John Dickinson was born November 8, 1732, in Talbot County, Maryland to Judge Samuel Dickinson and his second wife Mary Cadwalader. About 1739 Judge Dickinson moved his second family to Kent County, Delaware and this is where John grew up. The Judge left his eldest son Henry in charge of his Maryland lands and his daughter Elizabeth was already married. These are John’s half siblings. It seems clear that John had a brother named Philemon, but I have found disagreement as to whether this was an older or younger brother.
Dickinson studied law under prominent Philadelphia attorney, John Moland before going to Middle Temple in London, where he spent three years, to finish his legal training. An attorney by trade, Dickinson spent a great deal of time tending to the political issues of both the Colony and the foundling nation. Beginning in December 1767, he published a series of twelve letters that have come to be known as “the Farmer’s Letters,” in the Pennsylvania Chronicle. In these letters Dickinson discussed those things that he considered to be a threat to the colonies, taxation being the prominent issue of the day. It is due to his skill with the pen that he becomes known as “the Penman of the Revolution.”
On the 19th of July 1770, John Dickinson married Mary Norris in a quiet civil ceremony, much to the dismay of some of Mary’s strict Quaker relatives and church members, who were put off by the fact that Dickinson, while a Quaker, wouldn’t set foot in the Meeting yet Mary agreed to marry him anyways. They had met while Dickinson was attending to the estate of Mary’s father, prominent Pennsylvanian politician Isaac Norris in 1776. They had five children, but only two daughters survived, Sarah and Maria.
Dickinson made his professional life in Philadelphia, but continued to hold strong ties to the lands he inherited in Kent County. History has found him active in the politics of both states. Among his many and varied posts he served as a delegate from Pennsylvania to the second Continental Congress in 1776, an officer in the Pennsylvania militia, and as a private in the Delaware militia (he turned down a commission as a brigadier general), and a delegate from Delaware to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. For a brief period in 1782 he was the elected chief executive of both Pennsylvania and Delaware.
History has also found him to be a bit of an enigma. Here was a man who whole-heartedly believed that independence wasn’t the answer; that reconciliation could and would be achieved. Even as he was drafting the Articles of Confederation, Dickinson was holding out hope that the King would right the grievances of the colonies. When it became clear that war was unavoidable; he accepted a colonelcy in the Pennsylvania militia. After independence had been declared; he played a significant role in the development of not only the Constitution of the United States, but also the constitutions of the states of Pennsylvania and Delaware. He also lent his name and support to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. According to their website, Dickinson is the first college founded in the United States.
There is also speculation that he may have penned the first American patriotic song, set to the tune of “Hearts of Oak” by William Boyce. Dickinson called it “a song for American freedom.” Among the tune’s more memorable lines is “by uniting we stand, by dividing we fall.” The refrain goes something like this:
Dickinson spent the last 20 years of his life living as a private citizen in Delaware, splitting his time between his house in Wilmington and the family farm in Kent County. He died February 14, 1808 and is interred on the grounds of the Friends Meeting House, Wilmington. Thomas Jefferson wrote, a few days after his death, “A more estimable man or truer patriot could not have left us; His name will be consecrated in history as one of the worthies of the Revolution.”