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John Dickinson (1732-1808)

45 min

Students will:

  • explain why John Dickinson did not sign the Declaration of Independence.
  • understand Dickinson’s opinions on government.
  • understand the purpose of and colonists’ objections to the Townshend Acts.
  • analyze a historical argument’s appeal to various audiences.
  • appreciate John Dickinson’s reverence for tradition and his contributions to the revolution.

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of John Dickinson.

    John Dickinson was called the “Penman of the American Revolution.” He was a prolific writer who produced essays, pamphlets, petitions, and the first American patriotic song. He served in various political offices including governor of Delaware and Pennsylvania. He favored reconciliation with Britain until the Declaration of Independence was approved. He helped draft the Articles of Confederation, and was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.

John Dickinson was called “The Penman of the American Revolution.” During the 1760s and 1770s, he authored numerous important essays in defense of American rights, including The Late Regulations Respecting the British Colonies, the resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress, the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, the “Petition to the King,” and the Declaration of the Causes of Taking Up Arms. His Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania had a circulation greater than any Revolutionary pamphlet with the exception of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. He wrote the lyrics to the first American patriotic song, “The Liberty Song.” Dickinson also drafted the Articles of Confederation, the country’s first frame of government. Some say that he came up with the name, “United States of America,” the words that open that document. His reputation as a writer was almost unparalleled among his contemporaries.

Dickinson was a reluctant revolutionary who absented himself from the Continental Congress on the day that the Declaration of Independence was adopted. A cautious conservative, he opposed independence as a dangerous break with the past. One prominent historian has labeled Dickinson “an American Burke.” Like the British critic of the French Revolution, Dickinson was a defender of tradition against innovation. This explains not only his opposition to independence but also his resistance to altering the form of Pennsylvania’s colonial government, his initial reluctance to go to war with the British in the 1770s, and his moderate stance at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Dickinson’s innate prudence made him one of the wisest and most important of the Founders.

Ask students if they believe Dickinson’s essay was an effective way of condemning the Townshend Acts. How does his conservatism add credibility to his argument? Or do his conservative views detract from the force of his appeal?

Students’ gauging of Dickinson’s effectiveness may hinge on what they consider to be his goal. Some students may think his goal is limited to the immediate repeal of the Townshend Duties. These students may say that his conservative view gives him an air of authority, and may point out that the Letters were read in England, and may have reassured the British government that the colonists were acting reasonably and had carefully considered the matter. Others may believe his goal is to inspire the colonists to reject all forms of British tyranny. These students may say that Dickinson’s repeated references to the colonies as “but parts of a whole” and not “distinct from the British Empire” make him sound as though he is unwilling to back up his calls for resistance with actual fighting. On the other hand, his last paragraph makes a powerful call for resistance with phrases like “if you once admit . . . [then] American liberty is finished,” and, “we are as abject slaves.”

  1. Have students read Letter 4 from Letters from A Farmer in Pennsylvania. Have them write two paragraphs answering the following questions: How did Dickinson clarify his argument? How does his tone differ from Letter 2? The letter can be found at: <>.
  2. Have students read John Dickinson’s Liberty Song and compose their own version using more modern language and metaphors. The lyrics to the song can be found at: <>.

Have students read circular letters in reaction to the Townshend Acts and compare their language and proposed responses to Dickinson’s letters in a one-page essay. Letters can be found at: <>.

Student Handouts

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