J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, October 04, 2013

John Dickinson and the Shift to Republican Freedom

Another essay on the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s “Preserving American Freedom” website is “Declaring Independence, Establishing a Republic” by the late Pauline Maier. She wrote:
Independence did not make the American Revolution revolutionary. That, as Thomas Paine later explained, depended upon the Americans’ establishing a new system of government. Their decision to found a republic owed much to Paine’s argument in Common Sense (January 1776) that Britain’s much-praised, unwritten constitution was flawed by two major errors: monarchy and hereditary rule. British freedom, Paine insisted, depended only upon the “republican” part of its government—the elected House of Commons. By mid-1776, the Americans had had enough of earthly kings and discovered, to their surprise, that the people best able to govern them with respect for their rights were themselves.

The main features of American government evolved primarily on the state level through a series of constitutions written from 1776 to the 1780s. The country’s central government underwent a similar transformation. The First and Second Continental Congresses were impermanent bodies, formed under duress. With independence in the offing, a more permanent form of alliance became necessary, and on June 12, 1776, Congress appointed a thirteen-man committee chaired by Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson to draft a plan of confederation. Not much is known about the workings of the Dickinson committee except that it was dominated by Dickinson, who prepared a draft confederation whose “quaeries” (or questions) and extensive editorial changes suggest the complexity of that task and show the extensive alterations made either by Dickinson himself or on the insistence of other committee members.

The committee submitted a new and more finished version to Congress on July 12, 1776. Congress did not send the (much revised) Articles of Confederation to the states until November 1777. And only in March 1781, some seven months before the battle of Yorktown, did the Articles receive the required unanimous consent of the states and go into effect. Already newspaper essayists were calling the confederation inadequate for the needs of the Union.
Also from Dickinson’s papers, the exhibit includes his draft of the Stamp Act Congress’s petition in 1765 and one of the documents by which he freed his many slaves between 1777 and 1786.

Given its Philadelphia-centered collections, it’s natural that Dickinson stands tall on the H.S.P.’s website. But he really was very important in Revolutionary politics, though now remembered most for his opposition to independence in July 1776.

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