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due respect to the government. They must retain power in themselves in order
to resist oppression. At ¬rst, however, a people™s rights were closely circum-
scribed in the beginning of a disagreement with the secular authorities. “[The
people] have not at ¬rst any other right,” he explained, “than to represent
their grievances, and to pray for redress.”60 Dickinson™s method would have


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

or success of Great Britain.”85 The Society as a body thus began to revive its
1756 stance and adopted a more reserved position than Dickinson. By 1769
its of¬cial policy was that the increasingly strict economic sanctions should be
avoided. Philadelphia Monthly Meeting and Philadelphia Meeting for Suffer-
ings advised against taking part in nonimportation and threatened disownment
of those who transgressed the peace testimony.86
In his Letters, and then in his subsequent efforts to convince Quaker mer-
chants to engage in nonimporation, Dickinson had articulated a position that
was consistent with the Quakerism of Pennsylvania politics from the found-
ing of the province until only very recently. “Heaven,” he wrote, “seems to
have placed in our hands means of an effectual, yet peaceable resistance, if
we have the sense and integrity to make proper use of them. A general agree-
ment between these colonies of non-importation and non-exportation faithfully
observed would certainly be attended with success.”87 And many Friends still
held these views. A good number of the Quaker merchants ultimately sided
with Dickinson in thinking that resistance in the form of boycotting was just,
but that violence or rebellion was not.88 And although Quaker merchants
as a group were slow to join intercolonial nonimportation committees, they
were some of the most active boycotters as individuals.89 Nonimportation in
Philadelphia, however, was never an entire success without the support of
PYM, the Assembly, and the whole merchant class.
The differences that were beginning to surface between Dickinson™s position
and the Society of Friends were indicative of a growing rift in the Society itself.
For whatever reason “ whether principle or pro¬t “ the majority of Friends,
or at least the ones who controlled PYM, were becoming increasingly reserved
in their protest against Britain. Meanwhile, a signi¬cant number were growing
more enthusiastic in their resistance. Almost a century after the Revolution,
Abraham Lincoln summarized their situation. “On principle and faith, opposed
to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by
war,” he wrote. “In this hard dilemma, some [Quakers] have chosen one horn
and some another.”90 Lincoln wrote these words in the midst of the Civil
War; but this very dilemma for Quakers had always been present to a degree.
Until now, however, there had been no incident great enough to endanger the
Society seriously. But with so much at stake, and after more than ninety years
of cultivated dissent in Pennsylvania, the time was ripe for a change.

85 Scott, Journal of the Life, Travels, and Gospel Labours, 53.
86 Mekeel, The Relation of the Quakers to the American Revolution, 34“48; Schlesinger, Colonial
Merchants, 191“92.
87 John Dickinson, “Letters to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies” (1774), in Still´ and Ford,
e
Life and Writings, 2: 499.
88 Mekeel, The Relation of the Quakers to the American Revolution, 46“47; Schlesinger, Colonial
Merchants, 192.
89 Mekeel, The Relation of the Quakers to the American Revolution, 36“40.
90 Abraham Lincoln to Eliza P. Gurney, September 4, 1864, in Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected
Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 7: 535.
“Dickinsonian Politics” in the American Revolution 225

The Pivotal Years, 1774“1775
Since the Farmer™s Letters, Dickinson™s reputation in Pennsylvania had grown
exponentially, and by 1774 he could be rightly considered the leader of the
resistance movement, not just in that colony but, at least for the moment, in
America as a whole.91 Joseph Reed conveyed that “At this time
Mr. Dickinson was in the highest point of Reputation, & possessed a vast in¬‚uence
not only over the public at large but among the Quakers in particular . . . No person in
Pennsylvania ever approached as a rival in personal in¬‚uence. In short he was of that
weight, that it seemed to depend on his being present at the meeting whether or not
there should be any measures in opposition to Britain in consequence of it.

Moreover, it was “owing to his ˜farmer™s letters,™ and his conduct, that there
was a present disposition to dispose the tyranny of Parliament.”92
The progress and process of the resistance thus depended in large part on
him. The meeting to which Reed was referring was on May 20 to decide
Philadelphia™s response to the Coercive Acts. The triumvirate who planned it,
Reed, Thomson, and Thomas Mif¬‚in, knew that they would not have cre-
dence without Dickinson™s approbation of the proceedings. They proposed in
advance, “if necessary that, the conduct should be carried to extremity.” Dick-
inson was reportedly “shocked.” He admitted that “opposition ought to be
used,” but “that the public proceedings could not be too cautious and temper-
ate.” Accordingly, in the meeting itself, Dickinson made his appearance after
the others had exhorted the audience so passionately that Thomson fainted
from his efforts and “moderate[d] that ¬re, by proposing measures of a more
gentle nature.” “The contrast between the two measures advised,” the report
reads, “& Mr. Dickinson™s weight precipitated the company into an adoption
of the latter; which being so gentle in its appearance, was a great relief against
the violence of the ¬rst.” Following the meeting, amidst turmoil and con¬‚ict
between Quakers and radicals over how to express support for Boston, Dick-
inson appealed to the colonists to remember the success of their own peaceful
efforts in the Stamp Act controversy. Despite the fact there was great clamor for
nonimportation, in a series of letters in late May and early June, he praised his
countrymen in their handling of an earlier controversy, writing, “You behaved
as you ought . . . You proceeded in your usual business without any regard to
[the Stamp Act] . . . The act [was] thus revoked by you” before it was formally
repealed by Parliament.93 He called for the same “virtual repeal” that Quakers

91 In “John Dickinson as President of Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania History vol. 28, no. 3 (1961),
254“267, J. H. Powell says that he “dominated the Congress” (255). The editors of the Delegates
speak of “The Farmer™s extraordinary fame and in¬‚uence” (1: 194). It is puzzling how Eric Foner
can conclude that in the early 1770s Dickinson “lapsed into political silence as the movement
for independence accelerated” (Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, 108.).
92 “Copy of a paper drawn up by Joseph Reed for W. Henry Drayton,” n.d., Maria Dickinson
Logan Collection, HSP.
93 John Dickinson, “Letters to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies,” in Still´ and Ford, Life
e
and Writings, 2: 475, 476, 479.
226 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

had always practiced. Their continued success in this vein against the Coercive
Acts was not unreasonable.
One of Dickinson™s most signi¬cant contributions to the resistance cause
arose out of Philadelphia™s response to the Coercive Acts “ the organization
of measures that would lead to the convening of the Continental Congress.
He proposed a broad-based committee of freeholders representing all segments
of society. This committee would then instruct Pennsylvania™s congressmen in
a colony-wide congress.94 Interestingly, Dickinson was not a member of the
First Continental Congress when it met for the ¬rst time on September 5, 1774.
He could not become one until he was elected to the Assembly (which, it had
been determined, should appoint the delegates) on September 19. John Adams
approved, noting “the Change in the elections for this City and County is no
small event. Mr. Dickinson and Mr. Thompson, now joined to Mr. Mif¬‚in,
will make a great weight in favour of the American Cause.”95 But not being a
formal member of that body did not stop him from drafting the several of the
¬rst and most important documents.96

Congress among the Quakers
Quaker unity was failing rapidly about how to oppose oppression when the
delegates convened for the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. But at
¬rst, these differences were by no means clear to outsiders. As the delegates
gathered and deliberated in Quaker Philadelphia, they did not yet understand
the depths or complexities of the culture with its strong inclinations for both
unity and dissent. Neither did they yet see that the Society was dividing on
the best course to secure the rights for which they had always aimed. Instead
they were impressed with more readily visible things “ the Quakerism that
permeated the city. They were fascinated, affronted, enticed, and perplexed
by Quaker proselytizing “ the distinctive dress, speech, and manners of their
hosts “ and commented frequently and favorably, at least at ¬rst, on Quakers
being interesting, clever, and pleasing with their politeness and hospitality,
informal yet elegant manners, plain dress, and their “Thee™s and Thou™s.”97


94 See “Notes of a meeting of a number of Gentlemen convened on 10 June 1774,” in “Memoran-
dum Book, 1754“1774,” 159“62, Charles Thomson Papers, Simon Gratz Autograph Collection,
HSP; John Dickinson, Pennsylvania Journal, and the Weekly Advertiser, June 22, 1774. Also,
Ryerson, The Revolution Is Now Begun, 47“48.
95 L. H. Butter¬eld, ed., Diary and Autobiography of John Adams (Cambridge, MA: Belknap
Press, Harvard University, 1961), 2: 147.
96 These include the Bill of Rights [and] a List of Grievances, “Memorial to the Inhabitants of
the Colonies,” the First Petition to the King, and An Address from Congress to the Inhabitants
of Quebec. For discussion of the authorship of these documents, some of which had been
attributed to other delegates, see James H. Hutson, comp. and ed., A Decent Respect to the
Opinions of Mankind: Congressional State Papers, 1774“1776 (Washington, DC: Library of
Congress, 1976), 50“52; and Delegates, 1: 194.
97 Silas Deane to Elizabeth Deane, Aug. 31 and Sept. 3, 10“11, 1774, Delegates, 1: 16, 23, and
62; John Adams™s Diary, Sept. 7, 1774, Delegates, 1: 33.
“Dickinsonian Politics” in the American Revolution 227

The in¬‚uence Friends had on the delegates was both positive and negative,
social and personal, but also increasingly and profoundly political.
For some of the delegates, Quakerism was very appealing. Silas Deane of
Connecticut was especially taken with Philadelphia and its Quaker culture. He
wrote repeatedly to his wife of his positive impressions of the city and people.
“The aspect of the Inhabitants, bespeak them, affable & Clever, and the Freind
[sic] or Quaker habit was always agreeable To me,” he admitted.98 Deane, so
charmed by the distinctive Quaker speech, could not refrain from quoting it:
“[E]very one of my Quaker Friends I meet tells Me, Thee lookest very well
Freind Dean.”99 Living in such close proximity to Friends and ¬nding them
so agreeable made Deane consider becoming a convinced Friend himself. “[I]
have almost resolved,” he wrote Elizabeth, “if I alter To Turn Quaker.”100
For other delegates, however, the Quaker culture and customs were simply
strange. By way of excusing himself for not wishing his correspondent a merry
Christmas and happy new year, James Duane wrote, “I am in a Quaker Town.
No body has wished me the Compliments of the Season, & I forgot to pay
you that Respect.”101 John Adams was clearly fascinated with Friends and, as
his opinion about them ¬‚uctuated from one extreme to the other, he recorded
his thoughts and observations of their peculiarities. “Dined with the whole
Congress at the City Tavern, at the Invitation of the House of Representatives

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