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John Dickinson
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John Dickinson

The penman who would not sign

Q&A | What a revolutionary leader can teach us about our contemporary policy debates

Issue: "Getting paid not aid," Feb. 22, 2014

Nationally syndicated columnist and Dallas Morning News veteran William Murchison is celebrating his 50th year as a journalist. He’s also the author of a new book about John Dickinson, known as the “Penman of the Revolution” for his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1768). This issue, dated Feb. 22, is the date of George Washington’s birthday in 1732, but Dickinson also was born that year and would be in the national pantheon with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and others had he agreed to sign the Declaration of Independence. Dickinson refused to, for reasons relevant to our contemporary policy debates.   

You’ve been a professional journalist for almost 50 years. We know journalism has changed, but has the typical reporter changed? Reporters used to be ordinary people who had not been to Harvard, had not been to Yale, hadn’t even been to Patrick Henry College here. They joined newspapers because they loved to be on the front line of events. They loved to tell stories. They loved to answer questions. “What’s all this about?” “What’s really going on?” “Why should we care about it?” They loved to answer those kinds of questions rather than to pose the question that journalists are fond of posing today, “Why don’t you agree with liberal intellectuals?”

You majored in history at The University of Texas. We both know the teaching of history in Texas and around the country has changed. The objective in those days was to present America as something good and useful, and its pursuits advantageous to the cause of liberty in human affairs. A few years ago the Texas State Board of Education in a controversial series of actions undertook to return teaching in some sense to the older ideals of America as being imperfect, of course, but nevertheless valuable. That was objected to by the liberal establishment and still is, I’m very sad to say.

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That brings us to your new book, The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson. He’s not well-known now, but he was important. Dickinson was a man as important to the country and to its growth in liberty and in harmony as George Washington. He had the vital understanding that it took centuries to develop liberty as understood and practiced in England and in the United States. The Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, the recognition that the common law gave to the precedents of English judges and jurists: It took centuries for the English to understand that liberty was the gift of God and was to be cherished. 

Did Dickinson think the British would come around? He hoped and prayed the British might come around to the understanding that not just the Englishmen at home, but the Englishmen on this side of the Atlantic, were due the rights and privileges and understandings of Englishmen. He could not see why this message could not be received. He spoke eloquently, as a member of the Pennsylvania assembly and the Continental Congress, in behalf of patience and the protracted efforts to extend recognition of the colonial people’s own understandings of British liberties. 

But by 1776 he knew otherwise. He knew by 1776 that the game was up. He had two reservations about the timing of independence. One was the disunity of the colonies at this time, particularly the middle colonies: Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey. The New York assembly had not yet made its mind up, and had told its delegates in Philadelphia not even to vote on the matter, but to abstain. Second, there was the lack of preparation for bringing in foreign powers—France. Dickinson wanted to be certain that if we took that fateful step in behalf of our claim to the same liberties that the English people enjoyed, that we would succeed. 

So on July 2, 1776, Dickinson voted neither aye nor nay on independence. Was that an abdication of responsibility? No—to have voted against independence would have been to say, “We can’t do this.” That was wrong. He didn’t feel that way. He kept away from the convention, and America declared independence. Dickinson then put on a military uniform and led a troop of Philadelphia militia off to the front, in defense of what he could not vote for. Here was courage and patriotism of a very high order.

But the Declaration of Independence worked out all right. Did Dickinson ever regret his decision? He never backed away from his decision not to sign the Declaration of Independence. He acknowledged in writing that it had all worked out all right, but he was a man of prudence. He wrote in favor of what he called “balanced moderation,” the idea that a thorough and wholesome discussion is necessary before extraordinary actions are taken.

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