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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

prerogative.”31 His sentiments concur with Penn™s, who wrote “That Coun-
try which is False to its ¬rst Principles of Government . . . must Unavoidably
Decay.”32
In a line that would be much quoted in the Constitutional Convention,
Dickinson wrote, “A perpetual jealousy, respecting liberty, is absolutely req-
uisite in all free states.” He then articulated the importance of bringing the
polity back to its foundational elements. “Machiavel,” he wrote, “employs a
whole chapter in his discourses, to prove that a state, to be long lived, must be
frequently corrected, and reduced to its ¬rst principles.” Dickinson reiterated
throughout the Letters that the Townshend Acts were a dangerous legal prece-
dent. But like his Quaker forebears, he was not advocating a return to ¬rst
principles through violence, which many came to believe was the only way to
resist British tyranny. “To talk of ˜defending™ [the principles], as if they could
be no otherwise ˜defended™ than by arms” was nonsensical to him.33 Yet some
historians have interpreted the ominous statement at the end of his fourth letter,
“We have a statute, laid up for future use, like a sword in the scabbard,”34 as a
threat of violence against Britain and indicative of Dickinson™s “revolutionary”
message.35 But although it is true that this statement is a threat, it is a threat
with a nonviolent weapon, a legal threat. Here Dickinson has secularized the
Quaker call for “spiritual” rather than “carnal” weapons and said that the
weapon should be on paper and in principle “ such as the “American ˜bill of
rights™” that New York produced to delineate the extent of Britain™s right to
tax the colonists.36 To back up these words and principles, Dickinson advo-
cated a plan of nonviolent measures that ranged in severity from humble pleas
in petitions, to nonimportation, to open disobedience of the offending laws.37
But the latter was the furthest extreme Quaker constitutionalism would allow.
In keeping with proper behavior within the Quaker meeting “ that is, with
the aim to preserve liberty, peace, and constitutional perpetuity “ Dickinson
very carefully outlined the colonists™ rights and obligations in the face of royal
oppression. In conducting protest, there was a duty to be upheld and a partic-
ular process to be followed. He encouraged his countrymen to action based on
the Quaker process of dissent. He suggested that not revolution, but reformed
relations with the crown could solve their problems. It seemed to Dickinson,
however, that at the early phase of the controversy, the colonists were vulner-
able to either total submission to the injustice, on the one hand, or war, on

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

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

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

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

43 Dickinson, Essay on the constitutional power, 105.
44 John Dickinson, “Letters to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies in America” (1774), in Still´
e
and Ford, Life and Writings, 2: 499.
45 John Dickinson, “Instructions of the Pennsylvania Convention” (1774), in Peter Force, ed.,
American Archives, ser. 4 (Washington, DC, 1837“53), 1: 595.
46 Letters, 7.
47 Maier describes how Bostonians began with violent resistance, but eventually settled on evasion
of the law as the most expedient way to handle the oppression (From Resistance to Revolution,
53“70).
48 Letters, 25.
49 Ibid., 69.
“Dickinsonian Politics” in the American Revolution 217

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

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

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

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