John Dickinson and His Letters

Letters and Correspondence

April 16, 2024
by Jude M. Pfister Also by this Author


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On December 2, 1767, there appeared in the Pennsylvania Chronicle the first letter in a series collectively called “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.” The anonymous first letter came at a critical time in the growing debate between Britain and her colonies over colonial policy. By late 1767, when the first of the letters appeared, America and Britain had already argued over the Stamp Act, which was repealed, causing the passage of the Declaratory Act of 1766. The two other acts from the 1760s which caused distress in the colonies were the Sugar Act of 1764, and the Townshend Duties of 1767. These acts, and the threat of more acts, led to the first colony-wide gathering of delegates in 1765 for what was known as the Stamp Act Congress.

These events were significant individually. They represented a formal questioning of colonial policy as conducted by Britain. Together, these developments put the American colonies in a place of formal dispute with Parliament and the king—the newly crowned George III. Disputes had certainly occurred before in the one hundred and sixty years since Jamestown was founded. But this was different. The colonies were more organized, had better colonial leadership, and stronger economies. Further, the development of a colonial legal system, within the boundaries outlined by British common law, ensured the colonies had a necessary framework established for questioning broader British policy through a functioning legal system. Additionally, the colonies had many leaders with several generations’ occupancy of the “new world” and these leaders had a vested interest.

John Dickinson, drawn from life, Philadelphia. (New York Public Library)

One such promising leader was John Dickinson (1732-1808). Son of a long-established Maryland family, young John moved with his parents to Delaware in the early 1740s. His father, Samuel, was a wealthy planter with large plantations staffed by enslaved Africans. Dickinson would continue this practice on his own lands later as an adult before manumitting his enslaved workers by 1788. As a young boy in Dover, Dickinson received an excellent education. He showed much promise and his parents felt him worthy of a classical English education at one of Britain’s oldest seats of legal learning: the Inns of Court (Middle Temple). The Inns prepared Englishmen to be Englishmen. The Dickinson’s were proud Englishmen. Proud of the heritage of individual liberty and political freedom grounded in the rule of law. Much like Thomas Jefferson would do in 1774 in his A Summary View of the Rights of British America, Dickinson looked to the distant English past in his writings for a recovery of American colonial liberty. He wrote in his Letters, “For my part, I am resolved to contend for the liberty delivered down to me by my ancestors; but whether I shall do it effectually or not, depends on you, my countrymen.”[1]

Young Dickinson took to his studies with gusto. Already exposed to legal learning before he left the colonies in the fall of 1753, Dickinson arrived in England on December 10, 1753, after a rough voyage which saw him ill most of the trip. He traveled with his enslaved man-servant Cato and was quickly befriended by his father’s business agent John Hanbury. “I drop in at dinner, tea, or supper, and pass away two or three hours with the greatest happiness,” he wrote.[2] Dickinson’s father had entrusted Hanbury with overseeing his son and his son’s allowance while in London.

Dickinson’s studious qualities surprised some of his classmates, for whom college and legal training was nothing more than an interlude before succeeding to a title or inheritance in the English land system. Dickinson studied the old English legal greats such as Francis Bacon and Edward Coke. Dickinson wrote to his father, “I tread the walks frequented by the ancient sages of the law; perhaps I study in the chambers where a Coke or Plowden has meditated. I am struck with veneration, and when I read their works, I almost seem to converse with them.”[3] English legal learning was going through changes during the time Dickinson studied in London (1753-1758) due in part to the Seven Years’ War (known in the colonies as the French and Indian War) and the ultimate resounding victory Britain would achieve in 1763. All the new territory and diplomatic challenges, along with routine administration work, stretched law to the breaking point in some cases. In no instance would this manifest itself more than in colonial policy within a decade of Dickinson’s return to the colonies. “The crosscurrents of legal thought swirling through the academic community when John Dickinson arrived in London were only a decade away from their greatest test in America.”[4]

Upon his graduation and return to the colonies Dickinson opened a law practice in Philadelphia and entered politics in 1759 in the Delaware Assembly. He was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1762. His political career coincided with Britain’s first attempt after the French and Indian War to raise revenue to finance new military posts in America. Dickinson’s timing was impeccable in starting his political career. He would go down in history as the “Penman of the Revolution,” a not entirely accurate portrayal nonetheless designed to boost his standing as a founder. Dickinson never advocated revolution and his writings were designed to inform, not inflame; to persuade, not agitate. John Dickinson was not Samuel Adams. A more accurate naming of Dickinson comes by way of a new biography by Dickinson scholar Jane Calvert called Penman of the Founding.

Tensions would only continue to simmer throughout the 1760s before entering a lull prior to the Boston Tea Party and subsequent violence at Lexington in 1775 when Britain and the colonies sank inexorably into warfare. But this was still in the future when John Dickinson became the Farmer and produced his “Letters” in 1767-1768. As mentioned, the “Letters” were not intended to promote revolt or violence. They were designed to instruct and educate the serious colonist about the issues at stake in the legal dispute with Britain. At its root, the conflict with Britain was legal, and a legal or political resolution should have provided the solution. The courtroom, not the battlefield, could have been the scene of the confrontation between the colonies and Britain. The ever-evolving common law of Britain would have made the courtroom or Parliament a difficult arena as Britain had no written constitution (it still does not). The ancient liberties and ancient constitution often referred to by Dickinson and other founders rested on pre-Norman conquest concepts of political liberty. While pre-Norman, these concepts were also post-Roman. The “sweet spot” of English, later British, liberty, was a roughly six-hundred-year period often referred to as the Anglo-Saxon period. Thomas Jefferson would also pinpoint the same time for his essay A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Few colonists could have been better prepared for this argument than Dickinson.

To prepare Americans for the debates over taxation that roiled the 1760s, Dickinson put his legal and historical education to use in the “Letters.” He held back initially from publishing after writing the first numbers because “I waited some time, in expectation of seeing the subject treated by persons much better qualified for the task.”[5] By 1767 however, “After the Sugar Act of 1764, the Stamp Act of 1765, the Declaratory Act of 1766, and the Townshend Duties of 1767, Dickinson felt his time had arrived. He was ready to try and explain to his countrymen what was going on in greater detail.”[6]

In the first letter, Dickinson, aside from introducing the series of letters, wrote about the 1765 Quartering Act and the suspension of the New York legislature. Dickinson saw the suspension as an attack on all the colonies, not just New York. He wrote,

In my opinion they [New York] acted prudently, considering all circumstances, in not complying so far as would have given satisfaction, as several colonies did. But my dislike of their conduct in that instance, has not blinded me so much that I cannot plainly perceive, that they have been punished in a manner pernicious to American freedom, and justly alarming to all colonies.[7]

American freedom being the operative phrase here. Americans, as all Englishmen, had a right to their elected representatives being able to function in their capacity. The legislature of each colony had the only government officials elected by the colonists themselves; this to Dickinson was of vital importance.

In the second letter Dickinson dealt with the Townshend duties and the tax on paper, glass, and other items. Dickinson acknowledged that Parliament “unquestionably possesses the legal authority to regulate the trade of Great Britain, and her colonies.”[8] Did “regulate” include taxation? That, Dickinson never said. Perhaps the most important aspect of the second letter was Dickinson’s admission of his deep research into the subject of his letters, writing that he had,

Looked over every statute relating to these colonies, from their first settlement to this time. . . . All before [the Stamp Act], are calculated to regulate trade, and preserve or promote a mutually beneficial intercourse between several constituent parts of the empire.[9]

From this research, Dickinson argued “the raising of revenue thereby was never intended”; rather, regulation was meant to ensure the economic well-being of the empire.[10] For Dickinson, the question was “whether the parliament can legally impose duties to be paid by the people of these colonies.[11]

By letter three, Dickinson had to contend with concerns being expressed by readers about the previous two letters. Dickinson felt the need to reiterate the purpose of his work:

The meaning of them is, to convince the people of these colonies, that they are at this moment exposed to the most imminent dangers; and to persuade them immediately, vigorously, and unanimously, to exert themselves, in the firm, but most peaceable manner, for obtaining relief.[12]

In letter four, Dickinson forcefully approached the topic of taxation, clarifying a comment in an earlier letter that Parliament cannot “lay upon these colonies any ‘tax’ whatever.”[13] He argued any imposition “for the sole purpose of levying money” to be unconstitutional.[14] Dickinson added to the already hotly debated topic of internal versus external taxes (internal being those taxes imposed within the boundaries of a colony and external those imposed outside the boundaries). writing,

There may be internal and external IMPOSITIONS founded on different principles, and having different tendencies; every “tax” being an imposition, tho’ every imposition is not a “tax.” But all taxes are founded on the same principle; and have the same tendency.[15]

Dickinson saw the essence of American liberty within the British colonial system to be the lack of internal taxation legislation dating to the founding of the Jamestown settlement. Why now, he wondered in letter five, was revenue-raising legislation being placed upon the colonies? Was a regulation (external) the same as a tax (internal)?

In letter six, Dickinson further developed his thinking on taxation and regulation and internal and external impositions. It was a complicated issue and even more complicated to try and explain through his letters. Dickinson made the case “that regulation is just that, regulating the exports and imports to ensure, as far as possible, an equitable distribution of wealth. This differs measurably, in Dickinson’s definition, from a tax designed strictly to raise revenue from the American colonies.”[16] For Dickinson, these distinctions were what made the American approach to government revenue different from Britain.

Dickinson continued this line of thought in letter seven. He also dismissed the growing number of critics who questioned some of his reasoning. In letter seven, Dickinson took up a history lesson of taxation starting with the Roman Emperor Nero. He tried to show that once a tax was imposed, no matter how small, the tendency would always exist to increase the tax, making any imposition a long-term problem. Further, as Dickinson argued, an imposition of a tax would impact everyone, regardless of ability to pay. For decades, local legislatures oversaw impositions at the colony level, and they were primarily levied along an ability-to-pay type of arrangement. The Parliament-imposed taxes were a large net thrown over the entire population without regard for ability. Lastly, lurking deep within Dickinson’s long-term thesis was the inevitable question: if the British could suddenly impose a tax, what would they do next?

Letter eight largely followed along the lines of letter seven. Likely the major red herring of letter eight was Dickinson attempting to show that the winning of the French and Indian War only benefitted the British, not the Americans as well. Dickinson understood the American’s were as interested in the western lands as the British. Indeed, to an extent the colonists were desirous of Britain engaging in the Seven Years’ War in America to allow the colonists to settle further and further west into Indian territory. Dickinson was starting to run out of arguments. Letters nine, ten, and eleven saw Dickinson repackaging previous arguments to make sure his points were not missed. In letter eleven Dickinson reiterated his fear of any tax imposition:

When an act injurious to freedom has been once done, and the people bear it, the repetition of it is most likely to meet with submission. For as the mischief of the one was found to be tolerable, they will hope that of the second will prove so too; and they will not regard the infamy of the last, because they are stained with that of the first.[17]

Overall, Dickinson’s “Letters” were “subtle but clear,” and “contributed more than any other exposition to convince Americans that they” were the victims of British tyranny.[18]

The “Letters” helped to galvanize the attitudes and understandings brewing in the 1760s. Dickinson captured more than the essence of the argument – he captured the emotions of the argument percolating against Britain. Benjamin Franklin saw to the publication of the “Letters” in London and from there they were translated into French in Paris. No less than Edmund Burke and Voltaire were admirers. According to the witty nineteenth and twentieth century British historian George Otto Trevelyan, the “Letters” “were read by everybody in the two capitals of civilization who read anything more serious than a play-bill.”[19] However famous the “Letters” made Dickinson, his refusal to sign the Declaration of Independence made him more infamous in the eyes of many later historians and memory makers. That has unfortunately overshadowed his contributions to the great American debate with Britain.


[1] Gordon S. Wood, ed., The American Revolution—Writings from the Pamphlet Debate Volume 1, 1764-1772 (New York: Literary Classics of the United States), 489.

[2] Jane E. Calvert, ed., The Complete Writings and Selected Correspondence of John Dickinson, Volume 1, 1751-1758 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2020), 20.

[3] Eric Stockdale, and Randy J. Holland, Middle Temple Lawyers and the American Revolution (Eagan: Thomson West, 2007), 61.

[4] Jude M. Pfister, Defining America in the Radical 1760s: John Dickinson, George III and the Fate of Empire (Jefferson: McFarland & Company), 129.

[5] Wood, ed., The American Revolution—Writings from the Pamphlet Debate Volume 1, 410.

[6] Pfister, Defining America in the Radical 1760s, 142-143.

[7] Wood, ed., The American Revolution—Writings from the Pamphlet Debate Volume 1, 410.

[8] Ibid., 413.

[9] Ibid., 413-414.

[10] Ibid., 414.

[11] Ibid., 421.

[12] Ibid., 422.

[13] Ibid., 426.

[14] Ibid., 427.

[15] Ibid., 429.

[16] Pfister, Defining America in the Radical 1760s, 148.

[17] Wood, The American Revolution—Writings from the Pamphlet Debate Volume 1, 475-476.

[18] Carl Becker, The Eve of the Revolution, A Chronicle of the Breach with England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1920), 133-134.

[19] George Otto Trevelyan, The American Revolution Abridgement (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1966), 6.

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