Founders and the Constitution
John Dickinson (1732-1808)
One 45-minute class period.
In this lesson, students will study the life of John Dickinson. They will learn about why he did not sign the Declaration of Independence, his opinions on government, the purpose of the colonists’ objection to the Townshend Acts, and much more.
Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.
Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.
Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.
Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us. - John Dickinson (1787)
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.
Relevant Thematic Essays
In this lesson, students will learn about John Dickinson. They should first read as homework Handout A—John Dickinson (1732–1808) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers to those in class, the teacher should have students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the primary source activity, Handout C—In His Own Words: John Dickinson on the Townshend Acts in which Dickinson argues against British levying of a tax to raise revenue. As a preface, there is Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions, which will help the students understand the document.
There are Follow-Up Homework Options that ask students to compare Letter 2 to Letter 4 from Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, or to write their own modern “Liberty Song” inspired by Dickinson’s lyrics. Extensions asks students to compare Dickinson’s essay to other contemporary responses to the Townshend Acts.
- 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.
- Handout A—John Dickinson (1732–1808)
- Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C—In His Own Words: John Dickinson on the Townshend Acts
Additional Teacher Resource
- Answer Key
CCE (9–12): IC1, IIIA1
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standards 3A, 3B, 3D
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10
Ask students to read Handout A—John Dickinson (1732–1808) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.
Warm-up 10 min.
- Review answers to homework questions.
- Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
- 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.
Context 5 min.
Explain to students that the Townshend Acts (1767) placed new duties, or taxes, on paint, paper, glass, lead, and tea imported into the colonies. Other than tea, none of these items was produced in the colonies. The Townshend duties differed from previous taxes in that Britain’s intent in imposing them was to raise revenue for the payment of the salaries of royal officials in the colonies, rather than using taxes to regulate trade. Many, including Dickinson, objected strongly to this.
In His Own Words 20 min.
- Before class, post signs along the walls of the classroom, “Strongly Agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree,” and “Strongly Disagree.”
- Tell students that not all colonists wished for independence. Like many, Dickinson was wary of breaking with tradition, and regarded innovation as dangerous. He was in favor of reconciliation with Britain rather than independence.
- Distribute Handout C—In His Own Words: John Dickinson on the Townshend Acts.
- Read the document aloud to the class, and have students complete Handout B— Vocabulary and Context Questions individually as reading progresses. Help students understand the vocabulary and answer any questions about context before proceeding. Clarify Dickinson’s main idea to students.
Dickinson objects to the levying of a tax for the sole and express purpose of raising money for England. Previous duties, he points out, have had the intent of “promot[ing] the general welfare” and creating mutually beneficial agreements.
- Hand out identity cards to all students and let them know they are now members of one of three groups: British Parliament, Loyalists (colonists opposing independence), or Patriots (colonists favoring independence).
- Read the document aloud again to the class one sentence at a time. Tell students that as reading progresses, they should move to the sign that best represents their reaction to Dickinson’s words.
- Have students return to their seats and follow the directions on Handout C individually.
Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.
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.”
Follow-Up Homework Options
- 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: <http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?subcategory=17>.
- 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: <http://www.contemplator.com/america/liberty.html>.
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: <http://www.carleton.ca/~pking/docs/440docs1.htm>.
Bradford, M.E. “A Better Guide Than Reason: The Politics of John Dickinson,” in A Better Guide Than Reason: Studies in the American Revolution. LaSalle: Sherwood Sugden, 1979.
Flower, Milton E. John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983.
McDonald, Forrest, ed. Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, Letters from the Federal Farmer. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999.
McDonald, Forrest and Ellen S. McDonald. “John Dickinson and the Constitution,” in Requiem: Variations on Eighteenth-Century Themes. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988, 85–103.
Stille, Charles J. The Life and Times of John Dickinson, 1732–1808. New York: Burt Franklin, 1969.
Ahern, Gregory S. “The Spirit of American Constitutionalism: John Dickinson’s Fabius Letters.” Humanitas Magazine. <http://www.nhinet.org/ahern.htm>.
“The Liberty Song.” Contemplator.com. <http://www.contemplator.com/america/liberty.html>.
John Dickinson (1732–1808). <http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1223.html>.
John Dickinson, Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. TeachingAmericanHistory.org. <http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=78>.
John Dickinson, Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, Letter 2. TeachingAmericanHistory.org. <http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=25>.
John Dickinson, Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, Letter 4. TeachingAmericanHistory.org. <http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=46>.
By John Dickinson
- The Late Regulations Respecting the British Colonies (1765)
- Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1768)
- The Liberty Song (1768)
- Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms (1775)
- Olive Branch Petition (1775)
- Letters of Fabius (1788)
- Handout A: John Dickinson (1732–1808)
- Handout B: Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C: In His Own Words: John Dickinson on the Townshend Acts
- Thematic Essay