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Friday, November 06, 2015

John Dickinson: overlooked founder

Over at Front Porch Republic, John Wilson has written a short article on why we should pay more attention to John Dickinson (1732-1808): Our Lost Founders.  Dickinson, as Wilson points out, was an influential force prior to the Declaration of Independence, known not just in the colonies but by the England as well.  Once independence had been declared, Dickinson was active in the Continental Congress and as a result ended up writing the first draft of our nation's first Constitution, the Articles of Confederation.

Wilson notes that if Dickinson had not had the misfortune to fall ill during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he likely would have had a larger impact on our current Constitution than he had -- although as Wilson points out in an aside, he had plenty of influence as it was, both on the text of the Constitution and on its eventual ratification. He wrote a series of letters in defense of the Constitution under the pen name Fabius.

Dickinson was also a committed abolitionist. Unlike many of the Founders, like Jefferson & Madison, who spoke against slavery while enjoying the benefits of owning human property, Dickinson took decisive personal steps against the institution of chattel slavery. Not content to merely talk the talk like many of the Virginia founders, Dickinson freed his slaves long before it was fashionable to do so. As Wilson points out, Dickinson freed his slaves because of his commitment to the principles of the American Revolution & a conviction that American freedom was incompatible with the institution of chattel slavery.  

Dickinson prophetically announced that the refusal of the Framers of the Constitution to address the problem of slavery head-on would cause nothing but trouble for the Republic.  Because the slavery issue was not settled on the side of human freedom, as Wilson summarizes Dickinson's position, the Republic was inevitably going to "have to face the consequences of our lack of courage."

Aside from his historical importance & principled opposition to slavery, Dickinson also stands as a model of a prudent statesman, a model well in need of revival in our own times.  As Wilson writes: 

Dickinson’s first draft of the Articles included provisions for an impost, which would have given the government an income, and subtle powers for the executive functions of the legislature that together would have made the convention of 1787 unnecessary.  He signed off on the Constitution because he was convinced that a combination of the equality of the states (the Senate was his contribution to that frightful summer) and the “power of the people” would restrain what Hamilton and others hoped would become an English-style government.  He also uttered the wisest and most prudent statement of the entire constitutional debate.  On August 13, 1787, he said, “Experience must be our only guide.  Reason may mislead us.”

John Dickinson lived long enough to know how right he had been.  We need to learn which of our fathers to honor.  Dickinson stands for the right combination of limited government, local loyalties, principled freedom, and the rule of law that republican government requires to survive.  We write biographies of nationalists, and pay too little attention to the men who gave us our liberty.
That quote by Dickinson is one of my favorites short quotes by any of the founders. It is a testament to his prudent and small-c conservative approach to politics & constitutional order.  A salutary example for our age!

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