THE COST OF LIBERTY:THE LIFE OF JOHN DICKINSON
By William Murchison
ISI Books, $25, 252 pages
William Murchison is in many ways a throwback to an earlier time, when our very best journalists were also frequently accomplished men of letters, able to write elegantly and prolifically on a great variety of subjects. A syndicated columnist and former editor at The Dallas Morning News, he contributes regularly to numerous publications, among them The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, First Things, Chronicles and National Review.
His subject in this thoughtful and highly readable biography is John Dickinson, “the most underrated of all the founders,” author of “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1767-8),” enunciating the case for colonial rights, that “made him the leader, in a rhetorical and sometimes operational sense, of colonial opposition to Britain’s transgressions against her sons and daughters.”
“The Letters,” writes Mr. Murchison, “were more than a success. They were a triumph,” read by both colonists and English statesmen, among them Edmund Burke. As one historian put it, they were “the literary hit of the decade,” earning him the title of “Penman of the Revolution.”
He was that, and much more — “as much philosopher as writer; a man to whom God had imparted the gifts not merely of expression, but also of examination and reflection. Among the large fraternity active in the cause of independence, he gave place, intellectually, to no one.”
From the 1760s through the 1780s, as a writer, speaker, delegate to the Continental Congress, influential figure in drafting the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, author of a series of letters from Fabius defending the document, chief executive of both Pennsylvania and Delaware, John Dickinson played a key role in shaping the new country. Yet, thanks in great part to what Mr. Murchison sees as misrepresentations in HBO’s John Adams miniseries and the Broadway musical “1776,” he’s widely thought of — if thought of at all — as the man who played foil to Adams and refused to sign the Declaration of Independence.
It’s true that he didn’t sign it. Like many other colonists, he still thought of himself as a British subject, albeit mistreated, and thought there was still a possibility of reconciliation. He knew that the tide of opinion had turned sharply against his position, but thought that he had a principled duty to the public interest to stand with it, even though he knew he “had chosen to throw away his ‘once too great’ popularity.”
For a time he did lose that popularity, but Congress had spoken, he accepted the verdict and almost immediately demonstrated his devotion to his new country by going to war as a colonel of the Pennsylvania militia to defend it. He would later rise to the rank of brigadier general.
“Dickinson willingly did what his state and country asked of him: the course of action fixed upon, the time for talking foreclosed. There was no more to say; there were horses to mount.”
“The example Dickinson set for others was striking even by the standards of the times,” writes Mr. Murchison. “Just two members of Congress put themselves forward for military service. Thomas McKean of Delaware, a signer of the Declaration, was one. Dickinson, the noted non-signer, was the other.”
Later, in 1787, as a delegate from Delaware, “He was one of the few at the Constitutional Convention to express principled opposition to slavery. Dickinson had himself been a slave owner . He was far from unusual in this respect among the delegates in Philadelphia. He was, however, unique in that he was the only one to have already freed his slaves.”
Finally, that September in Philadelphia, the debates ended, the compromises struck, the document produced. “Like all the rest, Dickinson failed to get his way in all things. It was the nature of the great proceeding in which all were engaged.” Although he’d declined to sign the Declaration of Independence, Dickinson “wished his name firmly affixed to the plan of government he had helped to shape, against physical odds.”
Too ill to sign himself, he asked his fellow delegate George Read to sign for him. “On September 17, along with his own name, Read inscribed that of John Dickinson, integrating both forever with the vision of governance and freedom, freedom and governance, that had overlain the Pennsylvania State House in the summer of 1787.”
Mr. Murchison, who illuminates a complex period in our history and with a sure and often novelistic touch brings his subject back to vivid life, makes a powerful and convincing case for restoring John Dickinson to his rightful place in the first rank of the Founders.
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).