A careful man who was also meticulous and demanding of those around him, John Dickinson, achieved greatness as a politician in the years before the American Revolution. His popularity and fame eventually came crashing down when his convictions kept him from signing the Declaration of Independence.
Dickinson's political career began when he was 27 years old. He was elected to represent Kent County at the Delaware Assembly which met in the New Castle Court House in 1759. From that point forward until 1792, John Dickinson's life revolved around the political arena in Philadelphia and Delaware.
Born into a Quaker family, John Dickinson was also the son of a wealthy tobacco planter. His place in society was determined at birth. Because of his family's wealth, Dickinson made good use of the opportunity to study abroad in England. At Middle Temple, part of the Inns of Court in England, he studied law, but found constitutional law and history the most satisfying. This proved to be invaluable training when the English constitution came under great scrutiny during the years before the Revolution. But, ingrained in him from his studies at Middle Temple was the belief that the British constitution was good and fair.
Though not a Quaker, Dickinson's religious conscience was greatly influenced by his devout mother and wife. As time went on, the family with their Quaker connections persuaded John to take his religious background more seriously. This included embracing the belief that no man could own another human being and therefore slavery was no abomination.
John Dickinson's political experiences varied, but he never strayed far from his ideals or family upbringing. He began a busy political career by supporting the Pennsylvania constitution against efforts by Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Galloway to make it a royal colony. This cautious attitude continued throughout his career. He believed the British constitution provided rights to the colonists as well as the British subjects. He also felt that the colonial problems could be addressed peacefully and 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.