Historical Markers
Dickinson College (John Dickinson, American Revolution) Historical Marker
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Dickinson College (John Dickinson, American Revolution)

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
W. High St. At campus in Carlisle

Dedication Date:
July 1, 1947

Behind the Marker

John Dickinson's career illustrates important elements of the social development of late eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, and of the internal political revolution that overtook the state in the shadow of the imperial crisis of 1776. Dickinson came to Philadelphia from Maryland, via Delaware, where his family owned land. Several important members of Pennsylvania's revolutionary generation made this same journey from the three "Lower Counties" of Delaware and Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Formal painting of John Dickinson.
John Dickinson, by Charles Willson Peale from life, 1782 - 1783.
The incorporation of these areas into southeastern Pennsylvania's commercial economy reflected the gradual abandonment by planters of tobacco culture after 1740 and a shift to grain farming. It also blurred the social and economic boundaries of the Middle Colonies just as the surveying of the Mason-Dixon Line in 1762 sharpened its political borders between the regions that would later become free and slave states. All of these changes resulted in the relocation of ambitious men who were eager to enter public service if Pennsylvania's Quaker-dominated political system collapsed.

Dickinson was one of those entrepreneurs. As a young man he studied law both at Philadelphia and at London's Middle Temple, still a relative rarity among lawyers in late colonial America, and then entered provincial politics. As a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, Dickinson actively opposed the royal takeover of Pennsylvania government favored by Benjamin Franklin.

When the Stamp Act crisis broke out in 1765, the thirty-two-year-old lawyer represented Pennsylvania at the intercolonial congress convened at New York. Although he was not a member of the committee that drafted a response to the British government, the body did adopt his suggestion to make a vague acknowledgement that Parliament had a right to regulate trade, but not to impose internal taxes on the colonies that were unconstitutional. Two years later, when the Townshend Acts replaced the Stamp Act, Dickinson protested the measure by authoring a series of marker anonymous essays for Pennsylvania newspapers (eventually compiled as Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania).

In these twelve published letters he articulated a traditional understanding of the virtues of liberty in England's history and the dangers presented by Parliamentary taxation to the "rights of Englishmen." Reprinted throughout the colonies, these essays eventually made Dickinson the most widely known opponent of British colonial reforms. Dickinson now represented a new force in Pennsylvania politics that opposed the Penns, the old Quaker party, and the new Franklin-Quaker coalition that wanted to transform Pennsylvania into a royal colony.
Dickinson College, 1810.

Dickinson continued to be active against the new British colonial policies for the next seven years. He became a spokesman for those who had been alienated by the Quaker party in the provincial Assembly. As a member of both the First and Second Continental Congresses, Dickinson was a moderate who sought redress of colonial grievances against Parliament by formal petitions to the King.

As American resistance became more militant, however, Dickinson's temperament and legally trained conservatism began to assert itself. He opposed separation from England, pointing out that the colonies lacked the strong political union or foreign alliances necessary for independence. When the vote for independence took place, Dickinson absented himself from the proceedings, and in doing so permitted the Pennsylvania delegation to vote favorably with one voice.

While he eventually accepted the reality of an independent America, Dickinson, who was also a colonel of the First Battalion of Associators of Philadelphia, fought for the patriot cause. Opposing the radical state constitution of 1776, he relocated his family and public life to Delaware in order to avoid involvement in the radical politics of Pennsylvania. Elected governor of Delaware in 1781, he reluctantly returned to Philadelphia two years later, where he assumed essentially the same position as "President of Pennsylvania." His love of scholarship as well as his political commitment to Pennsylvania resulted in the naming of a college after him in Carlisle, Cumberland County, in 1783.

During the late 1780s, Dickinson returned to Delaware, where he served as chairman of that state's delegation to the Federal Convention of 1787, called to revise the Articles of Confederation, a constitution he once helped to draft. "Experience must be our only guide," he declared at the opening of the convention, "for reason may mislead us." Seeking to protect the interests of the small states in matters of representation, Dickinson helped put the "Great Compromise" in place that paved the way for a completely new frame of government. Afterwards, he threw his energies and prestige behind the ratification of the new federal constitution, a step that Delaware was the first state to take.

Content to serve as an elder statesman during the 1790s, Dickinson frequently published his views on contemporary issues, as Americans tried to translate theoretical political documents into national institutions and practices. Known today as the "Penman of the American Revolution," Dickinson had his writings collected and published in two volumes in 1801, an enduring testimony to the value of his political thought.

To learn more about John Dickinson's actions following the American Revolution click markerhere.
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