The Slave Holder
The sin of slavery ran like a deeply rooted stain defiling the politics and social fabric of most agricultural colonies in the 18th - 19th centuries. The Dickinsons were among the largest slave owners in the Delaware Valley holding at least 59 individuals. In 1760 John Dickinson with his brother inherited the plantation as well as the enslaved men, women and children working on it. In 1786, a year before the Constitutional Convention began, Dickinson freed his slaves, the only founding father to do so during his own live time.
Dickinson recognized the glaring hypocrisy of fighting for freedom while holding laborers in bondage. As he grew older he adhered more closely to the conscientiousness held by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the religion in which he was raised but not a member, and he increasingly embraced abolitionism. In An Essay of a Frame of Government for Pennsylvania (1776), he proposed a law that "No person hereafter coming into, or born in this country, [to] be held in Slavery under any pretense whatever" and pushed for the repeal of another law that discouraged manumission by requiring owners to provide “security” for even young and healthy former slaves. As president of Delaware in 1782, he urged the same to the Assembly, and also that families not be "cruelly separated from one another, and the remainder of their lives extremely embittered." He hoped Delawareans would emulate Pennsylvania by "pass[ing] laws for alleviating the afflictions of this helpless, and too often abused part of their fellow creature" (Pennsylvania Packet, November 7, 1782). In 1786, he wrote abolition legislation for Delaware, but it did not pass. In the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Dickinson was one of the few delegates to vocally object to the slave trade on moral grounds and moved to have it prohibited in the Constitution. This motion resulted in Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution which imposed sanctions on and prohibited the importation of slaves after 1808.
On a personal level, in 1777, John Dickinson conditionally manumitted most of the enslaved African Americans working for him with the proviso that they work an additional 21 years, but finally in 1786, he unconditionally freed all his slaves. Many remained working as tenant farmers, while he continued to provide for those who could no longer work. Some continued living in dwellings in the Dickinson "peach orchard" where they were "not to be disturbed." Some remained employed by the Dickinson family, and others associated with the family in varying ways. To wit, records show that Dinah, one of the formerly enslaved women married Peter Patten, a neighboring free black farmer, himself the owner and farmer of 642 acres.
For more information on the enslaved African Americans at the Dickinson Plantation Click to hear this Podcast
Recently, a burial ground was found at John Dickinson Plantation. For more information, CLICK HERE
Much of the source information on this page is cited from "Contradictions of Freedom in a New Nation" The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, as provided by notes from the John Dickinson Writings Project, Director and Chief Editor, Jane E. Calvert (University of Kentucky), and from Gloria Henry in the podcast link shown above.