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141 John Dickinson, undated notes, John Dickinson Correspondence, 1775“98. Simon Gratz Auto-
graph Collection, HSP.
142 The Religious Society of Friends, The Ancient Testimony and Principles of the People Called
Quakers; Renewed, with respect to the King and Government; Touching the Commotions now
prevailing in these and other Parts of America, addressed to the People in General (Philadelphia,
1776).
143 Ibid., 4.
236 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

So problematic was this statement for the Revolutionary leadership that it
provoked a number of responses. The most notable of these is Paine™s often-
ignored appendix to Common Sense, published in April with his third edition,
that executed a biting attack on the Quakers.144 And he was perhaps the most
quali¬ed person to do so. If Dickinson was the representative of traditional
Quaker political philosophy that emphasized peace, reconciliation, and indi-
vidual rights within a uni¬ed polity, Paine, drawing on the same heritage, was
his radical counterpart. Raised by a Quaker father and given a “guarded”
Quaker education, Paine was intimately familiar with the theology of Friends.
Moreover, his revolutionary zeal was no doubt fueled by the sense of rights
and dissent instilled in him in his upbringing. Paine™s father was likely a strong
in¬‚uence on his egalitarianism and his rejection of practices ranging from slav-
ery to dueling.145 Clearly Paine™s ¬rsthand knowledge of Quakerism is what
allowed him to challenge Friends on their own beliefs and principles and effec-
tively preach Quakerism to the Quakers, even going so far as to quote Barclay™s
Apology to them. “We do not complain against you because ye are Quakers,”
he wrote, “but because ye pretend to be and are not Quakers.”146
Paine focused on the heart of the PYM Testimony as evidence of the
hypocrisy of Quaker withdrawal. He asked, “If these are really your principles
why do ye not abide by them?” Although the Testimony does not categorically
deny the ef¬cacy and propriety of human agency in affairs of state, or the
Quakers™ own role in Pennsylvania government, they probably intended it to
be read as such. How much familiarity Paine had with Quaker political history
in Pennsylvania is uncertain; yet, insofar as their position on the Testimony
could work to his advantage, he was certainly willing to exploit any vagueness
in it. “The principles of Quakerism,” said Paine, reiterating the Quakers™ claim
of neutrality, “have a direct tendency to make a man the quiet and inoffensive
subject of any, and every government which is set over him.” Logically, then,
Friends should simply stand passively by and “approve of every thing, which
144 Some of his sentiments echo those expressed earlier by Samuel Adams, writing as “Candidus,”
February 3, 1776, in William V. Wells, The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams: Being
a Narrative of His Acts and Opinions, and of His Agency in Producing and Forwarding the
American Revolution, with Extracts From His Correspondence, State Papers, and Political
Essays (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1865), 2: 360“63.
145 Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, 3. Although it is clear that Paine had a close
af¬liation with Quakers and was undoubtedly in¬‚uenced in no small degree by Quakerism, it is
clearly going much too far, as some have done, to say that Paine was a “Quaker Revolutionary”
or that Common Sense is the “product of a ˜dyed-in-the-wool-Quaker™” (William Kashatus
III, “Thomas Paine: A Quaker Revolutionary,” Quaker History vol. 73, no. 2 [1984]: 38“61,
61). Paine himself wrote of his attitudes toward war and peace: “I am thus far a Quaker, that
I would gladly agree with all the world to lay aside the use of arms, and settle matters by
negotiations; but, unless the whole world wills, the matter ends, and I take up my musket,
and thank heaven he has put it in my power” (quoted in Moncure Daniel Conway, ed.,
The Life of Thomas Paine [New York: G. P. Putnam™s Sons, 1893], 1: 44). Thus, anything
in Common Sense that is speci¬cally Quaker is virtually lost when it was blurred with the
Calvinist revolutionary theory, which alone disquali¬es it from being a Quaker tract.
146 Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776), 142.
“Dickinsonian Politics” in the American Revolution 237

ever happened, or may happen to kings as being [God™s] work.” For the Revo-
lutionary leadership, it would have been most preferable if PYM Quakers had
adhered to their stated principle. The inconsistency of Quakers, of all people,
writing a political pamphlet to disavow their political involvement was not lost
on Paine. His point, then, was apt: “[W]hat occasion is there for your political
testimony if you fully believe what it contains: And the very publishing of it
proves, that either ye do not believe what ye profess, or have not virtue enough
to practice what ye believe.” The bottom line for Paine was that “[w]herefore,
as ye refuse to be the means on one side, ye ought not to be meddlers on the
other; but to wait the issue in silence.” It was apparent to non-Friends that
PYM was not as neutral as it would like to seem. “Ye appear to us,” he con-
cludes, “to have mistaken party for conscience.” He exclaimed, “O ye partial
ministers of your own acknowledged principles.”147 Not surprisingly, Paine
aligned himself with the Free Quakers.
Dickinson, meanwhile, had a decidedly different view of Friends and their
politics “ different both from Paine™s and their own “ and one that was more
historically accurate. According to him, the Quakers™ enemies objected, not
unrealistically, that their insistence on paci¬sm created factional differences
in Pennsylvania so great that they would give the British the impression of
American “disunity.” This, in turn, would encourage Great Britain to attack
the colonies and thereby make Pennsylvania liable for “all the Bloodshed &
Calamities, that may follow.” In his “answer to these Objectors,” in the clearest
terms, Dickinson implored Pennsylvanians to look to the Quakers and their
history of peaceful protest in the province for guidance. He explained

that the good men who have promoted the paci¬c Measures of this Province, have no
doubt duly considered their Objections; & as it appears to have had no weight with
them, we may fairly conclude from the great Proofs they have given of their wisdom in
this Affair, that it did not deserve the least regard.
We may therefore now justly rejoice, that we have reached the most consummate
Degree of virtue and Prudence in Politics. It is true, that those who have gone before
Us, in settling & constructing this Province, did tolerably well for the Times in which
they lived: but every impartial Reader of our public Transactions, that from the very
Beginning of the settlement, there was a certain turbulent Spirit in our Forefathers,
which never would suffer them to sit down in Silence and submission under any Attack
upon their Privileges or Liberties: Nor do I believe that the History of any People upon
Earth can shew Instances of a more steady attention to their Rights, or of quicker
Alarms, on any affront or Injury being offered to them.
However, tho they had their turbulent Disposition for maintaining their Rights,
as they were called, yet in Justice to their Memory we must acknowledge, that their
Turbulence was of such a kind, that no other turbulence can be compared with it. It was
the Turbulence of Sense, Spirit, Virtue, Meekness, Piety, employed “ Mistaken Men!
as they thought, in Defence of publick Happiness. It was cautious: it was ¬rm: it was
noble: it was gentle: it was religious devout:

147 Ibid., 53“58.
238 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

In short, their Policy was like the Religion they professed; and it would not have been
Turbulence, if it had not been employed “ Mistaken Men! as they thought, in Defence
of publick Happiness.
How must they be delighted, if Heaven permits them to take Notice of these worldly
Things, to observe their wiser, more virtuous Posterity, preserving the public Tranquility
by taking care of it.148

This account of the Quakers clearly comports better with their actual his-
tory than either PYM™s Testimony or Paine™s diatribe. Though historically many
devout Quakers were reluctant to enter politics, aware of the spiritual pitfalls
that abound, until the Revolution, they always considered it an obligation. In
Some Fruits of Solitude (1693), Penn mused about the ¬ne line between accept-
able retreat and necessary engagement. “Neutrality,” he said, “is something
else than Indifferency; and yet of kin to it too.” It meant “not to meddle at all.”
“A Neuter,” he continued, “only has room to be a Peace-Maker: For being
of neither side, he has the Means of mediating a Reconciliation of both.”149
We have seen this claim about meddling before as Quakers defended their
government in early Pennsylvania.150 They parsed their words carefully, de¬n-
ing meddling as partisanship, yet allowing interference in politics for the right
“Causes.” In the same way, Penn quali¬ed his remarks by saying, “tho™ Med-
dling is a Fault, Helping is a duty.”151 While the private life was preferable,
still, “the Publick must and will be served.”152 Thus, while Penn seemed to urge
Quakers towards the neutral position that they adopted during the Revolution,
he ultimately gave them not just permission to engage, but a pointed directive
not to remain on the sidelines. Interestingly, Penn might well have sided with
Paine in his assessment of PYM. “[W]here Right or Religion gives a Call,”
Penn said, “a Neuter must be a Coward or a Hypocrite.”153
With Dickinson™s statement, there can be no doubt as to his position advo-
cating traditional Quaker action “ “turbulent” but “paci¬c.” It is perhaps
this very idea that he had in mind when he scribbled cryptically in his notes,
“A peaceable War.”154 And with such sympathies, Dickinson did not emerge
unscathed in his efforts to balance “our little vessel.”155 As tensions rose and
he showed more signs of dissent from the increasingly bellicose attitude of his
countrymen, his reputation among those in favor of independence began to fal-
ter. John Adams infamously called him a “piddling genius,” someone who was

148 John Dickinson, untitled document, n.d., Ser. I. b. Political, 1774“1708, n.d. RRL/HSP.
149 Penn, Some Fruits of Solitude, 61. By indifferency Penn meant disinterestedness.
150 See Chapter 4, page 245.
151 Penn, Some Fruits of Solitude, 60“62.
152 Ibid., 55.
153 Ibid., 61.
154 John Dickinson, untitled fragment, n.d., Ser. I. b. Political, 1774“1708, n.d. RRL/HSP.
155 Wrongly cited in Colbourn, “John Dickinson, Historical Revolutionary,” 272, as appearing in
Still´ and Ford, Life and Writings, 2:326.
e
“Dickinsonian Politics” in the American Revolution 239

“warped by the Quaker interest.”156 Others suspected that he might have been
unduly in¬‚uenced in matters of governmental policy by the Quakerism of his
immediate family. Charles Thomson claimed that Dickinson™s Quaker mother
and wife “were continually distressing him with their remonstrances.”157 And,
indeed, Dickinson later said, “I took it for granted, that my Behaviour would
be supposed to be in¬‚uenced by too strong an addiction to the [Society of
Friends], if that Society would approve my Conduct.”158
In a signi¬cant sense, the ¬nal contest over revolution came down to a
struggle between Dickinson and Adams. It was Dickinson who had almost
single-handedly stalled the Revolution for months with his instructions to the
Pennsylvania delegates. “To them,” said Elbridge Gerry, “is owing the delay
of Congress in agitating questions of the greatest importance, which long ere
now must have terminated in a separation from Great Britain.”159 John Adams
added more bluntly that the government in Pennsylvania is “incumbered with
a large Body of Quakers,” which “clogg[s its] operations a little.”160 It was
Adams, then, long critical of the Quakers in general and Dickinson in particu-
lar, who had the greatest hand in bringing down the Pennsylvania Assembly.
In order to revoke and replace Dickinson™s instructions with something more
agreeable to his designs, on May 10 Adams motioned in Congress to dissolve
all proprietary governments and replace them with ones friendly to the Rev-
olutionary cause; it passed and was published on the ¬fteenth.161 “It was a
measure,” he confessed, “which I had invariably pursued for a whole year.”162
When the radicals succeeded in supplanting the Quaker Assembly over the
course of only a few weeks, on May 29, John Adams wrote with what must
have been great satisfaction, “these [Quaker] cloggs are falling off, as you will
Soon see” (Figure 8).163

156 John Adams to James Warren, July 24, 1776, Delegates, 1: 658; and John Adams™s Diary,
Sept. 24, 1775, Delegates, 2: 50.
157 Thomson cited in Mekeel, The Relation of the Quakers to the American Revolution, 136.
158 John Dickinson to unknown, August, 25, 1776, Ser. I. a. Correspondence, 1762“1808,
RRL/HSP.
159 James T. Austin, Life of Elbridge Gerry (New York: Da Capo, 1970), 1: 179.
160 For a fuller account of this episode see Jack N. Rakove, The Beginnings of National Politics:
An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979),
69“97.
161 Steven Rosswurm claims that “[e]ven Dickinson supported it” and cites an unpublished
manuscript by [Jerrilyn Greene?] Marston entitled “Congress Grants Authority for Govern-
ment.” Yet neither the JCC or Delegates give any indication of individuals™ support or dissent
of the motion and, as we shall see in the next chapter, Dickinson later protested the illegality
of the displacement of the Assembly and fought against the new government (Arms, Country,
and Class: The Philadelphia Militia and the “Lower Sort” during the American Revolution,
1776“1783 [New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987], 94).
162 John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life
of the Author, Notes and Illustrations Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co.,
1856), 3: 45.
163 John Adams to Benjamin Hichborn, May 29, 1776, Delegates, 4: 96.
240 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson




figure 8. “Quakerism Drooping.” An early eighteenth-century depiction of an ailing
Quaker, propped up by “Sinless Perfection” and “Infallibility.” (Francis Bugg, Quak-
erism Drooping, and its cause sinking . . . [London, 1703], 75. (FHL)

What the radicals and their representatives in Congress wanted were new
instructions that would cause Pennsylvania to support independence. Com-
pelled by the turn of events in his province, Dickinson obliged “ partly. With a
committee, he drew up a new set of instructions that removed the restrictions of
the previous ones. But the instructions were not as clear cut as radicals wanted.
Putting his lawyerly skills to use, he did not prevent the delegates from voting
for independence, but neither did the language of the instructions give them
the express instructions to vote for it.164 This ambiguity was Dickinson™s ¬nal
procedural attempt to avert revolution, and the greatest extent to which he
would obstruct “ as some saw it165 “ the popular will. It was a subtle strategy,
but obstruction it was not. On the contrary, this wording gave the delegates a

164 John Paul Selsam, The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776: A Study in Revolutionary Democ-
racy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1936), 132“33. See the Instructions in the
Pennsylvania Evening Post, June 8, 1776.
165 Robert Whitehall to friends, June 10, 1776 in “Delegates™ Certi¬cation of James Wilson™s
Conduct in Congress,” June 20, 1776, Delegates, 4: 274.
“Dickinsonian Politics” in the American Revolution 241

freedom that was heavy with responsibility. Rather than instruct them to vote
for independence, which he knew some of them and many of their constituents
were against, his intent, no doubt, was to lay the weighty decision on the con-
sciences of the individual delegates. Their true instructions would thus come
from God.
A matter of days after the new instructions were published, Dickinson began
preparing the country not just for war, but for independence. In spite of the
rising animosity toward him “ one commentator observed that “Dickinson,
Wilson, and the others, have Rendered them selves obnoctious to Every Whig
in town, and Every Day of theyr Existance are losing the Con¬dence of the
people”166 “ he headed a committee to write the nation™s ¬rst constitution.

Independence
On July 1, 1776, the day before the vote on independence, John Adams wrote
that “[t]his morning is assigned for the greatest Debate of all.”167 It was the
day Adams and Dickinson would confront one another directly in Congress to
convince their colleagues for or against Revolution. Dickinson began. Exem-
plifying the Quaker conviction that “whatsoever tendeth to break that Bond
of Peace and Love, must be testi¬ed against,”168 and in full awareness of the
consequences of his actions, he opened with the admission that “My Con-
duct, this Day, I expect will give the ¬nishing blow to my once too great, and
my Integrity considered, now too diminish™d Popularity.” Becoming a political
martyr to testify for “a Truth known in Heaven,” he said, “I might indeed,
practise an artful, an advantageous Reserve upon this Occasion [but] Silence
would be guilt. I despise its Arts “ I detest its Advantages. I must speak, tho
I should lose my Life, tho I should lose the Affections of my C[ountrymen].”
Prefacing his speech with a prayer, he then passionately reiterated his previ-
ous objections. He was even more concerned than he had been in 1765 that
independence would result in “a multitude of Commonwealths, crimes and
Calamities “ centuries of mutual Jealousies, Hatreds, Wars and Devastations,
until at last the exhausted Provinces shall sink into Slavery under the yoke
of some fortunate conqueror.”169 This common Quaker fear of disunion was
ultimately what differentiated Dickinson from his compatriots “ he adhered to
the meaning of liberty that was synonymous with safety through union under
the British constitution. Those who pressed for independence effectively argued
that “[w]e ought to brave the Storm in a Skiff made of Paper.”170

166 Ibid.
167 Adams to Archibald Bulloch, July 1, 1776, Delegates, 4: 345.
168 Barclay, Apology, 57.
169 John Dickinson to William Pitt, 21 December 1765, from Jack P. Greene, “The Background of
the Articles of Confederation,” Publius vol. 12, no. 4, The Continuing Legacy of the Articles
of Confederation (1982), 15“44, 35.
170 John Dickinson, “Notes for a Speech in Congress,” July 1, 1776, John Dickinson Correspon-
dence, 1775“1798, Simon Gratz Autograph Collection, HSP.
242 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

When Dickinson ¬nished, the room remained silent. “No Member rose to
answer him,” said John Adams, until he himself took up the task.171 With the
general sentiment favoring Adams, his argument won the day. Accordingly, on
July 2, Dickinson absented himself from the vote on independence. By such
an act, he knew from a poll taken the evening before that the vote would be
nearly unanimous and the Revolution would proceed. Of the seven Pennsyl-
vania delegates, one other absented himself, two voted against independence,
and three voted for it.172 This moment signaled a shift in American thinking
from de¬ning liberty as security to it being freedom from authority, with the
corresponding release of democratic impulses.
What Dickinson did next compounded the enigma for his contemporaries
and historians. From this point on, they wanted very much for him to ful¬ll their
expectations of a “loser” in the debate, to see him defect to the British, and to be
able to call him a Loyalist. John Adams spoke with contempt of “the timid and
trimming Politicks of some Men” who would not approve independence.173
But immediately after the Declaration was passed, Dickinson took up arms
and led his battalion to Elizabethtown. Meanwhile, Adams hoped to “leave
the War to be conducted by others” and return home to Massachusetts.174
Disappointed, those in favor of independence persisted in attributing Dick-
inson™s stance to timidity or other self-interested motives. To this he said:

What can be more evident than that I have acted on Principle? Was there a Man in
Pennsylvania, that possessed a larger share of the public Con¬dence . . . than I did? Or
that had a more certain Prospect of personal advantages from Independency, or of a
smaller chance of advantages from Reconciliation? . . . I knew most assuredly & publicly
declared in Congress that I should lose a great Part of my popularity and all the bene¬ts
of an artful, or what some would call a prudent Man, might coin it into “ I despised
them, when to be purchased only by violation of my Conscience “ I should have been a
Villain, if I had spoken and voted differently from what I did “ for I should have spoken
& voted differently from what I judged to be for the Interest of my Country . . . While
I was there voluntarily & deliberately, step by step, sacri¬cing my Popularity . . . what
would be my object & whom was I trying to please?The proprietary People are known
to be & to have been uniformly my deadly foes throughout my Life. Was it to please
the People called Quakers? Allow it “ What was I to obtain by pleasing them? All things
were converging to a Revolution in which they would have little Power. Besides, I had
as much displeased quieted them by other measures I took as I did others by opposing
the Declaration of Independence.175


171 Adams to Archibald Bulloch, July 1, 1776, Delegates, 4: 346.
172 Dickinson and Morris did not appear; Franklin, Wilson, and Morton voted in favor; and
Humphreys and Willing opposed (Ryerson, The Revolution Is Now Begun, 329).
173 John Adams to William Tudor, June 24, 1776, Delegates, 4: 306. There is no doubt Adams is
referring in particular to Dickinson as one of these “Men of large Property [in Pennsylvania
who], have almost done their Business for [the Quakers and Proprietarians]. They have lost
their In¬‚uence and grown obnoxious.”
174 John Adams to John Winthrop, June 23, 1776, Delegates, 4: 299.
175 John Dickinson to unknown, August, 25, 1776, Ser. I. a. Correspondence, 1762“1808,
RRL/HSP.
“Dickinsonian Politics” in the American Revolution 243

Through all the turmoil, John Dickinson™s political actions at the moment of
independence were complex, but hardly as enigmatic as many have suggested.
They are comprehensible when understood in the light of Quaker theologico-
politics. In a Quaker meeting, individual dissent was tolerated, and even encour-
aged, provided it followed a speci¬c process. Those with minority viewpoints
were allowed and expected to try to convince their brethren that theirs was the
correct understanding of God™s will; but only to a certain extent. If an interpre-
tation or “leading” was disavowed by the meeting as a whole, the individual
was obliged to submit his will to the meeting and not undermine its mission.
Since Dickinson, as a traditional “Quaker” politician, was acting consistently
with the idea of the civil polity as the meeting writ large, his actions were
not only consistent but perfectly in keeping with appropriate Quaker political
behavior. In his description of the Quaker decision-making process, Michael
Sheeran explains how a Quaker may take the position of disagreement without
obstructionism: “The meeting is left aware of the dissenter™s opinion, yet the
dissenter has indicated a wish not to keep the matter from moving forward.
Equivalently, the objector has thus endorsed the action of the group by implying
that in his or her own judgment the objection is not serious enough to prevent
action.”176 Therefore, after Dickinson spoke his mind, rather than continue
to dissent from the Declaration, which he knew was going to win majority
approval, he abstained from the vote in Congress and allowed Pennsylvania to
support the Declaration. Sheeran describes the interesting position in which this
act places the individual. It shifts him from a position of dissent to one of tacit
endorsement: “[He] tends to take some responsibility for the decision, even to
feel some obligation for making it work out well in practice.”177 Accordingly,
after the passage of the Declaration, Dickinson supported his country fully by
taking up arms and working to perfect an American constitution. As Dickinson
himself explained it: “Although I spoke my sentiments freely, “ as an honest
man ought to do, “ yet when a determination was reached upon the question
against my opinion, I regarded that determination as the voice of my country.
That voice proclaimed her destiny, in which I was resolved by every impulse of
my soul to share, and to stand or fall with her in that scheme of freedom which
she had chosen.”178 Sheeran calls this technique of withdrawing one™s opposi-
tion, though not one™s disagreement, “virtually an art form of graciousness.”179
Re¬‚ecting on political obligation and resistance in the next century, Quaker
theorist Jonathan Dymond con¬rmed the propriety of Dickinson™s actions. “If
I had lived in America ¬fty years ago,” he said,

and had thought the disobedience of the colonies wrong, and that the whole empire
would be injured by their separation from England, I should have thought myself at

176 Michael Sheeran, Beyond Majority Rule, 66. See also The Religious Society of Friends, Faith
and Practice: A Book of Christian Discipline (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting,
1997), 28.
177 Sheeeran, Beyond Majority Rule, 67.
178 Still´ and Ford, Life and Writings, 1: 204.
e
179 Sheeran, 67.
244 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

liberty to urge these considerations upon other men, and otherwise to exert myself
(always within the limits of Christian conduct) to support the British cause.

He then described the course of peaceful resistance Americans could have
pursued and the results it would have brought:

Imagine America to have acted upon Christian principles, and to have refused to
pay [the tax], but without those acts of exasperation and violence which they com-
mitted . . . Does any man . . . believe that England . . . would have gone on destroying
them . . . if the Americans continually reasoned coolly and honorably with the other
party, and manifested, by the unequivocal language of conduct, that they were actuated
by reason and by Christian rectitude? . . . They would have attained the same advantage
with more virtue, and at less cost.

And ¬nally, he explained the position that the dissenter should take when the
people decide on their course:

But when the colonies were actually separated from Britain, and it was manifestly the
general will to be independent, I should have readily transferred my obedience to the
United States, convinced that the new government was preferred by the people; that,
therefore, it was the rightful government; and, being such, that it was my Christian duty
to obey it.180

Dickinson was not a perfect example of Quaker constitutionalism. He did
eventually take up arms. But for that one exception, Dymond would have done
what Dickinson did. And, indeed, that was also how most other Quakers at
the time proceeded, in support of the Federal government.181


180 Jonathan Dymond, Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political
Rights and Obligations of Mankind (New York: Collins Brothers and Co., 1845), 327“29.
181 The behavior of the Society of Friends in the Revolution is undoubtedly problematic within
the context of their theories both of political engagement and constitutional perpetuity. If tra-

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