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tant that everyone in the nation, not only the elite, be conversant with the
issues under consideration. “What he wishes,” wrote Fabius of himself, “is to
simplify the subject, so as to facilitate the inquiries of his fellow citizens.”54
Where the Federalist Papers described and defended the Constitution in sophis-
ticated detail, Dickinson took on the task, as he did in his Farmer™s Letters,
of addressing the “unpolished but honest-hearted” Americans.55 Where the
elite were concerned, another sort of plainness must be used. In his Apology,
Barclay had written to King Charles II that Quakers had “faithfully discharged
their consciences towards thee without ¬‚attering words.”56 Fabius now went
farther to say that “¬‚attery is treason” in the momentous affairs of state.57
This popular decision-making process was as important as the ends for
which it was used. It determined whether or not the discernment was accurate
and, therefore, whether the decisions reached by the body were binding. In a
Quaker meeting, when the discernment process was functioning correctly, the
meeting was led directly by the “infallible spirit” of God. In this way, God
had sovereignty by proxy through the people. In secular terms, we think of
this simply as popular sovereignty. If the process functioned correctly and the
discernment was accurate, the people were bound by the decisions made by the
group. If, on the other hand, the process were ¬‚awed, the people would not
be bound, and the meeting should not move forward. It was only recently that
other Americans began thinking of popular sovereignty as the Quakers did, as
the “voice of God.”58


52 All of these practices were for the same end. Not swearing oaths had to do with not taking God™s
name in vain, but also was a testimony for their honesty. Similarly, as merchants, Quakers set
prices and refused to haggle on the principle that it was dishonest “ not plain speaking about
the true cost “ and caused goods to be either under- or overvalued. On honesty in business, see
Tolles, Meeting House and Counting House, 58“61.
53 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 12.
54 Ibid., 4.
55 Ibid., 18. See also the second of his Farmer™s Letters, which he addresses particularly to those
“whose employments in life may have prevented your attending to the consideration of some
points that are of great public importance” (Letters, 38). Dickinson™s concern for the partic-
ipation of the lower sort in the polity, evinced here and later in this chapter, de¬es Holton™s
generalization in Unruly Americans that the Founders were entirely antidemocratic. While Dick-
inson certainly was concerned to stem the excesses of democracy that had led to the abuses of
rights in Pennsylvania, he had no desire to silence the people or to pronounce a “slur on the
capacities of ordinary citizens” (278).
56 Barclay, Apology, v.
57 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 13.
58 Morgan, Inventing the People, 13; and Jensen, The Articles of Confederation, 4.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 289

Political Unity
Although unity of the political body was an ideal commonly expressed in
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for Quakers it was more than an
expedient measure for the defense of property, the defensibility of policy, or
even as assurance of spiritual chosenness. It was, rather, an organizing principle
that expressed a commitment to the inclusive spiritual process that should
animate the polity. Legal discernment could come only through the unity of
the body. Quakers call this unity “corporate witness.”59 Because unity was so
important, how individuals conducted themselves in the discernment process
was crucial. Beyond simply being obliged to speak plainly and honestly, one™s
mode of delivery was equally important. To ¬nd the true fundamental law,
Dickinson said, “Before this tribunal of the People, let every one freely speak,
what he really thinks, but with so sincere a reverence for the cause he ventures
to discuss, as to use the utmost caution, lest he should lead into any errors, upon
a point of such sacred concern as the public happiness.”60 One of the greatest
errors man could commit was intemperance in public discourse. “Hot, rash,
disorderly proceedings,” Dickinson warned in his Farmer™s Letters, “injure the
reputation of the people as to wisdom, valor, and virtue, without procuring the
least bene¬t.”61 It could disrupt the very means by which the law was discerned.
The goal was twofold “ accuracy in determining the law and preservation
of concord in the group. Dickinson therefore counseled, “May our national
character be “ an animated moderation.”62 His Quakerly moderation was a
means of gentle persuasion to preserve unity. It was neither coercive nor a way
to disengage for the sake of merely conserving the existing system. Rather it
was a way to engage more intimately with the community in order to facilitate
greater understanding and avoid oppression of one faction by another. In this
process, there would be more security for the rights they would achieve and
less risk of losing everything in a schism or revolution. Barclay wrote that
one must not “break that Bond of Love and Peace” that held the meeting
together.63 Thus agreement and harmony should take precedence over dissent
if it threatens to disunite the body. “In political affairs,” wrote Fabius, “is it not
more safe and advantageous, for all to agree in measures that may not be the
best, than to quarrel among themselves, what are best?”64 As Barclay asserted,
“The Honor of Truth [is] prostrated by Divisions.”65 Dickinson thus chose to
speak to Americans as “Fabius,” the Roman politician who was known for



59 Braithwaite, The Second Period of Quakerism, 345.
60 Letters, 4.
61 Ibid., 17.
62 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 53.
63 Barclay, Anarchy, 57.
64 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 25.
65 Barclay, Anarchy, 20.
290 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

preserving the state through his cautious methods, with the intention to act as
a model for the process he advocated.66
Signi¬cantly, this emphasis on unity did not preclude dissent. Dissent within
the body was desirable, but a matter to be handled very delicately. The onus
was on the dissenter ¬rst to deliver his message, to express his understanding
of the law or the correct decision to make concerning the polity. Second, he
must deliver it in a way that was as inoffensive as possible. And third, even
if the body chose another path against his counsel, he must submit his will to
that of the collective rather than try to obstruct it. Finally, he must support the
body in its goals. Barclay explained that the speaker must have “Forbearance
in Things, wherein [the others] have not yet attained; yet . . . [the dissenter]
must walk so, as they have him for an Example.” Although some individuals
may have a more advanced understanding than the group, in time, Quakers
believed, God would eventually reveal the Truth to all.67 Dissent thus should
be a process of persuasion and convincement through speech-acts, not coercion
through threatening or disruptive behavior. On several occasions, Dickinson
expressed clearly his sense of how to achieve the balance between speaking as
one is moved and expressing one™s dissent without disrupting the unity of the
body. He demonstrated this sort of moderation in action during the Revolution
and in words:
Two Rules I have laid down for myself throughout this Contest [with Britain], to which
I have constantly adhered, and still design to adhere “ First “ on all occasions where I
am called upon, as a Trustee for my Countrymen, to deliberate on Questions important
to their Happiness, disdaining all personal advantages to be derived from a Suppression
of my real Sentiments, and defying all Dangers to be risked by a Declaration of them,
openly to avow them; and secondly “ after thus discharging this Duty, whenever the
public Resolutions are taken, to regard them, tho opposite to my opinion, as sacred,
because they lead to public Measures in which the Common Weal must be interested,
and to join in supporting them as if my voice had been given for them.68

Dickinson followed Penn, who said, “Nor is there any Interest so inconsistent
with Peace and Unity, as that which dare not rely upon the Power of Persua-
sion.”69 There is in this theory of civic engagement a sense of humility, peace,
and self-sacri¬ce that is alien to modern republicanism.

Constituting a Polity and the Purpose of Government
In the interest of clarity and openness in legal matters, the unity that the
people achieved through the collective discernment process must eventually be

66 Dickinson may have had further and more personal reasons for choosing “Fabius.” The Roman,
while ridiculed at ¬rst for his tactics, was later vindicated as a hero for them. This choice may
have been Dickinson™s subtle way of suggesting that his initial approach to an American con-
stitution in the Articles was the appropriate one and that this fact should be widely recognized.
67 Ibid., 55“56.
68 John Dickinson to president of Congress [John Jay] on peace negotiations with Britain, July 22,
1779, Ser. 1. b. Political, 1774“1807, n.d., RRL/HSP.
69 Penn, England™s Present Interest Discovered, 32.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 291

codi¬ed in a written document. Insofar as the people have been led by the
correct guides “ higher authorities and not their own sel¬sh interests “ the
written constitution was valid and binding. Insofar as it represented the polity,
it too was sacred. This was by no means a ubiquitous understanding of a
constitution. Some Framers, in fact, derided this notion of the Constitution as
sacrosanct. In 1816 Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Some men look at Constitutions
with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them, like the ark of the covenant,
too sacred to be touched.”70 Dickinson, like other Quaker political thinkers
before him, would have agreed with some of this sentiment, but not all. In 1682
William Penn wrote that “Government is sacred in its institution and end.” In
1788, Dickinson agreed that “[Government] is founded on the nature of man,
that is, on the will of his Maker, and is therefore sacred. It is then an offence
against Heaven, to violate that trust.”71 He emphasized, “It is [the people™s]
duty to watch, and their right to take care, that the constitution be preserved.”72
Part of constructing a written constitution involved the creation and estab-
lishment of governmental structures. While most political theory held that the
institution of government was necessary primarily because of man™s propensity
for evil, Quakers believed that just as political society was designed to facili-
tate good works, so was their government designed for benevolence more than
punishment. It was not, as it was to Thomas Paine and many other Americans
then and since, a “necessary evil.”73 Rather, for Dickinson and other Quaker
thinkers, it was a “sacred obligation” designed to produce “public Affections,”
“Universal Benevolence,” and “In¬nite Kindness.”74
Because of the understanding Quakers had of the relationship of individuals
to one another and their government, Dickinson did not often speak of govern-
ment or constitution in terms of a contract, as did Puritan-informed thinkers in
the covenant tradition.75 Rather, he spoke of it as a “trust” given by Heaven,76

70 Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kerchival, July 12, 1816, quoted in Charles Warren, The Making
of the Constitution (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1937), 781.
71 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 19.
72 Ibid., 21.
73 Garry Wills points out that it is a “vulgarization” of Lockean theory to believe that no good
can come from government (A Necessary Evil, 299“308). Nevertheless, he says, this has been
the dominant understanding Americans have had of government. The issue here is not so much
whether government is good or evil, but whether man himself is and what the government™s
role is in regulating man™s behavior.
74 John Dickinson, notes, n.d., Ser. 1. e. Miscellaneous, 1761“1804, n.d., RRL/HSP.
75 This is not to say he never referred to the relationship of the governed to the governors as a
contract. See Dickinson, An Essay on the constitutional power, 10“11. We might understand
this change of language and concept arising from the different purposes for which Dickinson was
writing. In urging colonists to resist encroachments on their liberties by the British government,
breach of contract is a straightforward way to convey the idea of injustice done. On the other
hand, in attempting to encourage submission to the authorities, the metaphor of a trust connotes
an irresistible quality of the institution as a whole. Earlier Quaker thinkers also used the idea
of contract sparingly. Barclay referred to contract in regards to the obligations of members of
a civil society, but not their rights (Anarchy, 42). In his political treatises, Penn used the idea
more frequently than the other two.
76 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 19.
292 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

and himself, as a politician, “a Trustee for my Countrymen.”77 The concept of
government “ or, more speci¬cally, the legislature “ as a trust was a common
theory, especially in the second half of the eighteenth century. But there was a
difference between Dickinson™s trust theory and those of his contemporaries.
There were two main trust theories in circulation, which have their ori-
gins in the ancient and modern understandings of a constitution discussed
in Chapter 2. Many Englishmen adhered to a theory that we might call an
“irrevocable trust.” Such a model imposed a duty on the governed to entrust
their welfare to their legislators because, as their betters, they were inherently
trustworthy. To change the terms of this trust was problematic, and neither
could the relationship be abolished because the governors were placed in the
Great Chain to lead. The strictures within this theory are on the governed to
obey. The second theory, to which most American Revolutionaries adhered, we
might call a “contract” or “¬duciary trust.” It imposed limitations on the gov-
ernment that were negotiated at the advent of the system. If the government
overstepped its bounds, the trust was broken. A breach of the trust would
dissolve the obligations of the governed to the governors because there was
no internal means to repair the relationship, to renegotiate the terms of the
contract.78
Dickinson™s Quaker theory borrowed from both of these understandings of
“trust.” At ¬rst glance, however, it appears to bear a stronger resemblance to
an irrevocable trust. Along with other Quaker thinkers, he believed that God
ordains government itself as the steward of the people, and the people must
honor it. When the liberty of the people is in jeopardy, said the Farmer, “it
is our duty, humbly, constantly, fervently, to implore the protection of our
most gracious maker.”79 The trust was irrevocable. For Dickinson, a trust was
a term of possession and protection. His vision for the American government
was that it “will bear the remarkable resemblance to the mild features of
patriarchal government.”80 He described the relationship of the states to the
central government in almost Filmerian terms as “A Father surrounded by a
Family of hearty, affectionate strong sons . . . attached to him and each other
not by fear or servile dependence but by a generous tender participation of
Blessings and a Reciprocity of Kindness and Advantages.”81
Dickinson™s understanding of the negative and positive legal implications
for man in this irrevocable trust are in keeping with Quaker thought on the

77 John Dickinson to president of Congress [John Jay] on peace negotiations with Britain, July 22,
1779, Ser. 1. b. Political, 1774“1807, n.d., RRL/HSP.
78 On trust theories in the eighteenth century, see John Phillip Reid, Constitutional History of the
American Revolution: The Authority to Legislate (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press,
1991), 87“96. On Dickinson™s trust theory, see also Natelson, “The Constitutional Contribu-
tions of John Dickinson,” 432-36. He rightly emphasizes the importance of impartiality, the
idea that the trust was above faction in Dickinson™s thinking.
79 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 38.
80 Ibid., 46.
81 John Dickinson, “Notes on a Speech (IV),” in Hutson, Supplement, 139.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 293

paternal benignity of government. On the surface, it is much like contract theory
of government; but with emphases on different aspects, the theories played
out quite differently in practice. Dickinson argued that when God constitutes
society, he commands two things of man: the contribution of his rights and
submission of his will to society. For Dickinson, rights and will were related but
different things. The language he uses is important. First, man “contributes” his
rights. Contribution is a term with positive connotations. Unlike the Lockean
language that man “hath quitted [his] natural power,” that he loses something
when he enters into political society, Dickinson™s is a term of enablement.82
When man “contributes” or “delegates” rights to the “common stock,” he
enables himself to be a bene¬t to society, to participate in it, to contribute to it.
Where rights are concerned, political society is not created merely to give man
negative liberty, although there is an important way in which it does, so much
as it is for positive liberty. By contributing, Dickinson said, man gains

[T]he aid of those associated with him, for his relief from the incommodities of mental
or bodily weakness “ the pleasure for which his heart is formed “ of doing good “
protection against injuries “ a capacity of enjoying his undelegated rights to the best
advantage “ a repeal of his fears “ and tranquility of mind “ or, in other words, that
perfect liberty better described in the Holy Scriptures, than any where else, in these
expressions “ “When every man shall sit under his vine and his ¬g-tree, and none shall
make him afraid.”83

The idea of entering society to do good is, of course, one of the fundamental
bases of all Christian communities. Contributing his rights to society thus
“prompts [man] to a participated happiness.”84 This understanding of rights
and happiness are signi¬cantly different from how Jefferson articulated them
in the Declaration of Independence. Although Jefferson undoubtedly had the
welfare of the whole in mind, the “pursuit of happiness” is an individual right
that may take an ambitious person in any direction.85 “Participated happiness,”
by contrast, is an explicit link of the individual to the collective, a drawing
of individuals together, not a protection of their right to separate and solitary
quests. Participated means active engagement in the polity for the good of all.86

82 Locke, Second Treatise, sec. 87.
83 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 14.
84 Ibid. Emphasis added.
85 John Patrick Diggins mistakenly generalizes this individualistic impulse to all Americans when
he writes that “[i]ndividualism provided the means by which Americans could pursue their
interests, pluralism the means by which they could protect them.” The Lost Soul of American
Politics: Virtue, Self-Interest, and the Foundations of Liberalism (New York: Basic Books,
1984), 5. In his interpretation, community thus becomes nothing more than a useful tool for
the satisfaction of individual desires.
86 In secular terms, Dickinson™s sense of rights and liberty seem to be something in between
Jefferson™s and an Old Whig™s understanding of them as public things. Dickinson certainly saw
the right to participate and liberty in individualistic terms, but there was a regard for the public
as a whole, the collective that was falling out of use. Speci¬cally, see Gordon Wood on liberty
(The Creation of the American Republic, 609). On changes in this and other political terms at
294 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

And, as we can see in each instance in which he uses the word, happiness
for Dickinson was not a secular good as it was for Jefferson. An example
Dickinson used is trial by jury. While we normally understand trial by jury
to aid the defendant in a trial, Dickinson was as concerned with the right of
men to sit on a jury. This right to unfettered participation on a jury was a
concern that was at the top of the Quakers™ list of reforms in the seventeenth
century, and they were at the forefront of a movement to protect that right and
the ability of the jurymen to exercise it. In Bushell™s Case, the trial of William
Penn and William Mead for public preaching, they asked, as Dickinson did,
“Can freedom be preserved, by keeping twelve men closely con¬ned without
meat, drink, ¬re, or candle, until they unanimously agree . . . until under duress
they speak as they are ordered?”87 Dickinson held that serving on a jury was a
“blessing” that would lead to the security of other liberties.88 Throughout his
unpublished papers, he repeated incessantly the primacy of man™s duty to do
good and the godly unity this creates in a society. “As every Duty is allied to a
Bene¬t (Blessing), so every Right is allied to a Duty “ there is a [social?] sacred
Relationship that binds mankind together in a system consistently merging
(drawing them) nearer & nearer to the Divine Author, all the powers, faculties,
Functions, and Enjoyments, which they possess or can exercise.”89
Of course, joining political society also necessitated that man give something
up. Man “submits” his will to society: “He must submit his will in what
concerns all, to the will of all, that is of the whole society.” Submission, of
course, is a negative term. Dickinson devotes only one line to describing what
he gives up: “The power of doing injury to others “ and the dread of suffering
injuries from him.”90 While this idea of the “will of society” sounds much like
Rousseau™s “general will” with its ominous potential for democratic despotism,
as we will see later, it is not exactly the same. Dickinson™s vehement arguments
against submission to the injustices of the British before the Revolution clearly
indicate that there are limits to man™s acquiescence to government in speci¬c
instances. When man submits his will, he is not necessarily depriving himself of
rights, he is depriving himself of a certain kind of agency, in this case unlimited
autonomous decision making. To submit one™s will to the whole, therefore, also
means to subject oneself to a process of deliberation. The difference between
an oppressive general will and one that is liberating lies in how the government
is structured and how the decision-making process is undertaken. It is not
directed by man, but by God.


this time, see Terrence Ball, “A Republic “ If You Can Keep It,” in Terrence Ball and J. G. A.
Pocock, eds., Conceptual Change and the Constitution (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas,
1988), 137“64.
87 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 22“23.
88 Ibid., 23.
89 John Dickinson, “Government,” n.d., Ser. 1. b. Political, 1774“1807, n.d., RRL/HSP. The
words I have put in parentheses Dickinson wrote above the preceding word.
90 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 14.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 295

With God working through the community practicing synteresis, the ulti-
mate will to be obeyed was not man™s, even embodied in the entire community,
but God™s discerned by man, both by the individual and the whole. There were
thus limits to man™s control over man. For example, as we have seen, an indi-
vidual may or may not have the legal right (according to man) to dissent. But
for Quaker thinkers, how and when a person dissents is regulated by no human
law: speech “ both content and mode “ is regulated by God for the bene¬t of the
polity. As Dickinson exclaimed, “O Ye people of United America, I embrace
and love you; but I will obey God rather than you; and if my Life was exposed
to Danger and you would save it or if you would bestow on Me all that you can
give; on Condition that I should not address to my Fellow citizens my present
sentiments, I would rather dye than accept the proposal.”91
The system that would ensure this God-given right to speak involved both a
constitution (¬rst in a sense of solidarity among the people and then also a writ-
ten document) and a governmental structure. The construction of these related
things by man was a “labour of public love.”92 As Dickinson explained, “If it
be considered separately, a constitution is the organization of the contributed
rights in society. Government is the exercise of them.”93 It was in similar terms
that Barclay described the form and function of the Quaker church govern-
ment “ the “order” and “method.” These categories explain the structures and
decision-making process of the constituted polity. It was not just any kind of
government that Dickinson and Quakers had in mind. The way the constitu-
tion was ordered and the way the government exercised rights were “offered
to us by our Creator.”94 There was a particular mode, as Dickinson put it, of
“holy conversation.”95 He explained further that “we never consult our own
happiness more effectually, than when we most endeavor to correspond with
the divine designs.”96

“A More Perfect Union” “ Creating the Constitution
When contemplating a new constitution, the Framers disagreed whether the
Union existed in spite of the demise of the Articles of Confederation. The
question at hand was, if the Articles constituted a perpetual union, then was not
the Union destroyed with the Articles? Some believed that it had existed before
the Articles and would continue to exist without them. But others held that the
Union had been abolished and needed to be reconstituted.97 The latter was a

91 John Dickinson, notes, n.d., Ser. II, Miscellaneous, 1671“1801, n.d., RRL/HSP.
92 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 22.
93 Ibid., 19.
94 Ibid., 46.
95 John Dickinson, notes, n.d., Ser. II, Miscellaneous, 1671“1801, n.d., RRL/HSP.
96 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 13.
97 See Kenneth M. Stampp, “The Concept of a Perpetual Union,” The Journal of American History
vol. 65, no. 1 (1978), 5“33. Stampp makes clear that these issues were not resolved in the minds
of most Framers.
296 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

problematic argument since, without a polity that was previously constituted
in spirit, the perpetuity of the Union would always be in doubt.98 And so it
was for many years until after the Civil War. But Dickinson was certain on
this point. “Did not our Hearts dictate our Words[?] Our Hands con¬rm the
stipulation by subscription for perpetual Remembrance[?]” he asked. “Did we
not call the Nations of the Earth and Heaven itself to witness our agreement
with each other?” The agreement for union may no longer be convenient to
some, he explained, who wished to pursue their economic interests unfettered,
“[b]ut does this [in]convenience outweigh the Considerations for an adherence
to sacred Obligations?”99
For Dickinson and the Quakers, constituting a polity was not a discrete
event with a beginning and an end. There was not a stark separation between
man in the “state of nature” and man under government, between prelapsarian
man and fallen man. The formation of government (as the spiritual progress
of man) was rather an on-going providential process; man answering the call
to enter society was only the ¬rst step. The process was one of continual
improvement of society with the possibility of a perfect union. As Barclay
put it, God “hath also gathered and is gathering us into the good Order,
Discipline, and Government” of Christ.100 The way toward perfection was to
order the polity correctly. Dickinson thought of it in the same terms. “Herein
there is a progression,” he explained. “As a man, he becomes a citizen; as
a citizen he becomes a federalist.”101 Because America had been constituted
as a people before the Articles of Confederation were written, that document
was simply an attempt to codify that unity. But, as rati¬ed, they turned out
to be an incomplete and insuf¬cient structure of government. The government
was failing, and the written constitution was therefore abandoned. But in the

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