Dickinson, John, 1732-1808

Alternative names
Birth 1732-11-08
Death 1808-02-14

Biographical notes:

Pennsylvania lawyer, Continental Congressman.

From the description of ALS : Philadelphia, to Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, 1779 Sept. 18. (Rosenbach Museum & Library). WorldCat record id: 122442835

Dickinson asks Booth to help him replace omissions in his set of The Delaware law prior to the revolution.

From the description of ALS : Philadelphia, to James Booth, 1784 July 10. (Rosenbach Museum & Library). WorldCat record id: 122525016

Pennsylvania lawyer and Continental Congressman.

From the description of Promissory note : [s.d.]. (Rosenbach Museum & Library). WorldCat record id: 122442837

Signer of the Constitution, member of the Continental Congress.

From the description of Autograph letter signed : Wilmington, 1803 Nov. 1. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270531336

From the description of Autograph letter signed : In Council, to Thomas Smith, Esq. Continental Loan Officer, 1785 Apr. 30. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270521184

From the description of Autograph letter signed : Wilmington, 1803 Nov. 8. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270531342

From the description of Autograph letter signed : Philadelphia, to Thomas Jefferson, 1784 Oct. 25. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270527079

Pennsylvania delegate to U.S. Continental Congress.

From the description of John Dickinson correspondence and order of payment, 1783-1787. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 79423618

John Dickinson was an American lawyer and politican from Philadelphia, Pa. and Wilmington, Del. He was a member of the Continental Congress of 1787. A supporter of the U.S. Revolution, he is remembered for his book, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. Dickinson was considered one of the wealthist men in the American Colonies. He was a Quaker and voluntarily freed all of his slaves in 1777.

Rittenhouse, an astronomer and mathematician born near Germantown, Pa., is well-known for his accurate orrery, a mechanical representation of the movement of the planets. During the U.S. Revolution he was an avid patriot. His last public service was as director of the U.S. mint from 1792-1795. Yeates, born in Philadelphia, was a Lancaster, Pa., lawyer and public official. He was a judge of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania from 1791-1817.

From the description of [Document and letter, 1785-1787] / John Dickinson. (Smith College). WorldCat record id: 213330106

John Dickinson was born in Talbot County, Maryland on November 13, 1732 to Samuel Dickinson (1690-1760), whose father had emigrated from England in 1654, and his second wife, Mary Cadwalader Dickinson, who was the daughter of a Philadelphia Quaker merchant. John Dickinson had two brothers, Thomas, who died in infancy, and Philemon. The Dickinson family owned vast amounts of land throughout Maryland and Delaware, which is where the family relocated around 1740. John Dickinson was tutored at home in Kent County, Delaware by William Killen until the age of eighteen, at which time he moved to Philadelphia to read law for the former king's attorney, John Moland. From 1753 to 1756, Dickinson studied law at the Middle Temple in England, where he was admitted to the bar in 1757. Upon his return to the colonies that same year, he moved to Philadelphia to begin practicing law.

Dickinson was elected to the Delaware Assembly in 1759 and became speaker in 1760. In 1762, he was elected to the Pennsylvania General Assembly, where he served intermittently until 1776. As the relationship between the colonies and England became tense, the General Assembly chose Dickinson as their delegate at a meeting for the Stamp Act in New York in 1756. He joined John Morton and George Bryan in formulating a declaration of grievances. In 1767/1768, Dickinson published Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies . These letters, which were printed in newspapers throughout the colonies, argued that the Townshend Acts were in direct conflict with the ideals of British liberties. When the letters were published in pamphlet form around the colonies, as well as England, France, Holland, and Ireland, Dickinson became the best known advocate of American rights. In 1786, he also wrote "The Liberty Song," America's first patriotic song.

In 1770, John Dickinson married Mary (Polly) Norris (1740-1803), who was the daughter of Isaac Norris II (1701-1766) and Sarah Logan Norris (1715-1744). Isaac Norris was a prominent Quaker and speaker of the General Assembly, and his wife Sarah was the eldest daughter of William Penn's secretary, James Logan (1674-1751). John and Mary Dickinson had two daughters who lived past infancy, Maria (1783-1860) and Sally (1771-1855). Maria Dickinson married Albanus Logan (1783-1854), the son of George Logan and Deborah Norris Logan.

John Dickinson was busy in the years leading up to the American Revolution. He was a member of the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 and the First and Second Continental Congresses from 1774 to 1776. He was occupied with publishing treatises on the American cause and penning resolutions and appeals to the King that he hoped would bring an end to the conflict. Because he believed that preparations for war must take place simultaneously with measures for peace, he raised the First Battalion of Associators in Philadelphia, of which he was colonel. Because separation from Britain appeared likely, he wrote the first draft of the Articles of Confederation. When independence was declared, he refused to vote on or sign the Declaration, because he still believed that reconciliation was possible. When the document received support from the majority of the delegates, Dickinson supported their decision by taking up arms and joining his battalion in New Jersey. Because of his dissent from the Declaration, he was not returned to the Pennsylvania Assembly. He resigned his commission in September and returned to the Assembly, where he led the resistance to the new Pennsylvania constitution. In November of 1776, he resigned his seat in protest of it. His next public office was in 1779 as a delegate from Delaware to the Confederation Congress, where he worked on peace negotiations.

In addition to being a colonel in the Pennsylvania militia, he also enlisted as a private in the Delaware militia, during which time he served at the Battle of Brandywine. He was given a commission as a brigadier general. Although he did not serve as an officer in the Continental Army, he nevertheless was made an honorary member of the Society of the Cincinnati.

Dickinson suffered many hardships during the Revolution. In addition to being harassed by the Pennsylvania revolutionary government and others who questioned his patriotism for not signing the Declaration of Independence, because the British perceived him as the leader of the resistance, Tories attacked his property in Delaware in 1777 and the British destroyed much of his estate in Philadelphia. These setbacks did not affect his political involvement. He served as president of both Delaware (1781-1782) and Pennsylvania (1782-1785), he was unanimously elected president of the Annapolis Convention in 1786 to amend the Articles of Confederation, and he took part in the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

John Dickinson returned to Delaware after the federal convention and in 1792 served as president of the Delaware constitutional convention. Into his later years, he continued to write on causes of concern to him, such as American relations with France and education. He lived the remainder of his life in Wilmington, where he died on February 14, 1808.

Dickinson was not formally affiliated with any religious group, but he identified most closely with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). He is buried in the Wilmington Friends burial ground next to his wife.

Biographical note written by Jane Calvert, author of Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson.

From the guide to the John Dickinson papers, Bulk, 1753-1808, 1676-1885, (Library Company of Philadelphia)


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  • United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783
  • Delaware--History--Colonial period, ca. 1600-1775
  • Land grants
  • Real property
  • Manuscripts, American
  • Statesmen--United States
  • Delaware--Politics and government--1775-1783
  • Quaker women
  • United States--Politics and government
  • Pennsylvania--Politics and government--1775-1783
  • United States--History--Colonial period, ca. 1600-1775
  • Pennsylvania--History--Colonial period, ca. 1600-1775


  • Governors
  • Statesmen
  • Delegates, U.S. Continental Congress--Pennsylvania


  • Pennsylvania (as recorded)
  • Delaware (as recorded)
  • Philadelphia (Pa.) (as recorded)
  • Wilmington (Del.) (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Pennsylvania (as recorded)
  • Pennsylvania (as recorded)
  • Delaware (as recorded)