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Quaker view, the abandonment of the written constitution did not dissolve the
constituted polity. As Penn said, the paper constitution is “not the Original
Establishment, but a Declaration and Con¬rmation of that Establishment.”102
The fundamental constitution, the Union, and the processes that animated it,
still existed, although imperfectly. The written expression of it, the formal
organization of the Union, simply needed to be made more perfect.
Some Americans considered the actions of the Annapolis Convention and the
Constitutional Convention to be illegal in that they met to amend the Articles
98 Rakove notes that “the idea that the confederation was essentially only a league of sovereign
states was ultimately a ¬ction. Congress was in fact a national government, burdened with
legislative and administrative responsibilities unprecedented in the colonial past” (Beginnings,
184“85). It is probable that this was how Dickinson perceived it.
99 John Dickinson, “Notes on a Speech (II), in Hutson, Supplement, 136.
100 Barclay, Anarchy, 9. Emphasis added.
101 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 15.
102 Penn, England™s Present Interest Discovered, 29. If Michael Warner is correct in arguing that
Americans considered themselves rightly constituted only through a written document, then the
Quaker theory was a signi¬cant departure from the norm. For Quakers, textuality was for the
purpose of reference, not legitimation of the union. See Warner, “Textuality and Legitimacy
in the Printed Constitution,” 97“117.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 297

but ended up abandoning them entirely. But this was to take a fairly narrow
view of the constitutional process. How the U.S. Constitution was created
was very similar to the Quaker process that brought the 1701 Pennsylvania
Charter of Privileges into being. The polity was already constituted, but the
¬rst few written constitutions and the governments they established did not
meet the needs of the polity. This was in keeping with how Barclay described
the evolution of the Quaker ecclesiastical government:

Things commanded and practiced at certain times and seasons fall of themselves, whenas
the Cause and Ground for which they were commanded is removed . . . We confess we
are against such, as from the bare Letter of the Scripture seek to uphold Customs,
Forms, or Shadows, when the Use for which they were appointed, is removed, or the
Substance itself known and witnessed.103

But Quakers did not overthrow the Pennsylvania government. Rather, they
retained the unity of their polity, rewrote the constitution from a better under-
standing of what they needed, and restructured the government accordingly.
At no time did they consider that their union or unwritten constitution was
abolished. This was how Dickinson saw the situation in America. The creation
of a “more perfect union,” presumed the existence of a union in the ¬rst place.
It also presumed the idea of change toward perfection.
The mechanism by which change could happen “ whether in the case of
Pennsylvania or America “ was premised on the idea that the people were
already constituted regardless of what paper documents did or did not exist,
and that the power to discern the law lay with the people as a body. Samuel
Beer explains, however, that Western political thought had historically rejected
popular rule in favor of hierarchy. “Classical philosophy had taught the rule
of the wise,” he says, “Christianity taught the rule of the holy.”104 The latter
was also true of Quaker political thought. The crucial difference was that, in
the Quaker view, all could be holy. Divine competence was in the people. They
had what Beer calls a “constituent sovereignty”; that is, when a government
dissolves and must be renewed, the people do not return to a state of nature,
a state of anarchy.105 Rather, the power that they invested in the law-making
body reverts to them and they can recreate “ reconstitute “ their political
In this way, we see that Dickinson™s trust theory of government, although
similar to the “irrevocable” model, was not identical to it. It bore an important
resemblance to the contract trust in that negotiation was possible. The main
difference here was that the negotiations were not ¬nished at the Founding “
they were continual. Dickinson therefore knew that the conventional contract
trust theory of government, as articulated by Locke, in which revolution was
rightful when the contract was violated by the government, was neither an

103 Barclay, Anarchy, 29.
104 Beer, To Make a Nation, 139.
105 Ibid., 171.
298 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

appropriate nor a legitimate basis on which to found the American govern-
ment. In the ¬rst place, Americans were no longer represented by a parliament
that was distant from them in both interests and geography. In the second, they
had a theory of a constitutional change that was absent from British constitu-
tionalism. They had what their British counterparts did not “ both constituent
and governmental sovereignty. In other words, the government and governors
were no longer something separate from the people. The people were the gov-
ernment and they could change themselves, their laws and institutions, as they
This had always been the Quaker way of addressing the problem of the
origin of governmental authority in relation to the people. And later it was the
theoretical and practical problem Americans needed to solve in constituting
the federal government. Quaker theory, and what Americans would discover,
was that, as Michael Warner explains, “[t]he legal-political order would be
transcendent in its authority but immanent in its source. The trick was to see
how law could be given to the people transcendently and received from it
immanently at the same time.”106 Quakers dealt with this problem by claiming
that those who were already the de facto leaders of the informally constituted
polity (“such whom [God] hath made use of in gathering of his Church”) were
to be the ones who wrote the constitution and laws (to whom God “commu-
nicat[ed] his Will under his Gospel”).107 The people, who remained part of
the legal-political process after the initial “gathering,” had consented to this
arrangement by obeying God™s command to come together and follow his des-
ignated leaders. In this way, Quakers employed the same process that Gordon
Wood describes legitimated the constitutional conventions of the Founding
period “ the conventions were legitimate precisely because their legality was
in a speci¬c sense inferior to that of the provincial assemblies “ they had no
ordinary legislative powers; but in other ways superior “ they had the power
to create.108
As in the pre-Revolutionary American Congresses, Quaker meetings were
illegal under civil law as well as contrary to the Church of England. But
although they were illegal by man-made standards, Quakers believed that they
actually were sanctioned by a higher authority, and thus had greater legitimacy
if not positive legality. Thus for Dickinson and his fellow Quaker thinkers, the
“bizarre new American project of writing charters as fundamental law for all
government [that] aimed at removing the circular legitimation of representative
assemblies” was not actually bizarre at all.109 The idea of popular sovereignty
thus allowed the creation of the Constitution. But it did more than that. It
prepared the way for the American system of government, federalism.

106 Warner, “Textuality and Legitimacy in the Printed Constitution,” 101.
107 Barclay, Anarchy, 68.
108 Wood, Creation, 337“38.
109 Warner, “Textuality and Legitimacy in the Printed Constitution,” 102.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 299

The Order and Method of the Polity: Popular Sovereignty
in a Federal System
In the early years of Quakerism, there was the sense that all individuals should
have a direct role in the decision-making process of the meeting. Before the
establishment of London Yearly Meeting and its subsidiary meetings, Friends
generally believed that if there were unity and consensus at the local level,
the decisions they produced were infallible and binding. This arrangement
did not work, and neither did the American experience with democracy and
weak central government in the Critical Period. Dickinson therefore asked,
“How are the contributed rights to be managed?” His purpose in the Letters
of Fabius was precisely the same as Barclay™s in The Anarchy of the Ranters “
to answer this question by explaining the concept of a balanced polity and
persuade them to accept it. Barclay hoped Quakers would be “vindicated from
those that accuse them of Disorder and Confusion on the one Hand, and from
such as Calumniate them with Tyranny and Imposition on the other.”110 Both
Barclay and Dickinson had to prove to their readers that there was a way
to maintain order in a democratic system that did not result in tyranny. For
Quaker thinkers, order, union, safety, and liberty had always been inextricably
intertwined.111 The solution for Barclay and Dickinson was the same “ a strong
central government made up of a quasi-aristocratic element in a federal system.
Dickinson™s plan would “melt tyrants into men, and . . . soothe in¬‚amed minds
of a multitude into mildness.”112
The Quaker ecclesiastical polity was founded for four primary reasons:
to allow the collective process of discerning God™s will to function properly;
to facilitate good works; to prevent encroachments on the Society from the
outside; and to keep the centrifugal forces inherent in the doctrine of the
Inward Light from atomizing the Society. A strong central power for America
seemed a necessity to Dickinson for similar reasons. The most challenging
issues of the moment were the latter two. The nation had to deal with these
¬rst in order to facilitate the former two. America was young and vulnerable,
especially with regards to Britain. His fears after the Revolution were the same
as before “ factionalism, strife, disunity. As Fabius, however, his purpose was
to emphasize the commonalities Americans shared. He described them as a
“people who were so drawn together by religion, blood, language, manners
and customs, undisturbed by former feuds and prejudices.”113 Dickinson was
not opposed to a large republic, but in such an expansive geographical area as
America, it was not realistic to suppose that Americans would cohere without

110 Barclay, Anarchy, title page.
111 In Spheres of Liberty: Changing Perceptions of Liberty in American Culture (Madison: Uni-
versity of Wisconsin Press, 1986), Michael Kammen ¬nds that the American equation of
liberty and order did not arise until the nineteenth century (“Ordered Liberty and Law in
Nineteenth-Century America,” 65“126).
112 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 13.
113 Ibid., 43.
300 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

a centralizing force. And with such a danger of “licentiousness” in democracy,
neither was it realistic to think that everyone necessarily should have a direct
role to play in the government. Anything short of a system that managed
both the great size of the country and the passions of its people, Dickinson
believed, would result in the downfall of the country. He therefore saw the
central government as a “superintending sovereign will” over the states and
individuals.114 The method and the structure of the government would settle the
question of the locus of authority “ individual or group; local unit or central “
and facilitate the deliberative decision-making process.
The federal structure that Dickinson advocated shared some distinctive fea-
tures with the Quaker church government, which was itself unique among
church governments. The Quaker polity was organized on the dual bases of
geography and the calendar. There were local meetings at the county level that
met on a weekly and monthly basis. The monthly meetings sent representatives
to quarterly meetings. Then, once a year, representatives met at the yearly meet-
ing. The yearly meeting was the central governing body for all the subsidiary
meetings. The Discipline, then, was the constitution that governed the whole
Although other religious groups in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
also used systems of representatives, none had the same kind of geographically
based structure. Unlike other churches, such as the Congregationalist, which
did not have a central organizing structure for multiple bodies and tried in
vain to keep members from settling too far away to attend meeting regularly,
the Quaker arrangement allowed Friends to expand their church and its in¬‚u-
ence across great distances and remain uni¬ed.115 When Quakers moved to the
frontiers, they simply established new meetings whenever a few of them were
together.116 Eventually, when there were enough members and meetings, the
government would reproduce itself in that region with a central structure that
was separate, yet still in close contact with the others. London Yearly Meeting
was established ¬rst, then New England, Philadelphia, Baltimore, North Car-
olina, Indiana, and Western Yearly Meetings followed. This system encouraged
Friends to maintain a corporate identity primarily as members of a central body
as they spanned geographic boundaries, rather than as members of a particular
local or monthly meeting.117 Quakers thus solved the problem of “peripheries

114 Ibid., 17.
115 For a case study that exempli¬es the dif¬culties of expanding Congregationalist churches in
New England, see Kenneth A. Lockridge, A New England Town: The First Hundred Years,
Dedham, Massachusetts, 1637“1736 (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1970).
116 A case study that follows one frontier meeting is Karen Guenther, “Rememb™ring our Time
and Work is the Lords”: The Experiences of Quakers on the Eighteenth-Century Pennsylvania
Frontier (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2005).
117 The other churches that also spread and established themselves around the colonies, most
especially the Catholic and Anglican, had the least amount of egalitarianism and popular
participation in the church government. Moreover, as a result of having the governing authority
so far away, the distant branches were less uni¬ed as they depended on all their order coming
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 301

and center” quite easily with “a network of societies in a federated system
similar to the United States government.”118
Part of establishing the central governing structure in the Quaker meeting
was creating a system of representation to replace the pure democracy that
had tyrannized their early church. Although all had a measure of the Light of
God in his or her conscience, and thus a voice in the meeting, it had become
clear that all voices did not carry equal weight.119 There were those who had
a greater measure of the Light, and it was they who had a greater power
and responsibility to determine the direction of the meeting. Barclay wrote,
“That God hath ordinarily, in the communicating of his Will under his Gospel,
imployed such whom he hath made use of in gathering of his Church, and
in feeding and watching over them; though not excluding others.”120 Neither
did any of the Framers envision America as a pure democracy. It should be,
many of them agreed, a natural aristocracy in which the leaders should have,
as Dickinson said, “wisdom and integrity,” and “genius.”121 In the Quaker
hierarchy, Barclay said, everyone has a place “and so in this there ought to
be a mutual Forbearance, that there may neither be a coveting nor aspiring
spirit on the one hand, nor yet a despising or condemning on the other.”122
Likewise, Dickinson believed that there were some people who were more
suitable to be leaders, while others ought to be primarily followers. He argued
that the “worthy” should prevail “against the licentious.”123 It would be the
duty of the people not to make the critical decisions of government directly,
but rather to choose their betters to do it for them. This was their voice, and
it was vital that they discern the proper person for the job. They should be,
as Dickinson explained to Americans, “religiously attentive” in choosing their
The hierarchical and representational structure of the government would
act as a sieve, as Gordon Wood has described the Constitution, or a “re¬ning
process,” as Dickinson put it, to let only the most worthy individuals “ the most
“virtuous” in republican language, the most “weighty” in the Quaker “ into

from the top. Michael Sheeran explains that “[the Quaker founders™] action opened the door
for Friends to metamorphose from a sect of locally sovereign communities to a church with
a central polity. The transition involved a substitution of central for local divine guidance”
(Beyond Majority Rule, 15).
118 Jack. P. Greene, Peripheries and Center: Constitutional Development in the Extended Polities
of the British Empire and the United States, 1607“1788, (New York: W. W. Norton and Co.,
1990); Isenberg, “Pillars in the Same Temple,” 109. Barbara Allen describes Quaker ideas of
federalism as “˜federal liberty™ without reference to federal theology” (Tocqueville, Covenant,
and the Democratic Revolution, 59).
119 And, it should be noted that although women did have a voice in the ecclesiastical polity, they
did not in the civil. This, however, would change. See the Epilogue for further discussion.
120 Barclay, Anarchy, 69.
121 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 33, 53.
122 Barclay, Anarchy, 63.
123 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 12.
124 Ibid., 7.
302 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

positions of leadership.125 There would, therefore, be an element of the gov-
ernment that would, as Dickinson said in the Convention, “consist of the most
distinguished characters, distinguished for the rank in life and their weight of
property, and bearing as strong a likeness to the British House of Lords as pos-
sible.”126 Later, however, he reconsidered the property quali¬cation for of¬ce
holding. Madison reported,
[Dickinson] doubted the policy of interweaving into a Republican constitution a ven-
eration for wealth. He had always understood that a veneration for poverty & virtue,
were the objects of republican encouragement. It seemed improper that any man of
merit should be subjected to disabilities in a Republic where merit was understood to
form the great title to public trust, honors & rewards.127

On the other hand, he held fast to a property quali¬cation for voting, arguing
that the freeholders were “the best guardians of liberty” and the restriction
of suffrage to them was “a necessary defence agst. the dangerous in¬‚uence
of those multitudes without property & without principle.” But, he reminded
the Convention, “the great mass of our Citizens is composed at this time of
Despite the spiritual aristocracy in the Quaker meeting, there was still a
democratic component and egalitarianism based on the idea of the universality
of the Inward Light. Each member of the meeting had the potential to contribute
to the process that members of other religious bodies did not necessarily have
in their churches. In keeping with this popular model of governance, Dickinson
saw the people, endowed as they were with the capacity to discern the law, as
the key to the order, strength, and safety of the American polity. He “detest[ed]
the position, that different ranks are necessary for our welfare. It is an idea,
borrowed from the errors or vices of other centuries,” he said. “It is a rank
high enough for a mortal, to be a trustee for his fellow citizens.”129
In keeping with this egalitarian principle, Dickinson had a ¬rmer stance
on the immorality of slavery than any member of the Constitutional Conven-
tion.130 Having manumitted his own slaves ten years prior, he reiterated the
sentiments he expressed in his Essay of a Frame of Government for Pennsylva-
nia that he “considered it inadmissible on every principle of honor and safety
that the importation of slaves should be authorized by the Constitution.”131
He worried that American hypocrisy on the slavery issue would compromise

125 Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 512; and Farrand, Records of the Federal
Convention, 1: 136.
126 Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention, 1: 150.
127 Ibid., 2: 123.
128 Ibid., 2: 202. We should note here Dickinson™s use of the term “mass” here as contradistinct
from his use of “weight” earlier.
129 John Dickinson to Benjamin Rush, February 14, 1791 John Dickinson Materials, John Harvey
Powell Papers, APS.
130 Rakove, Original Meanings, 88.
131 Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention, 2: 378. He freed them conditionally in 1777,
unconditionally in 1786. In 1800, he also paid some slaveholders to manumit their slaves. See
Miscellaneous Notes, John Harvey Powell Papers, APS.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 303

the national reputation. “Acting before the World,” he wrote, “What will be
said of this new principle of founding a right to Freemen on a power derived
from Slaves,” who were “themselves incapable of governing yet giving to other
what they have not. The omitting the Word will be regarded as an Endeavor
to conceal a principle of which we are ashamed.”132 In the Convention he pro-
posed a motion that would allow the national government to determine when
intervention on the slavery issue was necessary. It was defeated.133
For Dickinson, the popular principle extended to the highest level of govern-
ment. There was no executive in the Quaker polity. With no formal ministry,
the leadership was collective and ¬‚uid. There was a clerk of every meeting, who
had a great deal of weight, but he was as much a bureaucrat as a leader, and his
leadership was not autonomous. Moreover, there were elders and overseers,
who, along with the clerk, could come from any rank of society. Dickinson
was therefore the most vocal critic of the proposed executive of¬ce. In the
Convention he again expressed his opinion that “the business is so important
that no man ought to be silent or reserved.” He expressed his belief that “such
an Executive as some seem to have in contemplation was not consistent with
a republic.” He went on to compare the of¬ce of a single executive to that of
a monarch and warned that it was not the of¬ce that people would revere, but
rather the person. Such an attachment, of course, could eventually undermine
the liberty of the people if they allowed a single individual to hold too much
sway over the affairs of the state. “In place of these attachments,” he coun-
seled, “we must look out for something else.” The proper place for loyalty was
not in a single ¬gure, but in the legislature, the individual states, and in “one
great Republic.” He preferred an executive council to an individual; but this
idea was not on the table long. He called for the executive to be removable
by a national legislature at the request of a majority of the states. The motion
was rejected.134 He later opposed the election of the executive by a national
legislature and instead “leaned towards an election by the people, which he
regarded as the best and purest source.”135
Because a strong central authority was a feature of every Quaker govern-
ment, ecclesiastical or civil, it is no surprise that Quakers generally favored
the proposed system. In the debates over the Constitution, Benjamin Rush
observed that Friends were “all (with an exception of three or four persons
only) highly f“deral.”136 The question was: How would the representational
structure function on a practical level? Where would the preponderance of

132 Hutson, Supplement, 158.
133 Paul Finkelman, “Slavery and the Constitutional Convention: Making a Covenant with
Death,” in Richard R. Beeman, ed., Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and
American National Identity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 188“225,
134 Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention, 1: 86“87.
135 Ibid., 2: 114.
136 Benjamin Rush to Jeremy Belknap, 28 February 1788; John Kaminski and Gaspare J. Saldino,
eds., The Documentary History of the Rati¬cation of the Constitution, vol. 16, Commentaries
on the Constitution Public and Private (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1986),
304 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

power lie and how would it be organized? In this regard, Dickinson has been
described both as an “ardent nationalist” and a champion of states™ rights.137
But to consider him one or the other supposes a stark distinction in his thin-
king between federalism and nationalism. Merrill Jensen articulates the differ-
ence: true Federalists “believed that a federal government was one created by
equal and independent states who delegated to it sharply limited authority and
who remained superior to it in every way.” On the other hand, “a national
government was a central organization with coercive authority over both the
states and its citizens.”138 Dickinson, characteristically uncategorizable, was
advocating a bit of both and neither in its entirety “ a hybrid system. For the
sake of unity and process, he wanted a national authority with a degree of coer-
cive power over the states. But, as we will see later, he also wanted a federal
system that would preserve a signi¬cant degree of liberty and give protection
for all states; he believed among the most “Dangerous symptoms to America”
were “Attempts to consolidate the states into one power.” “This,” he said, “is
a favorite Measure of the large States,” which wanted “the aggrand[izement]
of some states at the Expense of others.”139
Dickinson was therefore not an extreme nationalist without any regard for
states™ or individual rights. He did not want an authoritarian government.140
Liberty, he wrote, is a “sacred, salutary principle.”141 This is why we ¬nd
Dickinson on both sides of the debate “ to preserve states™ and individual rights
but also to secure a strong central government. Not just liberty, but directed
and moderated liberty was Dickinson™s aim. In spite of this aristocratic check
on the people, weight should be with the democratic side of the equation. The
bene¬ts of British government, Dickinson reminded his skeptics, “are derived
from a single democratical branch.”142 In America as well, the strength of the
polity came from the democratic element: “[The people] have held, and now
hold the true balance in their government. While they retain their enlightened
spirit, they will continue to hold it.”143 In his personal notes he reiterated that
“there never was upon Earth a Body of Nobility, who had such a Regard for
the Rights and welfare of their fellow Citizens, as the Nobility of G.B. and

250“52. When Quakers did oppose the Constitution it was mainly because it did not prohibit
slavery. See also 403“04.
137 James H. Hutson refutes earlier claims that Dickinson was an advocate of states™ rights over
nationalism. He attributed this to Dickinson being “too much a student of Blackstone” to have
thought otherwise. “John Dickinson at the Federal Constitutional Convention,” 258.
138 Merrill Jensen, “The Idea of a National Government during the American Revolution,” Polit-
ical Science Quarterly vol. 58, no. 3 (1943), 356“379, 357.
139 John Dickinson, notes, n.d., Ser. II, Miscellaneous, 1671“1801, n.d., RRL/HSP; and John
Dickinson, notes, n.d., Government Documents, Revolutionary and Early National Periods,
1765“1788, JDP/LCP.
140 It is worth noting in this regard that after the rati¬cation of the Constitution and despite his
dislike of parties, Dickinson sympathized with the Democratic-Republicans.
141 John Dickinson to Thomas McKean, 4th of the 3rd mo., 1801, in Still´ and Ford, Life and
Writings, 1: 286.
142 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 49.
143 Ibid., 51.

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