Book Review: The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson
“If Dickinson had swallowed his scruples and voted for independence, it is probable that he, not Jefferson, would have been chosen to write the Declaration of Independence. We can only speculate as to what a Dickinsonian Declaration would have said, but it seems likely that it would have been based upon English constitutional history rather than, as was Jefferson’s, upon natural-rights theory---with vastly different implications.”
No less an authority than the historian Forrest McDonald considers John Dickinson, “the most underrated of all the Founders.”
Modern audiences will be most familiar with John Dickinson as the stuffy, conservative foil to the patriotic John Adams in the musical 1776 and the HBO miniseries John Adams.
The truth, as always, is considerably more complicated.
William Murchison attempts to bring the true story of Dickinson’s life to modern audiences in his book The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.
John Dickinson was born in 1732 into a nominally Quaker family of wealthy planters outside of Philadelphia.
A bright youth with an eye for studies, his parents sent young John away to study law in London, a booming metropolis of some 700,000 souls, which dwarfed the perhaps 20,000 inhabitants of Philadelphia, then the largest city in British North America. He returned to Philadelphia as one of the most well-educated men in the colonies, steeped in the study of law, politics, and history.
Dickinson served with some distinction in the Pennsylvania Assembly, but he established his reputation as a leading American statesman in 1767-68 with a series of twelve essays titled, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, acknowledged on both sides of the Atlantic as the seminal colonial rebuttal to the Townshend Acts (of which the three-pence duty on tea became the most infamous).
He viewed the trifling three-pence Tea Tax as an ominous imperial foot in the door of colonial affairs. With his lawyerly mind, Dickinson saw the great principle at stake more clearly than anyone of his day: was the British Empire to be ruled by a Parliament with absolute central authority “in all cases whatsoever;” or were Parliament and the colonies to retain separate and sovereign spheres of influence, with the taxing power residing in the representative colonial assemblies?
Both by temperament and by training, Dickinson preferred calm and rational disputations to fevered revolutionary frenzies. He was a proud Patriot, although suspicious of independence. The majority of American colonials, particularly in the middle states, shared Dickinson’s conservative sentiments as late as 1775, but by then, the hated redcoats were beginning to shed colonial blood. Still, Dickinson urged restraint as he penned the famous Olive Branch Petition of 1775, urging King George III to reconcile his ministers with the colonies.
The plea for conciliation only hardened the king’s heart, and impatient New Englanders like John Adams began to view Dickinson’s restraint and caution as outright obstructions to independence, the new course of American liberty. For the most part, Dickinson not unreasonably demanded the support of a powerful ally like France before declaring independence.
As the simmering cauldron of independence boiled over in the summer of 1776, Dickinson earned his place in history by declining to sign the Declaration of Independence. Dickinson bravely defended his unpopular abstention, declaring:
“I can defy the world, Sir, but---I defy not heaven; nor will I ever barter my conscience for the esteem of mankind. So let my Country treat me as she pleases, still I will act as my conscience directs.”
Although always a respected statesman, that refusal vote for independence would haunt Dickinson for the rest of his political days.
It is important for modern-day readers to remember that Dickinson quarreled with John Adams over the strategy and timing of independence, not over the principles of colonial rights and liberties. A courageous Patriot to the core, the studious and sickly Dickinson resigned his seat in the Second Continental Congress to take up arms in the Continental Army, one of only two members of that august body to do so.
Before departing from Philadelphia, Dickinson bequeathed a priceless legacy to the young American republic, the first (Dickinson) draft of the Articles of Confederation.
After the War, Dickinson served as Presidents of both Delaware and Pennsylvania (even simultaneously, for three months) before joining the Constitutional Convention in 1787 as a delegate from Delaware. By then an honored elder statesman, Dickinson left his mark on the new U.S. Constitution with his successful motion for a Senate with members elected by the state legislatures.
The prosperous planter Dickinson also became one of the first and only Founding Fathers to follow the course of liberty through to its ultimate conclusion and to free his slaves in his own lifetime.
John Dickinson left a deep imprint on the American Revolution, from his landmark defense of colonial rights against the Townshend Acts all the way down to his influential support of the new U.S. Constitution, which his state Delaware proudly signed first.
William Murchison does indeed make a compelling case for John Dickinson as “the most underrated of all the Founders.”
However, Murchison rose to prominence in the field of journalism and never seems quite comfortable with the genre of biography.
This book feels for all the world like a rushed tour through a grand estate - fast-paced, but with insufficient time to dwell upon crucial details and context. Many of Dickinson’s actions require considerable context to understand. What was the British constitution? What were the rights of Englishmen, and what was their source? What were the events bringing the question of independence to a head in the summer of 1776?
These questions and dozens more beg for answers to illuminate Dickinson’s controversial conduct, but Murchison breezes over such critical details with only a passing sentence here and there, so riveted is he on the life of John Dickinson (his political life, that is - Dickinson’s wife Polly and their five children hardly merit a passing mention).
Murchison’s work will be a welcome addition to the library of the American Revolutionary junkie, but those less familiar with the history of Revolutionary America may wish to seek out a more comprehensive treatment of the life and times of John Dickinson.