John Dickinson: Friend of Conscience

John Dickinson (1732-1808) of Delaware and Pennsylvania has been called the “Penman of the Revolution.” An attorney who studied in the Middle Temple at London’s Inns of Court, Dickinson had one of the finest legal educations in America. His Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1767-68) argued convincingly that Parliament had no power to tax American colonists to raise revenue and unified Americans to resist Britain peacefully. Forrest McDonald has written that their “impact and their circulation were unapproached by any publication of the revolutionary period except Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.”

Dickinson was an active member of the Stamp Act Congress and the First and Second Continental Congresses. Among other accomplishments, he played a leading role in drafting documents such as The Declaration and Resolves (1765) and the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms (1775). Influenced by his roots in the Society of Friends (Quakers), he advocated firm but peaceful resistance. He believed the Declaration of Independence to be precipitous and so spoke against it, but rather than cause division by casting a dissenting vote he chose to abstain. Yet Dickinson was not a pacifist, so once his home states decided to go to war he served in each of their militias.

Dickinson held a multitude of state offices, including president of both Delaware (1781-82) and Pennsylvania (1782-85). He was a delegate to the Federal Convention, and afterwards wrote a series of essays advocating the Constitution’s adoption. Dickinson was one of the largest slave owners in Delaware, but he conditionally freed his slaves in 1777 and manumitted them completely in 1786.[1]

For the purposes of this series, Dickinson is of particular interest because he was born into the Society of Friends (Quakers). Founded by George Fox in seventeenth-century England, Quakers were dissenters who embraced positions that often put them at odds with civic officials.  For instance, they take the teachings of their Savior more literally than most Christians, refusing to swear oaths (Matthew 5:33–5:37) and serve in the military (Matthew 5: 39-44). As well, unlike virtually all other Christian sects up to that time, they permitted women to minister in churches on an equal footing with men.

Quakers were routinely jailed for refusing to swear loyalty oaths, and they were not permitted to testify in either civil or criminal trials. In England, the Quaker Act of 1696 permitted Friends to “affirm” rather than swear oaths in some instances, but the law did not apply in Britain’s colonies.

As with many issues, American colonists had to negotiate among themselves and, upon occasion with royal officials, to determine whether or how to accommodate Quakers. By the late eighteenth century Friends were tolerably well protected; for instance, they were usually permitted to affirm rather than swear oaths, and could in most states hire a substitute to serve in the militia.

Jane E. Calvert, director and chief editor of the John Dickinson Writings Project and the best student of this neglected founder, demonstrates that Dickson never formally joined a Quaker meeting but that he was nevertheless profoundly influenced by the tradition. Calvert argues that this influence is evident in a religious liberty provision he proposed in an early draft of the Articles of Confederation:

No person in any Colony living peaceably under the Civil Government, shall be molested or prejudiced in his or her person or Estate for his or her religious persuasion, Profession or practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain or contribute to maintain any religious Worship, Place of Worship, or Ministry, contrary to his or her Mind by any Law or ordinance hereafter to be made in any Colony different from the usual Laws & Customs subsisting at the Commencement of this War provided, that such person frequents regularly some Place of religious Worship on the Sabbath . . . [2]

Note that this provision is simultaneously radical and conservative. Perhaps most striking is Dickinson’s use of gender-inclusive language, likely the first time such language was proposed for an American constitutional document.

Substantively, Dickinson’s proposal does not attempt to disestablish existing state churches, but it limits the ability of states to make them more restrictive—something the New England colonies may well have contemplated doing once free from British oversight. The provision goes on to prohibit the creation of new religious tests and guarantees that “persons conscientiously scrupulous of taking” oaths will be permitted to affirm them. By phrasing the protection in this manner, Dickinson was consciously offering protection to non-Quakers who had objections to swearing oaths (several states protected only the ability of Quakers to affirm rather than swear).

This provision was not adopted, but Dickinson and other supporters of what many founders called “the sacred rights of conscience” deserve credit for including religious accommodations in the era’s state constitutions, legal codes, and even the text of the U.S. Constitution.

Some might argue that we may safely ignore Dickinson because he lost: the Declaration of Independence was approved, his draft religious liberty provision for the Articles of Confederation was rejected, and few embraced his egalitarian convictions regarding race and gender. Yet his voice was an important part of conversations that would eventually bear much fruit in America. If we hope to understand the America founders fully, we simply cannot ignore men like John Dickinson.

[1] Jane E. Calvert, “An Expansive Conception of Rights: The Abolitionism of John Dickinson,” in When in the Course of Human Events: 1776 in America and Beyond ed. William R. Jordan (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2018), 21–54. 39.

[2] Jane E. Calvert, “The Friendly Jurisprudence and Early Feminism of John Dickinson,” in Great Christian Jurists in American History ed. Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall (New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).