John Dickinson (lawyer)

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John Dickinson

John Dickinson (November 13, 1732February 14, 1808), the "Penman of the Revolution", was a conservative Philadelphia lawyer, known for urging reconciliation instead of revolution, for which he was later vilified.

Dickinson was born to a tobacco-farming family in Talbot County, Maryland. In 1741 Dickinson's father moved the family to Kent County, Delaware (then part of the Lower Three Counties of Pennsylvania.) Dickinson was tutored at home, and at the age of 18 began studying law under John Moland of Philadelphia. He was then sent to study law at the Middle Temple in London.

In 1753 Dickinson returned home and was admitted to the Delaware Bar. In 1757 he moved to Philadelphia and became a prominent lawyer in that city.

From 1759 - 1760, Dickinson served in the Assembly of the Lower Three Counties, serving as the assembly's speaker in 1760. In 1761 Dickinson began service in the Pennsylvania Assembly, and served simultaneously in both the Pennsylvania and Delaware Assemblies simultaneously after 1762.

Dickinson's defense in the Pennsylvania legislature against Benjamin Franklin's fruitless efforts to abolish proprietary colonial government caused him to lose his seat in Pennsylvania in 1764 (although he maintained his seat in Delaware.) Dickinson supported the Penn family's inherited claim to broad executive powers in the colony, a matter as fundamental to Dickinson as the inviolability of personal property. Sent to the Stamp Act Congress in New York in 1765, Dickinson took a leading role and drafted the resolutions that were sent to the King and Parliament.

The passage of the Townshend Acts in 1767 moved Dickinson to begin his series of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1767 - 1768) that were published first in the Pennsylvania Chronicle and became a central set of positions for American colonists resisting the new British policies of colonial taxation.

Dickinson married Mary Norris in 1770. Together they had two daughters, Sally and Maria.

Although always an ardent supporter of the Colonial cause, Dickinson favored reconciliation with the Mother Country during both the First and Second Continental Congress. By 1776 Dickinson's position had left him in the minority, and he spent much of the debates on the adoption of the Declaration of Independence at his mansion Poplar Hall, located in Dover, Delaware. During the vote on the Declaration, Dickinson stood in the back of the hall and abstained from voting, reasoning "that the states had no settled governments of their own, had received no foreign aid, and had not yet set up a working confederation." Dickinson understood the implications of his refusal to vote; stating, "My conduct this day, I expect will give the finishing blow to my once too great and, my integrity considered, now too diminished popularity."

Following the Declaration, Dickinson was given the rank of Brigadier General in the Pennsylvania Militia. However, due to his unpopular position, he was removed as a delegate to the Congress and two officers were soon promoted over him. He resigned his commission in December, 1776 and went to stay at Poplar Hall. While there he learned that his home on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia had been converted to a hospital. Despite his setbacks, Dickinson insisted on always espousing his true feelings, no matter the consequence.

Dickinson freed his slaves in 1777. In January of that year, Dickinson was appointed by Delaware as a delegate to the Congress; Dickinson, however, refused the appointment. In August, 1777 Dickinson served in Middletown, Delaware as a private in the Kent County Militia, which had been sent to Middletown under General Caesar Rodney to help delay Lord Howe's march to Philadelphia. In October, 1777 Dickinson's friend Thomas McKean, then serving as President of Delaware, appointed him as Brigadier General of the Delaware Militia; Dickinson declined the appointment. Dickinson soon learned that the British had burned down Fairhill, one of his other properties, during the Battle of Germantown.

In the spring of 1779, Dickinson emerged from his long depression and was again appointed as delegate for Delaware to the Congress, an appointment which he now accepted. During this term he signed the Articles of Confederation, having in 1776 authored their first draft while serving in the Congress as a delegate from Pennsylvania.

In August, 1781, Dickinson learned that Poplar Hall had been severely damaged by a Tory attack. Dickinson returned to the property to investigate the damage and stayed for several months, during which time he was elected to the Delaware State Senate. A joint assembly of the state legistlatures elected Dickinson the fifth President of Delaware on November 6, 1781. The assembly's vote was nearly unanimous, the only dissenting vote having been cast by Dickinson himself. Dickinson took office on November 13 and served until November 4, 1782.

In 1782, Dickinson learned that he had been elected the fifth President of Pennsylvania. Dickinson resigned as President of Delaware and served as President of Pennsylvania from November 7, 1782 until October 18, 1785. While serving this term he donated 500 acres (2 km²) of land to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, an educational instution founded in 1783 by Benjamin Rush.

After his service in Pennsylvania, Dickinson moved to Wilmington, Delaware. He was quickly appointed to represent Delaware at the Annapolis Convention, where he served as President. In 1787 Delaware sent Dickinson to the Constitutional Convention.

In 1792, Dickinson was elected to the Delaware State Senate, and served for two years before resigning due to his declining health.

Dickinson died at his home in Wilmington in 1808 and is buried at the Friends Burial Ground in that city.

Dickinson shares with Thomas McKean the honor of being one of only two men to serve as Chief Executive of both Delaware and Pennsylvania after Independence.

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Preceded by:
William Moore
Presidents of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania
1782–1785
Succeeded by:
Benjamin Franklin

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