A Founding Father of Federalism: Professor Rob Natelson Profiles John Dickinson

On the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, member of the ALEC Board of Scholars Professor Rob Natelson profiles their author, John Dickinson, one of federalism’s early champions, in a five part series that can be accessed here.

The first article of the series describes Dickinson’s early life, including what prompted him to write the Letters, which were 12, anonymously-penned op-eds outlining colonial grievances against the British government. They also contained ideas that would be incorporated into the U.S. Constitution 20 years later and foreshadowed Dickinson’s proficiency with highly meaningful soundbites – a skill that would provide us with a body of quotes on the nature of government that still have relevance today. The Letters were eventually compiled as a book and revelation of Dickinson as the author catapulted him to fame.

The second article details the contents of the Letters including John Dickinson’s assertion that government is a public trust to secure the happiness of its citizens. He summed it up here. “We cannot be happy without being free … We cannot be free without being secure in our own property … We cannot be secure in our property, if, without our consent, others may take it away.” Another theme that would continue to resurface throughout his life was the importance of immediate response to government overreach to prevent creating a precedent that would ultimately encourage future encroachments on liberty. Today’s States could learn from his wisdom.

The third article chronicles Dickinson’s life during the Continental and Confederation periods and offers significant insights into his character. He served as the principal drafter of public statements at both the First Continental Congress and the Second Continental Congress and chaired the committee that drafted the Articles of Confederation. On principle, he originally opposed independence from England, but once its inevitability became clear, he and Richard Morris withdrew, so that the vote could be unanimous in favor of independence. Despite his initial misgivings, he served two tours in the colonial military during the Revolutionary War. He was also one of the few Founding Fathers to free his slaves during his lifetime. By 1786 he was back in the political fray representing Delaware at the Annapolis Convention, the precursor to the Philadelphia Convention where the U.S. Constitution was drafted.

Articles four and five outline John Dickinson’s contributions during the drafting of the Constitution. As Natelson observes, Dickinson understood that the, “role of a constitution was to lay down procedures for managing the rights and powers citizens contributed to the central authority.” Or as Dickinson put it “[A] constitution is the organization of the contributed rights in society,” and should provide a public framework for the “cultivation of virtues and correction of errors.” Dickinson sponsored the resolution that ensured that each state would have at least one Representative and made the motion that would permit presidential impeachment. He is also the constitutional framer who contributed the most to the constitutional structure of the U.S. Senate including longer terms and the allotment of two senators to each state irrespective of population. One of Dickinson’s greatest contributions to the Constitution was his concept of federalism and the states as a check on national power. He not only held that the states should defend their sovereignty but insisted that it was their duty to do so. If the states countenanced overreach by the national government, “It will be their own faults.”

Rob Natelson provides an excellent overview of the life of one of the nation’s most consequential Founding Fathers. While Dickinson was prominent during his life, his works are not studied enough today, making this series an important read!

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