The SAR Magazine

Spring 2018

The SAR MAGAZINE is the official quarterly publication of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution published quarterly.

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 15 of 47

12 SAR MAGAZINE 16 SAR MAGAZINE By Dr. David E. Schrader, MASSAR, MNSSAR, NHSSAR I n 1768, the British Colonies in America found their first "rock star." At any gathering of Patriots or meeting of a Colonial assembly in 1768, if someone spoke of "the Farmer," that person could mean but one man: John Dickinson, author of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies and the hugely popular "Liberty Song." The Farmer's Letters were more widely read and acclaimed in the Colonies than any piece of writing prior to Thomas Paine's Common Sense (Flower, p. 69). Of course, John Dickinson was no more a typical farmer than either of those other two "farmers," John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who would become even more famous a decade later. Dickinson was educated by his parents and tutors, one of whom was Francis Alison. Alison was a Presbyterian clergyman who later founded the New London Academy (the forerunner of the University of Delaware), where he taught Patriots like Thomas McKean, George Read, James Smith and Charles Thompson. Alison himself had studied at the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, where he was much influenced by Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Francis Hutcheson, whose Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy was one of Alison's primary texts and introduced his students to the political thought of John Locke. Dickinson concluded his formal study with three years at the Middle Temple in London, where he studied the works of Edward Coke and Francis Bacon. Thus, he was a very well-educated "farmer." His education was well- reflected in his Letters and in his entire political approach, which was "analytic and studied, never emotional" (Flowers, p. 72). The stimulus for Dickinson's Letters, as well as for the "Freedom Song," was the British Parliament's passage of the 1767 Townshend Acts. Dickinson's Letters were initially published as separate "Letters" in successive issues of the Philadelphia Chronicle, from Dec. 2, 1767 through Feb. 15, 1768. They were republished in 19 of the 23 Colonial newspapers of the time and collectively published in pamphlet form both throughout the Colonies and in Great Britain (Chaffin, p. 132). The letters seemed to strike exactly the right chord for the times. The strength and effectiveness of the letters seem to have flowed from two sources. One was the "analytic and studied" character noted above. The letters bore the marks of a thorough scholar, showing masterly command of both English history and the traditions of English common and constitutional law. The second source of their strength came from the influence of Dickinson's Quaker tradition. Although John Dickinson was never a formal member of the Society of Friends, "both parents [were] Friends in good standing, he was born a 'birthright Quaker' in 1732 and raised in a Quaker household" (Calvert, p. 189). Throughout his life, Dickinson's views reflected what Jane Calvert has called a "traditional" Quaker orientation toward politics, comfortably between the "withdrawers" and the "radicals" (Calvert, pp. 177f). He was not a pacifist, nor was he the pompous windbag lampooned in Sherman Edwards' 1969 musical, 1776. The twin hearts of traditional Quaker politics were peace and justice. The dilemma for the Quaker politician was how to fight peacefully against injustice. Traditional Quakers were an odd blend of liberal and conservative. They valued stability and constitutional order. Accordingly, they tended to be highly skeptical of innovation (Calvert, p. 209). Thus, one of the tasks facing a Quaker politician opposing oppression of the Colonies was to show that such measures as the Stamp Act (1765) and the Townshend Acts (1767) were innovations that departed from traditional British constitutional order. This reverence for traditional constitutional order implied that the traditional Quaker politician could be only a reluctant revolutionary. All avenues of peaceable protest had to be pursued as far as was humanly possible. Before any violent protest or call for revolution could be contemplated, the traditional Quaker "peace testimony" required the victims of oppression to come before the public "bearing public witness to their persecutions, testifying openly as martyrs for God's law against corrupted human law" (Calvert, p. 215). Thus, it really should not be surprising that Dickinson, whose Letters played a pivotal role in kindling the flames of revolution, should be reluctant to take more radical steps in the next decade, when he was the primary author of "The Olive Branch Petition" in 1775 and declined to sign the Declaration of Independence a year later. This traditional Quaker view of political order resonated powerfully in 1768. Again and again, we see the Colonists in British America as loyal subjects of the king and jealous guardians of the rights guaranteed under the British constitution and common law. They saw the parliamentary policies of the mid- to late 1760s as departures from the relationship they had enjoyed with the Mother Country for, in many cases, well over a century, policies generally adopted as a set of desperate attempts to deal with the immense debt arising from the late Seven Years War. In sum, they were not ready for revolution, but many of them were adamant in demanding a restoration of the liberties they had enjoyed prior to 1765. Dickinson's Letters constitute a masterpiece. He starts "Letter I" by introducing himself as the beneficiary of a "liberal education, now occupying a small farm, near the banks, of the river Delaware" (Dickinson, p. 5). The first letter is basically a plea for the unity of the American Colonies, focusing on the danger posed to all by Parliament's suspension of the New York legislature. Dickinson notes that the precedent set by that suspension poses a threat to the liberty of every one of the Colonies. "To divide, and thus to destroy, is the first political maxim in attacking those who are powerful by their union" (Dickinson, p. 11). "Letter II" moves directly to the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767, which Dickinson says "appears to me to be unconstitutional" (p. 13). Dickinson acknowledges the authority of Parliament to "regulate the trade of Great- Britain and all its colonies," (p. 13). He states that he has surveyed "every statute relating to these colonies," from 250th Series 1768: The Year of the Farmer

Articles in this issue

Archives of this issue

view archives of The SAR Magazine - Spring 2018