A prudent man, both meticulous and demanding, John Dickinson achieved greatness as a politician in the years before the American Revolution as well as after. His popularity and fame suffered temporarily when convictions kept him from signing the Declaration of Independence.
Born into a Quaker family, John Dickinson was the son of a prominent tobacco planter; his place in society was assured at birth. His family's wealth allowed him to study law abroad at Middle Temple, part of the Inns of Court, in England, He found the training in constitutional law and history most satisfying, which proved invaluable to him when the English constitution came under close scrutiny before the Revolution. Ingrained in him from his studies at Middle Temple was the belief that the British constitution was good and fair.
Dickinson's political career began at age 27 in 1759 when he was elected into the Delaware Assembly to represent Kent County in the New Castle Court House. From that point until 1792 John Dickinson's life involved politics both for Pennsylvania and Delaware.
Though not a Quaker himself, Dickinson's religious conscience was influenced by his devout mother and wife. As time went on, his family with their Quaker persuasions influenced him to take his religious background more seriously. This included embracing the belief that no man could own another human being; that slavery was an abomination. In fact, of all the founding fathers he was the only one that manumitted his slaves during his own lifetime.
Dickinson began his political career by supporting the Pennsylvania constitution against efforts by Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Galloway to change Pennsylvania into a royal colony. His sense of cautious calculation continued throughout his career. He believed the British constitution provided rights to the colonists as British subjects. He also felt that the colonial problems could be addressed peacefully through constitutional means.
After leading the moderate position up to the Declaration of Independence, Dickinson finally realized that a separation was inevitable. Even though he finally supported the majority and their efforts to attain separation, he could not with good conscience sign the document, because he did not believe the time was right. Those convictions earned Dickinson much contempt.
Dickinson was equally firm in his conviction that slave trading must be abolished. During the process of writing the U.S. Constitution he lobbied for that measure to be included. Although he was not among the majority, his (though not his alone) recommendation that the importation of slaves be halted in 1808 was included. Another of Dickinson's strong ideals was his thoughts on national government. And in this battle he won. He influenced the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States, as he was involved in the creation of both documents. Dickinson was convinced that the nation would only survive with a strong unified government. Each document mirrors those beliefs.
Best known in history as "The Pennsylvania Farmer," John Dickinson was a man with strong convictions. His determination to stand by his views won him both praise and scorn. He wanted "to make an immense bustle in this world," but he settled for being true to himself and eventually his God.