<< . .

. 33
( : 44)

. . >>

on the Constitution Public and Private (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1983),
2 See Chapter 2, fn. 4.
3 Rakove, Beginnings, 377.
4 Forrest McDonald, “Introduction,” in Letters, x.

280 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

Because of Dickinson™s stature as elder statesman in the Convention, Rakove
notes that “his views would have to be taken seriously [by other Framers], for
he was one of only a handful of colonial leaders whose personal position could
substantially affect public opinion.”5 Importantly, Dickinson™s personal posi-
tion had evolved over the Revolutionary years to be a more overt expression
of traditional political Quakerism than before. In the foregoing chapters, we
have seen that according to Quaker political theory, God ordained the civil
polity, and it functioned as the ecclesiastical polity writ large. When study-
ing Scripture, Friends followed an interpretation of the Greek ekkl¯ sia that
meant political assembly as well as church. The way the two establishments
were ordered and the processes and principles by which they operated were,
according to Quakers, fundamentally the same. They could be separated and
the political theory secularized, but for most Quaker thinkers, they were not.
Although Dickinson™s language and ideas can be and were translated into a
secular context, by this time in his life he thought of them in terms similar to
those of his Quaker forebears “ as realms overlapping. He wrote,
There is a Relation between the Principles of Religion and the Principles of Civil Society “
and it is very observable that many prophets of the New Testament, that in their
primary sense referr to the Church, with equal propriety referr to political constitutional
Establishments “ and those Maxims of Religion will ever be formed by Experience to be
Maxims of the [government?] Policy “ such as these “Be ye obedient one to another.”
“Submit yourselves one to another.” “Ye are members one of another.” All of them
directly pointing to that benignant Communion of Rights and Bene¬ts, that is the soul
of true Republicanism. In short, Christianity is a system formed by Divine Wisdom, and
communicated to us by Divine Goodness, for teaching and enabling us to do the least
thing with the best affections. Our Savior lived and died for this End.7

He thought that adherence to these republican“Christian principles “bind those
who believe them to one another in a kind of sacred union.”8 Dickinson would
have agreed with Quakers of his time who equated “undevout” behavior with
The following analysis of Dickinson™s theologico-political thought is not
meant to supplant, but merely supplement, several earlier studies of the secular
interpretations of his ideas.10 Clearly, Quakerism was not the only tradition

5 Rakove, Beginnings 28.
6 Barclay Anarchy, 32. See also Nancy Isenberg, “˜Pillars in the Same Temple and Priests of the
Same Worship™: Women™s Rights and the Politics of Church and State in Antebellum America,”
The Journal of American History vol. 85, no. 1 (1998), 98“128, 98, 101“02.
7 John Dickinson, untitled document, n.d., in John Dickinson, 1681“1882, n.d., Ser. 1. b. Political,
1774“1807, n.d., RRL/HSP.
8 John Dickinson to R. R. Livingston, n.d., American Prose Writers, Roberts Autograph Collec-
tion, HQC.
9 Scott, Journal of the Life, Travels, and Gospel Labours, 228.
10 A few brief works that deal with Dickinson™s constitutional thought and his role during the
convention are M. Susan Power, “John Dickinson after 1776: The Fabius Letters”; J. H. Powell,
“John Dickinson and the Constitution”; Leon deValinger, Jr., “John Dickinson and the Fed-
eral Constitution,” Delaware History vol. 22, no. 4 (1987), 299-308; Forrest McDonald and
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 281

on which he drew. His language exhibits a mixture of some, though not all of
those strains of thought that were current among his peers in politics “ classic
republicanism, liberalism, Scottish Enlightenment thought, and the common
law tradition. And although some have speculated that his religious language
was simply a “rhetorical strategy,” implying, perhaps, a lack of genuine feel-
ing. His sincerity in this regard was not less than when he used secular political
language. Dickinson believed that political principles were derived from and
undergirded by religious ones. The following discussion of Dickinson™s phi-
losophy will be presented as a transparency imposed upon the template of the
Quaker theory laid out in Chapters 1 and 2. In other words, it will be structured
according to the same political creation myth and, through some repetition of
the major points in those initial chapters, will show how Dickinson™s constitu-
tionalism comported with traditional Quaker ideas of the form and function
of a constitution.
In 1676 Robert Barclay wrote The Anarchy of the Ranters to convince
recalcitrant Quakers to accept the new church government that leading Friends
were establishing. The way to know a rightly constituted ekkl¯ sia, he wrote, “is
by considering the Principles, & Grounds upon which [the people] are gathered
together, the Nature of that Hierarchy & Order they have among themselves,
the Way and Method they take to uphold it, and the Bottom upon which it
standeth.”11 These were also the issues Dickinson addressed when convincing
Americans to accept the Constitution, most notably in the Fabius Letters, on
which this discussion will largely draw.12 But more than simply addressing
these issues, we will see how through the style of his argument Dickinson was
modeling a Quakerly mode of civic engagement.

Constituting the People
For Dickinson, a polity must be and, in the case of America, was constituted
otherwise than merely on paper. And his understanding of how man entered
political society was largely the same as the way most Americans understood
it, but with subtle differences in process and emphases. While most political
thinkers of the day agreed that joining society, forming a union, was “primarily
a matter of reason,”13 Dickinson believed that to unite was to obey a divine

Ellen Shapiro McDonald, “John Dickinson and the Constitution,” in Requiem: Variations on
Eighteenth-Century Themes (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988), 85-103; Gregory S.
Ahern, “The Spirit of American Constitutionalism: John Dickinson™s Fabius Letters,” Human-
itas vol. 11, no. 2 (1998), 57“76. Most recently, see Robert G. Natelson, “The Constitutional
Contributions of John Dickinson,” Penn State Law Review vol. 108 (2004), 415“77.
11 Barclay, Anarchy, 33.
12 For a general discussion of the publication of the Letters, see John Kaminski and Gaspare
J. Saldino, eds. The Documentary History of the Rati¬cation of the Constitution, vol. 17,
Commentaries on the Constitution Public and Private (Madison: State Historical Society of
Wisconsin, 1995), 74“80.
13 John C. Ranney, “The Bases of American Federalism,” WMQ 3rd ser., vol. 3, no. 1 (1946),
1“35, 1.
282 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

command, a “sacred law.”14 Like Locke, he held that society was ¬rst occa-
sioned “by the command of our Creator.”15 God, said Dickinson, “designed
men for society, because otherwise they cannot be happy.”16 But more than
that, God “demands that we should seek for happiness in his way, and not
our own,” which meant joining one another on speci¬c terms and with a
particular mode of engagement.17 Moreover, reason was not man™s primary
impetus for joining; the “common sense of mankind,” Dickinson explained,
merely “agrees.”18 This original constitution ordained by God was prior to and
independent of any written documents codifying that union. “[T]hose corner
stones of liberty,” he wrote, “were not obtained by a bill of rights, or any other
records, and have not been made and cannot be preserved by them.”19 Rather,
ten years before Jefferson wrote that “all men are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable rights,” Dickinson asserted that “Rights are created
in us by the decrees of Providence.”20
On the surface, Jefferson and Dickinson seem to agree, but as we have seen
from our earlier discussion, Quaker thinkers did not usually speak of natural
rights. While many thinkers of all persuasions, including Penn and Dickinson
on occasion, con¬‚ated the languages of rights and referred interchangeably
to natural or God-given rights, for Quakers, who more often spoke in terms
of providence, there was ultimately a difference. If the divine and the natural
were the same (an idea many Quakers rejected outright), they were much more
closely related in Quaker thought than in Jefferson™s, with nature not over-
shadowing divinity. Dickinson clearly did not subscribe to the deist theology
of other Founders. He explained that “[w]e claim [rights] from a higher source,
from the King of kings, and Lord of all the earth . . . They are born within us;
exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power, without
taking our lives.”21 Because they came from God rather than nature, man, or
his history of established institutions, “rights must be preserved by soundness
of sense and honesty of heart. Compared with these, what are a bill of rights,
or any characters drawn upon parchment, those frail rememberances?”22 If

14 John Dickinson, The Letters of Fabius in 1788 on the Federal Constitution (Kila, MT: Kessinger
Publishing, 2004), 114. For the sake of accessibility of this work to others, I have chosen to use
a facsimile reprint published by a modern press.
15 Ibid., 13. On the religious underpinnings of Locke™s thought, see Dunn, The Political Thought
of John Locke.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid.
18 Ibid., 17.
19 Ibid., 24.
20 John Dickinson, Address to . . . Barbados, 4.
21 Ibid.
22 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 24. This attitude toward written documents does not, however,
as Powell has argued, translate into a fundamental distrust of written constitutions. As we have
seen, Quakers argued for the importance of written laws, but that the spirit, rather than the
letter, was the essence of them (“John Dickinson and the Constitution,” 7).
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 283

this seems to us an overly ¬ne distinction, that Dickinson made it was in keep-
ing with Quaker thinking about rights. Such subtleties caused contemporary
and historical criticism that his work consisted of “¬ne-spun theories and hair-
splitting distinctions”23 and that he had the “Vice of Re¬ning too much.”24
But if his thought has been misunderstood, it is because his critics did not care
to understand these distinctions or the complex theories and arrangement to
which they gave rise. It is mainly this difference between the natural or human
and the divine that distinguished the Quaker theory of government and their
process of legal discernment from others.

Discernment of the Fundamental Law
Once men have come together, their ¬rst task is to determine the fundamental
law by which they will live. Quakers believed that God™s law could only be
known through a process of collective discernment of his will. All individuals
must come together and worship (or, in secular terms, deliberate) as a group “
to combine their individual understandings of God™s Light “ to know what
direction to move in the world. This process worked the same way whether
the polity was ecclesiastical or civil. Everyone had a role to play. Dickinson
wrote, “What concerns us all should be considered by all.”25 But there are
dif¬culties with such a process of discernment; the people may be misled by false
guides. “Men,” says Dickinson, “have suffered so severely by being deceived
upon subjects of the highest import, those of religion and freedom, that truth
becomes in¬nitely valuable to them, not as a matter of curious speculation,
but of bene¬cial practice “ A spirit of inquiry is excited, information diffused,
judgment strengthened.”26 There were several reliable ways of knowing the
fundamental principles of government. It was not necessarily formal education,
although this too was important. Rather, Dickinson put them in this order:
“divine Goodness, common sense, experience, and some acquaintance with the
constitution.” These, he said, “teach us a few salutary truths on this important
For Quakers, the primary guide was God™s Light in the conscience, the
“divine Goodness” of revelation and Scripture. In the political realm, the pro-
cess of knowing God™s law in the conscience was synteresis. Dickinson, how-
ever, did not use this word. Nor did he refer much to the idea of “the Light” as
a way of knowing. He hoped that the nation would be animated by an “enlight-
ened spirit” and that the “body will be enabled with the clearest light that can

23 John C. Miller, Origins of the American Revolution (Boston: Little, Brown and Company,
1943), 259. An explicit discussion from a Quaker theorist of the distinction between natural
law and divine law can be found in the work of Jonathan Dymond, Essays on the Principles of
Morality, 322“33.
24 Edward Rutledge to John Jay, June 29, 1776, Delegates, 4: 338.
25 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 3.
26 Ibid., 4.
27 John Dickinson, Essay on the constitutional power, 34.
284 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

be afforded every part of it” to make the right decisions for the nation.28 But
these were vague references and might be taken for ordinary usage of the word.
They would likely not have alerted anyone to Dickinson™s Quaker sympathies.
And that would have been a wise political move. In 1788 when Dickinson
wrote as Fabius, many people still despised and distrusted Quakers as loyal-
ists and traitors to the American cause. Additionally, even though Dickinson
was a trusted patriot to some, he was still under suspicion by many. Had he
expressed his sentiments in characteristically Quaker language, recognizable to
anyone who had spent time in Pennsylvania, he might not have been heard as
widely. But more than that, he was concerned not to overemphasize revelation “
a concern that was no doubt heightened by the recent rise of pietism with its
rejection of rationalism and encouragement of enthusiasm, something of which
Quakers disapproved.29 Moreover, there had always been different strands of
Quakerism that emphasized either Scripture or the Light.30 It is clear, as evinced
in the following discussion, that Dickinson believed that inward revelation was
a key to knowing, but he did not privilege it over the Bible. “[N]o divine or
inward Communication at this Day,” he said, “do or can contradict that tes-
timony.”31 He focused therefore on the other guides that Quakers had always
used to know God™s will, and ones that all Americans would accept, especially
the Bible. It was safe and would speak loudly to the ordinary people he was
trying to reach. The Bible, he proclaimed, was an “Inestimable truth! which
our Maker in his providence, enables us, not only to talk and write about, but
to adopt in practice of vast extent, and of instructive example.”32 He counseled
that it “would do much more, if duly regarded; and might lead the objectors
against it to happiness, if they would value it as they should.”33 “The Bible,”
he wrote in his notes, “is the most republican Book that ever was written.”34
As we might expect of a political thinker in the Age of Enlightenment,
history and reason were important tools in the search for Truth. But these
things were not disconnected from God for Dickinson. “It is our duty,” he said,
“humbly, constantly, fervently, to implore the protection of our most gracious
maker . . . and incessantly strive, as we are commanded, to recommend our
selves to that protection, by ˜doing his will,™ diligently exercising our reason in

28 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 51, 48.
29 Frederick Tolles, “Enthusiasm versus Quietism: The Philadelphia Quakers and the Great Awak-
ening,” PMHB vol. 69 (1945), 26“49.
30 Recall, for example, the Wilkinson-Story Controversy discussed in Chapter 1 and the Keithian
Controversy in Chapter 3.
31 John Dickinson, “An Essay Towards the Religious Instruction of Youth,” n.d., Ser. 1. e. Mis-
cellaneous, 1761“1804, n.d., RRL/HSP.
32 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 13.
33 Ibid., 25.
34 John Dickinson, notes, n.d., Ser. 1. e. Miscellaneous, 1761“1804, n.d., RRL/HSP. Robert W.
Hoffert claims that there was minimal, if any, in¬‚uence of religion on the Founders™ ideas of
virtue and that “it is debatable whether or not there even is an active, positive form of political
virtue available within biblical Christianity” (Politics of Tensions, 69).
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 285

ful¬lling the purposes for which that and our existence were given to us.”35
But neither was reason a failsafe of good government, as many Enlightenment
¬gures and common lawyers held. The Light Dickinson referred to was not the
light of reason. Like all Quaker thinkers, he believed that reason was suspect;
it was of man, and therefore it was corrupt or corruptible. As he famously said
in the Constitutional Convention:

Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us. It was not Reason that
discovered the singular & admirable mechanism of the English Constitution. It was not
Reason that discovered or even could have discovered the odd & in the eye of those who
are governed by reason, the absurd mode of trial by Jury. Accidents probably produced
these discoveries, and experience has given sanction to them. This is then our guide.36

This quotation has been used repeatedly by those seeking to explain Dick-
inson™s thought and the thought of the Founding generation in general. But
we might be misled here if we took Dickinson™s use of the words “experience”
and “accident” at face value. Experience for Dickinson was similar, though not
identical, to how most lawyers understood it.37 It was generally understood to
mean the customs of the common law proven reasonable and valid through
induction or practice. The common law was largely the history of reasonable
practice that had become custom. This is certainly a part of what Dickin-
son meant by “experience.” Experience was history, and Dickinson advocated
reliance on “history sacred and profane.”38 But while Quakers did use secular
history as a guide for their political direction, Scripture was the most important
history book. They considered it “[a] faithful Historical Account of the Act-
ings of God™s People in divers Ages.”39 Dickinson likewise believed that “wise
admired Instructors of the World have modestly cloathed their Lessons in the
Language of Fables.”40
Apart from physical experiences that are recorded in human history, how-
ever, we should also consider that Dickinson included spiritual experience as
well “ revelation, or the experience of God in one™s conscience. This, contrary
to common law theory, would be nonrational induction and a divine basis for
legal developments. Dickinson wrote, “The great question as to reason is this “

35 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 28.
36 Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press, 1937), 2: 278.
37 Forrest and Ellen Shapiro McDonald give a good account of Dickinson™s understanding of
history and experience in “John Dickinson, Founding Father.” My analysis does not disagree
with theirs, it merely deepens it. See also H. Trevor Colbourn, “John Dickinson, Historical
38 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 18.
39 Barclay, Apology, 4.
40 John Dickinson, “Notes for a Speech (III),” in James H. Hutson, ed., Supplement to Max
Farrand™s The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven, CT: Yale University
Press, 1987), 137“38. The example he gives in these notes is the biblical fable of the lamb lying
down with the lion.
286 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

whether reason since the introduction of sin into the world is suf¬cient to dis-
cover our duty and incline us to enforce its performance. Denied.” It must be
paired with “revelation.”41 This is in clear contrast to other deeply religious
men such as John Adams, who derided the idea that in making a constitu-
tion men “were in any degree under the inspiration of heaven.”42 Therefore,
Dickinson departed from other common law thinkers in his interpretation of
experience.43 In keeping with this understanding of it, if Dickinson™s use of the
word “accident” to describe the advent of trial by jury here is confusing, Fabius
clari¬ed when he said that trial by jury is a “Heaven-taught institution.”44 It
was then merely supported by reasonable practice.
Insofar as reasonable experience or custom was the foundation of the com-
mon law, then, Dickinson distrusted it. For Quakers, experience and custom
were not necessarily the same thing. Friends could and often did make a distinc-
tion between custom as it was based on reasonable experimentation on the one
hand, and experience, as being primarily revelation, on the other. If the reason-
able customs established through worldly experience were valid, they should
comport with revelation. Customs based solely on practical reason were dan-
gerous in that they led to the establishment of pernicious traditions “ the
41 John Dickinson, notes, n.d., Ser. 1. e. Miscellaneous, 1761“1804, n.d., RRL/HSP. Elsewhere he
wrote, “Revelation is positive,” and “Reason” is used only after “matured Meditation.” John
Dickinson to his cousin, Senator George Logan of Pennsylvania, 10th of the 9th mo. 1806,
Maria Dickinson Logan Collection, HSP.
42 John Adams, Defense of the Constitutions of Government in the United States of America
(1788) cited in John Witte, Jr., “˜A Most Mild and Equitable Establishment of Religion™: John
Adams and the Massachusetts Experiment,” in J. Hutson, ed., Religion and the New Republic:
Faith in the Founding of America (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Little¬eld, 2000), 1“40, 16.
43 An interesting comparison might be made with Dickinson™s understanding of experience or
tradition and history and Edmund Burke™s. Their thinking looks very similar “ a sort of con-
servatism, a suspicion of reason, and a respect for history “ but there are subtle differences.
On Burke™s position, see J. G. A. Pocock, “Burke and the Ancient Constitution,” in his Pol-
itics, Language, & Time: Essays on Political Thought and History (Chicago: The University
of Chicago Press, 1989), 202“32. It would seem the most important factor that accounts for
the divergences between the two men™s thought is Dickinson™s inclusion of revelation as part
of his legal epistemology. In a private dialogue with Locke, Dickinson wrote, “If, as seems to
be agreed by the advocates for the Powers of Reason, the soul be furnished with all the Ideas
it can naturally have, by the senses “ and, by re¬‚ecting on its own operations about the Ideas
thus furnished “ or, ˜in one Word, by Experience™ [cites Locke™s Essay on Understanding] “
its Knowledge must be proportioned to its ˜Experience.™ But, before this ˜Experience™ could be
extended to the farthest Limits in the Discovery of Truth, the mind might rest satis¬ed with
an inferior ˜Experience,™ as imagining it to be the most that could be attained. Reason is not
“Reason is not infallible. Such errors once adopted, the its progress of Reason would
thenceforward be obstructed by the Embarrassments of Prejudices. In Reality, by Mistakes of
this kind, Men have extremely injured themselves, without a probability of ever recovering
from their Delusions. Therefore, it is highly improbable that God would have left Men to this
fallible Guide for ¬nding Mistakes and discovering his Duties. All Religion is revealed.” John
Dickinson, religious notes, n.d., Ser. 2. Miscellaneous, 1761“1801, n.d., RRL/HSP.
44 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 22.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 287

blind acceptance of practices that were enemies of the truth. Quakers equated
custom with ritual “ the sort of ritual that followed the letter of the law,
but killed the spirit, much like sacraments in the high church. It was a form
without function and with harmful consequences. Over the course of decades
of persecution, they had proven that religious dissent and toleration “ things
that seemed irrational and dangerous to many Englishmen and therefore not
a part of custom or law “ were actually not only salutary in a polity, but also
constitutional. As the Farmer, Dickinson wrote, “Custom 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 detesta-
tion.”45 Because of this, Quakers distrusted the common law, much of which
had no basis in the Light, apostolic history, or, necessarily, reason.
These guides were meant to facilitate a process of collective deliberation that
would encourage accurate discernment of the fundamental law. After studying
these guides and coming to their understanding of the law, there was an obliga-
tion on every individual to speak should God require it. Barclay said that man
must speak if “by his Master he were commanded and allowed to do so.”46
Moreover, they had the obligation to be “Discerners of Evils” who “reprove
and warn” their brethren of transgressions from the law.47 “[I]ndividuals,”
explained Dickinson, “may injure a whole society, by not declaring their sen-
timents. It is therefore not only their right, but their duty, to declare them.”48
This injunction holds true regardless of how unwelcome the words may be to
the recipient “ even ministers religious and civil “ however much the individ-
ual himself does not want to express them, or the unpleasant consequences
he might face because of them. There is a duty, said Dickinson, “to testify
of [God™s] Truth even against those whom he made instruments in preserving
them.”49 He had repeatedly upheld his duty in this regard through the major
controversies of which he was a part “ the campaign for royal government, the
Revolution, and the constitutional turmoil in postindependence Pennsylvania “
and endured harsh treatment from his countrymen as a result. Now, in the
debates over the Constitution, he was once again giving his own “imperfect
testimony.”50 Speaking, however, was not the only obligation; as we shall see
momentarily, it is important to note that if man were not commanded by his
Master to speak, he “ought not to open his mouth.”51
In order that all might participate in the discernment process, Dickinson
believed that all needed to be able to understand the issues at hand. There-
fore, one important Quaker testimony was plainness “ clarity, simplicity, and

45 Ibid., 71. On other Americans™ acceptance of custom, see Reid, Authority to Tax, 181“93.
46 Barclay, Apology, 365“66.
47 Barclay, Anarchy, 56“57.
48 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 3.
49 Dickinson, “Religious Instruction of Youth.”
50 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 54.
51 Barclay, Apology, 365.
288 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

honesty in all things, including speech. They wore plain clothing; used thee
and thou; and refused to swear oaths, engage in haggling over prices, or use
frivolous greetings such as “good day.” They demanded that laws and other
of¬cial political proceedings be conducted and written down in English so all
could have knowledge of them.52 In this important matter of the rati¬cation of
the Constitution “ this “plain-dealing work”53 “ Dickinson thought it impor-

<< . .

. 33
( : 44)

. . >>