“Dickinson was, in truth,” writes William Murchison,
as much philosopher as writer, a man to whom God had imparted the gifts not merely of expression but also of examination and reflection. Among the large fraternity active in the cause of independence, he gave place, intellectually, to no one.
That being indisputably the case, Dickinson’s inclusion in the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Lives of the Founders (really, Lives of the Forgotten Founders) can be explained only by his refusal to affix his signature to the Declaration of Independence, which he had done much to bring about. This admirable biography, just the third on Dickinson written in the 206 years since his death in 1808, gives us a clearer vision of the “Founders” as “conservers.”
Murchison writes, “Balance—‘an animated moderation’ [a phrase from Dickinson’s Letters of Fabius]—was the vital ingredient in the constitutional recipe.” Used here in the Aristotelian and Burkean sense, Murchison’s (correct) view of Dickinson’s entire career is that “recklessness in behavior never commended itself to an advocate of prudence.” Dickinson was, Murchison believes (following and agreeing with his fellow Texans M.E. Bradford and Forrest McDonald), an “American Burke”:
The metaphor is compelling if not easy to sustain at every junction. Both statesmen were deeply read in common law and philosophy. The present they understood as a patch on the past. Modern needs had to be consulted, yes, but always with an eye on the processes by which men had come to their present estate—and on the delicacy necessary to a successful project of reform. To pull up a tree by the roots was an act akin to murder. When it came to roots, the rights of Englishmen, wherever they lived, had the same natural character as trees. Down, down they went into the matter and material of history, as lived by discrete men and women: their stories, their challenges, their failures and successes forming the foundation known as experience.
This book is a glimpse at both Murchison’s understanding of Dickinson’s heart and his elegance in expressing it. One can read hundreds of biographies of the worthy men and women from the founding era, and this would be on the short list of those most beautifully written.
How to structure telling the life of such a gifted man, especially in 75,000 words, more or less? Despite the Burkean metaphor, which Murchison does not beat to death—he states it early and then lets us perceive it at key moments in Dickinson’s life—the main storyline is not an argument for one kind of conservatism or another. It is what the title says: the cost of liberty. Dickinson was no man to trifle with; the king in parliament and the Second Continental Congress found that out in equal measure. His life, however, was not in any sense a series of episodes opposing matters with which he did not agree, but rather an unfolding of what was arguably the most thoughtful consideration of the meaning of liberty offered by any man of his generation.
Dickinson, like most American leaders, thought deeply about liberty. “American political discourse,” Forrest McDonald has written, “was an ongoing public forum on the meaning of liberty.” Few Americans, however, endeavored to define the word, choosing to let their actions and their public documents describe it. When Dickinson felt it necessary to resort to definition in his Letters of Fabius he referred to “that perfect liberty better described in the Holy Scriptures, than any where else, in these expressions—‘When every man shall sit under his vine, and under his fig-tree, and none shall make him afraid.’” Taken from Micah 4:4, this reference was certainly not unique to Dickinson. In fact, it was far and away the most common description of liberty used in the 18th century in both England and the early United States.
Murchison, delightfully, gives small but significant space to Dickinson’s authorship of “The Liberty Song,” a “pleasant if somewhat deviant achievement in the Dickinson chronicles.” In May 1768, British customs seized John Hancock’s sloop Liberty, which produced one of the many Boston blowbacks against British colonial policy under the Townshend Acts. That Hancock probably was guilty of smuggling under the offensive laws made little difference. Dickinson, observing events from Philadelphia, and already well known for his Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania, was inspired to write American lyrics to the tune of a very popular English marching song, “Heart of Oak.” He apologized to James Otis that, although “I have long since renounced poetry,” it is true that even “indifferent songs are very powerful on certain occasions, [so] I venture to invoke the deserted muses.” Otis, the Adams cousins Sam and John, and all New England patriots were thrilled at what became the most widely sung patriotic song until “Yankee Doodle” replaced it.
Come join hand in hand, brave
And rouse your bold hearts at
fair Liberty’s call;
No tyrannous acts shall suppress
your just claim,
Or stain with dishonor Ameri-
Murchison perceives what Yale’s Timothy Dwight would say a few years after Dickinson: “Allow me to make the songs of a nation, and who will may make their laws.”
Dickinson was a child and man of privilege, an owner of land and slaves (mostly in Delaware) from a young age; one of only about 200 colonials able to attend the Inns of Court in London; the beneficiary of a strong Quaker heritage (about which Murchison is ambivalent, as he should be—Dickinson’s Christianity was both broader and more orthodox) that gave him the opportunity for a good marriage to Mary Norris, the daughter of one of the wealthiest of Philadelphia businessmen. He was a farmer, and a man of business affairs, but his heart was buried in the common law. “Long after the young lawyer’s return to America,” writes Murchison, “the impress of the Middle Temple remained to be recognized. Not on John Dickinson’s brow: behind it, rather.”
Dickinson’s fight played out in every major public controversy from the end of the Great War for Empire in 1763 through the election of Thomas Jefferson in the Revolution of 1800. He opposed Franklin’s initiative to have Penn’s charter revoked and the proprietary colony turned into a royal one. He became the spokesman for the colonial opposition to the Stamp Act and, subsequently, the “Penman of the Revolution,” beginning with his magnificent defense of the rights of Englishmen in Letters From a Farmer. He was a leader in both Continental Congresses, ultimately refusing to sign the Declaration. He joined the army in defense of his country, one of two members of the Second Continental Congress to do so. He wrote the first draft of the Articles of Confederation. He served as president of Pennsylvania in the difficult 1780’s, helping his former rival Franklin to overturn a popular but overly democratic state constitution. He played a key role in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and wrote its most widely circulated defense, the Letters of Fabius. He ended his public days as a defender and friend of Thomas Jefferson, suspicious of the growing powers of the federal government. Not one person, excepting perhaps John Adams, was in so many places and did so many things in defense of the liberties they all cherished. Few approached his stature, intelligence, and influence. Nobody was as underappreciated for his efforts.
Murchison shows brilliantly how a common thread runs through this complex career, even when one stance may seem to contradict another. How could the man who so vigorously defended colonial rights refuse to sign the Declaration? How could the writer of the Letters of Fabius become a Jeffersonian? Murchison provides the real clue when he writes about Dickinson’s opposition to Franklin’s popular, but ill-advised and self-interested, proposal to abolish the Pennsylvania proprietorship:
It seemed likely to [Dickinson] that, imperfect as the order of things might be under the proprietorship, turning the box upside down, emptying its concerns on the floor, then refilling it with new ideas and administrative geegaws could badly impair Pennsylvanians’ freedoms.
“Pennsylvanians’ freedoms”? They turn out to be, not the abstractions of natural rights, but the realities of English and American colonial constitutional history; not the Lockean abstractions of tabula rasa and the social contract, but the timeless truths of the Bible and the hard lessons of Greek and Roman history and reason. “Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us,” he told the Constitutional Convention on August 13, 1787, exactly one month after the passage of the Northwest Ordinance, which Dickinson had nothing to do with but which embodied all his principles. What a difference it might have made, as Murchison notes, following Forrest McDonald, “if Dickinson had swallowed his scruples and voted for independence,” in which case he probably would have been asked to write the Declaration. What a difference it might have made had the wartime Congress adopted his draft of the Articles of Confederation instead of the watered-down version they passed in 1777!
At the same time, Murchison is quick to point out, Dickinson “was too much the American” to repudiate the actions of those who did not appreciate his reasoning. “The land and the people were his own,” Murchison says. Neither could he give over affairs to those who chose to remain loyal to the king: “He loved liberty too much to concede its protection to those who had proved disdainful of its obligations and requirements.”
Nor could Dickinson give himself over to those whom he knew were straying from the course of experience. After Washington, there was a
growing attachment to the person and the ideals of Thomas Jefferson: two farmers, as it were, leagued closer and closer in support of a strict understanding of those things the government could legitimately claim title to do and those it could not.
The Hamiltonian innovators were just as dangerous to liberty as the king’s men had been. Where Dickinson and Jefferson parted ways (and here there is not quite enough of the story told) was in the former’s conviction that the Convention of 1787 had not done enough, had not worked hard enough, to deal effectively with slavery. Dickinson freed all his slaves (“only” 36 or 37, few in comparison with the numbers on Washington’s and Jefferson’s properties) and predicted to his daughter that the Constitution might be fatally flawed by its failure to follow suit.
William Murchison has done his duty to what is left of the republic by restoring to us in charming and trenchant prose one of its greatest early leaders. This is an achievement I will pass along to my students and recommend to all lovers of liberty.
[The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson, by William Murchison (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books) 252 pp., $25.00]