Delaware’s John Dickinson: ‘Little known giant of American history’

John Dickinson book author John Sweeney, center, talks with Tom Smith as Dick Carter autographs the book at the John Dickinson Plantation. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — John Dickinson’s principles survived, likely at the expense of an enduring, well known, revered place in his country’s history.

The Delaware statesman opted not to sign the Declaration of Independence, yet “was a very active participant in the forming of the U.S. Constitution and practically invented the Senate,’ author and editor John Sweeney said.

Mr. Sweeney and others make a thorough case for Mr. Dickinson’s prominence as a Founding Father in the recently released 186-page hardcover book “Delaware’s John Dickinson: The Constant Watchman of Liberty.”

The book coincides with the 250th anniversary of the publication of Dickinson’s “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies,” which was “the first widely-read treatise laying out the American cause for unity in resistance to British colonial oppression, published in the winter of 1767-68,” according to a news release.

Delaware Gov. John Carney, who wrote the publication’s preface, described Dickinson as “one of the little known giants of American history.”

According to the governor, “John Dickinson, in many ways, was the architect of what we now call the ‘Delaware Way.’ He sought compromise, took nuanced political stances without regard to partisanship, and put his country over his political beliefs.”

As colonial leaders maneuvered to address British oppression, Mr. Dickinson took an anti-war stance (yet served as a brigadier general in the militia) while staunchly advocating for rights and freedoms within the empire’s Commonwealth system. A Pennsylvania representative at the time, he chose not to vote on whether to accept the Declaration of Independence, thus allowing the state to approve it by a 3-2 count and gain unanimous support throughout all 13 colonies.

Until the American Revolution, Mr. Sweeney said, Mr. Dickinson was the second most recognized and popular person in the colonies other than Benjamin Franklin.

“His failure to sign the Declaration of Independence was what pretty much doomed him from a notoriety perspective,” Mr. Sweeney said.

Samuel Adams and others decried the decision, and a path to what some considered historical ignominy commenced as the time was chronicled.

The new collection of writings presents Mr. Dickinson’s views and actions (including his role as a slave owner with evolving views toward freedom for all) as worth remembering and examining. Among the contributors are former Delaware governors J. Caleb Boggs, Charles L. Terry Jr. and Russell W. Peterson; former Delaware Supreme Court justices Randy J. Holland, Richard S. Rodney and James M. Tunnell, Jr.; historians Jane E. Calvert, Milton E. Flower, John A. Munroe, J.H. Powell, Frederick B. Tolles and Edwin Wolf II; Harold L. Rubendall, former president of Dickinson College; and Gloria Henry and Vertie Lee of the John Dickinson Plantation.

“Believe it or not, Delawareans often ask me ‘Who was John Dickinson?’,” Mr. Sweeney explained in the news release.

“Here was a Delawarean who fought slavery when people like Washington and Jefferson accepted it. Here was a man who demanded freedom of religion for all when other Founding Fathers were willing to impose their beliefs on others.

“Here was a man who led the fight to enshrine individual rights in the U.S. Constitution. And that’s only a small portion of what he did for us, for our freedom.

“Delawareans should not only know who he was, they should be proud of him and they should point to him as example of what a political leader should be.”

Retired Family Court judge and past president of the Friends of the John Dickinson Mansion Battle Robinson wrote the book’s introduction and added, “Dickinson is simply the greatest political thinker and writer ever associated with our state.

“He was also an active participant in the great events of his era, which led to the founding of our nation.”

“Delaware’s John Dickinson: The Constant Watchman of Liberty” is currently available for sale at the John Dickinson Plantation at 340 Kitts Hummock Road in Dover, the Delaware Public Archives at 121 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard N. and on the ShopDelaware website at

According to the release, “The book was commissioned by the Friends of the John Dickinson Mansion, a nonprofit, charitable organization dedicated to the extension of knowledge about Dickinson and the preservation of his historic home, now a state museum.

“The book was produced as a joint effort of the Friends, the Delaware Department of State and the Delaware Heritage Commission.”

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