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Dickinson: We Cannot Be Happy without Being Free

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John Dickinson (1732-1808) was one of the most important of America’s founders. He was a colonial legislator, member of the Stamp Act, Continental, and Confederation Congresses, chief executive of both Delaware (by a 25 to 1 vote; his being the only opposed) and Pennsylvania, president of the 1786 Annapolis convention that led to the Constitutional Convention, and among the most informed and seasoned statesmen to attend the Constitutional Convention. Historian Forrest McDonald has written that, but for Dickinson and a few others, “the resulting constitution would not have been ratified.” William Pierce wrote that he “will ever be considered one of the most important characters in the United States.”

Despite his other roles, Dickinson was best known as the “Penman of the Revolution,” for his writings in support of the colonies’ cause. He composed The Late Regulations Respecting the British Colonies…Considered, in the debates over the Stamp Act in 1765. He produced a 1771 petition to the King of England. Along with Thomas Jefferson, he penned Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms in 1775. He was co-author of the Articles of Confederation. He defended ratification of the Constitution in the widely published Fabius Letters in 1788, which some have considered almost as influential as the Federalist Papers.

Of all his writing, however, perhaps most important were his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies. After being published as letters, beginning on December 21, 1767, they were then published as a pamphlet, reprinted in most colonial newspapers and read widely, making Dickinson our country’s first homegrown hero, whose fame was only exceeded by Benjamin Franklin. As we pass the 250th anniversary of their beginning, it is worth recalling John Dickinson’s words that were so influential in inaugurating America’s experiment with liberty.

  • We cannot be happy, without being free…we cannot be free, without being secure in our property… we cannot be secure in our property, if, without our consent, others may, as by right, take it away.
  • Violations of the rights of the governed, are commonly…small at the beginning… They regularly increase the first injuries, till at length the inattentive people are compelled to perceive the heaviness of their burdens…but too late. They find their oppressors so strengthened by success, and themselves so entangled in examples of express authority on the part of their rulers, and of tacit recognition on their own part, that they are quite confounded.
  • A free people therefore can never be too quick in observing, nor too firm in opposing the beginnings of alteration either in form or reality, respecting institutions formed for their security…the forms of liberty may be retained, when the substance is gone.
  • Benevolence toward mankind excites wishes for their welfare…the means…can be found in liberty only, and therefore her sacred cause ought to be espoused by every man on every occasion, to the utmost of his power.
  • Divine Providence…gave me existence in a land of freedom…I shall so highly and gratefully value the blessing received as to take care that my silence and inactivity shall not give my implied assent to any act, degrading my brethren and myself from the birthright, wherewith heaven itself “hath made us free.”
  • Some persons are of the opinion, that liberty is not violated, but by…open acts of force; but…Liberty, perhaps, is never exposed to so much danger, as when the people believe there is the least; for it may be subverted, and yet they not think so.
  • The love of liberty is so natural to the human heart, that unfeeling tyrants think themselves obliged to accommodate their schemes as much as they can to the appearance of justice and reason, and to deceive those whom they resolve to destroy, or oppress, by presenting to them a miserable picture of freedom, when the inestimable original is lost.
  • For who are a free people? Not those, over whom government is reasonable and equitably exercised, but those, who live under a government so constitutionally checked and controlled, that proper provision is made against its being otherwise exercised.

When John Dickinson died, President Jefferson expressed his sorrow and both houses of Congress wore black armbands in mourning. Why? Because Dickinson recognized that the essential purpose of government was to maintain liberty against others’ predatory acts, or in his words, to protect “the worthy against the licentious.” Further, he knew that without liberty, “the loss of happiness then follows as a matter of course,” and he helped motivate our founders to be “protectors of unborn ages, whose fate depends upon your virtue.” And in substantial part due to his influence, the United States was created as the first government ever based on liberty.

For the 250th anniversary of his most famous work, with liberty under assault in many areas, we can again benefit from John Dickinson’s words defending it. He motivated our forefathers to rouse themselves to prevent the possibility that “the tragedy of American liberty is finished.” We need to recognize and respond to the same threat today. As Dickinson co-wrote with Thomas Jefferson in Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, “We…find nothing so dreadful as voluntary slavery. Honor, justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from us,” so that we must “regard these oppressive measures as freemen ought.”


Gary Galles

Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His research focuses on public finance, public choice, economic education, organization of firms, antitrust, urban economics, liberty, and the problems that undermine effective public policy. In addition to his most recent book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).

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