John Dickinson
American politician
John Dickinson
John Dickinson was an American lawyer and politician from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Wilmington, Delaware. He was a militia officer during the American Revolution, a Continental Congressman from Pennsylvania and Delaware, a delegate to the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, President of Delaware and President of Pennsylvania.
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  • 1808
    Age 75
    Died on February 14, 1808.
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  • 1787
    Age 54
    He was a militia officer during the American Revolution, a Continental Congressman from Pennsylvania and Delaware, a delegate to the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, President of Delaware and President of Pennsylvania.
    More Details Hide Details Among the wealthiest men in the British American colonies, he is known as the "Penman of the Revolution" for his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania; upon receiving news of his death, President Thomas Jefferson recognized him as being "among the first of the advocates for the rights of his country when assailed by Great Britain" whose "name will be consecrated in history as one of the great worthies of the revolution." He is the namesake of Dickinson College and Penn State University's Dickinson School of Law. Dickinson was born at Croisadore his family's tobacco plantation near the village of Trappe in Talbot County, Maryland. He was the great grandson of Walter Dickinson who emigrated from England to Virginia in 1654 and, having joined the Society of Friends, came with several co-religionists to Talbot County on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay in 1659. There, with on the banks of the Choptank River where Walter began a plantation, Croisadore, meaning "cross of gold." Walter also bought on St. Jones Neck in what became Kent County, Delaware.
  • 1785
    Age 52
    After his service as President of Pennsylvania, he returned to live in Wilmington, Delaware in 1785 and built a mansion at the northwest corner of 8th and Market Streets.
    More Details Hide Details As events unfolded Dickinson was one of Pennsylvania's delegates to the First Continental Congress in 1774 and the Second Continental Congress in 1775 and 1776. In support of the cause, he continued to contribute declarations in the name of the Congress. Among the most famous is one written with Thomas Jefferson, a Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, with Dickinson’s conclusion that Americans were "resolved to die free men rather than live slaves." Another was the Olive Branch Petition, a last-ditch appeal to King George III to resolve the dispute. But through it all, agreeing with New Castle County's George Read and many others in Philadelphia and the Lower Counties, Dickinson's object was reconciliation, not independence and revolution. He was a proud devotee of the British Constitution and felt the dispute was with Parliament only.
  • 1783
    Age 50
    Dickinson’s constitutional successor, John Cook, was considered too weak in his support of the Revolution, and it was not until January 12, 1783, when Cook called for a new election to choose a replacement, that Dickinson formally resigned.
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  • 1782
    Age 49
    However, as before, the lure of Pennsylvania politics was too great. On October 10, 1782, Dickinson was elected to the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. On November 7, 1782 a joint ballot by the Council and the Pennsylvania General Assembly elected him as president of the Council and thereby President of Pennsylvania.
    More Details Hide Details But he did not actually resign as State President of Delaware. Even though Pennsylvania and Delaware had shared the same governor until very recently, attitudes had changed, and many in Delaware were upset at seemingly being cast aside so readily, particularly after the Philadelphia newspapers began criticizing the state for allowing the practice of multiple and non resident office holding.
  • 1781
    Age 48
    Dickinson took office on November 13, 1781 and served until November 7, 1782.
    More Details Hide Details Beginning his term with a "Proclamation against Vice and Immorality," he sought ways to bring an end to the disorder of the days of the Revolution. It was a popular position and enhanced his reputation both in Delaware and Pennsylvania. Dickinson then successfully challenged the Delaware General Assembly to address lagging militia enlistments and to properly fund the state’s assessment to the Confederation government. And recognizing the delicate negotiations then underway to end the American Revolution, Dickinson secured the Assembly's continued endorsement of the French alliance, with no agreement on a separate peace treaty with Great Britain. He also introduced the first census.
    While there, in October 1781, Dickinson was elected to represent Kent County in the State Senate, and shortly afterwards the Delaware General Assembly elected him the President of Delaware.
    More Details Hide Details The General Assembly's vote was nearly unanimous, the only dissenting vote having been cast by Dickinson himself.
    In August 1781, while still a delegate in Philadelphia he learned that Poplar Hall had been severely damaged by a Loyalist raid.
    More Details Hide Details Dickinson returned to the property to investigate the damage and once again stayed for several months.
  • 1779
    Age 46
    On January 18, 1779, Dickinson was appointed to be a delegate for Delaware to the Continental Congress.
    More Details Hide Details During this term he signed the Articles of Confederation, having in 1776 authored their first draft while serving in the Continental Congress as a delegate from Pennsylvania.
  • 1777
    Age 44
    These years were not without accomplishment however. In 1777, Dickinson, Delaware's wealthiest farmer and largest slaveholder, decided to free his slaves.
    More Details Hide Details While Kent County was not a large slave-holding area, like farther south in Virginia, and even though Dickinson had only 37 slaves, this was an action of some considerable courage. Undoubtedly the strongly abolitionist Quaker influences around them had their effect, and the action was all the easier because his farm had moved away from tobacco to the less labor intensive crops like wheat and barley. Furthermore manumission was a multi-year process and many of the workers remained obligated to service for a considerable additional time.
    In October 1777, Dickinson's friend, Thomas McKean, appointed him Brigadier General of the Delaware Militia, but again Dickinson declined the appointment.
    More Details Hide Details Shortly afterwards he learned that the British had burned down his Fairhill property during the Battle of Germantown.
    In August 1777 he served as a private with the Kent county Militia at Middletown, Delaware under General Caesar Rodney to help delay General William Howe's march to Philadelphia.
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    The Delaware General Assembly tried to appoint him as their delegate to the Continental Congress in 1777, but he refused.
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  • 1776
    Age 43
    Dickinson resigned his commission in December 1776 and went to stay at Poplar Hall in Kent County.
    More Details Hide Details While there he learned that his home on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia had been confiscated and converted into a hospital. He stayed at Poplar Hall for more than two years.
    When the Continental Congress began the debate on the Declaration of Independence on July 1, 1776, Dickinson reiterated his opposition to declaring independence at that time.
    More Details Hide Details Dickinson believed that Congress should complete the Articles of Confederation and secure a foreign alliance before issuing a declaration. He abstained or absented himself from the votes on July 2 that declared independence and absented himself again from voting on the wording of the formal Declaration on July 4. Dickinson understood the implications of his refusal to vote stating, "My conduct this day, I expect will give the finishing blow to my once too great and, my integrity considered, now too diminished popularity." Dickinson refused to sign the Declaration and since a proposal had been brought forth and carried that stated, "for our mutual security and protection," no man could remain in Congress without signing, Dickinson voluntarily left and joined the Pennsylvania militia. Following the Declaration of Independence, Dickinson was given the rank of brigadier general in the Pennsylvania militia, known as the Associators. He led 10,000 soldiers to Elizabeth, New Jersey, to protect that area against British attack from Staten Island. But because of his unpopular opinion on independence, two junior officers were promoted above him.
    Dickinson lived at Poplar Hall, for extended periods only in 1776-77 and 1781-82.
    More Details Hide Details In August 1781 it was sacked by Loyalists and was badly burned in 1804. This home is now owned by the State of Delaware and is open to the public.
    Already wealthy his marriage increased his wealth. In Philadelphia, he lived at the family estate of his wife, Fairhill, near Germantown. Meanwhile he built an elegant mansion on Chestnut Street but never lived there as it was confiscated and turned into a hospital during his 1776-77 absence in Delaware.
    More Details Hide Details It then became the residence of the French ambassador and still later the home of his brother, Philemon Dickinson. Fairhill was burned by the British during the Battle of Germantown. While in Philadelphia as State President, he lived at the confiscated mansion of Joseph Galloway at Sixth and Market Streets, now established as the State Presidential mansion.
  • 1770
    Age 37
    On July 19, 1770, Dickinson married Mary Norris, known as Polly, the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker, and Speaker of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, Isaac Norris.
    More Details Hide Details They had five children, but only two survived to adulthood: Sarah Norris "Sally" Dickinson and Maria Mary Dickinson. Dickinson never formally joined the Quaker Meeting, because, as he explained, he believed in the "lawfulness of defensive war."
  • 1757
    Age 24
    He spent those years studying the works of Edward Coke and Francis Bacon at the Inns of Court following in the footsteps of his lifelong friend, Pennsylvania Attorney General Benjamin Chew, and in 1757 was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar beginning his career as barrister and solicitor.
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  • 1739
    Age 6
    But in 1739, John Dickinson's half-sister, Betsy, was married in an Anglican church to Charles Goldsborough in what was called a "disorderly marriage" by the Meeting.
    More Details Hide Details The couple would be the grandparents of Maryland governor Charles Goldsborough. Leaving Croisadore to elder son Henry Dickinson, Samuel moved to Poplar Hall, where he had already taken a leading role in the community as Judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Kent County. The move also placed Mary nearer her Philadelphia relations. Poplar Hall was situated on a now-straightened bend of the St. Jones River. There was plenty of activity delivering the necessities, and shipping the agricultural products produced. Much of this product was wheat that along with other wheat from the region, was milled into a “superfine” flour. Most people at this plantation were servants and slaves of the Dickinsons. Dickinson was educated at home, by his parents and by recent immigrants employed for that purpose. Included among them was the Presbyterian minister Francis Alison, who later established New London Academy in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Most important was William Killen, who became a lifelong friend, and himself had a distinguished career as Delaware’s first Chief Justice and Chancellor. Dickinson was precocious and energetic, and in spite of his love of Poplar Hall and his family, was drawn to Philadelphia.
  • 1732
    Born in 1732.
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