The Family Man
Born into a Quaker family, the son of a prominent tobacco planter; John Dickinson's place in society was assured at birth. Unlike most colonists in the 1700s, Dickinson's life could have been easy. 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. 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.
In 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. Samuel, John Dickinson's father succeeded William, continuing the legacy. Not only a prominent tobacco farmer Samuel was as a highly educated lawyer, respected among his peers, He later became first judge to the Court of Pleas in Kent County, Delaware, The family home and farm called Crosiador, was located on the Choptank River. Samuel's strong marketing connections could support a large, prospering family, but disease invaded all levels of society. His wife and five of his seven children died. Samuel remarried and his new family continued at Crosiadore where Mary Cadwalader Dickinson gave Samuel two more sons, John (1732) and his younger brother Philemon.
John's life in Delaware on Jones Neck began in 1740 at age six when Samuel moved his new family to Delaware, leaving his ancestral lands in Talbot County, Maryland to the surviving, now grown, children of his first marriage. However, by the mid-1700s tobacco was 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 were profitable enterprises. Samuel also looked after his sons' schooling, hiring a series of private tutors and later arranging for John to apprentice at a Philadelphia law firm. Two years later Samuel sent him to the Middle Temple, the most prestigious law school in London, England to study law four more years.
John's mother, Mary Cadwalader Dickinson, a Quaker with nonviolent convictions, also influenced John and helped to shape his thinking as a patriotic writer and effective legislator during the American Revolutionary period. Though not a Quaker himself John became an abolitionist. He freed all his slaves before the Constitutional Convention had begun and unsuccessfully fought to legislate against slavery there in Philadelphia and later, after ratification in Delaware. He was the only founding father that manumitted his slaves during his own lifetime.
In 1770, he married Mary Norris (called "Polly") the daughter of Isaac Norris, speaker of the Assembly in Philadelphia. Polly was a highly educated, wealthy Quaker from one of Philadelphia's most prominent families. With her sister she inherited Fair Hill, an estate near Philadelphia where the Dickinsons later lived. Thugh John practiced law, his developing interest in politics early on in his career limited time at home. Polly accepted his absences, but like his mother she was a strong, steadfast Quaker who continually implored him to follow the safer, more passive Quaker precepts more closely. The many letters between them that survive show an unfaltering love and mutually supportive relationship that existed between them.
John and Polly had five children, only two of whom, Sally and Maria, survived. Letters to his daughters show John was keenly interested in their education, and were filled with instructions and encouragement. The oldest, Sally, never married, but eventually inherited their estate on the St. Jones in Kent County, Delaware. The younger daughter, Maria, married into a prominent Philadelphia family, and her children inherited the Delaware property from their Aunt Sally upon her death.
John Dickinson's wealth and position afforded advantages which led to success, but the legacy of his ancestors, the influence of his parents, and his relationship with his wife and children defined John Dickinson as a devoted family man.