania, it was the Ô¬Ārst state to outlaw slavery in 1780. Dickinson would
continue to express his objection to slavery in the Constitutional Convention.
The majority of Dickinson‚Ä™s notes on his copy of the Declaration of Rights
suggest that he wrote them later than the autumn of 1776. They highlight
potential problems that were not yet in existence or not clearly apparent at the
time the constitution was proclaimed. It is likely that, as events unfolded and
Dickinson witnessed or learned of the infringement on individual liberties in
Pennsylvania, his criticisms of the constitution became more reÔ¬Āned.
During the last months of 1776, Pennsylvania spiraled into chaos. There
was no clear leadership in Philadelphia as the Constitutionalists and Republi-
cans contested for power. It was very much a dispute over who should rule at
home.58 The ultimate source of the confusion was that there was no clear pref-
erence for one party or the other by the people; the state was split virtually down
the middle. On the traditional election day, October 1, some counties held elec-
tions to support the old government. When the new election day approached,
these resisters made plans to undermine the proceedings on November 5 by
strategic voting and attempting to persuade electors not to take the oath. The
Constitutionalists, meanwhile, allowed the Associators to control elections in
some areas; they conducted the voting by battalion and did not allow others
to cast a ballot. Also, it was, in general, difÔ¬Ācult for those unwilling to take
the oath to vote. Although the Republicans won heavily Quaker Philadelphia
overwhelmingly, the Constitutionalists carried the election with the support of
the Presbyterian Western counties.59
By this time, Pennsylvania not only had crippling internal difÔ¬Āculties, it was
under direct threat from the British. In an attempt to remedy the political situ-
ation, on November 27 Dickinson offered a compromise to the Constitutional-
ists. They would cooperate if the radicals ‚Äúwill agree to call a free Convention
for a full & fair Representation of the Freemen of Pennsylvania.‚ÄĚ The pur-
pose would be for ‚Äúreversing the Constitution form‚Ä™d by the late Convention
and making such Alterations & Amendments therein as shall by [the Freemen]
be thought proper.‚ÄĚ The offer was rejected.60 Unable to give allegiance to a
Ô¬‚awed constitution, Dickinson left the Assembly, taking many Republicans
with him. Clearly even the most devoted traditionalists struggled with the urge
to withdraw when their theologico-political purity was threatened. Remaining
members of the party hoped for his return. ‚ÄúThe eyes of the whole city are
Ô¬Āxed upon you,‚ÄĚ said Benjamin Rush. ‚Äú[T]he whole city waits only to see what
part you will take.‚ÄĚ61 At this point, however he resolved to return to Delaware
and enlist in the militia as a private. Thus, with no hope of a quorum, the
government was paralyzed.
58 Carl Becker, History of Political Parties in the Province of New York (Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press, 1909), 22.
59 Selsam, Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, 226‚Ä“30.
60 John Dickinson, note on constitutional revisions in Pennsylvania, Nov. 27, 1776, Government
Documents, Revolutionary and Early National Periods, 1765‚Ä“1788, n .d., JDP/LCP.
61 Benjamin Rush to John Dickinson, December 1, 1776, in ButterÔ¬Āeld, Letters of Rush, 1: 119.
260 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
With the danger to the state from the British increasing, Congress demanded
that the Council of Safety, now the state‚Ä™s acting government, call out the militia
to protect the city. Though calls went out, they were of little effect because the
Associators were now too complacent to Ô¬Āght, and they ran rampant in the
city with little or no accountability to their ofÔ¬Ācers. One historian has argued
that the apathy of the Associators toward the invasion of the British was
because they had a more immediate concern in mind ‚Ä“ gaining power in the
Pennsylvania government. Once that was achieved, they did not look beyond
their own state to the national situation and had little interest in Ô¬Āghting a
revolution.62 Their grievances were not against England; they were against the
Quaker government. In early December, Congress placed Pennsylvania under
Although the alliance between radical Presbyterians and radicalized Quak-
ers seems counterintuitive, at this point it was logical. The Presbyterians had
long railed against Quaker power. ‚ÄúYou are the persons who have made us
slaves,‚ÄĚ they claimed in 1764, ‚Äúyou have depriv‚Ä™d us of charter-privileges; have
made laws for us; and have offer‚Ä™d to deprive us of juries, so that you might
have the power to spare our lives, or take them away, at pleasure‚ÄĚ64 Like-
wise, the radicalized Quakers bristled at the restrictions withdrawing Friends
sought to impose on their revolutionary activities. The split between Quakers
followed a similar fault line that existed since their origins and once again
appeared in the early 1760s: One side, including withdrawing and traditional
Quakerism ‚Ä“ with Dickinson at the head ‚Ä“ favored unity, security, and a sort
of hierarchy; the other side ‚Ä“ guided by Paine‚Ä™s ethos ‚Ä“ favored individual
leadings, democracy, and dangerous innovation. Paine claimed that ‚Äú[w]hen I
turned my thoughts towards matters of government, I had to form a system
for myself, that accorded with the moral and philosophical principles in which
I had been educated.‚ÄĚ65 But former Quakers such as he rejected not just the
representational quality of their religion‚Ä™s democracy that had been established
by Fox, Barclay, and others in favor of pure democracy but also the paciÔ¬Āsm
that had restrained many members for years. Presbyterians were experienc-
ing similar problems with factionalism in the church. Radical Presbyterians,
acting perhaps out of the enthusiasm of the First Great Awakening, rejected
the hierarchy by which their church had been organized and then attempted to
democratize the state accordingly.66 With Presbyterians and radicalized Quaker
62 Selsam, Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, 258‚Ä“59. For an extensive discussion of the lack
of commitment of militiamen, see James Kirby Martin and Mark Edward Lender, A Respec-
tiable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763‚Ä“1789 (Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan
63 JCC, 5: 1017.
64 Williamson, Plain Dealer, 1: 14.
65 Thomas Paine, ‚ÄúThe Age of Reason,‚ÄĚ in Moncure Daniel Conway, ed., The Writings of Thomas
Paine (New York: G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1896), 4: 63.
66 It is well known that radical Presbyterians took the lead in the Revolution. Peter C. Messer
attempts to explain the radical behavior in terms of evangelical millenarianism in ‚Äú‚Ä˜A Species of
Critical Period in Pennsylvania 261
types all alienated from or disillusioned with the reticence of traditional and
withdrawing Quakerism, they could Ô¬Ānd common ground both politically and
Now armed, the Quaker element in the new government looked and acted
much like reformed and democratized Calvinism. In the constitutional priorities
that Paine expressed, we see what radicalized Quakerism devoid of the peace
testimony and allied with reformed Calvinism could do in opposition to tradi-
tional Quaker constitutionalism. In wartime, historic rights and liberties were
obliterated. The February before independence was declared, Samuel Adams
scoffed at the fear that ‚ÄúPresbyterians, if freed from the restraining power of
Great Britain, would overrun the peaceable Quakers in government.‚ÄĚ67 Over
the next few years, however, the radical leaders of Pennsylvania proceeded to
violate every provision of their constitution named here.
‚ÄúTorism is dum‚ÄĚ: The Constitutional Gap in Pennsylvania and
Persecution of Dissenters
Although the sentiment in this heading was expressed by a learned Delawar-
ian,68 it is representative of the lack of nuance with which the uneducated
radicals who crafted the Pennsylvania constitution perceived resistance to their
cause. There is no doubt that some Quakers were Tories actively aiding the
British ‚Ä“ ‚Äújust enough to taint the neutrality of the whole sect,‚ÄĚ says Robert
M. Calhoon.69 Thus anything less than patriotic enthusiasm was suspect, and
neutrality, or even moderation, became the blank canvass for all the radicals‚Ä™
fears. George Savile‚Ä™s 1688 characterization of a trimmer summarized well the
attitude of the Revolutionaries toward Quakers: ‚ÄúBut it so happens, that the
poor Trimmer hath all the Powder spent on him alone . . . there is no danger
now to the state . . . but from the Beast called a Trimmer.‚ÄĚ70 And it is clear that
what provoked the Patriots was as much Quakers‚Ä™ trimming as their perceived
Toryism. The seventeenth-century Trimmer faction was known for fence sitting
and opportunism. And when the political situation became heated and revolu-
tion broke out, they stood passively by, letting others take the risks for liberty.
Treason & Not the Least Dangerous Kind‚Ä™: The Treason Trials of Abraham Carlisle and John
Roberts,‚ÄĚ PMHB vol. 128, no. 4 (1999), 303‚Ä“32. See also fn. 113, this chapter.
67 Samuel Adams, February 3, 1776, in William V. Wells, The Life and Public Services of Samuel
Adams, 2: 363.
68 Thomas Rodney to Caesar Rodney, May 19, 1776, Delegates, 4: 62. On Toryism, see, among
others, Leonard W. Larabee, Conservatism in Early American History, (New York: New York
University Press, 1948); William H. Nelson, The American Tory (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1961); the special issue of Pennsylvania History devoted to exploring the varieties of
Loyalism, vol. 62, no. 3 (1995); work by Calhoon, including The Loyalists in the American
69 Calhoon, The Loyalists in the American Revolution, 388. He Ô¬Ānds that only ‚Äú[a] very few
Friends were forthright apologists for British policy‚ÄĚ and that ‚Äúthe great majority of the sect
and virtually all its leadership were genuine paciÔ¬Āsts‚ÄĚ (170).
70 Savile, The Character of a Trimmer, preface.
262 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
Although Quakers had never been trimmers in this sense, always being willing
to take a stand and accept punishment for their beliefs, they now appeared to
be so, adopting a more cautious stance that seemed to many to be cowardice
or economic self-interest.
In 1768 Dickinson proclaimed that ‚Äú[w]ise and good men in vain oppose
the storm‚ÄĚ of violent resistance. He anticipated the suffering he and Friends
would ultimately experience, writing that they ‚Äúmay think themselves fortu-
nate, if, endeavouring to preserve their ungrateful fellow citizens, they do not
ruin themselves.‚ÄĚ He prophesied, ‚ÄúTheir prudence will be called baseness; their
moderation guilt‚ÄĚ and ‚Äútheir virtue‚ÄĚ may ‚Äúlead them to destruction.‚ÄĚ71 Speak-
ing in 1775 of the ‚Äúignorant hotheaded Demagogues‚ÄĚ leading mobs around
New York, physician John Jones echoed his cousin‚Ä™s fears. ‚ÄúNothing less than
death or banishment will satisfy the resentment of these raging Patriots,‚ÄĚ he
said. It was this ‚Äúpopular fury‚ÄĚ that in large part made Quakers dread the
‚Äúvictory‚ÄĚ of these Americans.72
Dickinson‚Ä™s and Quakers‚Ä™ worst fears came to pass as the basic rights they
had had under the Charter vanished and were replaced with a degree of per-
secution they had not known since the seventeenth century, then also at the
hands of reformed Calvinists in Massachusetts. Many of the most important
civil liberties that Dickinson outlined in his Essay of a Frame and elsewhere
were repeatedly violated ‚Ä“ religious liberty, no tests or oaths, trial by jury,
habeas corpus, no capital punishment except for murder and military crimes.73
As in Restoration England under the Anglicans, the persecution took place both
formally and informally, by thugs and government ofÔ¬Ācials alike, often indis-
tinguishable in Revolutionary Pennsylvania. It ranged from petty name calling,
to libel, slander, and false charges, to destruction of property, deprivation of
personal liberty without due process, and ultimately, for some, loss of life.
Dickinson, being the most public and outspoken of the radicals‚Ä™ adversaries
and the most visible of the Quakers‚Ä™ leaders, was the Ô¬Ārst target.
The majority of Dickinson‚Ä™s troubles occurred during the eight-month period
when there was no constitution Ô¬Ārmly in place in either Pennsylvania or the
United States. An indication of growing problems came after he refused to
sign the Declaration. ‚ÄúI had not been ten days in camp at Elizabethtown [New
Jersey],‚ÄĚ he said, ‚Äúwhen I was by my persecutors turned out of Congress.‚ÄĚ74
When he returned to Ô¬Āght for historic constitutional liberties, he presented such
a problem for his opponents, speaking and acting against the unconstitution-
ality of their laws and proceedings, that he made more enemies than he ever
71 Dickinson, Letters, 19.
72 John Jones to John Dickinson, March 20, 1775. Incoming Correspondence, Sept. 22, 1759‚Ä“June
23, 1782, JDP/LCP.
73 While Bouton acknowledges many of these violations took places, he elides their import by
referring to them in passing as mere ‚Äúlimits‚ÄĚ that did minimize the ‚Äútransformation‚ÄĚ that had
taken place in the government (Taming Democracy, 55‚Ä“57). But indeed, the transformation
was in important ways from a freer system to a more tyrannical one.
74 Still¬ī and Ford, Life and Writings, 1: 206.
Critical Period in Pennsylvania 263
had before. Samuel Adams, who could be as vitriolic as his cousin, articulated
a sentiment that must have been prevalent among the struggling radicals. On
December 12, he decried Dickinson‚Ä™s power in that state, claiming that he ‚Äúhas
poisond the Minds of the People, the Effect of which is a total Stagnation of
the Power of Resentment, the utter Loss of every manly Sentiment of Liberty
& Virtue. I give up [Philadelphia] & [Pennsylvania] for lost until recover[‚Ä˜d]
by other Americans.‚ÄĚ75
What happened next was the radicals‚Ä™ attempt to ‚Äúrecover‚ÄĚ their state ‚Ä“
retribution against Dickinson for interfering with their revolution. On Decem-
ber 15, Dickinson unwittingly provided the acting government, the Council of
Safety, the excuse it needed to pursue him as an enemy to the cause. He sent a
letter to his brother, the commanding ofÔ¬Ācer of the Delaware militia, advising
him not to accept Continental currency.76 Without reasonable suspicion as to
the contents of the letter, the Council apprehended Dickinson‚Ä™s servant, con-
Ô¬Āscated the letter, and opened it. They also seized his house in Philadelphia for
a hospital. Within days, on the twenty-Ô¬Ārst, Benjamin Rush wrote to Richard
Henry Lee, ‚ÄúGen Putnam sent a guard to apprehend Mr Dick-n yesterday; you
will soon hear of the cause of it. He has escaped.‚ÄĚ77
At this time, there was so much inÔ¬‚ammatory gossip about Dickinson
swirling around Philadelphia that it is hard to know how accurate Rush‚Ä™s
statement was. Congressman William Hooper complained that ‚ÄúDickinsons
Apostatization‚ÄĚ was so complete in that city that little said of him was to
be believed, including the rumor that he had defected to the British.78 Even if
arrested, it is unlikely that he would have Ô¬‚ed. On the contrary, Dickinson, who,
like other gentlemen, had moved his family out of the city to safety, returned for
the express purpose of facing the Council and refuting the accusations levied
against him.79 With a verdict of treason as the clear goal, the charges were, in
addition to advising his brother against accepting Continental currency, that
he had refused to sign the Declaration of Independence; he opposed the Con-
vention and constitution; he deserted his military post; and he had not taken a
seat in the Delaware assembly, as the people there had requested.
Dickinson put a good amount of effort into responding to these charges
and would be required to continue his defense over the next several years. In
addition to writing lengthy addresses to the public and the Council, in January,
he appeared daily at its meeting place for almost a week seeking a satisfactory
explanation for the interception of his mail, seizure and retention of ¬£10,000
worth of his property, and slanderous remarks against his character.80 In each
75 Samuel Adams to James Warren, Dec. 12, 1776, Delegates, 5: 601.
76 Flower, John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary, 213.
77 Benjamin Rush to Richard Henry Lee, Dec. 21, 1776, Delegates, 5: 628.
78 William Hooper to Robert Morris, Dec. 28, 1776, Delegates, 5: 689.
79 His own departure from the city does not appear to have been entirely voluntary. Flower explains
that his wife refused to leave without him (John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary, 181).
80 Flower, John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary, 284; John Dickinson, ‚ÄúDefense of Actions
Before the Council of Safety,‚ÄĚ 1777, Ser. 1. b. Political, 1774‚Ä“1807, n.d., RRL/HSP.
264 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
instance, the explanation he offered the Council demonstrated the vacuity of
the charges. Regarding the currency, the advice to his brother meant that he
should not accept it in the Ô¬Āeld, having no safe place to keep it. He then provided
afÔ¬Ādavits from tenants that he himself had accepted American money.81 As for
refusing to sign the Declaration and support the Pennsylvania government,
that was certainly no secret, and he reiterated that he was only doing what his
conscience told him was best for the country. ‚ÄúThe Council of Safety knows,‚ÄĚ
he wrote, ‚Äúthat I might have reign‚Ä™d with them, if I had been so false to my
Countrymen, as to have concealed my real Sentiments for fear of displeasing
them.‚ÄĚ Proof of his patriotism was that ‚Äúthere was not one Man at that Time in
Philadelphia, who had acted as publicly in the Common Cause as I had done.‚ÄĚ
But precisely because of this, ‚Äú[f]or some time past I have been incessantly
attacked on every side.‚ÄĚ82 The great irony of Dickinson‚Ä™s situation, of course,
was that he was seen by the British, according to John Adams, as ‚Äúthe ruler of
America‚ÄĚ83 and one of the primary leaders of the Revolution, the ‚ÄúPenman.‚ÄĚ
Thus, as his countrymen were harrying him, the British and American Tories
were burning and looting his homes.84 Aware that ‚Äúthe part I had taken from
the very Beginning of the present Controversy, and my having born Arms, might
have drawn peculiar Insults and Injuries on those who were connected with
me,‚ÄĚ he ofÔ¬Ācially resigned his commission in the militia to protect his family.
Unapologetic, he announced, ‚ÄúI owe it to my Country, to involve [my family]
in such a Danger, I also owe it to them, to make a reasonable provision for
their Safety.‚ÄĚ Finally, as to the charge he had not sat in the Delaware assembly,
a post he had declined for health reasons, he said, simply, that was ‚Äúa matter in
which they have no business.‚ÄĚ85 He ended his defense with steadfast opposition
to the bullying: ‚Äú[C]onÔ¬Āding in my Innocence, I defy your power, and if any of
you bear me Malice, I would have you assuredly know, I equally defy that.‚ÄĚ86
Dickinson received no satisfaction from the confrontation. There was no
apology or withdrawal of the accusations; yet neither were the charges pur-
sued. There was no restitution for his stolen and damaged property; in short,
there was no sign that the Council had been serious or had intended to do
anything more than harass an adversary and ruin his reputation.87 That spring
81 Alexander Douglas, afÔ¬Ādavit that Dickinson did not refuse to take Continental money in pay-
ment for rent, March 6, 1777, Ser. 1. b. Political, 1774‚Ä“1807, n.d., RRL/HSP.
82 John Dickinson, untitled ms, January 21, 1777, Ser. 1. b. Political, 1774‚Ä“1807, n.d., RRL/HSP.
83 John Adams, Twenty-Six Letters, upon Interesting Subjects, Respecting the Revolution of Amer-
ica (New York, 1780), 32.
84 John Adams‚Ä™s Diary, Sept. 20, 1777, Delegates, 8: 5.
85 Dickinson, ‚ÄúDefense of Actions Before the Council of Safety,‚ÄĚ 1777, Ser. 1. b. Political, 1774‚Ä“
1807, n.d. RRL/HSP. He explained his reasons ‚Ä“ ill health and the care of his family ‚Ä“ in a letter
to George Read, Jan. 20, 1777, Small Manuscript Collection, John Dickinson Letters, DPA.
86 John Dickinson, untitled document, Jan. 21, 1777, Ser. 1. b. Political, 1774‚Ä“1807, n.d.,
87 On the seminal importance of reputation in this period, see Joanne Freeman, Affairs of Honor:
National Politics in the New Republic (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002) Andrew
Trees, The Founding Fathers and the Politics of Character (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Critical Period in Pennsylvania 265
Dickinson was abused in the papers, as he was called the ‚Äúcompromising
farmer,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúpiddling politician,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúsummer soldier,‚ÄĚ and a ‚Äúprocrastinating dele-
gate, whose chilling breath b[l]ackened all measures of Congress.‚ÄĚ Addressing
his diatribe to ‚ÄúPhocion,‚ÄĚ the author claimed that ‚Äú[y]ou ransacked the Con-
stitution through every page and paragraph, to Ô¬Ānd some real Ô¬‚aw in it that
might expose it to contempt, but drove to the shameful shift of irritating reli-
gious spleen, your low art persuaded people that the church, and indeed our
land was in danger.‚ÄĚ88 Now that Dickinson had left for Delaware, in Congress,
William Whipple seemed gleeful that ‚ÄúDickinsonian Politics are Banish‚Ä™d.‚ÄĚ89
The Virginia Exiles
At roughly the same time the radicals began with Dickinson, they also turned
their attention toward the Society of Friends.90 The October Resolutions
against the constitution began rather cryptically with the point that ‚Äúthe Chris-
tian religion is not treated with the proper respect.‚ÄĚ91 There was no further
elaboration. The Constitutionalists, however, found the speeches of the ‚Äúvelvet
mouthed gentlemen‚ÄĚ worthy of satire. ‚ÄúSome of these men were lawyers,‚ÄĚ they
said, ‚Äúbut they talked just like ministers, so devoutly and piously, there was
no standing it.‚ÄĚ The simple cooper John Trusshoop was thoroughly duped. He
explained in the Pennsylvania Gazette that ‚ÄúI am sure lawyer ----- made it so
clear, and was so distressed about it, that I was ready to cry.‚ÄĚ92 Although the
resolution was, perhaps, more of a prognostication than a reality at that point,
the tone of the response was indicative of its accuracy.
After the punishment Quakers received in Common Sense, they had
restrained themselves from addressing the general public. Now they addressed
only their meetings, but this enraged the radicals as well. In November 1776,
88 ‚ÄúDemophilus,‚ÄĚ in Pennsylvania Gazette, March 19, 1777. Phocion was a Greek statesman who,
according to Plutarch‚Ä™s Lives, tried to save the people from their own foolishness and was thus
slandered for his virtue rather than revered.
89 William Whipple to Josiah Bartlett, February 7, 1777, Delegates, 6: 236.
90 There is surprisingly little written on this episode in the Revolution. See Isaac Sharpless, The
Quakers in the Revolution, 145‚Ä“206; Mekeel, Relation of the Quakers to the American Revo-
lution, 173‚Ä“88; Calhoon, The Loyalists in the American Revolution, 387‚Ä“90; Robert F. Oaks,
‚ÄúPhiladelphians in Exile: The Problem of Loyalty during the American Revolution.‚ÄĚ PMHB
vol. 96 (1972), 298.
91 Resolutions, 1149. John K. Wilson acknowledges that many state constitutions had provisions
for religious liberty, but that they were often not enforced. He contends, however, that the
Pennsylvania constitution contained strong protections for religious freedom. ‚ÄúReligion under
the State Constitutions, 1776‚Ä“1800,‚ÄĚ Journal of Church and State vol. 32, no. 4 (1990), 753‚Ä“
92 John Trusshoop, Nov. 13, 1776, Pennsylvania Gazette. In this and Demophilus, cited earlier,
the Constitutionalists make dubious claims about the Republicans‚Ä™ demands. Here Trusshoop
claims the unnamed lawyer was advocating that adherence to the belief in the Trinity needed to
be enforced, and Demophilus claims that Dickinson wanted the ‚ÄúAthanasian Creed, Heidelberg
Catechism, Westminster Confession of Faith, or some other such esteemed form of sound
words‚ÄĚ written into the constitution and an oath to it sworn before anyone ‚Äúcould enjoy the
rights of a citizen.‚ÄĚ
266 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
Congressman Oliver Wolcott warned that ‚Äú[t]he Quakers may not be expected
to take any open Active part in any political matter in these Times, but their
secret InÔ¬‚uence I fear is to Embarrass our measures. They dread to lose that
Predominancy which they have heretofore held.‚ÄĚ93 One epistle in particular
instigated a new phase of persecution. As Philadelphia devolved into chaos
in early December, the Meeting for Sufferings urged Friends to ‚Äúwith Chris-
tian Ô¬Ārmness and fortitude withstand and refuse to submit to the arbitrary
injunctions and ordinances of men, who assume to themselves the power of
compelling others, either in person or by assistance, to join in carrying on war,
and of prescribing modes of determining concerning our religious principles.‚ÄĚ
What they were most concerned about was that the radicals were ‚Äúimpos-
ing tests not warranted by the precepts of Christ.‚ÄĚ Like Dickinson, they were
distressed that the new government refused to observe ‚Äúthe laws of the happy
constitution, under which we and others long enjoyed tranquility and peace.‚ÄĚ94
In their admiration of what they think is the democratization of Pennsylva-
nia, some scholars forget ‚Ä“ or dismiss as unimportant ‚Ä“ the motives behind the
radical movement and the simultaneous restrictions they put on the rights of a
signiÔ¬Ācant segment of society. Their motives were not civil liberty for all, but
only for some. Their aim was to secure the overthrow of the Quaker govern-
ment and block any dissent to the new rule. And in order to do this, they would
not only have to broaden the franchise to include the propertyless lower sorts
but also restrict the voting and other civic activities of their opponents. They
did so in the only way they could ‚Ä“ to stop a religious opponent, they imposed
tests and oaths to the revolutionary government that they knew Quakers could
not take. They proclaimed that anyone ‚Äúrefusing or neglecting to take and
subscribe the said oath or afÔ¬Ārmation, shall, during the time of such neglect or
refusal, be incapable of holding any ofÔ¬Āce in this State, serving on juries, suing
for any debts, electing or being elected, buying, selling, or transferring any
lands, tenements, or hereditaments.‚ÄĚ95 They insisted that Quakers renounce
their allegiance to the crown. The irony was, of course, that Quakers had never
sworn an oath of allegiance to the crown. And neither could they swear to
the Convention, even had they been inclined to support it. In this way the
Constitutionalists barred Friends from civic participation exactly as they had
been barred in seventeenth-century England. JustiÔ¬Ācations for the oaths from
radical supporters rang hollow. One asked, ‚ÄúIs an oath that bars an inveterate
enemy who would enter a garrison on purpose to throw open its gates to the
besiegers of tyrannie, [a] cruel and unreasonable thing?‚ÄĚ He rationalized the
oath by claiming that ‚Äúthese wonderful sticklers for free election‚ÄĚ had them-
selves restricted the franchise by, among other things, property requirements.
Then, in a perplexing statement grossly ignorant of republican political theory,
93 Oliver Wolcott to Matthew Griswold, November 18, 1776, Delegates, 5: 514.
94 Religious Society of Friends, An Epistle . . . To Our Friends and Brethren in Religious Profession,
in These and the Adjacent Provinces (Philadelphia, 1776).
95 Statutes, 5: 9, 75‚Ä“94.
Critical Period in Pennsylvania 267
the author concluded that ‚ÄúI care not how free our future elections may be,
provided the persons we elect be not impowered to subvert our legal freedom
Like Dickinson, the Quakers‚Ä™ troubles began during the constitutional hia-
tus when there was neither a state nor a national structure to protect them.
Although in 1775 Congress issued a resolution to protect conscientious objec-
tors, it seems to have been forgotten by 1776.97 There is no doubt that some
Quakers considered themselves Tories and actively supported the British cause.
But even those Friends who were Patriots were restrained by conscience from
expressing themselves. They could not light their windows, aid troops, or join
in any patriotic celebrations. Their refusal to participate in these things was
both civil and social disobedience. The oaths soon became the least of their
troubles as the harassment turned to persecution, and Quakers went from sim-
ply having their civic voice silenced to enduring the overt violations of their
most basic civil rights ‚Ä“ the precise rights for which Americans claimed to be
Because of Dickinson‚Ä™s agitations against the constitution and the immediate
threat from the British, the new year opened as badly for Friends as for him.
In late January the Council of Safety issued a resolve that ordered soldiers to
be quartered in the homes of Non-Associators. Quaker Sarah Fisher knew that
‚Äú[t]his wicked resolve is particularly levied against Friends, as the violent peo-
ple were much enraged at the last publication of the Meeting of Sufferings.‚ÄĚ In
this and other ways, the Convention turned the table on the Quakers. Radicals
believed that, under the Quaker government, Non-Associators had received
preferential treatment to the detriment of the colony.98 Now they exacted ret-
ribution by compelling Quakers to do their part for the cause. Fisher considered
the new resolve ‚Äúan act of violence almost too great to bear.‚ÄĚ99
The treatment of Quakers evolved in proportion to the problems in Penn-
sylvania. It was relatively mild when the difÔ¬Āculties were internal and political;
it turned most severe when the war was going badly. In August of 1777 as the
British were approaching the state, Associators were not reporting for duty;
96 Consideration, ‚ÄúIn the Day of Adversity consider,‚ÄĚ Pennsylvania Gazette, Oct. 30, 1776. This
article was a response to the Resolutions.
97 JCC, 2: 220; See also Derek H. Davis, Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774‚Ä“1789: Con-
tributions to Original Intent (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 164‚Ä“66; John Witte,
Jr., Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment, 2nd ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview
Press, 2005), 73.
98 Under Quaker rule, Non-Associators had exemptions for ‚ÄúPretenders‚ÄĚ (7406) that the Associ-
ators believed unfair and detrimental to the country. PA 8th ser., 8: 7399‚Ä“7400, 7402‚Ä“07.
99 Nicholas B. Wainwright, ‚Äú‚Ä˜A Diary of TriÔ¬‚ing Occurrences‚Ä™: Philadelphia, 1776‚Ä“1778,‚ÄĚ PMHB
vol. 82, no. 4 (1958), 411‚Ä“65, 425‚Ä“26. See Judy Van Buskirk, who also focuses on Quaker
women, one of whom is Fisher, in ‚ÄúThey Didn‚Ä™t Join the Band: Disaffected Woman in Revolu-
tionary Philadelphia,‚ÄĚ Pennsylvania History vol. 62, no. 3 (1995), 306‚Ä“29. For other women‚Ä™s
accounts, see Elaine Forman Craine, The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker: The Life Cycle of an
Eighteenth-Century Woman (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1994); Kenneth A. Rad-
bill, ‚ÄúThe Ordeal of Elizabeth Drinker,‚ÄĚ Pennsylvania History vol. 47, no. 2 (1980), 146‚Ä“72.
268 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
they were deserting. Pennsylvania, the state that should have been the coun-
try‚Ä™s biggest asset, had, as Charles Caroll put it, ‚Äúbecome rather a burthen than
strength to the Union.‚ÄĚ100 Rather than look to the Associators as the problem,
Congress and the Pennsylvania Executive Council identiÔ¬Āed the Quakers as the
main cause, to the exclusion of most others. ‚ÄúThere is not such a Collection of
disaffected people on the Continent, as of the quakers inhabiting [eastern] Penn-
sylvania,‚ÄĚ wrote Elbridge Gerry. ‚ÄúThe Disputes about the Constitution of this
State,‚ÄĚ he continued, ‚Äúhave produced such a Division & Torpor thro out the
same, as renders it at present an inactive, lifeless, unwieldy, Mass.‚ÄĚ101 Accord-
ingly, on August 26, a congressional committee composed of John Adams and
Richard Henry Lee, among others, recommended to the Council ‚Äúto cause
a diligent search to be made in the houses of the inhabitants . . . who have
not manifested their attachment to the American cause, for Ô¬Ārearms, swords,
The absurdity and fruitlessness of searching paciÔ¬Āsts‚Ä™ homes for weapons
must have occurred to someone because, before the Council carried out the
recommendation, new ‚Äúevidence‚ÄĚ surfaced to justify ‚Ä“ in the minds of the
radicals if not by any law ‚Ä“ more than a mere search for weapons they knew did
not exist. Some papers appeared from an alleged Friends meeting at Spanktown,
New Jersey, indicating that Friends knew of British movements and were aiding
them. These papers from a Ô¬Āctitious meeting, whose dates did not correspond
with the events to which they were supposed to relate, were the excuse for a
citywide round-up of forty-one Philadelphians, twenty of whom were Friends,
the unwarranted search of their homes, and the conÔ¬Āscation of their papers.
The most prominent Quaker in Pennsylvania, John Pemberton, Dickinson‚Ä™s
cousin, recalled his arrest. ‚ÄúI told them, that as they had nothing justly to lay to
my Charge, & my House was my Own & I a freeman, I could not consent to
Comply with their Unreasonable demand.‚ÄĚ In a scene that cannot but remind
us of the civil disobedience of the 1960s, he informed the men, ‚ÄúI could not
leave my house without being forced.‚ÄĚ One of them then ‚Äútook me by the arm
& said he would force me to go, but I would not move from my seat . . . So I
was lifted by two of them off my seat & led to the Door.‚ÄĚ103 Pemberton and
others were conveyed to the Free Masons‚Ä™ Lodge.
Over the next few days, from September 2 through 5, the deÔ¬Āciencies of
both the state and national constitutions became strikingly apparent as Friends
tested them. The Quaker community and those arrested began what would be a
seven-month long appeals process to two governments, neither of which would
100 Charles Carroll to Charles Carroll, Sr. September 29, 1777, Delegates, 8: 26.
101 Elbridge Gerry to James Warren, October 6, 1777, Delegates, 8: 66.
102 Thomas Gilpin, Exiles in Virginia: With Observations on the Conduct of the Society of Friends
During the Revolutionary War Comprising the OfÔ¬Ācial Papers of the Government Relating
to that Period. 1777‚Ä“1778  (facsimile rpt. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, Inc. 2002), 35.
Gilpin‚Ä™s collection of documents pertaining to the Exiles is the best source on the episode and
the one from which much of this discussion is drawn.
103 Diaries of John Pemberton, 1777‚Ä“1781, 2nd of the 9th mo. 1777, 3, HSP.
Critical Period in Pennsylvania 269
bear responsibility for the arrest or detention of the men, who, not having been
charged with a crime, were not ofÔ¬Ācially traitors. They petitioned for a hearing
before the Council and were denied because, said the Council, it was Congress
who had ordered them arrested. They then petitioned Congress, which said that
the matter was out of their jurisdiction because these Quakers were inhabitants
of Pennsylvania. On the Ô¬Āfth of the month, the Council offered that if Quakers
would simply take the oath to the government, they would be released.
Henry Laurens, writing to John Lewis Gervais, expressed the majority opin-
ion in Congress and the Council. ‚ÄúIf the Quakers pretend to claim protection
of the Laws of the Land,‚ÄĚ he said, ‚Äúit should be remembered they refuse to
obey those Laws & deny allegiance to the State[.]‚ÄĚ Of course, Quakers had few
illusions that they would get the ‚Äúprotection‚ÄĚ of the state and wanted the secu-
rity of their ancient constitution. Laurens continued to justify the governments‚Ä™
actions not by America‚Ä™s professed principles but by its enemy‚Ä™s behavior dur-
ing the war. Because ‚Äúthe British powers Seize & conÔ¬Āne the persons of our
Subjects or friends upon Suspicion,‚ÄĚ he said, Americans ought to do the same to
Friends. But instead, he complained, ‚Äúwe suffer [England‚Ä™s] professed friends to
be at large & to go through all the Ceremonies & chicanery of Courts of Law in
their defense, we proceed upon very unequal terms.‚ÄĚ He intimated that Quak-
ers were guilty of worse than some men who had already been put to death
for treason, yet they were spared. As to the unwarranted arrest and detention
of Quakers and other alleged traitors, he said: ‚ÄúA dangerous Rule I confess
this would be in days of tranquility,‚ÄĚ but the ‚Äúpresent Circumstances‚ÄĚ made
it ‚Äúabsolutely necessary.‚ÄĚ This was from a man who claimed that ‚Äú[n]o Man
has more Love for the Society of Quakers than I have.‚ÄĚ After protesting that
he did not ‚Äúmean to condemn the whole Society of Quakers,‚ÄĚ he proceeded
to mock them. ‚ÄúTo Speak in their Style,‚ÄĚ he said, ‚Äú‚Ä˜my mind being deeply
impressed with a fervent & anxious concern for . . . the true Spirit of Liberty &
Independence,‚ÄĚ the ‚ÄúCrafty Men‚ÄĚ ought to be sent ‚Äúto a place where they will
be deprived of the means of doing harm.‚ÄĚ104
On September 9, 1777, the Council resolved that the prisoners should be
sent away. In a moment of conscience, Chief Justice Thomas McKean Ô¬Ānally
issued writs of habeas corpus. But no sooner had he done that than the Council
passed an act forbidding the writs.105 Accordingly, the Quakers were sent into
exile in Virginia. In the next months, as they became ill or died and their
families suffered Ô¬Ānancial hardships, members of the Society, demonstrating
their characteristic ‚Ä“ and offensive ‚Ä“ unity, launched a vigorous petitioning,
letter writing, and publicity campaign.
Richard Henry Lee remarked to Patrick Henry in clear disgust that ‚Äú[t]he
Quaker m[otto] ought to be ‚Ä˜Nos turba sumus‚Ä™ for if you attack one, the whole
104 Henry Laurens to John Lewis Gervais, September 5, 1777, Delegates, 7: 606‚Ä“19, 13‚Ä“14.
105 Gail S. Rowe, Thomas McKean: The Shaping of an American Republicanism (Boulder: Col-
orado Associated University Press, 1978), 106.
270 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
Society is roused.‚ÄĚ106 But their success was not greater than before. They
continued to be foisted to and fro between Congress and Council, Congress
saying that it could not interfere because these were prisoners of Pennsylvania.
Quakers were out of everyone‚Ä™s jurisdiction with no recourse to any of the
fundamental laws stated in the constitutions ‚Ä“ America‚Ä™s, Pennsylvania‚Ä™s, or, for
that matter, Virginia‚Ä™s, in which rights of the accused were carefully described.
On March 15, 1778, Congress Ô¬Ānally stepped up and ordered the prisoners
released. But come April when they were still detained, Israel Pemberton wrote
to Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson to discover what was to become of
them. Thomson responded and described more deferral of responsibility. He
had asked the Board of War about the matter, which said it was waiting for an
application from the Council of Pennsylvania. Because it had not received one,
‚Äúthey had not taken any steps in pursuance of the Act of Congress.‚ÄĚ He closed
with the sentiment, ‚ÄúI am sorry for the Death & sickness of your friends,‚ÄĚ he
said. ‚ÄúInclination and humanity easily lead me to do you any service in my
power.‚ÄĚ107 Thomson‚Ä™s regret must have been genuine and his actions effective.
The Quakers were released later that month. In all, two had died, two had
escaped behind enemy lines, and the rest, a good deal impoverished, were
restored to their families. As in Dickinson‚Ä™s case, there were never any charges
pressed, no apology or explanation issued, and no restitution for property lost,
damaged, or conÔ¬Āscated.
Even after the Virginia Exiles were released, Quakers were still widely seen
as traitors to the American cause. Indeed, the perceptions of them remained as
negative as before. Congressman Josiah Bartlett believed that ‚Äú[t]he majority
of the Quakers remain the same dark, hidden, designing hypocrites as for-
merly.‚ÄĚ108 Pennsylvania president Joseph Reed was still convinced months
after their release that ‚Äú[t]he Designs of a Tory, Proprietary Quaker Party are
too obvious; & if not crushed in the Bud will produce a plentiful Crop of
Mixing & Dissension thro this State.‚ÄĚ109 Quakers continued to be maligned
and harassed, their property destroyed and stolen into the 1780s. Their shops
were forcibly closed, and other penalties were imposed ‚Ä“ the seizure of property,
Ô¬Ānes in court for failure to appear for military duty, and the quartering of sol-
diers in their homes. Still if they did not swear the oath of allegiance they were
forbidden from ‚Äúholding any public ofÔ¬Āce or place of trust‚ÄĚ including ‚Äúserving
on juries, sueing for any debts, electing or being elected, buying, selling or
transferring any lands, tenements, or hereditaments.‚ÄĚ110 There were also con-
tinued acts of spontaneous public violence against them, such as having their
businesses and homes vandalized and being harassed by mobs for not observing
106 Richard Henry Lee to Patrick Henry, September 8, 1777, Delegates, 7: 637.
107 Israel Pemberton to Charles Thomson, April 8, 1778, Letters of Charles Thomson, Miscella-
neous Personal Autographs, Simon Gratz Autograph Collection (250A), HSP.
108 Josiah Bartlett to William Whipple, August 18, 1778, Delegates, 10: 472.
109 Joseph Reed to John Armstrong, October 5, 1778, Delegates, 11: 26.
110 Statutes, 5: 9, 75‚Ä“94.
Critical Period in Pennsylvania 271
public fasting days or lighting their windows.111 Moreover, the suspicion that
non-Quakers would use the peace testimony as an excuse to evade military
service persisted into the early Republic, with some Congressmen wondering
during the 1790 debates over an ofÔ¬Ācial policy for conscientious objectors that
exemptions based on a person‚Ä™s religion would tempt people to ‚Äúwear the mask
of Quakerism.‚ÄĚ112 Ultimately, were a Quaker Tory to confess and turn himself
in as a traitor, he could expect markedly worse treatment than others similarly
guilty. In 1778 two Quakers gave themselves up under the Act of Attainder.
They were among 130-some men who surrendered to authorities, but they were
the only two executed for their crimes.113
One scholar says that the Pennsylvania constitution must have looked like a
‚Äúcruel hoax‚ÄĚ to those who were denied its protection, yet she, like the radicals,
excused the actions of the Constitutionalists as necessary. But in fact, it was they
themselves who made the legal proceedings in Pennsylvania truly little more
than ‚ÄúCeremonies & chicanery.‚ÄĚ114 In 1779 the man primarily responsible for
laying the groundwork for the abolition of the 1701 Charter of Privileges and
the rise of the revolutionary government wrote in disgust at the happenings
in that state: ‚ÄúThe people of Pennsylvania in two years,‚ÄĚ said John Adams,
‚Äúwill be glad to petition the crown of Britain for reconciliation in order to be
delivered from the tyranny of their Constitution.‚ÄĚ115
The Quakers‚Ä™ uncharacteristic neutrality during the Revolution, the cause of
their persecution, was a stance with no single or uncomplicated reason behind
it. And it could be that there is no satisfying explanation. We, like the Revo-
lutionaries and traditional Quaker thinkers, want the Quakers to have chosen
one side or the other. From a modern perspective, it is not hard to imagine what
pushed some Quakers away from their peace testimony and toward Revolu-
tion. We have more difÔ¬Āculty understanding neutrality and Loyalism. There
is only one scenario in which neutrality would Ô¬Āt with traditional Quaker
111 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Meeting for Sufferings, miscellaneous papers, 1771‚Ä“80, FHL;
Mekeel, The Relation of the Quakers to the American Revolution, 160‚Ä“69; Sharpless, The
Quakers in the Revolution, 200‚Ä“03.
112 William Charles diGiacomantonio, et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal
Congress of the United States of America, vol. XIV: Debates in the House of Representa-
tives, Third Session: December 1790‚Ä“March 1791 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1995), 138. My thanks to Chuck diGiacomantonio for suggesting this quotation. See
also, Richard Wilson Renner, ‚ÄúConscientious Objection and the Federal Government, 1787‚Ä“
1792,‚ÄĚ Military Affairs vol. 38, no. 4 (1974), 142‚Ä“45, 143.
113 For a discussion of this incident, see Rosswurm, Arms, Country, and Class, 156‚Ä“58. Messer‚Ä™s
interpretation of this incident justiÔ¬Āes the actions of the Council by couching its decision in
terms of Old Light versus New Light evangelicalism. He argues that the Old Light presence
on the Council desired to quell the increasing New Light inclination in the masses to be more
tolerant to dissent and belief in rebirth through repentance. The Old Lights, he argued, were
not unjustly singling out Friends, but simply doing what they thought ‚Äúnecessary for the safety
of the state‚ÄĚ and that they were not ‚Äúmisguided‚ÄĚ in their decision (305).
114 Anne Ousterhout goes on to excuse the radicals, saying that ‚Äúthe number of persons denied
that document‚Ä™s guarantees was relatively small‚ÄĚ (‚ÄúControlling the Opposition,‚ÄĚ 33‚Ä“34).
115 John Adams to Benjamin Rush, October 12, 1779, in ButterÔ¬Āeld, Letters of Rush, 1: 240.
272 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
theologico-politics, and that is, if they truly believed that neither side was
completely in the right or wrong. Traditionally, of course, the Quakers‚Ä™ peace
testimony had never prevented them from protesting unjust governmental prac-
tices; on the contrary, they felt obliged to protest. But the evidence in the case of
the conÔ¬‚ict with Britain suggests that the matter was not that simple for Friends.
While it was clear that many Quakers believed Britain was behaving unjustly,
there was also the sense that Americans might deserve it, that tyranny might
be punishment for the sins of luxury and slavery, in which case, harsh taxation
would be appropriate. If this were the case, then the correct response would be
introspection and reformation, which they urged of their compatriots. If, on
the other hand, British policy were overly harsh, then peaceful resistance would
be appropriate, which they also did, to a point. Perhaps because both of these
things seemed to be true, Quakers attempted their traditional role of medi-
ators, which entailed, as Paine noted, unfairly rebuking only the Americans
for their rash behavior. From the Quaker perspective, they could be neutral
in this case because they were not the sinners, having reformed their Society
to abolish both luxury and slavery. As the conÔ¬‚ict progressed, however, most
Quakers believed that there was ‚Äúno opportunity offering where we can be
instrumental to promote the peace, & good of our Country.‚ÄĚ116 This could be
But a clear-eyed view of their situation demands recognition not just of their
abstract theologico-political principles but also of the reticence they had toward
the American cause that was based on practical concerns. It was because some
feared the Patriots abandoning their own principles more than they feared
the British, who had not threatened their religious liberty for decades. Less
honorably, they did not fear Ô¬Ānancial hardship the way other Americans did.
Nonetheless, many Quakers favored the American cause, just not the way it
was being executed. Some actively turned to the British for relief and protection;
for others, neutrality and faith in their own constitution may have seemed the
most prudent option both practically and theologically.117
There is little record of what John Dickinson thought about the persecution
of his friends and relatives. His edits on the Pennsylvania Declaration of Rights
might be a clue. It is impossible to know exactly when he made them, but
considering their substance, it seems clear that they were written in anticipation
of or response to the Quakers‚Ä™ ordeal in 1777 and 1778. He emphasized equal
rights under the law for Christians who refuse to take oaths and added a
number of other provisions ‚Ä“ some of them seemingly copied verbatim from
116 John Pemberton to John Fothergill, October 25, 1776, quoted in Mekeel, The Relation of the
Quakers to the American Revolution, 164. Fothergill, a Quaker, was himself a ‚Äúsecret nego-
tiator‚ÄĚ between Benjamin Franklin and Lord Dartmouth in 1774‚Ä“75 (Bailyn, The Ideological
Origins of the American Revolution, 149).
117 For the likelihood of better treatment under the British, compare Van Buskirk‚Ä™s description
of Sarah Fisher‚Ä™s and Elizabeth Drinker‚Ä™s handling by the Americans with Darlene Emmert
Fisher‚Ä™s description of their experiences with the British in ‚ÄúSocial Life in Philadelphia under
the British Occupation,‚ÄĚ Pennsylvania History vol. 37, no. 3 (1970), 237‚Ä“60. She describes it
as generally ‚Äúcordial‚ÄĚ (239). See also Nelson, American Tory.
Critical Period in Pennsylvania 273
other constitutions118 and others in his own language not enumerated in his
earlier writings. These additions and changes reÔ¬‚ect a clear concern for the
protection of the rights of life, liberty, and property of religious dissenters
and alleged criminals. These, along with other Quaker principles of peaceful
reconciliation and strong central government, were the ones that he would try
to put into effect as president of the state.
President of Pennsylvania, 1782‚Ä“1785
After his departure from Pennsylvania and worn from his ordeal, Dickinson
exclaimed in 1777 that ‚Äúno Temptation, except that of serving my Coun-
try, America, could engage Me ever again to take any share in Pennsylvanian
Affairs.‚ÄĚ119 His experience at the hands of the Pennsylvania radicals had a pro-
found effect on him that was similar to what Quakers as a body experienced.
It caused an inward retreat ‚Ä“ into himself and his immediate family. It was
during this period, in between 1777 and 1782, as he spent time at home to
recover his health, that he began to awaken to Quakerism as more than just
a political philosophy. Over these years we see the beginnings of a more overt
and personal expression of Quaker concerns and testimonies ‚Ä“ subtle at Ô¬Ārst,
but increasing in frequency and strength until his death.
When the 1782 presidential election in Pennsylvania approached and Dick-
inson‚Ä™s name was put forward, Benjamin Rush proclaimed, ‚ÄúThere is no
other member of Council that can with decency be raised up as a competi-
tor.‚ÄĚ To John Montgomery he wrote, ‚ÄúHis enemies (who are enemies of
virtue and public justice) tremble and sicken at this name.‚ÄĚ120 Like Joseph
Reed before him and Benjamin Franklin after, Dickinson served the maxi-
mum of three one-year terms. His behavior as he accepted the presidency was
highly signiÔ¬Ācant in understanding the policy he would pursue. In assuming
ofÔ¬Āce on November 7, 1782, he did not take the oath but instead took an
afÔ¬Ārmation.121 With this action he broadcast his political position through-
out the state: It announced that, although anti-Quaker sentiment was still
high, he would be sympathetic to Friends and pursue an agenda that would
aim at restoring the basic rights that Pennsylvanians had once enjoyed under
118 One of these is the Maryland constitution. It is hard to know, however, which came Ô¬Ārst,
Dickinson‚Ä™s ideas or the printed constitution. For example, before the Maryland constitution
was ratiÔ¬Āed on November 11, 1776, in September Dickinson had sent his comments on it and its
bill of rights to Samuel Chase. In his response to Dickinson, Chase did not mention Dickinson‚Ä™s
particular suggestions. Samuel Chase to John Dickinson, September 29 and October 19, 1776,
Ser. 1. a. Correspondence, RRL/HSP.
119 John Dickinson to Benjamin Rush, June 14, 1777, Small Manuscript Collection, John Dickin-
son Letters, DPA.
120 Benjamin Rush to John Montgomery, November 5, 1782, in ButterÔ¬Āeld, Letters of Rush, 1:
121 Dickinson had been taking an afÔ¬Ārmation instead of an oath at least as early as 1778. Copies
of his afÔ¬Ārmations are in Ser. 1. b. Political, 1774‚Ä“1807, n.d., RRL/HSP. Also, it is important
to note that the oath/afÔ¬Ārmation had changed since Dickinson was last in the Pennsylvania
government. Now it no longer demanded allegiance to an unchangeable constitution.
274 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
the Charter of Privileges. His Ô¬Ārst act as president was to issue a Proclamation
Against Vice and Immorality (1783).
Not surprisingly, the initial response to his election was polarized. Before
his term had begun, a disgruntled Pennsylvanian published a series of scathing
attacks on Dickinson‚Ä™s character in the papers. ‚ÄúValerius‚ÄĚ revived all the same
accusations that the Convention had levied at him seven years prior, hingeing
mainly on his qualiÔ¬Ācations as a patriot. Dickinson responded with a lengthy
defense, also in the papers. His Ô¬Ārst term thus opened in controversy.122
Despite a hostile reception from some quarters, naturally Quakers and their
supporters were sanguine about the turn of events. Congressional delegate
David Howell, a frequent attender at the Philadelphia Friends Meeting, wrote
expectantly to Quaker Moses Brown of Rhode Island, ‚Äú[T]here is about to be
a change of men & measure I am told in this State.‚ÄĚ123 He enclosed a news-
paper clipping with ‚Äúnoble Sentiments‚ÄĚ from the president-elect ‚Äúin regard to
personal Liberty,‚ÄĚ specifying a few ‚Äúvery considerable amendments‚ÄĚ that need
to be made in the laws. The Ô¬Ārst two were ‚Äúsecuring the inestimable beneÔ¬Āts
of the writ of Habeas Corpus; and for Ô¬Āxing the trial by jury on such a solid
basis, as will guard as much as possible against its being shaken by the dreadful
efforts of party rage.‚ÄĚ Then, wrote Dickinson, ‚Äú[a]nother amendment [which]
humanity compels me to propose‚ÄĚ concerned the ‚Äúcontest‚ÄĚ for the freedom of
slaves and ‚Äúlaws for alleviating the afÔ¬‚ictions of this helpless, and too often
abused part of their fellow creatures.‚ÄĚ124 A few months later, English Quaker
David Barclay wrote to Dickinson, adding protection for Quakers to his list:
I trust, you will ever keep in view the liberality of Sentiment & Conduct of your
Founder William Penn, whose memory & example must ever be venerated by wise &
good men . . . As the Society of Friends will doubtless be considered a Body of useful
Subjects, I shall expect to Ô¬Ānd their known religious Scruples provided for, in a degree
not less than in this country, where the Legislature has been kindly disposed towards
Such optimism notwithstanding, by most accounts, Dickinson‚Ä™s presidency
was a failure.126 Even a favorable assessment must Ô¬Ānd it at least anticlimactic
after the drama of the ensuing years. One might hope that Dickinson would
122 For Dickinson‚Ä™s ‚ÄúVindication‚ÄĚ of himself, see Still¬ī and Ford, Life and Writings, 1: 364‚Ä“414.
123 David Howell to Moses Brown, Nov 6 1782, Delegates, 19: 356‚Ä“59
124 John Dickinson‚Ä™s address to the Delaware Assembly, Pennsylvania Journal, October 29, 1782.
Although this address was made to the Delaware Assembly, it must be inferred from the date
that the amendments he mentions should be to the Pennsylvania constitution and also that the
need for them serves as the explanation for why he was leaving Delaware for Pennsylvania.
125 David Barclay to John Dickinson, 10th of 2nd mo. 1783, Ser. 1 a. Correspondence, 1762‚Ä“1808,
126 J. H. Powell bemoans Dickinson‚Ä™s entire performance in ‚ÄúJohn Dickinson as President of Penn-
sylvania.‚ÄĚ Flower agrees (John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary, 233) but Ô¬Ānds a bit
more to condone. Alexander Graydon remembers the era as charitably as Powell. See Gray-
don, Memoirs of a Life ChieÔ¬‚y Passed in Pennsylvania within the Last Sixty Years (Harrisburg,
1811), esp. 311.
Critical Period in Pennsylvania 275
have swept into ofÔ¬Āce and effected the legal and political changes he had long
advocated. But owing to several factors, few of his goals were accomplished,
or they did not turn out as he hoped. One of these factors was the climate and
circumstances in the state when he took ofÔ¬Āce. Although some Pennsylvanians
hoped that, with Dickinson‚Ä™s election, ‚Äúthe Malignant, and Envideous Spirit,
which too much Possessed the Opposition is nearly Silenced, and in a Short
time . . . will be intirely extirpated,‚ÄĚ Dickinson‚Ä™s terms in ofÔ¬Āce can be char-
acterized by constant partisan bickering about the distribution and enactment
of power in the government. So troublesome were they that John Jay believed
‚Äú[i]t will not be [Dickinson‚Ä™s] fault if Pennsylvania does not derive advantages
from his administration.‚ÄĚ127 But the ‚ÄúDickinson administration‚ÄĚ is a bit of a
misnomer, which speaks to another obstacle to his leadership. The president
of the state was merely the head of an executive body, itself at the mercy of
the powerful popular assembly, and limited in the changes it could implement
by a Council of Censors. Usually, the most the president could do was to side
with the faction whose position he preferred.
Although the Republicans retained control over the executive and the repre-
sentative branches, the Council of Censors, the body that alone could determine
whether there would be constitutional amendment, was still controlled by the
Constitutionalists. That faction also continued to wield enough power in the
Assembly to obstruct reform efforts that their opponents might attempt. When
issues arose such as jurisdiction in criminal proceedings, managing disputes on
the frontier, and changing offensive laws in the state, the president and Execu-
tive Council, the Assembly, and the Censors hurled accusations at one another
based on differing interpretations of the constitution, or, in some cases, they
simply tried to circumvent the faulty process of amendment.128 They charged
one another with instituting ‚Äúinnovations,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúdeviations,‚ÄĚ and presuming to
prescribe laws and practices ‚Äúwhere the constitution does not.‚ÄĚ129 In most
instances, Dickinson was caught in the middle, powerless to effect change, and
his long-time goal to amend the constitution remained unfulÔ¬Ālled. From this
experience, his views about a properly balanced government must have been
The stagnant situation was similar with regard to the relations between the
state and the central government. With the relative power of the two govern-
ments undetermined and their jurisdictions unclear, disputes of various sorts
were difÔ¬Ācult to resolve. Two incidents demonstrate the weaknesses of the
1777 version of the Articles of Confederation. First, the Wyoming Contro-
versy raised two issues ‚Ä“ the management of Western lands and mediation
127 John Jay to John Vaughn, February 15, 1783, quoted in Flower, John Dickinson, Conservative
128 See, for example, Brunhouse‚Ä™s description of the Assembly‚Ä™s failed attempt to bypass the
Censors by passing a law to repeal the test act (The Counter-Revolution in Pennsylvania, 154).
129 For a litany of constitutional disputes, see Dickinson‚Ä™s ‚ÄúReply to the Censors,‚ÄĚ January‚Ä“June
1784, Pennsylvania Government Documents, 1764‚Ä“84, JDP/LCP, and ‚ÄúMinutes of the Council
of Censors, 1783‚Ä“1784‚ÄĚ in PA 3rd ser., vol. 10: 787‚Ä“809.
276 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
of disputes between states, both matters the Dickinson Plan had addressed.
The controversy had begun before independence was declared and involved
disputed lands on the frontier. At different points, settlers from Pennsylvania
and Connecticut contested violently for the right to settle the western lands.
In question was to which state the lands belonged and therefore whether land
titles purchased in other states were valid. The Pennsylvania Assembly, sym-
pathetic to the speculators, wanted to send troops to remove the settlers and
conÔ¬Āscate their corn, thus leaving them destitute. Dickinson denounced such a
plan and struggled on the settlers‚Ä™ behalf with the Assembly. When the matter
was decided by a congressional committee in 1782 in favor of Pennsylvania,
many settlers from other states lost the land they had bought. The settlers also
petitioned their representatives in Congress, who declined to act further. The
episode conÔ¬Ārmed Dickinson‚Ä™s early concerns addressed in his Plan.130
A second incident was one of the deÔ¬Āning moments of Dickinson‚Ä™s presi-
dency, an event little discussed by scholars, but with enormous national implica-
tions.131 The Mutiny of 1783 highlights two themes ‚Ä“ the relative power of the
national and state governments when in conÔ¬‚ict and Dickinson‚Ä™s preferences
for peaceful over violent resolution of conÔ¬‚icts. The incident, simply described,
was that after the war, Congress had proposed to disband the Continental
Army and send the men home without pay. With most of these men dependent
on this pay to satisfy immediate needs for food and clothing, they angered and
threatened Congress and the Pennsylvania government. Congress looked to
Dickinson to solve the problem; but their solution was not his. They demanded
that he call out the Pennsylvania militia to intimidate the Continentals and put
down any action by them through force of arms. Dickinson refused, believing
that if troops ‚Äúcome into this Place, or very near to it, there will be Danger
of the public Peace being again disturbed.‚ÄĚ132 Instead Dickinson preferred to
negotiate with the men. He traveled to the camp and, in dramatic fashion,
leapt upon a table and, as he described, ‚ÄúI then addressed them, reminded
them of their fault, ‚Ä“ unprecedented and heinous, ‚Ä“ approved the evidence of
130 Still¬ī and Ford, Life and Writings, 1: 247‚Ä“51; Flower, John Dickinson, Conservative Revolu-
tionary, 215‚Ä“17. Merrill Jensen, The New Nation: A history of the United States during the
Confederation, 1781‚Ä“1789 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950), 335‚Ä“36; Lester J. Cappon,
et al., eds., The Atlas of Early American History: The Revolutionary Era, 1760‚Ä“1790 (Prince-
ton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 62, 131. Kenneth R. Bowling, ‚ÄúBiography of
William Maclay,‚ÄĚ Bowling and Helen E. Veit, eds. The Diary of William Maclay (Baltimore:
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), 435‚Ä“36
131 The following discussion draws from and agrees with Kenneth R. Bowling‚Ä™s interpretation of
the incident in ‚ÄúNew Light on the Philadelphia Mutiny of 1783: Federal-State Confrontation
at the Close of the War for Independence,‚ÄĚ PMHB vol. 101 (1977), 446‚Ä“49. Other works
that treat it include Still¬ī and Ford, Life and Writings, 1: 243‚Ä“47; Powell, ‚ÄúJohn Dickinson
as President,‚ÄĚ 266; Flower, John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary, 217‚Ä“25; Varnum
Lansing Collins, Continental Congress at Princeton (Princeton, NJ: University Library, 1908),
Chapters 1‚Ä“3; JCC, Chapter 24.
132 John Dickinson, June 24, 1783, Government Documents, Revolutionary and Early National
Periods, 1765‚Ä“1788, n.d., JDP/LCP.
Critical Period in Pennsylvania 277
their dutiful disposition, insisted on their instantly putting themselves under
the command of their ofÔ¬Ācers and yielding to them a proper obedience.‚ÄĚ133
His sense of the situation proved accurate and his methods effectual; the
men acquiesced and the mutiny was averted. But the damage, as some have
portrayed it, had been done.134 Most of Congress was furious with Dickinson
for his alleged lack of Ô¬Ārmness and decisiveness. The Ô¬Ānal result was a signiÔ¬Ācant
change in the nation: Congress, feeling vulnerable both in body and reputation,
removed to Princeton, and then New York, and ultimately the District of
Columbia. Being in a district that it could control rather than a state with
a stubbornly peaceful governor would, they believed, allowed Congress to
protect itself better.
While some historians have seen this move as a loss for Philadelphia and
Dickinson‚Ä™s failure to manage the situation effectively, others have interpreted
it as an instance of Dickinson‚Ä™s resolve not to be cowed by the more hawkish
members of Congress. More importantly, however, the incident and its out-
come points to larger issues beyond Dickinson‚Ä™s resolve for peace. It demon-
strated the need for a strong central government to which the people could look
for resolution of their difÔ¬Āculties, and one that would honor its obligations. In
the midst of this controversy, Dickinson wrote to Charles Thomson, ‚ÄúWe anx-
iously desire, that instead of being satisÔ¬Āed with partial provisions, [a strong
Federal Council] may lead to as perfect an establishment of the Union as the
wisdom of America can desire.‚ÄĚ135 In his last term of ofÔ¬Āce, he spoke plainly to
the Assembly, saying, ‚ÄúIt has been demonstrated, that, in order that [Congress]
may provide in the best Manner for the Honor, the Defence, the Harmony,
and Welfare of these States, their Hands ought rather to be strengthened, than
The Annapolis Convention of 1786
Over the last few years, Dickinson had hardly been the only one who perceived
the need for drastic change in the central government. By the autumn of 1786,
it was clear to many that the Articles of Confederation as they had been
passed were failing to cement the Union. The events in Pennsylvania, as well
as similar and worse incidents in other states, proved that the concerns about
union and safety that had prompted Dickinson to write the initial draft of the
Articles as he did were justiÔ¬Āed. Trade was not regulated effectively, foreign
affairs were not managed properly, many disputes between states were not
mediated, and civil liberties were not protected. The leaders in other states
were gradually awakening to the same concerns. They declared that the Articles
133 Dickinson quoted in Still¬ī and Ford, Life and Writings, 1: 246.
134 See Powell, ‚ÄúJohn Dickinson as President,‚ÄĚ 266.
135 John Dickinson to Charles Thomson, July 12, 1783, quoted in Flower, John Dickinson, Con-
servative Revolutionary, 237.
136 John Dickinson, Message to the General Assembly, February 1, 1785, Pennsylvania Govern-
ment Documents, 1764‚Ä“84, JDP/LCP.
278 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
were ‚Äúimbecile‚ÄĚ137 and the cause of ‚Äúthe embarrassments which Characterize
the present State of our National Affairs, foreign and domestic.‚ÄĚ138 When the
delegates from Ô¬Āve states met in Annapolis, their Ô¬Ārst point of business was
to elect a chairman. In what can only be considered a tacit recognition of
Dickinson‚Ä™s earlier foresight, he was elected unanimously. In the report from
the Convention to the states and Congress, he ‚Äúdecline[d] an enumeration of
those national Circumstances‚ÄĚ that prompted the convention, citing that ‚Äúit
would be an useless intrusion of facts and observations‚ÄĚ that would more
appropriately be discussed elsewhere. The report therefore recommended that
‚Äúspeedy measures may be taken to effect a general Meeting of the States in a
137 Rakove, ‚ÄúLegacy,‚ÄĚ 45‚Ä“66, 45.
138 John Dickinson, ‚ÄúReport of the Annapolis Convention.‚ÄĚ Sept 14, 1786, Simon Gratz Auto-
graph Collection, HSP.
‚ÄúThe Political Rock of Our Salvation‚ÄĚ
The U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson
Historians have not considered the Quaker presence at the creation of the U.S.
Constitution, although there is good reason for doing so. As we have seen,
Quakers were a powerful force in Pennsylvania, and they disseminated their
theologico-political thought aggressively and, in some regards, successfully.
Although at the Revolution, the Society of Friends as a body had withdrawn
from formal politics, they remained active on a grassroots level, and they
retained a signiÔ¬Ācant measure of political inÔ¬‚uence. In debates over the rat-
iÔ¬Ācation of the Constitution, delegates to the Convention speculated on the
position of Friends, their views on such speciÔ¬Ācs as liberty of conscience, slav-
ery, and religious tests for ofÔ¬Āce; their past inÔ¬‚uence in Pennsylvania; and their
future inÔ¬‚uence on the state and the federal governments.1 Moreover, because
of their strong presence as the governors of provincial Pennsylvania, there
remained a residual inÔ¬‚uence even at the highest level of government.
As far as religious inÔ¬‚uences on the Constitution are concerned, historians
have given most of their attention to reformed Calvinism.2 But there is more
evidence of a direct, albeit limited Quaker inÔ¬‚uence on this important moment
in history than there is of a Puritan, deistic, or Evangelical one. John Dickin-
son, with his strengthening Quaker convictions, was among the most important
participants at the Convention. He was part of what Jack Rakove calls the ‚Äúcru-
cial nucleus‚ÄĚ of Framers.3 Forrest McDonald suggests that Dickinson‚Ä™s thought
‚Äúmay well be regarded as [a model] for the American political tradition.‚ÄĚ4 The
argument here agrees with both assertions and seeks to elaborate on them.
1 For a discussion and documentary history of the Quakers‚Ä™ position on the Constitution with a
focus on the slavery question, see ‚ÄúAppendix III‚ÄĚ in John Kaminski and Gaspare J. Saldino, et al.,
eds., The Documentary History of the RatiÔ¬Ācation of the Constitution, vol. 14, Commentaries
on the Constitution Public and Private (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1983),
2 See Chapter 2, fn. 4.
3 Rakove, Beginnings, 377.
4 Forrest McDonald, ‚ÄúIntroduction,‚ÄĚ in Letters, x.
280 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
Because of Dickinson‚Ä™s stature as elder statesman in the Convention, Rakove
notes that ‚Äúhis views would have to be taken seriously [by other Framers], for
he was one of only a handful of colonial leaders whose personal position could
substantially affect public opinion.‚ÄĚ5 Importantly, Dickinson‚Ä™s personal posi-
tion had evolved over the Revolutionary years to be a more overt expression
of traditional political Quakerism than before. In the foregoing chapters, we
have seen that according to Quaker political theory, God ordained the civil
polity, and it functioned as the ecclesiastical polity writ large. When study-
ing Scripture, Friends followed an interpretation of the Greek ekkl¬Į sia that
meant political assembly as well as church. The way the two establishments
were ordered and the processes and principles by which they operated were,
according to Quakers, fundamentally the same. They could be separated and
the political theory secularized, but for most Quaker thinkers, they were not.
Although Dickinson‚Ä™s language and ideas can be and were translated into a
secular context, by this time in his life he thought of them in terms similar to
those of his Quaker forebears ‚Ä“ as realms overlapping. He wrote,
There is a Relation between the Principles of Religion and the Principles of Civil Society ‚Ä“
and it is very observable that many prophets of the New Testament, that in their
primary sense referr to the Church, with equal propriety referr to political constitutional
Establishments ‚Ä“ and those Maxims of Religion will ever be formed by Experience to be
Maxims of the [government?] Policy ‚Ä“ such as these ‚ÄúBe ye obedient one to another.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúSubmit yourselves one to another.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúYe are members one of another.‚ÄĚ All of them
directly pointing to that benignant Communion of Rights and BeneÔ¬Āts, that is the soul
of true Republicanism. In short, Christianity is a system formed by Divine Wisdom, and
communicated to us by Divine Goodness, for teaching and enabling us to do the least
thing with the best affections. Our Savior lived and died for this End.7
He thought that adherence to these republican‚Ä“Christian principles ‚Äúbind those
who believe them to one another in a kind of sacred union.‚ÄĚ8 Dickinson would
have agreed with Quakers of his time who equated ‚Äúundevout‚ÄĚ behavior with
The following analysis of Dickinson‚Ä™s theologico-political thought is not
meant to supplant, but merely supplement, several earlier studies of the secular
interpretations of his ideas.10 Clearly, Quakerism was not the only tradition
5 Rakove, Beginnings 28.
6 Barclay Anarchy, 32. See also Nancy Isenberg, ‚Äú‚Ä˜Pillars in the Same Temple and Priests of the
Same Worship‚Ä™: Women‚Ä™s Rights and the Politics of Church and State in Antebellum America,‚ÄĚ
The Journal of American History vol. 85, no. 1 (1998), 98‚Ä“128, 98, 101‚Ä“02.
7 John Dickinson, untitled document, n.d., in John Dickinson, 1681‚Ä“1882, n.d., Ser. 1. b. Political,
1774‚Ä“1807, n.d., RRL/HSP.
8 John Dickinson to R. R. Livingston, n.d., American Prose Writers, Roberts Autograph Collec-
9 Scott, Journal of the Life, Travels, and Gospel Labours, 228.
10 A few brief works that deal with Dickinson‚Ä™s constitutional thought and his role during the
convention are M. Susan Power, ‚ÄúJohn Dickinson after 1776: The Fabius Letters‚ÄĚ; J. H. Powell,
‚ÄúJohn Dickinson and the Constitution‚ÄĚ; Leon deValinger, Jr., ‚ÄúJohn Dickinson and the Fed-
eral Constitution,‚ÄĚ Delaware History vol. 22, no. 4 (1987), 299-308; Forrest McDonald and
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 281
on which he drew. His language exhibits a mixture of some, though not all of
those strains of thought that were current among his peers in politics ‚Ä“ classic
republicanism, liberalism, Scottish Enlightenment thought, and the common
law tradition. And although some have speculated that his religious language
was simply a ‚Äúrhetorical strategy,‚ÄĚ implying, perhaps, a lack of genuine feel-
ing. His sincerity in this regard was not less than when he used secular political
language. Dickinson believed that political principles were derived from and
undergirded by religious ones. The following discussion of Dickinson‚Ä™s phi-
losophy will be presented as a transparency imposed upon the template of the
Quaker theory laid out in Chapters 1 and 2. In other words, it will be structured
according to the same political creation myth and, through some repetition of
the major points in those initial chapters, will show how Dickinson‚Ä™s constitu-
tionalism comported with traditional Quaker ideas of the form and function
of a constitution.
In 1676 Robert Barclay wrote The Anarchy of the Ranters to convince
recalcitrant Quakers to accept the new church government that leading Friends
were establishing. The way to know a rightly constituted ekkl¬Į sia, he wrote, ‚Äúis
by considering the Principles, & Grounds upon which [the people] are gathered
together, the Nature of that Hierarchy & Order they have among themselves,
the Way and Method they take to uphold it, and the Bottom upon which it
standeth.‚ÄĚ11 These were also the issues Dickinson addressed when convincing
Americans to accept the Constitution, most notably in the Fabius Letters, on
which this discussion will largely draw.12 But more than simply addressing
these issues, we will see how through the style of his argument Dickinson was
modeling a Quakerly mode of civic engagement.
Constituting the People
For Dickinson, a polity must be and, in the case of America, was constituted
otherwise than merely on paper. And his understanding of how man entered
political society was largely the same as the way most Americans understood
it, but with subtle differences in process and emphases. While most political
thinkers of the day agreed that joining society, forming a union, was ‚Äúprimarily
a matter of reason,‚ÄĚ13 Dickinson believed that to unite was to obey a divine
Ellen Shapiro McDonald, ‚ÄúJohn Dickinson and the Constitution,‚ÄĚ in Requiem: Variations on
Eighteenth-Century Themes (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988), 85-103; Gregory S.
Ahern, ‚ÄúThe Spirit of American Constitutionalism: John Dickinson‚Ä™s Fabius Letters,‚ÄĚ Human-
itas vol. 11, no. 2 (1998), 57‚Ä“76. Most recently, see Robert G. Natelson, ‚ÄúThe Constitutional
Contributions of John Dickinson,‚ÄĚ Penn State Law Review vol. 108 (2004), 415‚Ä“77.
11 Barclay, Anarchy, 33.
12 For a general discussion of the publication of the Letters, see John Kaminski and Gaspare
J. Saldino, eds. The Documentary History of the RatiÔ¬Ācation of the Constitution, vol. 17,
Commentaries on the Constitution Public and Private (Madison: State Historical Society of
Wisconsin, 1995), 74‚Ä“80.
13 John C. Ranney, ‚ÄúThe Bases of American Federalism,‚ÄĚ WMQ 3rd ser., vol. 3, no. 1 (1946),
282 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
command, a ‚Äúsacred law.‚ÄĚ14 Like Locke, he held that society was Ô¬Ārst occa-
sioned ‚Äúby the command of our Creator.‚ÄĚ15 God, said Dickinson, ‚Äúdesigned
men for society, because otherwise they cannot be happy.‚ÄĚ16 But more than
that, God ‚Äúdemands that we should seek for happiness in his way, and not
our own,‚ÄĚ which meant joining one another on speciÔ¬Āc terms and with a
particular mode of engagement.17 Moreover, reason was not man‚Ä™s primary
impetus for joining; the ‚Äúcommon sense of mankind,‚ÄĚ Dickinson explained,
merely ‚Äúagrees.‚ÄĚ18 This original constitution ordained by God was prior to and
independent of any written documents codifying that union. ‚Äú[T]hose corner
stones of liberty,‚ÄĚ he wrote, ‚Äúwere not obtained by a bill of rights, or any other
records, and have not been made and cannot be preserved by them.‚ÄĚ19 Rather,
ten years before Jefferson wrote that ‚Äúall men are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable rights,‚ÄĚ Dickinson asserted that ‚ÄúRights are created
in us by the decrees of Providence.‚ÄĚ20
On the surface, Jefferson and Dickinson seem to agree, but as we have seen
from our earlier discussion, Quaker thinkers did not usually speak of natural
rights. While many thinkers of all persuasions, including Penn and Dickinson
on occasion, conÔ¬‚ated the languages of rights and referred interchangeably
to natural or God-given rights, for Quakers, who more often spoke in terms
of providence, there was ultimately a difference. If the divine and the natural
were the same (an idea many Quakers rejected outright), they were much more
closely related in Quaker thought than in Jefferson‚Ä™s, with nature not over-
shadowing divinity. Dickinson clearly did not subscribe to the deist theology
of other Founders. He explained that ‚Äú[w]e claim [rights] from a higher source,
from the King of kings, and Lord of all the earth . . . They are born within us;
exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power, without
taking our lives.‚ÄĚ21 Because they came from God rather than nature, man, or
his history of established institutions, ‚Äúrights must be preserved by soundness
of sense and honesty of heart. Compared with these, what are a bill of rights,
or any characters drawn upon parchment, those frail rememberances?‚ÄĚ22 If
14 John Dickinson, The Letters of Fabius in 1788 on the Federal Constitution (Kila, MT: Kessinger
Publishing, 2004), 114. For the sake of accessibility of this work to others, I have chosen to use
a facsimile reprint published by a modern press.
15 Ibid., 13. On the religious underpinnings of Locke‚Ä™s thought, see Dunn, The Political Thought
of John Locke.
18 Ibid., 17.
19 Ibid., 24.
20 John Dickinson, Address to . . . Barbados, 4.
22 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 24. This attitude toward written documents does not, however,
as Powell has argued, translate into a fundamental distrust of written constitutions. As we have
seen, Quakers argued for the importance of written laws, but that the spirit, rather than the
letter, was the essence of them (‚ÄúJohn Dickinson and the Constitution,‚ÄĚ 7).
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 283
this seems to us an overly Ô¬Āne distinction, that Dickinson made it was in keep-
ing with Quaker thinking about rights. Such subtleties caused contemporary
and historical criticism that his work consisted of ‚ÄúÔ¬Āne-spun theories and hair-
splitting distinctions‚ÄĚ23 and that he had the ‚ÄúVice of ReÔ¬Āning too much.‚ÄĚ24
But if his thought has been misunderstood, it is because his critics did not care
to understand these distinctions or the complex theories and arrangement to
which they gave rise. It is mainly this difference between the natural or human
and the divine that distinguished the Quaker theory of government and their
process of legal discernment from others.
Discernment of the Fundamental Law
Once men have come together, their Ô¬Ārst task is to determine the fundamental
law by which they will live. Quakers believed that God‚Ä™s law could only be
known through a process of collective discernment of his will. All individuals
must come together and worship (or, in secular terms, deliberate) as a group ‚Ä“
to combine their individual understandings of God‚Ä™s Light ‚Ä“ to know what
direction to move in the world. This process worked the same way whether
the polity was ecclesiastical or civil. Everyone had a role to play. Dickinson
wrote, ‚ÄúWhat concerns us all should be considered by all.‚ÄĚ25 But there are
difÔ¬Āculties with such a process of discernment; the people may be misled by false
guides. ‚ÄúMen,‚ÄĚ says Dickinson, ‚Äúhave suffered so severely by being deceived
upon subjects of the highest import, those of religion and freedom, that truth
becomes inÔ¬Ānitely valuable to them, not as a matter of curious speculation,
but of beneÔ¬Ācial practice ‚Ä“ A spirit of inquiry is excited, information diffused,
judgment strengthened.‚ÄĚ26 There were several reliable ways of knowing the
fundamental principles of government. It was not necessarily formal education,
although this too was important. Rather, Dickinson put them in this order:
‚Äúdivine Goodness, common sense, experience, and some acquaintance with the
constitution.‚ÄĚ These, he said, ‚Äúteach us a few salutary truths on this important
For Quakers, the primary guide was God‚Ä™s Light in the conscience, the
‚Äúdivine Goodness‚ÄĚ of revelation and Scripture. In the political realm, the pro-
cess of knowing God‚Ä™s law in the conscience was synteresis. Dickinson, how-
ever, did not use this word. Nor did he refer much to the idea of ‚Äúthe Light‚ÄĚ as
a way of knowing. He hoped that the nation would be animated by an ‚Äúenlight-
ened spirit‚ÄĚ and that the ‚Äúbody will be enabled with the clearest light that can
23 John C. Miller, Origins of the American Revolution (Boston: Little, Brown and Company,
1943), 259. An explicit discussion from a Quaker theorist of the distinction between natural
law and divine law can be found in the work of Jonathan Dymond, Essays on the Principles of
24 Edward Rutledge to John Jay, June 29, 1776, Delegates, 4: 338.
25 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 3.
26 Ibid., 4.
27 John Dickinson, Essay on the constitutional power, 34.
284 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
be afforded every part of it‚ÄĚ to make the right decisions for the nation.28 But
these were vague references and might be taken for ordinary usage of the word.
They would likely not have alerted anyone to Dickinson‚Ä™s Quaker sympathies.
And that would have been a wise political move. In 1788 when Dickinson
wrote as Fabius, many people still despised and distrusted Quakers as loyal-
ists and traitors to the American cause. Additionally, even though Dickinson
was a trusted patriot to some, he was still under suspicion by many. Had he
expressed his sentiments in characteristically Quaker language, recognizable to
anyone who had spent time in Pennsylvania, he might not have been heard as
widely. But more than that, he was concerned not to overemphasize revelation ‚Ä“
a concern that was no doubt heightened by the recent rise of pietism with its
rejection of rationalism and encouragement of enthusiasm, something of which
Quakers disapproved.29 Moreover, there had always been different strands of
Quakerism that emphasized either Scripture or the Light.30 It is clear, as evinced
in the following discussion, that Dickinson believed that inward revelation was
a key to knowing, but he did not privilege it over the Bible. ‚Äú[N]o divine or
inward Communication at this Day,‚ÄĚ he said, ‚Äúdo or can contradict that tes-
timony.‚ÄĚ31 He focused therefore on the other guides that Quakers had always
used to know God‚Ä™s will, and ones that all Americans would accept, especially
the Bible. It was safe and would speak loudly to the ordinary people he was
trying to reach. The Bible, he proclaimed, was an ‚ÄúInestimable truth! which
our Maker in his providence, enables us, not only to talk and write about, but
to adopt in practice of vast extent, and of instructive example.‚ÄĚ32 He counseled
that it ‚Äúwould do much more, if duly regarded; and might lead the objectors
against it to happiness, if they would value it as they should.‚ÄĚ33 ‚ÄúThe Bible,‚ÄĚ
he wrote in his notes, ‚Äúis the most republican Book that ever was written.‚ÄĚ34
As we might expect of a political thinker in the Age of Enlightenment,
history and reason were important tools in the search for Truth. But these
things were not disconnected from God for Dickinson. ‚ÄúIt is our duty,‚ÄĚ he said,
‚Äúhumbly, constantly, fervently, to implore the protection of our most gracious
maker . . . and incessantly strive, as we are commanded, to recommend our
selves to that protection, by ‚Ä˜doing his will,‚Ä™ diligently exercising our reason in
28 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 51, 48.
29 Frederick Tolles, ‚ÄúEnthusiasm versus Quietism: The Philadelphia Quakers and the Great Awak-
ening,‚ÄĚ PMHB vol. 69 (1945), 26‚Ä“49.
30 Recall, for example, the Wilkinson-Story Controversy discussed in Chapter 1 and the Keithian
Controversy in Chapter 3.
31 John Dickinson, ‚ÄúAn Essay Towards the Religious Instruction of Youth,‚ÄĚ n.d., Ser. 1. e. Mis-
cellaneous, 1761‚Ä“1804, n.d., RRL/HSP.
32 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 13.
33 Ibid., 25.
34 John Dickinson, notes, n.d., Ser. 1. e. Miscellaneous, 1761‚Ä“1804, n.d., RRL/HSP. Robert W.
Hoffert claims that there was minimal, if any, inÔ¬‚uence of religion on the Founders‚Ä™ ideas of
virtue and that ‚Äúit is debatable whether or not there even is an active, positive form of political
virtue available within biblical Christianity‚ÄĚ (Politics of Tensions, 69).
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 285
fulÔ¬Ālling the purposes for which that and our existence were given to us.‚ÄĚ35
But neither was reason a failsafe of good government, as many Enlightenment
Ô¬Āgures and common lawyers held. The Light Dickinson referred to was not the
light of reason. Like all Quaker thinkers, he believed that reason was suspect;
it was of man, and therefore it was corrupt or corruptible. As he famously said
in the Constitutional Convention:
Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us. It was not Reason that
discovered the singular & admirable mechanism of the English Constitution. It was not
Reason that discovered or even could have discovered the odd & in the eye of those who
are governed by reason, the absurd mode of trial by Jury. Accidents probably produced
these discoveries, and experience has given sanction to them. This is then our guide.36
This quotation has been used repeatedly by those seeking to explain Dick-
inson‚Ä™s thought and the thought of the Founding generation in general. But
we might be misled here if we took Dickinson‚Ä™s use of the words ‚Äúexperience‚ÄĚ
and ‚Äúaccident‚ÄĚ at face value. Experience for Dickinson was similar, though not
identical, to how most lawyers understood it.37 It was generally understood to
mean the customs of the common law proven reasonable and valid through
induction or practice. The common law was largely the history of reasonable
practice that had become custom. This is certainly a part of what Dickin-
son meant by ‚Äúexperience.‚ÄĚ Experience was history, and Dickinson advocated
reliance on ‚Äúhistory sacred and profane.‚ÄĚ38 But while Quakers did use secular
history as a guide for their political direction, Scripture was the most important
history book. They considered it ‚Äú[a] faithful Historical Account of the Act-
ings of God‚Ä™s People in divers Ages.‚ÄĚ39 Dickinson likewise believed that ‚Äúwise
admired Instructors of the World have modestly cloathed their Lessons in the
Language of Fables.‚ÄĚ40
Apart from physical experiences that are recorded in human history, how-
ever, we should also consider that Dickinson included spiritual experience as
well ‚Ä“ revelation, or the experience of God in one‚Ä™s conscience. This, contrary
to common law theory, would be nonrational induction and a divine basis for
legal developments. Dickinson wrote, ‚ÄúThe great question as to reason is this ‚Ä“
35 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 28.
36 Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press, 1937), 2: 278.
37 Forrest and Ellen Shapiro McDonald give a good account of Dickinson‚Ä™s understanding of
history and experience in ‚ÄúJohn Dickinson, Founding Father.‚ÄĚ My analysis does not disagree
with theirs, it merely deepens it. See also H. Trevor Colbourn, ‚ÄúJohn Dickinson, Historical
38 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 18.
39 Barclay, Apology, 4.
40 John Dickinson, ‚ÄúNotes for a Speech (III),‚ÄĚ in James H. Hutson, ed., Supplement to Max
Farrand‚Ä™s The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven, CT: Yale University
Press, 1987), 137‚Ä“38. The example he gives in these notes is the biblical fable of the lamb lying
down with the lion.
286 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson
whether reason since the introduction of sin into the world is sufÔ¬Ācient to dis-
cover our duty and incline us to enforce its performance. Denied.‚ÄĚ It must be
paired with ‚Äúrevelation.‚ÄĚ41 This is in clear contrast to other deeply religious
men such as John Adams, who derided the idea that in making a constitu-
tion men ‚Äúwere in any degree under the inspiration of heaven.‚ÄĚ42 Therefore,
Dickinson departed from other common law thinkers in his interpretation of
experience.43 In keeping with this understanding of it, if Dickinson‚Ä™s use of the
word ‚Äúaccident‚ÄĚ to describe the advent of trial by jury here is confusing, Fabius
clariÔ¬Āed when he said that trial by jury is a ‚ÄúHeaven-taught institution.‚ÄĚ44 It
was then merely supported by reasonable practice.
Insofar as reasonable experience or custom was the foundation of the com-
mon law, then, Dickinson distrusted it. For Quakers, experience and custom
were not necessarily the same thing. Friends could and often did make a distinc-
tion between custom as it was based on reasonable experimentation on the one
hand, and experience, as being primarily revelation, on the other. If the reason-
able customs established through worldly experience were valid, they should
comport with revelation. Customs based solely on practical reason were dan-
gerous in that they led to the establishment of pernicious traditions ‚Ä“ the
41 John Dickinson, notes, n.d., Ser. 1. e. Miscellaneous, 1761‚Ä“1804, n.d., RRL/HSP. Elsewhere he
wrote, ‚ÄúRevelation is positive,‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúReason‚ÄĚ is used only after ‚Äúmatured Meditation.‚ÄĚ John
Dickinson to his cousin, Senator George Logan of Pennsylvania, 10th of the 9th mo. 1806,
Maria Dickinson Logan Collection, HSP.
42 John Adams, Defense of the Constitutions of Government in the United States of America
(1788) cited in John Witte, Jr., ‚Äú‚Ä˜A Most Mild and Equitable Establishment of Religion‚Ä™: John
Adams and the Massachusetts Experiment,‚ÄĚ in J. Hutson, ed., Religion and the New Republic:
Faith in the Founding of America (Lanham, MD: Rowman & LittleÔ¬Āeld, 2000), 1‚Ä“40, 16.
43 An interesting comparison might be made with Dickinson‚Ä™s understanding of experience or
tradition and history and Edmund Burke‚Ä™s. Their thinking looks very similar ‚Ä“ a sort of con-
servatism, a suspicion of reason, and a respect for history ‚Ä“ but there are subtle differences.
On Burke‚Ä™s position, see J. G. A. Pocock, ‚ÄúBurke and the Ancient Constitution,‚ÄĚ in his Pol-
itics, Language, & Time: Essays on Political Thought and History (Chicago: The University
of Chicago Press, 1989), 202‚Ä“32. It would seem the most important factor that accounts for
the divergences between the two men‚Ä™s thought is Dickinson‚Ä™s inclusion of revelation as part
of his legal epistemology. In a private dialogue with Locke, Dickinson wrote, ‚ÄúIf, as seems to
be agreed by the advocates for the Powers of Reason, the soul be furnished with all the Ideas
it can naturally have, by the senses ‚Ä“ and, by reÔ¬‚ecting on its own operations about the Ideas
thus furnished ‚Ä“ or, ‚Ä˜in one Word, by Experience‚Ä™ [cites Locke‚Ä™s Essay on Understanding] ‚Ä“
its Knowledge must be proportioned to its ‚Ä˜Experience.‚Ä™ But, before this ‚Ä˜Experience‚Ä™ could be
extended to the farthest Limits in the Discovery of Truth, the mind might rest satisÔ¬Āed with
an inferior ‚Ä˜Experience,‚Ä™ as imagining it to be the most that could be attained. Reason is not
‚ÄúReason is not infallible. Such errors once adopted, the its progress of Reason would
thenceforward be obstructed by the Embarrassments of Prejudices. In Reality, by Mistakes of
this kind, Men have extremely injured themselves, without a probability of ever recovering
from their Delusions. Therefore, it is highly improbable that God would have left Men to this
fallible Guide for Ô¬Ānding Mistakes and discovering his Duties. All Religion is revealed.‚ÄĚ John
Dickinson, religious notes, n.d., Ser. 2. Miscellaneous, 1761‚Ä“1801, n.d., RRL/HSP.
44 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 22.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 287
blind acceptance of practices that were enemies of the truth. Quakers equated
custom with ritual ‚Ä“ the sort of ritual that followed the letter of the law,
but killed the spirit, much like sacraments in the high church. It was a form
without function and with harmful consequences. Over the course of decades
of persecution, they had proven that religious dissent and toleration ‚Ä“ things
that seemed irrational and dangerous to many Englishmen and therefore not
a part of custom or law ‚Ä“ were actually not only salutary in a polity, but also
constitutional. As the Farmer, Dickinson wrote, ‚ÄúCustom undoubtedly has a
mighty force in producing opinion, and reigns in nothing more arbitrarily than
in public affairs. It gradually reconciles us to objects even of dread and detesta-
tion.‚ÄĚ45 Because of this, Quakers distrusted the common law, much of which
had no basis in the Light, apostolic history, or, necessarily, reason.
These guides were meant to facilitate a process of collective deliberation that
would encourage accurate discernment of the fundamental law. After studying
these guides and coming to their understanding of the law, there was an obliga-
tion on every individual to speak should God require it. Barclay said that man
must speak if ‚Äúby his Master he were commanded and allowed to do so.‚ÄĚ46
Moreover, they had the obligation to be ‚ÄúDiscerners of Evils‚ÄĚ who ‚Äúreprove
and warn‚ÄĚ their brethren of transgressions from the law.47 ‚Äú[I]ndividuals,‚ÄĚ
explained Dickinson, ‚Äúmay injure a whole society, by not declaring their sen-
timents. It is therefore not only their right, but their duty, to declare them.‚ÄĚ48
This injunction holds true regardless of how unwelcome the words may be to
the recipient ‚Ä“ even ministers religious and civil ‚Ä“ however much the individ-