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The leading opponent of John Adams in the debate upon the Declaration of Independence was John Dickinson, of Delaware–an honest, able, patriotic, but timid statesman. He was born in Maryland, in December, 1732, and educated in Delaware, to which province his parents removed soon after his birth.
He read law in Philadelphia, and resided three years in the Temple, London. After his return to America, he practiced law with success in Philadelphia. He was soon elected to the legislature of Pennsylvania, in which his superior qualifications as a speaker and a man of business gave him considerable influence. The attempts of the mother country upon the liberties of the colonies early awakened his attention. His first elaborate publication against the new policy of the British cabinet was printed at Philadelphia, in 1765, and entitled, The late Regulations respecting the British Colonies on the Continent of America considered. In that year he was deputed, by Pennsylvania, to attend the first Congress, held at New York, and prepared the draft of the bold resolutions of that Congress. In 1766 he published a spirited address on the same questions, to a committee of correspondence in Barbados. He next issued in Philadelphia, in 1767, his celebrated Farmer’s Letters to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies–a production which had a great influence in enlightening the American people on the subject of their rights, and preparing them for resistance. They were reprinted in London, with a preface by Doctor Franklin, and published in French, at Paris.
In 1774, Mr. Dickinson wrote the resolves of the committee of Pennsylvania, and their instructions to their representatives. These instructions formed a profound and extensive essay on the constitutional power of Great Britain over the colonies in America, and in that shape they were published by the committee. While in Congress, he wrote the Address to the Inhabitants of Quebec; the first Petition to the King; the Address to the Armies; the second Petition to the King, and the Address to the several States; all among the ablest state-papers of the time. As an orator, he had few superiors in that body. He penned the famous Declaration of the United Colonies of North America, (July 6, 1775;) but he opposed the declaration of independence, believing that compromise was still practicable, and that his countrymen were not yet ripe for a complete separation from Great Britain. This rendered him for a time so unpopular, that he withdrew from thc public councils, and did not recover his seat in Congress until about two years afterward. He then returned, earnest in the cause of independence. His zeal was shown in the ardent address of Congress to the several States, of May, 1779, which he wrote and reported.
Post Revolutionary War
Mr. Dickinson was afterward president of the States of Pennsylvania and Delaware, successively; and, in the beginning of 1788, being alarmed by the hesitation of some States to ratify the constitution proposed by the federal convention the year before, he published, for the purpose of promoting its adoption, nine very able letters, under the signature of Fabius. This signature he again used in fourteen letters, published in 1797, the object of which was to produce a favorable feeling in the United States toward France, whose revolution he believed to be then at an end. Before the period last mentioned, he had withdrawn to private life, at Wilmington, in the State of Delaware, where he died, February 14, 1808. His retirement was spent in literary studies, in charitable offices and the exercise of an elegant hospitality. His conversation and manners were very attractive; his countenance and person, uncommonly fine. His public services were eminent: his writings have been justly described as copious, forcible and correct; sometimes eloquently rhetorical and vehement, and generally rich in historical references and classical quotations.
The patriotism of Mr. Dickinson was of that manly nature which does not permit the statesman to sanction a measure simply because it chances to be popular, but holds him to what seems to tend to the best interests of the country.