Dickinson, John, 1732–1808, American patriot and statesman, b. Talbot co., Md. After studying law in Philadelphia and in London at the Middle Temple, he developed a highly successful practice in Philadelphia. In 1760 he became speaker of the assembly of the Lower Counties (Delaware), and in 1762 he entered the Pennsylvania legislature. Dickinson led the conservative wing opposing Benjamin Franklin and defending the proprietary system. The Sugar Act and the Stamp Act led him to write a pamphlet (1765) in protest. As a member of the Stamp Act Congress he helped draw up the petitions to the king, but he opposed all violent resistance to the law. The passage of the Townshend Acts (1767) led to the colonial nonimportation agreements and the publication of Dickinson's famous Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, which appeared in the Pennsylvania Chronicle in 1767 and 1768. He pointed out that these laws were inconsistent with established English constitutional principles, but he favored nonimportation agreements and conciliation rather than revolt. Dickinson came to be regarded as the leader of the conservative group, which opposed not only British actions but also the ideas of such radicals as Samuel Adams. He was a delegate to the First Continental Congress and drew up a petition to the king. However, he still hoped for reconciliation even after the opening of hostilities, and he refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. He continued to be the leader of the conservative patriots in Pennsylvania and Delaware and held state posts. His draft formed the basis of the Articles of Confederation (see Confederation, Articles of). In 1786 he presided over the Annapolis Convention, and in the subsequent U.S. Constitutional Convention, Dickinson was a delegate from Delaware and a leading champion of the rights of the small states. He later wrote vigorously in support of the Constitution. Dickinson College, established with his support when he was Pennsylvania's president (governor), is named after him.
See biographies by C. J. Stillé (1891, repr. 1967) and E. Wolf (2d ed. 1967); study by D. L. Jacobson (1965).
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