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U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 305

yet it would be better for us to encounter all the Calamities of a Civil War,
than that a Nobility should be established among us.”144 Dickinson™s thought
exempli¬es what Beer calls “the national theory of American federalism.”145
This is the balanced theory that eventually animated the Constitution.
Few ideas of the Convention can be traced solely to one individual; the cre-
ation of the Constitution was a collaborative effort, and ideas put forth by one
man were often held simultaneously or were developed beyond their infancy
by the body. But there were some notable instances in which a delegate pro-
posed an idea that was not initially approved by the rest of the Convention,
but that was ultimately persuasive. At a pivotal moment early on, Dickinson
provided what Forrest McDonald calls “one of the crucial conceptual break-
throughs” of the Convention.146 As the delegates stalled in their discussion
about the form and function of the government “ whether and how to move
away from a confederation and to a national government, Dickinson provided
the solution that is the essence of the national-federal system. He advocated
a structure in which “one Branch of the Legislature shd. be drawn immedi-
ately from the people” and “the other shd. be chosen by the Legislatures of
the states.”147 In this system, the states would have equal representation in
the senate. This was the ¬rst suggestion of the kind.148 His proposal arose out
of a concern for the welfare of the small states. In his notes he wrote, “What
will be the situation of the smaller, if in both branches, the Representation is
in the apportionment? They will [be] deliver™d up into the absolute power of
the larger.” And “Repre[sentation] in both Branches founded on numbers “
unreasonable & dangerous.”149
While his insistence on the election of senators through the state legisla-
tures was accepted and implemented, this structure, of course, only lasted
until the early twentieth century.150 But the fundamentals of his system that
would preserve the agency of the states while also representing the people
in a strong national government prevailed over the opposition of a number
of other prominent Framers, including Madison, who at ¬rst advocated a
purely national system.151 Later, however, Madison and others such as Wilson
adopted Dickinson™s metaphor of the national-federal plan as a solar system,
“in which the States were the planets, and ought to be left to move freely in

144 John Dickinson, “Government,” Ser. 1. b. Political, 1774“1807, n.d., RRL/HSP.
145 Beer, To Make a Nation, 21.
146 Forrest McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution
(Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1985), 260. The other was Pierce Butler™s idea of
the Electoral College.
147 Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention, 1: 136.
148 M. E. Bradford, Founding Fathers: Brief Lives of the Framers of the United States Constitution
(Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1994), 102.
149 John Dickinson, notes, n.d, Government Documents, Revolutionary and Early National Peri-
ods, 1765“1788, LCP.
150 It was repealed by the Seventeenth Amendment.
151 On Madison, see McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum, 276“77. For a fuller discussion of the
debates on Dickinson™s role in this debate, and from which this summary is drawn, see 212“15,
230“32, 233, 260, 277.
306 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

their proper orbits” around the central government.152 Dickinson argued that
“a government thus established would harmonize the whole.”153
Dickinson also had a divergent conception of factions from others. While
Madison is usually the ¬gure historians look to for the advent of this the-
ory, Dickinson held to a similar idea “ pressing it further in some cases
than did Madison. Like Penn, Dickinson believed that diversity within the
polity was a salutary thing. Penn believed that a diversity of interests would
“[b]allance factions, not . . . Irritate or give Strength to them.”154 Likewise,
Dickinson thought the Senate would be better off with more and diverse mem-
bers, something Madison found too dangerous.155 But more importantly, the
two men supported their theories on different bases. On the surface, both men
saw the need to balance competing interests and let them check one another.
They also believed that the Senate should be a body composed of the “better
sorts” to check the excesses of democracy. One way they differed, however,
was where and how this checking by faction should take place. Dickinson
wanted it throughout the system, both among the people and in both houses
of Congress; Madison, by contrast, wanted it among the people, but not in the
Senate. Dickinson therefore advocated a Senate that was elected through the
state legislatures “ to ensure the “Talent” of the senators; and, to provide for
the interests of the small states, he did not object to a large number of sena-
tors. Madison, on the other hand, did not care to have the states represented,
or, if so, thought the numbers must be very low, so as to imitate the Roman
Tribunes. “When they multiplied,” he argued, “they divided, were weak, and
ceased to be that Guard to the people which was expected in their institution.”
Dickinson responded in two ways. He argued that “[w]e cannot abandon the
states” and reiterated his solar system metaphor. He also replied that if they
used the model of the Tribunes, there would be no logical limit to how small
the Senate should be. Finally, he said that a complete unity of interests was
not desirable. “The objection is that you attempt to unite distinct Interests,”
he replied to Madison. “I do not consider this an objection, Safety may ¬‚ow
from this variety of Interests.”156 This system, he explained, “will produce that
collision between the different authorities which should be wished for in order
to check each other.”157
Thus, although Madison and Dickinson shared the theory of competitive
factions, it is clear that they had different ideas of how they should function.
Although “collision” is a more violent image than we are used to seeing from
Dickinson, it is tempered by his many other comments on the importance of
peaceful deliberation in political process. He saw civic engagement as ideally a

152 Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention, 1: 153, 157.
153 Ibid., 1: 157.
154 William Penn quoted in Schwartz, “A Mixed Multitude,” 39.
155 Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention, 1: 153.
156 Ibid., 1: 158“59.
157 Ibid., 1: 153. Ultimately, of course, Dickinson was compelled to make the greater compromise
and did so with his proposal of equal representation in the Senate.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 307

cooperative, disinterested, and persuasive endeavor “ one motivated by a sense
of love and obligation. Dickinson later lamented the development of the Party
System and reiterated his concern for “participated happiness.” “I do hope,”
he elaborated, “that a Disposition to Reconciliation, and mutual Kindness, &
just Attentions will prevail, and that the chief Contest among Us will be, who
shall most strenuously exert himself in doing Good to all. I wish, We were well
rid of the Words Federalists and Republicans as Titles of Opposition.”158
On the other hand, Madison™s hope for the competitive system, as articulated
in Federalist nos. 10 and 56, lay not in the populace possessing republican virtue
enough to engage disinterestedly in policy making but rather in their exercising
suf¬cient reason to recognize that the welfare of the individual was bound up
with the welfare of the whole, what Tocqueville would later call “self-interest
properly understood.”159 As we have seen, Dickinson suspected reason as the
sole guide for determining the public welfare. He believed that individuals
might well rationalize their motives to pursue ends that would bene¬t only
themselves rather than the public. He would have been skeptical of the claim
that individual and factional competition alone and with ambition unchecked
could prevent the atomization of the polity. It ultimately could not be a reliable
unifying force.160 As we have seen, he held that individuals™ behavior must be
regulated by multiple guides “ foremost “divine Goodness,” in concert with a
balanced federal system that encourages a kind of consensus.
Thus, in the American system, neither Rousseau™s general will nor Locke™s
majority would prevail; both could lead to democratic despotism. The system
of national federalism included a measure of consensus based on “contributed
rights” that would prevent it. Of course, the decision-making process was
not the pure consensus “ the “sense of the meeting,” as Friends said, without
voting “ that Quakers used in their ecclesiastical polity. In a body so large and
diverse as the United States, complete unanimity is never possible and voting
must take place. The representational model that Dickinson proposed based
the general will neither on a majority vote system nor a pure consensus, but
rather a mixture of both. His system is one in which all voices were heard and
all views represented as much as possible. This way, as he put it, the “sense of

158 John Dickinson, untitled document [1802?], Government Documents, Revolutionary and Early
National Period, 1765“1788, n.d., JDP/LCP.
159 See Beer, To Make a Nation, for example: “For Madison, although men differed greatly in
their ˜faculties,™ they all had ˜reason™ suf¬cient to enable and to entitle them to live a free,
republican life” (365).
160 Dickinson would not have been alone in his concerns on this point. Beer notes that the
shortcomings of this very rational theory were widely recognized at the time and tempered
by the theories of others, such as James Wilson (Dickinson™s former law student), on public
“affections” that would reconcile citizens to a common interest (To Make a Nation, 363“77).
Wilson™s theories look much like secular versions of Dickinson™s. Beer notes, for example,
Wilson™s belief in an inward moral “guide” (366); that “the heart of the political process”
for Wilson “was individual re¬‚ection and collective deliberation” (370); and the “danger of
perfectionism” that “lurk[ed] in Wilson™s exalted view of social passion” (367).
308 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

the people”161 as a whole, and the “sense of the states” were used to determine
the direction of the polity, rather than merely a count of individual opinions.
“In this way of proceeding,” he said,
[T]he undoubted sense of every state, collected in the coolest manner, not the sense
of individuals, will be laid before the whole union in congress, and that body will be
enabled with the clearest light that can be afforded every part of it . . . forthwith to
adopt such alterations as are recommended by the general unanimity; by degrees to
devise modes of conciliation upon contradictory propositions.162

America would be protected from the natural aristocracy turning into tyranny,
Fabius explained, by “the power of the people pervading the proposed sys-
tem, together with the strong confederation of the states, [which] forms an
adequate security against every danger that has been apprehended” “ anarchy,
democratic despotism, or tyranny by a nobility or an executive.163
There were three factors that made Dickinson the natural leader on the sub-
ject of a national-federal government. First, he was one of the few framers, if
not the only one, who had been studying and writing about constitutionalism
since the days of Empire and struggling with how federalism could work under
this model. His colleagues had come of age politically in an era that sought to
destroy a central government; Dickinson, by contrast, had always been con-
cerned with preservation. Second, he was the only delegate who had interests in
both one of the largest states (Pennsylvania) and one of the smallest (Delaware),
thus giving him a unique perspective on the debate. Third, his life in the Quaker
community made him intimately familiar with a workable federal system.164
This model was perhaps the best from which to formulate the solution to the
problem of majority and minority expressions.165 Within this context, then, he
was not as innovative as some have claimed. He was not “rebelling” against
earlier traditions of hierarchical thought, as American republicans were.166 He
was doing what he recommended to other politicians of the time “ drawing
on history and experience. There was not, therefore, as some have claimed, an
entire “absence of positive examples” of a federal system.167 As conversant as
Dickinson was with ancient history and philosophy, the Quaker system was a
tangible example close at hand.168

161 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 20.
162 Ibid., 47“48.
163 Ibid., 6.
164 Beer acknowledges that the origins of the “delegate convention model of political organization”
can be traced back to “certain Protestant sects.” He does not, however, mention which ones
165 With Dickinson™s close ties to Delaware, it is not likely a coincidence that it was the ¬rst state
to ratify the Constitution.
166 Beer, To Make a Nation, 22.
167 Greene, Peripheries and Center, 161.
168 J. C. D. Clark in The Language of Liberty, 1660“1832: Political Discourse and Social Dynam-
ics in the Anglo-American World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) suggests that
Americans might have drawn on the Holy Roman Empire as a model, but anti-Catholicism
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 309

Yet Dickinson did not advocate a Quaker model in its entirety or indiscrim-
inately. When he wrote that “[t]he best Philo[sophy] is drawn from Exper-
iments[;] The best Policy from Experience,” he had the “Holy Experiment”
in mind.169 He seems to have learned from both the mistakes and the salu-
tary principles and practices of Pennsylvania Quaker government and church.
The Pennsylvania Charter was decidedly unbalanced in favor of the popu-
lar branch, yet the government was controlled by the powerful hand of the
Quaker spiritual aristocracy, which, many inhabitants of Pennsylvania argued,
had become an oligarchy not just of spirit but of wealth. If we remember, in
the controversy over royal government, Dickinson lauded the lop-sided Penn-
sylvania constitution. “Our legislation,” he said, “suffers no checks, from a
council instituted, in fancied imitation of the House of Lords.”170 But this sys-
tem created a population that was restless under the supervision of the Quaker
church in part, ironically enough, because of the antiauthoritarianism of its
teachings, which in turn necessitated more control from above. In other words,
because the democratic and aristocratic elements of the government converged
in one house, although Pennsylvania™s government had been stable for decades,
it was increasingly unsteady because there was not a system of real popular
control that had checks and balances. Then when the Pennsylvania Conven-
tion adopted the same governmental structure, but without the Quaker check,
disorder ensued. Nevertheless, at one time, the elements of popular sovereignty
and aristocratic representation were there, and insofar as they worked “ or had
potential to work “ Dickinson drew on them.171

“prevented colonists from exploring the federal implications of Roman-law traditions: feder-
alism was not a common topic of American speculation before 1776” (103). If we remember
Dickinson™s thought in the Farmer™s Letters, however, speci¬cally his argument concerning
internal and external taxation (101), we see that he was already working toward this concept.
He revived his old argument in the Constitutional Convention (132).
169 John Dickinson, notes, n.d., Government Documents, Revolutionary and Early National Peri-
ods, 1765“1788, LCP.
170 Dickinson, A Speech, 16.
171 Also, when considering Dickinson™s concern to control democratic impulses, one should not
make the mistake of assuming that he shared the oligarchic inclinations of some Quakers. With
their privileged position in society, Friends were sometimes willing to engage in heavy-handed
tactics to achieve their theologico-political aims “ tactics that, while not necessarily illegal,
could involve ¬‚outing conventions of civil or legal process and honorable behavior. As we
have seen, in England they obstructed the courts by overattention to legal technicalities; and in
Pennsylvania they subverted the governor by petitioning the king in secret, and they imposed
the af¬rmation on non-Friends in courts rather than the oath. Although Dickinson shared most
of the theologico-political aims, he paid greater heed to civil processes and conventional ethics
than Friends. A notable example of the differences between them was when Dickinson and
Quakers were suing a man for establishing a theater on land Dickinson sold him, in violation
of an agreement to the contrary. In order to prevail, the Quakers encouraged Dickinson to use
his greater wealth either to bribe the defendant or to prolong the trial and win by draining his
opponent™s purse. But Dickinson refused to use his wealth and abuse the judicial system in this
way, even though it meant losing this particular battle. A series of letters over the course of
1791 on this matter between Dickinson, Charles Jervis, Henry Hill, and George Read can be
found in Ser. 1. a. Correspondence, 1762“1808, RRL/HSP.
310 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

When the Constitution was in the process of being rati¬ed in 1788, and
when the Quaker 1669 Discipline was instituted, neither the Framers nor the
Quaker leaders sought consensus or complete popular approval. Had they done
so, they knew that no constitution would ever have been implemented. When
Quakers created their ecclesiastical Discipline, some individuals who consid-
ered themselves good Quakers opposed it bitterly. Therefore, after Barclay
wrote his treatise explaining and defending the creation of the Discipline, it
was imposed on the entire body over the objections of some. Likewise, after
the Federalist Papers and the Fabius Letters, as well as other popular appeals
on behalf of the Constitution were published, when it was rati¬ed, there was
mixture of persuasion and coercion as Anti-Federalists were made to accept a
framework that seemed to them un-American. The Framers of both constitu-
tions expected that those who disagreed would abstain from obstructionism
and agree to support the new government, regardless of their disapproval. Of
course, such graceful acquiescence was not always forthcoming, and in both
polities, the threat of schism has always lurked where unity was weak.

Conclusion: The Flexible and Perfectible Constitution
Some scholars deny that Dickinson was after a “theoretical perfection” in the
Constitution.172 On the contrary, he did believe that perfection was theoreti-
cally possible. But he was also willing to accept momentary imperfection that
would allow the polity to move forward to its goals. Temporary imperfec-
tion was acceptable and theoretical perfection possible for the same reason.
Dickinson explained the on-going process of constitution making:
If all the wise men of ancient and modern times could be collected together for deliber-
ation on the subject, they could not form a Constitution or system of government that
would not require future improvements. The British government which some persons so
much celebrate is a collection of innovations. There is a continual tide in human affairs,
a progression still towards something better than what is possessed. The unceasing rea-
son has carried man to delightful discoveries, greatly ameliorating his condition. There
are other discoveries yet to be made and perhaps more favorable to his condition.173

The U.S. Constitution was thus designed to be a living, ¬‚exible document
that would change as the polity matured to re¬‚ect “the living Elasticity within
Man.”174 The delegates, he said, “not only laboured from the best plan they
could, but, provided for making at any time amendments on the authority of the
people, without shaking the stability of the government.”175 Beer calls Edmund
Burke “one of the ¬rst political thinkers to recommend prudent, gradual, but
continual adaptation and improvement.”176 This attribution is perhaps more

172 Ahern, “The Spirit of American Constitutionalism,” 57“76, 75.
173 John Dickinson, notes, n.d., Ser. 1. b. Political, 1774“1807, n.d., RRL/HSP.
174 Ibid.
175 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 47.
176 Beer, To Make a Nation, 141.
U.S. Constitution According to John Dickinson 311

applicable to Dickinson and other Quakerly thinkers and politicians since the
seventeenth century. Likewise, while Americans in general had ¬nally come to
see a “distinction between a constitution and ordinary law,” it had existed for
over a century in Quaker theory and practice.177 “Thus, by a gradual process,”
said Dickinson, “we may from time to time introduce every improvement in
our constitution, that shall be suitable to our situation.”178 He believed that the
United States would eventually be a “perfect body” that “corresponds with the
gracious intentions of our maker towards us his creations.”179 This idea allows
Americans to continue the on-going process of constitutional “gathering.” The
polity would be, Dickinson explained, “ever new, and always the same.”180

177 Rakove, Original Meanings, 130.
178 Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 47.
179 Ibid., 45.
180 Ibid., 23.

The Persistence of Quaker Constitutionalism,

In undertaking a study of the origins of ideas and the in¬‚uence of groups and
individuals on movements and events, de¬nitive evidence is often dif¬cult to
come by. Moreover, parallel strains of thought often arise from similar sources
and develop independently from one another, allowing individuals moving
in different circles to come to similar conclusions without knowledge of one
another. Unless the historian ¬nds solid evidence, such as well-used books in
a personal library or that rare explicit statement bestowing credit, much of
the in¬‚uence must be deduced through the practical expression of a strain of
thought and the ubiquity of the culture it created. It is clear, for example,
that despite the absence of a succinctly articulated theory of civil disobedience
in the early modern period, Quakers were the ¬rst practitioners of it. By the
late-eighteenth century, this language and tradition was concrete enough that
it could be recognized and explicitly referenced as an example, as Dickinson
did during the Revolution.
To the extent American resistance to Britain remained peaceful, inspired by
Quakerism, Dickinson became the ¬rst leader of a national peaceful protest
movement, a position that would later be held by Gandhi and Martin Luther
King, Jr. But because until now he has not been recognized as such, we cannot
properly consider him the “founder” of this tradition of leadership. He was not
their model; he was merely the ¬rst. Some might object that this designation is
inaccurate because the cause he led ultimately resulted in war. But we should not
forget that both Gandhi™s and King™s peaceful protests had the same unintended
effect of encouraging violence among their followers. Moreover, although he
did admit the necessity of defensive war in rare cases, and although he ultimately
joined the cause by ¬ghting, at no point did Dickinson ever advocate war or
revolution for America. And as to the question of going to war compromising
his paci¬st principles, even Gandhi admitted the necessity of defensive violence
to stop certain kinds of assailants.1 The paci¬st stance need not be an absolute

1 Namely snipers and rapists. See Mark Juergensmeyer, “Nonviolence,” The Encyclopedia of
Religion, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 6645“49, 6646.

Persistence of Quaker Constitutionalism 313

one, and Dickinson™s happened to be more pragmatic, though no less sincere,
than that of his Quaker brethren.2
But although Dickinson led the peaceful protest against Britain, and it is
clear that he exerted strong and direct in¬‚uence early in the con¬‚ict, because
the violence continued to escalate, and the Revolutionary War did eventually
take place, his in¬‚uence was short-lived and circumscribed. When we consider
that even in the twenty-¬rst century, when Quaker dissent and paci¬sm are
still mistaken for disloyalty to the country, it is not surprising that his paci¬sm
diminished his reputation considerably and cost him his place in American
history.3 Before the Constitution, Americans were simply not ready “ and
perhaps had little pragmatic need “ for peaceful protest. As Josiah Quincy, Jr.,
told Dickinson in 1774, “those maxims of discipline are not universally known
in this early period of Continental warfare.”4 But this would change.
When Americans came to the understanding that a constitution needs to
be permanent, but changeable through peaceful measures, John Dickinson™s
thought and the Quaker tradition out of which he was writing immediately
became vitally relevant. A political theory such as Whiggism that allows con-
stitutional change through revolution is a ¬ne idea if a people wants to start
completely anew. But a different approach is needed if the object is to preserve
the fundamental constitution and achieve reform within the existing structure
of government. As Herbert Storing notes, after the Revolution the Federal-
ists became acutely aware of the need for moderation in reforming the new
Republic. Quoting Dickinson to the effect that “˜a people does not reform
with moderation,™” Storing explains that “[i]t is necessary that every precau-
tion be taken not to upset that original patriotic act and to preserve and foster
reverence for the laws, and particularly for the highest law.”5 An anonymous
newspaper article occasioned by the Whiskey Rebellion, found among Dickin-
son™s papers, proclaimed:
If our Constitution should prove either de¬cient or oppressive, it contains within itself
the seeds of its own reformation; if laws are either impolitic or unjust, a complaint

2 See Jane E. Calvert, “Paci¬sm,” in Gary L. Anderson and Kathryn G. Herr, eds., The Encyclope-
dia of Activism and Social Justice (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2007), 3: 1075“78.
3 Shortly after September 11, 2001, but before the commencement of the Iraq War, the govern-
ment began illegal surveillance of Quaker meetings, individuals, and organizations in various
parts of the country for their peaceful protest activities. See American Civil Liberties Union,
“ACLU of Colorado Seeks to Close Denver Police ˜Spy Files™ on Peaceful Protesters, Includ-
ing Quakers and 73-Year-Old Nun,” March 28, 2002, http://www.aclu.org/freespeech/protest/
11056prs20020328.html. Accessed February 19, 2008. For later reports in addition to those
from the ACLU, see, for example, Lisa Myers, Douglas Pasternak, Rich Gardella, and the
NBC Investigative Unit, “Is the Pentagon spying on Americans? Secret database obtained by
NBC News tracks ˜suspicious™ domestic groups,” December 14, 2005. http://www.msnbc.msn.
com/id/10454316/. Accessed January 12, 2008.
4 Josiah Quincy, Jr., to John Dickinson, August 20, 1774, Ser. 1. a. Correspondence, 1762“1808,
5 Herbert J. Storing, What the Anti-Federalists Were For (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1981), 74.
314 The Political Quakerism of John Dickinson

of our grievances or change of our representation, open the path to every desirable
amendment. In countries where the interest and authority of government are distinct
and independent from the interests and will of the people, insurrection may have been
ranked among the most sacred of duties; in ours who can hesitate to regard it as the
most pernicious of crimes?6

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