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transferring any lands, tenements, or hereditaments.”110 There were also con-
tinued acts of spontaneous public violence against them, such as having their
businesses and homes vandalized and being harassed by mobs for not observing


106 Richard Henry Lee to Patrick Henry, September 8, 1777, Delegates, 7: 637.
107 Israel Pemberton to Charles Thomson, April 8, 1778, Letters of Charles Thomson, Miscella-
neous Personal Autographs, Simon Gratz Autograph Collection (250A), HSP.
108 Josiah Bartlett to William Whipple, August 18, 1778, Delegates, 10: 472.
109 Joseph Reed to John Armstrong, October 5, 1778, Delegates, 11: 26.
110 Statutes, 5: 9, 75“94.
Critical Period in Pennsylvania 271

public fasting days or lighting their windows.111 Moreover, the suspicion that
non-Quakers would use the peace testimony as an excuse to evade military
service persisted into the early Republic, with some Congressmen wondering
during the 1790 debates over an of¬cial policy for conscientious objectors that
exemptions based on a person™s religion would tempt people to “wear the mask
of Quakerism.”112 Ultimately, were a Quaker Tory to confess and turn himself
in as a traitor, he could expect markedly worse treatment than others similarly
guilty. In 1778 two Quakers gave themselves up under the Act of Attainder.
They were among 130-some men who surrendered to authorities, but they were
the only two executed for their crimes.113
One scholar says that the Pennsylvania constitution must have looked like a
“cruel hoax” to those who were denied its protection, yet she, like the radicals,
excused the actions of the Constitutionalists as necessary. But in fact, it was they
themselves who made the legal proceedings in Pennsylvania truly little more
than “Ceremonies & chicanery.”114 In 1779 the man primarily responsible for
laying the groundwork for the abolition of the 1701 Charter of Privileges and
the rise of the revolutionary government wrote in disgust at the happenings
in that state: “The people of Pennsylvania in two years,” said John Adams,
“will be glad to petition the crown of Britain for reconciliation in order to be
delivered from the tyranny of their Constitution.”115
The Quakers™ uncharacteristic neutrality during the Revolution, the cause of
their persecution, was a stance with no single or uncomplicated reason behind
it. And it could be that there is no satisfying explanation. We, like the Revo-
lutionaries and traditional Quaker thinkers, want the Quakers to have chosen
one side or the other. From a modern perspective, it is not hard to imagine what
pushed some Quakers away from their peace testimony and toward Revolu-
tion. We have more dif¬culty understanding neutrality and Loyalism. There
is only one scenario in which neutrality would ¬t with traditional Quaker

111 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Meeting for Sufferings, miscellaneous papers, 1771“80, FHL;
Mekeel, The Relation of the Quakers to the American Revolution, 160“69; Sharpless, The
Quakers in the Revolution, 200“03.
112 William Charles diGiacomantonio, et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal
Congress of the United States of America, vol. XIV: Debates in the House of Representa-
tives, Third Session: December 1790“March 1791 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1995), 138. My thanks to Chuck diGiacomantonio for suggesting this quotation. See
also, Richard Wilson Renner, “Conscientious Objection and the Federal Government, 1787“
1792,” Military Affairs vol. 38, no. 4 (1974), 142“45, 143.
113 For a discussion of this incident, see Rosswurm, Arms, Country, and Class, 156“58. Messer™s
interpretation of this incident justi¬es the actions of the Council by couching its decision in
terms of Old Light versus New Light evangelicalism. He argues that the Old Light presence
on the Council desired to quell the increasing New Light inclination in the masses to be more
tolerant to dissent and belief in rebirth through repentance. The Old Lights, he argued, were
not unjustly singling out Friends, but simply doing what they thought “necessary for the safety
of the state” and that they were not “misguided” in their decision (305).
114 Anne Ousterhout goes on to excuse the radicals, saying that “the number of persons denied
that document™s guarantees was relatively small” (“Controlling the Opposition,” 33“34).
115 John Adams to Benjamin Rush, October 12, 1779, in Butter¬eld, Letters of Rush, 1: 240.
272 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

theologico-politics, and that is, if they truly believed that neither side was
completely in the right or wrong. Traditionally, of course, the Quakers™ peace
testimony had never prevented them from protesting unjust governmental prac-
tices; on the contrary, they felt obliged to protest. But the evidence in the case of
the con¬‚ict with Britain suggests that the matter was not that simple for Friends.
While it was clear that many Quakers believed Britain was behaving unjustly,
there was also the sense that Americans might deserve it, that tyranny might
be punishment for the sins of luxury and slavery, in which case, harsh taxation
would be appropriate. If this were the case, then the correct response would be
introspection and reformation, which they urged of their compatriots. If, on
the other hand, British policy were overly harsh, then peaceful resistance would
be appropriate, which they also did, to a point. Perhaps because both of these
things seemed to be true, Quakers attempted their traditional role of medi-
ators, which entailed, as Paine noted, unfairly rebuking only the Americans
for their rash behavior. From the Quaker perspective, they could be neutral
in this case because they were not the sinners, having reformed their Society
to abolish both luxury and slavery. As the con¬‚ict progressed, however, most
Quakers believed that there was “no opportunity offering where we can be
instrumental to promote the peace, & good of our Country.”116 This could be
one explanation.
But a clear-eyed view of their situation demands recognition not just of their
abstract theologico-political principles but also of the reticence they had toward
the American cause that was based on practical concerns. It was because some
feared the Patriots abandoning their own principles more than they feared
the British, who had not threatened their religious liberty for decades. Less
honorably, they did not fear ¬nancial hardship the way other Americans did.
Nonetheless, many Quakers favored the American cause, just not the way it
was being executed. Some actively turned to the British for relief and protection;
for others, neutrality and faith in their own constitution may have seemed the
most prudent option both practically and theologically.117
There is little record of what John Dickinson thought about the persecution
of his friends and relatives. His edits on the Pennsylvania Declaration of Rights
might be a clue. It is impossible to know exactly when he made them, but
considering their substance, it seems clear that they were written in anticipation
of or response to the Quakers™ ordeal in 1777 and 1778. He emphasized equal
rights under the law for Christians who refuse to take oaths and added a
number of other provisions “ some of them seemingly copied verbatim from

116 John Pemberton to John Fothergill, October 25, 1776, quoted in Mekeel, The Relation of the
Quakers to the American Revolution, 164. Fothergill, a Quaker, was himself a “secret nego-
tiator” between Benjamin Franklin and Lord Dartmouth in 1774“75 (Bailyn, The Ideological
Origins of the American Revolution, 149).
117 For the likelihood of better treatment under the British, compare Van Buskirk™s description
of Sarah Fisher™s and Elizabeth Drinker™s handling by the Americans with Darlene Emmert
Fisher™s description of their experiences with the British in “Social Life in Philadelphia under
the British Occupation,” Pennsylvania History vol. 37, no. 3 (1970), 237“60. She describes it
as generally “cordial” (239). See also Nelson, American Tory.
Critical Period in Pennsylvania 273

other constitutions118 and others in his own language not enumerated in his
earlier writings. These additions and changes re¬‚ect a clear concern for the
protection of the rights of life, liberty, and property of religious dissenters
and alleged criminals. These, along with other Quaker principles of peaceful
reconciliation and strong central government, were the ones that he would try
to put into effect as president of the state.


President of Pennsylvania, 1782“1785
After his departure from Pennsylvania and worn from his ordeal, Dickinson
exclaimed in 1777 that “no Temptation, except that of serving my Coun-
try, America, could engage Me ever again to take any share in Pennsylvanian
Affairs.”119 His experience at the hands of the Pennsylvania radicals had a pro-
found effect on him that was similar to what Quakers as a body experienced.
It caused an inward retreat “ into himself and his immediate family. It was
during this period, in between 1777 and 1782, as he spent time at home to
recover his health, that he began to awaken to Quakerism as more than just
a political philosophy. Over these years we see the beginnings of a more overt
and personal expression of Quaker concerns and testimonies “ subtle at ¬rst,
but increasing in frequency and strength until his death.
When the 1782 presidential election in Pennsylvania approached and Dick-
inson™s name was put forward, Benjamin Rush proclaimed, “There is no
other member of Council that can with decency be raised up as a competi-
tor.” To John Montgomery he wrote, “His enemies (who are enemies of
virtue and public justice) tremble and sicken at this name.”120 Like Joseph
Reed before him and Benjamin Franklin after, Dickinson served the maxi-
mum of three one-year terms. His behavior as he accepted the presidency was
highly signi¬cant in understanding the policy he would pursue. In assuming
of¬ce on November 7, 1782, he did not take the oath but instead took an
af¬rmation.121 With this action he broadcast his political position through-
out the state: It announced that, although anti-Quaker sentiment was still
high, he would be sympathetic to Friends and pursue an agenda that would
aim at restoring the basic rights that Pennsylvanians had once enjoyed under

118 One of these is the Maryland constitution. It is hard to know, however, which came ¬rst,
Dickinson™s ideas or the printed constitution. For example, before the Maryland constitution
was rati¬ed on November 11, 1776, in September Dickinson had sent his comments on it and its
bill of rights to Samuel Chase. In his response to Dickinson, Chase did not mention Dickinson™s
particular suggestions. Samuel Chase to John Dickinson, September 29 and October 19, 1776,
Ser. 1. a. Correspondence, RRL/HSP.
119 John Dickinson to Benjamin Rush, June 14, 1777, Small Manuscript Collection, John Dickin-
son Letters, DPA.
120 Benjamin Rush to John Montgomery, November 5, 1782, in Butter¬eld, Letters of Rush, 1:
291“93, 292.
121 Dickinson had been taking an af¬rmation instead of an oath at least as early as 1778. Copies
of his af¬rmations are in Ser. 1. b. Political, 1774“1807, n.d., RRL/HSP. Also, it is important
to note that the oath/af¬rmation had changed since Dickinson was last in the Pennsylvania
government. Now it no longer demanded allegiance to an unchangeable constitution.
274 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

the Charter of Privileges. His ¬rst act as president was to issue a Proclamation
Against Vice and Immorality (1783).
Not surprisingly, the initial response to his election was polarized. Before
his term had begun, a disgruntled Pennsylvanian published a series of scathing
attacks on Dickinson™s character in the papers. “Valerius” revived all the same
accusations that the Convention had levied at him seven years prior, hingeing
mainly on his quali¬cations as a patriot. Dickinson responded with a lengthy
defense, also in the papers. His ¬rst term thus opened in controversy.122
Despite a hostile reception from some quarters, naturally Quakers and their
supporters were sanguine about the turn of events. Congressional delegate
David Howell, a frequent attender at the Philadelphia Friends Meeting, wrote
expectantly to Quaker Moses Brown of Rhode Island, “[T]here is about to be
a change of men & measure I am told in this State.”123 He enclosed a news-
paper clipping with “noble Sentiments” from the president-elect “in regard to
personal Liberty,” specifying a few “very considerable amendments” that need
to be made in the laws. The ¬rst two were “securing the inestimable bene¬ts
of the writ of Habeas Corpus; and for ¬xing the trial by jury on such a solid
basis, as will guard as much as possible against its being shaken by the dreadful
efforts of party rage.” Then, wrote Dickinson, “[a]nother amendment [which]
humanity compels me to propose” concerned the “contest” for the freedom of
slaves and “laws for alleviating the af¬‚ictions of this helpless, and too often
abused part of their fellow creatures.”124 A few months later, English Quaker
David Barclay wrote to Dickinson, adding protection for Quakers to his list:

I trust, you will ever keep in view the liberality of Sentiment & Conduct of your
Founder William Penn, whose memory & example must ever be venerated by wise &
good men . . . As the Society of Friends will doubtless be considered a Body of useful
Subjects, I shall expect to ¬nd their known religious Scruples provided for, in a degree
not less than in this country, where the Legislature has been kindly disposed towards
them.125

Such optimism notwithstanding, by most accounts, Dickinson™s presidency
was a failure.126 Even a favorable assessment must ¬nd it at least anticlimactic
after the drama of the ensuing years. One might hope that Dickinson would

122 For Dickinson™s “Vindication” of himself, see Still´ and Ford, Life and Writings, 1: 364“414.
e
123 David Howell to Moses Brown, Nov 6 1782, Delegates, 19: 356“59
124 John Dickinson™s address to the Delaware Assembly, Pennsylvania Journal, October 29, 1782.
Although this address was made to the Delaware Assembly, it must be inferred from the date
that the amendments he mentions should be to the Pennsylvania constitution and also that the
need for them serves as the explanation for why he was leaving Delaware for Pennsylvania.
125 David Barclay to John Dickinson, 10th of 2nd mo. 1783, Ser. 1 a. Correspondence, 1762“1808,
RRL/HSP.
126 J. H. Powell bemoans Dickinson™s entire performance in “John Dickinson as President of Penn-
sylvania.” Flower agrees (John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary, 233) but ¬nds a bit
more to condone. Alexander Graydon remembers the era as charitably as Powell. See Gray-
don, Memoirs of a Life Chie¬‚y Passed in Pennsylvania within the Last Sixty Years (Harrisburg,
1811), esp. 311.
Critical Period in Pennsylvania 275

have swept into of¬ce and effected the legal and political changes he had long
advocated. But owing to several factors, few of his goals were accomplished,
or they did not turn out as he hoped. One of these factors was the climate and
circumstances in the state when he took of¬ce. Although some Pennsylvanians
hoped that, with Dickinson™s election, “the Malignant, and Envideous Spirit,
which too much Possessed the Opposition is nearly Silenced, and in a Short
time . . . will be intirely extirpated,” Dickinson™s terms in of¬ce can be char-
acterized by constant partisan bickering about the distribution and enactment
of power in the government. So troublesome were they that John Jay believed
“[i]t will not be [Dickinson™s] fault if Pennsylvania does not derive advantages
from his administration.”127 But the “Dickinson administration” is a bit of a
misnomer, which speaks to another obstacle to his leadership. The president
of the state was merely the head of an executive body, itself at the mercy of
the powerful popular assembly, and limited in the changes it could implement
by a Council of Censors. Usually, the most the president could do was to side
with the faction whose position he preferred.
Although the Republicans retained control over the executive and the repre-
sentative branches, the Council of Censors, the body that alone could determine
whether there would be constitutional amendment, was still controlled by the
Constitutionalists. That faction also continued to wield enough power in the
Assembly to obstruct reform efforts that their opponents might attempt. When
issues arose such as jurisdiction in criminal proceedings, managing disputes on
the frontier, and changing offensive laws in the state, the president and Execu-
tive Council, the Assembly, and the Censors hurled accusations at one another
based on differing interpretations of the constitution, or, in some cases, they
simply tried to circumvent the faulty process of amendment.128 They charged
one another with instituting “innovations,” “deviations,” and presuming to
prescribe laws and practices “where the constitution does not.”129 In most
instances, Dickinson was caught in the middle, powerless to effect change, and
his long-time goal to amend the constitution remained unful¬lled. From this
experience, his views about a properly balanced government must have been
con¬rmed.
The stagnant situation was similar with regard to the relations between the
state and the central government. With the relative power of the two govern-
ments undetermined and their jurisdictions unclear, disputes of various sorts
were dif¬cult to resolve. Two incidents demonstrate the weaknesses of the
1777 version of the Articles of Confederation. First, the Wyoming Contro-
versy raised two issues “ the management of Western lands and mediation

127 John Jay to John Vaughn, February 15, 1783, quoted in Flower, John Dickinson, Conservative
Revolutionary, 211.
128 See, for example, Brunhouse™s description of the Assembly™s failed attempt to bypass the
Censors by passing a law to repeal the test act (The Counter-Revolution in Pennsylvania, 154).
129 For a litany of constitutional disputes, see Dickinson™s “Reply to the Censors,” January“June
1784, Pennsylvania Government Documents, 1764“84, JDP/LCP, and “Minutes of the Council
of Censors, 1783“1784” in PA 3rd ser., vol. 10: 787“809.
276 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

of disputes between states, both matters the Dickinson Plan had addressed.
The controversy had begun before independence was declared and involved
disputed lands on the frontier. At different points, settlers from Pennsylvania
and Connecticut contested violently for the right to settle the western lands.
In question was to which state the lands belonged and therefore whether land
titles purchased in other states were valid. The Pennsylvania Assembly, sym-
pathetic to the speculators, wanted to send troops to remove the settlers and
con¬scate their corn, thus leaving them destitute. Dickinson denounced such a
plan and struggled on the settlers™ behalf with the Assembly. When the matter
was decided by a congressional committee in 1782 in favor of Pennsylvania,
many settlers from other states lost the land they had bought. The settlers also
petitioned their representatives in Congress, who declined to act further. The
episode con¬rmed Dickinson™s early concerns addressed in his Plan.130
A second incident was one of the de¬ning moments of Dickinson™s presi-
dency, an event little discussed by scholars, but with enormous national implica-
tions.131 The Mutiny of 1783 highlights two themes “ the relative power of the
national and state governments when in con¬‚ict and Dickinson™s preferences
for peaceful over violent resolution of con¬‚icts. The incident, simply described,
was that after the war, Congress had proposed to disband the Continental
Army and send the men home without pay. With most of these men dependent
on this pay to satisfy immediate needs for food and clothing, they angered and
threatened Congress and the Pennsylvania government. Congress looked to
Dickinson to solve the problem; but their solution was not his. They demanded
that he call out the Pennsylvania militia to intimidate the Continentals and put
down any action by them through force of arms. Dickinson refused, believing
that if troops “come into this Place, or very near to it, there will be Danger
of the public Peace being again disturbed.”132 Instead Dickinson preferred to
negotiate with the men. He traveled to the camp and, in dramatic fashion,
leapt upon a table and, as he described, “I then addressed them, reminded
them of their fault, “ unprecedented and heinous, “ approved the evidence of

130 Still´ and Ford, Life and Writings, 1: 247“51; Flower, John Dickinson, Conservative Revolu-
e
tionary, 215“17. Merrill Jensen, The New Nation: A history of the United States during the
Confederation, 1781“1789 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950), 335“36; Lester J. Cappon,
et al., eds., The Atlas of Early American History: The Revolutionary Era, 1760“1790 (Prince-
ton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 62, 131. Kenneth R. Bowling, “Biography of
William Maclay,” Bowling and Helen E. Veit, eds. The Diary of William Maclay (Baltimore:
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), 435“36
131 The following discussion draws from and agrees with Kenneth R. Bowling™s interpretation of
the incident in “New Light on the Philadelphia Mutiny of 1783: Federal-State Confrontation
at the Close of the War for Independence,” PMHB vol. 101 (1977), 446“49. Other works
that treat it include Still´ and Ford, Life and Writings, 1: 243“47; Powell, “John Dickinson
e
as President,” 266; Flower, John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary, 217“25; Varnum
Lansing Collins, Continental Congress at Princeton (Princeton, NJ: University Library, 1908),
Chapters 1“3; JCC, Chapter 24.
132 John Dickinson, June 24, 1783, Government Documents, Revolutionary and Early National
Periods, 1765“1788, n.d., JDP/LCP.
Critical Period in Pennsylvania 277

their dutiful disposition, insisted on their instantly putting themselves under
the command of their of¬cers and yielding to them a proper obedience.”133
His sense of the situation proved accurate and his methods effectual; the
men acquiesced and the mutiny was averted. But the damage, as some have
portrayed it, had been done.134 Most of Congress was furious with Dickinson
for his alleged lack of ¬rmness and decisiveness. The ¬nal result was a signi¬cant
change in the nation: Congress, feeling vulnerable both in body and reputation,
removed to Princeton, and then New York, and ultimately the District of
Columbia. Being in a district that it could control rather than a state with
a stubbornly peaceful governor would, they believed, allowed Congress to
protect itself better.
While some historians have seen this move as a loss for Philadelphia and
Dickinson™s failure to manage the situation effectively, others have interpreted
it as an instance of Dickinson™s resolve not to be cowed by the more hawkish
members of Congress. More importantly, however, the incident and its out-
come points to larger issues beyond Dickinson™s resolve for peace. It demon-
strated the need for a strong central government to which the people could look
for resolution of their dif¬culties, and one that would honor its obligations. In
the midst of this controversy, Dickinson wrote to Charles Thomson, “We anx-
iously desire, that instead of being satis¬ed with partial provisions, [a strong
Federal Council] may lead to as perfect an establishment of the Union as the
wisdom of America can desire.”135 In his last term of of¬ce, he spoke plainly to
the Assembly, saying, “It has been demonstrated, that, in order that [Congress]
may provide in the best Manner for the Honor, the Defence, the Harmony,
and Welfare of these States, their Hands ought rather to be strengthened, than
weakened.”136


The Annapolis Convention of 1786
Over the last few years, Dickinson had hardly been the only one who perceived
the need for drastic change in the central government. By the autumn of 1786,
it was clear to many that the Articles of Confederation as they had been
passed were failing to cement the Union. The events in Pennsylvania, as well
as similar and worse incidents in other states, proved that the concerns about
union and safety that had prompted Dickinson to write the initial draft of the
Articles as he did were justi¬ed. Trade was not regulated effectively, foreign
affairs were not managed properly, many disputes between states were not
mediated, and civil liberties were not protected. The leaders in other states
were gradually awakening to the same concerns. They declared that the Articles
133 Dickinson quoted in Still´ and Ford, Life and Writings, 1: 246.
e
134 See Powell, “John Dickinson as President,” 266.
135 John Dickinson to Charles Thomson, July 12, 1783, quoted in Flower, John Dickinson, Con-
servative Revolutionary, 237.
136 John Dickinson, Message to the General Assembly, February 1, 1785, Pennsylvania Govern-
ment Documents, 1764“84, JDP/LCP.
278 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

were “imbecile”137 and the cause of “the embarrassments which Characterize
the present State of our National Affairs, foreign and domestic.”138 When the
delegates from ¬ve states met in Annapolis, their ¬rst point of business was
to elect a chairman. In what can only be considered a tacit recognition of
Dickinson™s earlier foresight, he was elected unanimously. In the report from
the Convention to the states and Congress, he “decline[d] an enumeration of
those national Circumstances” that prompted the convention, citing that “it
would be an useless intrusion of facts and observations” that would more
appropriately be discussed elsewhere. The report therefore recommended that
“speedy measures may be taken to effect a general Meeting of the States in a
future Convention.”139

137 Rakove, “Legacy,” 45“66, 45.
138 John Dickinson, “Report of the Annapolis Convention.” Sept 14, 1786, Simon Gratz Auto-
graph Collection, HSP.
139 Ibid.
8

“The Political Rock of Our Salvation”
The U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson




Historians have not considered the Quaker presence at the creation of the U.S.
Constitution, although there is good reason for doing so. As we have seen,
Quakers were a powerful force in Pennsylvania, and they disseminated their
theologico-political thought aggressively and, in some regards, successfully.
Although at the Revolution, the Society of Friends as a body had withdrawn
from formal politics, they remained active on a grassroots level, and they
retained a signi¬cant measure of political in¬‚uence. In debates over the rat-
i¬cation of the Constitution, delegates to the Convention speculated on the
position of Friends, their views on such speci¬cs as liberty of conscience, slav-
ery, and religious tests for of¬ce; their past in¬‚uence in Pennsylvania; and their
future in¬‚uence on the state and the federal governments.1 Moreover, because
of their strong presence as the governors of provincial Pennsylvania, there
remained a residual in¬‚uence even at the highest level of government.
As far as religious in¬‚uences on the Constitution are concerned, historians
have given most of their attention to reformed Calvinism.2 But there is more
evidence of a direct, albeit limited Quaker in¬‚uence on this important moment
in history than there is of a Puritan, deistic, or Evangelical one. John Dickin-
son, with his strengthening Quaker convictions, was among the most important
participants at the Convention. He was part of what Jack Rakove calls the “cru-
cial nucleus” of Framers.3 Forrest McDonald suggests that Dickinson™s thought
“may well be regarded as [a model] for the American political tradition.”4 The
argument here agrees with both assertions and seeks to elaborate on them.

1 For a discussion and documentary history of the Quakers™ position on the Constitution with a
focus on the slavery question, see “Appendix III” in John Kaminski and Gaspare J. Saldino, et al.,
eds., The Documentary History of the Rati¬cation of the Constitution, vol. 14, Commentaries

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