Dickinson, John (1732–1808)

AuthorDennis J. Mahoney

Page 779

The conservative patriot leader John Dickinson, scion of a wealthy Quaker family, was called to the bar at the Middle Temple in London in 1757 and soon after returning to America became one of the most prosperous lawyers in Philadelphia. He served in the colonial legislatures of both Delaware and Pennsylvania, and in 1765 he rose to continental prominence with his pamphlets opposing the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act.

A delegate to the STAMP ACT CONGRESS (1765), Dickinson was the author of that body's Declaration of Rights and Grievances, ostensibly a loyal, even humble, petition to the king. Dickinson's resolutions condemned as unconstitutional the levying of internal taxes upon the colonists by the British Parliament and denounced as subversive of liberty the trial of offenses against tax laws by admiralty courts without juries. Dickinson himself later referred to the Declaration of Rights and Grievances as the first American BILL OF RIGHTS.

After the passage of the TOWNSHEND ACTS in 1767 Dickinson established himself as the preeminent American interpreter of the constitutional relationship between the colonies and Britain. His "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania" (1767?1768), published in all but four American newspapers, advanced an understanding of the British constitution that made Parliament supreme in imperial matters but proscribed all TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION. Moreover, he abandoned the distinction between external and internal taxes in favor of a distinction based on purpose: if a duty was laid for the purpose of raising revenue, rather than regulating commerce, then it was taxation and fell under the constitutional proscription. The Farmer's Letters counseled petition for repeal of, rather than resistance to, unconstitutional legislation.

By the time he wrote his long essay on "The Constitutional Power of Great Britain" in 1774, Dickinson had come to think of the British Empire as federal?comparable to the Swiss Confederation or the United Netherlands. The British king was king of the American colonies, but "a parliamentary power of internal legislation over these colonies appears ? equally contradictory to humanity and to the Constitution, and illegal."

In 1774 Dickinson represented Pennsylvania in the First Continental Congress. The petition to the king and the address to the inhabitants of Canada, adopted pursuant to the DECLARATION AND RESOLVES, were products of Dickinson's pen. In 1775...

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