The Family Man 

Unlike most colonists in the 1700s, John Dickinson's life could have been easy.  He was among the wealthy privileged.  The Dickinson family lineage had already passed down from father to son for three generations, but John Dickinson's political genius involved him in a lifelong struggle for America's liberty and independence.  In part he owed these accomplishments to the support of his family.  

John Dickinson's great-grandfather, Walter Dickinson, came to the colonies as a poverty-stricken indentured servant in the seventeenth century.  After he had completed his obligatory servitude he gained his freedom and settled on farming as a career. Tobacco was the cash crop in the 1600s, and profits could be made from tobacco even with only a few acres. By planting, harvesting, and shrewd investing Walter started a family heritage that survived for  generations. 


photo_tobacco_1.jpgIn 1717 Walter's son William took over running his father's plantation which had been established in Talbot County, Maryland. The land was still fertile enough to make tobacco a profitable crop. William was succeeded by his son Samuel who continued the legacy. Samuel fathered John Dickinson. Not only a prominent tobacco farmer Samuel was as a highly educated lawyer, respected among his peers, and later became a judge in Kent County, Delaware,  His farm and family home located on the Choptank River was called Crosiador.  Samuel built strong marketing connections to support a large, prospering family, but disease could invade all levels of society.  His wife and five of his seven children died. Samuel remarried and the family continued for awhile at Crosiadore where Mary Cadwalader Dickinson gave Samuel two more sons, John (1732) and a younger brother Philemon.

John's life in Delaware on Jones Neck, began at age six in 1740 when Samuel moved his second family to Delaware, leaving his ancestral lands in Talbot County, Maryland to the surviving, now grown, children from his first marriage.  By the mid-1700s, tobacco was becoming less profitable in Delaware due to soil exhaustion and market variables, so Samuel switched to grain farming. Consequently, his sons learned to oversee planting and harvesting of wheat, barley, rye, and corn, which remained profitable enterprises.  From their early ages Samuel looked after his sons' schooling, hiring a series of private tutors and later arranging for John to apprentice in a Philadelphia law firm.  Two years later Samuel sent him abroad to the Middle Temple, a most prestigious law school in London, England to study law for four more years.  John's mother, Mary Cadwalader Dickinson, a Quaker with strong convictions, also influenced John's life and helped shape his philosophy into a patriotic writer and legislator during the period of the American Revolution. 

Like his forebears, family was important to John Dickinson. In 1770, he married Mary Norris, the daughter of Isaac Norris, speaker of the Assembly in Philadelphia.  He also farmed and practiced law, but an interest in politics early in his career  limited time at home. His wife, Mary, accepted John's absences but was lonely without him. There are many letters photo_family_1.jpg between them that survive. These accounts show a love which became the backbone of their relationship, though the two often had to compromise, even as to where they should live. Like his mother, Mary was a strong, steadfast Quaker who continually implored John to follow the safer, more passive Quaker precepts more closely.

John and Mary had five children, only two of whom, Sally and Maria, survived.  John's absences were replaced with letters. John was keenly interested in their education, and his letters sent to his daughters were filled with instructions and encouragement. The oldest, Sally, never married, but she eventually inherited the estate in Kent County, Delaware. The younger daughter, Maria, married into a prominent family from Philadelphia, and her children inherited the Delaware property from their Aunt Sally upon her death.

John Dickinson lived a full life. His wealth and position afforded him many advantages, but he worked hard to make something of himself. He could not have accomplished anything without guidance from his family. It was the legacy of his ancestors, the influence of his parents, and his relationship with his wife and children that made John Dickinson a devoted family man.