Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Students of American history will recognize John Dickinson as the Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress who had the temerity to speak against separation from Great Britain and the obstinacy to refuse to sign the Declaration of Independence. Paradoxically, Dickinson had been an early leader of the patriot cause in Pennsylvania, author of the “Farmers’ Letters” opposing the Stamp Act, and a man who, from 1774 to 1776, had represented Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress. Upon leaving Congress Dickinson served with the Army. Ultimately he was restored to leadership, serving as president (i.e., governor) of Delaware and then Penn­sylvania. In 1787 he represented Delaware in the Constitutional Convention.

Our present concern is with Dickinson’s speech on July 1, 1776, in the climactic debate on Richard Henry Lee’s resolution to declare the colonies free and indepen­dent states. Dickinson’s role as foil for John Adams in this debate and the general nature of his argument have been recorded in the notes kept by Jefferson and others. Congress, itself, met in secret and kept no record or transcript of the debates. In 1941 the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography carried the text of Dickinson’s speech of July 1, 1776, as recovered and edited by Dr. John H. Powell, on the basis of the notes for the speech found among the Dickinson manuscripts in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. These notes, with their abbre­viations, interlineations and indecipherable words, appear to be the actual paper from which Dickinson delivered the address, presumably enlarging on some of the arguments and figures.

Although historians (and the play “1776”) and even the principals have treated the debates as consequential, the perspective of time suggests that the result was inevitable and the difficulty of decision more symbolic than real. In a sense, independence was thrust on the colonies; the alternative was dependence, submission, and violation of the American character. The Intolerable Acts, passed to punish Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party. were an unacceptable threat to all colonies. The Quebec Act­ – giving Canada control over the territory northwest of the Ohio River and confirming the rights of the Catholic church in Canada – deprived the colonies (and potentially the colonials) of the western lands, and was perceived as a weakening of the Protestant position. Open, armed con­flict had been going on since April of 1775. Paine’s pam­phlet Common Sense, cogently advocating independence, had sold 120,000 copies among the approximately two million residents of the colonies.

Congress itself was approaching the challenge of independence; the only real issue was in the timing. On May 15 Congress took the definitive step of requesting that each colony suppress all vestiges of British authority and in effect reorganize as a self-governing state. Surely this was an act of independence. When, on June 7, Richard Henry Lee introduced his motion, it seemed well understood that it could receive majority support. It was in the hope of unanimous agreement that further debate was postponed until July 1, thus allowing the states time to send new instructions to delegates who did not yet feel inclined or authorized to support it, and it was in expectation of this result that a committee of five was appointed to draft the Declaration in the interval.

Thus, the purpose of the debate of July 1 was paradoxical in that: 1) Congress had in a real sense committed itself to independence on May 15; 2) public opinion was largely in favor of independence and would not be influenced by the discussion, since the debates were secret; 3) the British government, both by its declarations and military policy, left no acceptable alternative. Why then did John Dickinson, regardless of his private opinion, feel obliged to speak carefully and argumentatively and to lead the opposition in a day-long debate?

The answer seems to be that Dickinson felt an obliga­tion, a necessity, to see that the conservative view be expressed. The scenario was complete.the outcome predictable, but Dickinson felt he had to stay in character and play out his role. Understandably, then, the introduction of the speech, with its traditional emphasis on the ethos of the speaker, was carefully worked out:

The Consequences involvd in the Motion now lying before You are of such Magnitude, that I tremble under the oppressive Honor of sharing in its Determination. I feel Myself unequal to the Burthen assigned Me. I believe, I had al­most said, I rejoice, that the Time is approaching, when I shall be relieved from its Weight. While the Trust remains with Me, I must discharge the Duties of it, as well as I can­ – and I hope I shall be the more favorably heard, as I am convincd, that I shall hold such Language, as will sacrifise my private Emolument to general Interests. My Conduct, this Day, I expect will give the finishing Blow to my once too great, and, my Integrity considered, now too diminish’d Popularity. It will be my Lott to know, that I had rather vote away the Enjoyment of that dazzling display, that pleasing Possession, than the Blood and Happi­ness of my Countrymen – too fortunate, amidst their Calamities. if I prove a Truth known in Heaven, that I had rather they should hate Me, than that I should hurt them. I might indeed, practise an artful, an advantageous Reserve upon this Occasion. But thinking as I do on the Subject of Debate, Silence would be guilt. I despise its Arts, I detest its Advantages. I must speak, tho I should lose my Life, tho I should lose the Affections of my Country. Happy at present, however, I shall esteem Myself, if I can so far rise to the Height of this great argument as to offer to this Honorable Assembly in a full & clear Manner, those Reasons, that have so invariably fix’d my own Opinion.

Dickinson then prefaced his argument with a formal prayer, concluding “that his Divine Goodness may be graciously pleased to enable Me, to speak the Precepts of Sound Policy on the important Question that now engages our Attention.” Proceeding, he castigated the hasty ad­vocates of independence who wished “to brave the Storm in a Skiff made of Paper.”

The argument proper began with an analysis of the reasons presented on behalf of independence. In a way Dickinson’s true opponent was Thomas Paine, whose Common Sense had published the case for independence. Paine had argued that America and England were destined to separate, as their interests diverged; that reconciliation was no longer possible; and that George III was a tyrant who, by his behavior, had dissolved his claim on American allegiance. This represented a shift from the earlier rhetoric of the Revolution, which had emphasized opposition to the Parliament. Finally, Paine had asserted the merits of independence now, claiming that it would be easier to achieve and would strengthen the American war effort.

Dickinson did not respond to all of this. He made no effort to defend the King, Parliament, or the desirability of maintaining the colonial status. He left the possibility of reconciliation open but gave it little stress. Mostly he questioned the desirability of declaring independence now. in the summer of 1776. and expressed doubt that it would aid either our military or diplomatic efforts. This is entirely an argument on probabilities: Would Spain and France be more inclined to aid us against Britain; or Britain against us. presumably in return for concessions at American expense? Would France refuse to treat with the representatives of America before independence was declared; or should an offer to declare independence be made to the French on condition that they support us? Finally, would the ragged army trying to protect New York against a massive British invasion fight better for being in the service of the United States than it would in behalf of the rebellious colonies? Dickinson’s notes give no indication of what evidence, if any, was added to these claims – perhaps it was left to the perception of the dele­gates. It is all surmise, but from such conjecture must high national policy be made.

On one point Paine and Dickinson agreed-the need for organizing a national government for the American states. Paine projected a plan; Dickinson argued that until the new government was provided, independence should be delayed. Otherwise, he said, we with our family would be like one who would abandon one house in winter, before we have another prepared to move into.

The speech closes around a powerful figure, identified but not fully amplified in the notes ” … I should be glad to read a little more in the Doomsday Book of America – Not all – that like the Book of Fate might be too dreadful – Title Page – Binding.”

Insofar as we can infer from these notes, the style of the speech was the same forceful, direct, plain mode that had consistently earned Dickinson the approval of his peers as the “Penman of the Revolution.” This time, however, he breasted the tide.

Dickinson’s straightforward presentation, reinforced by his later conduct in serving in the Army, earned him the trust and respect of his colleagues. Charles Thomson, an activist leader in Pennsylvania and for fifteen years Secre­tary of the Congress, wrote Dickinson in August, regretting his absence from State politics and the loss of his leader­ship. We have already noted the ease with which Dickinson re-entered government, being appointed a delegate to Congress from Delaware in 1779. Years later, when Jeffer­son was President, Dickinson had occasion to exchange correspondence with him on appointments and other public matters. The tone of the letters was friendly; the disagreement of July 1, 1776, was wholly behind them.

On July 1, the issue before Congress had narrowed to the choice of declaring independence then or delaying, for there remained little hope or sentiment for recon­ciliation. The majority of the delegations had committed themselves to independence by June 7, and most others had been instructed to support it during June. The subject had been on the calendar for three weeks and a topic of informal discussion for at least a year. The possibility that Dickinson’s speech on July 1 would change the vote of even one delegate, much less the decision, was slight. Why then did he speak at length and in carefully worded argument?

The answer must be that he felt obliged to fulfill his mission, to represent as rationally and forcefully as possible his political and philosophical constituency. He felt a duty to speak without regard to consequences, and a need to express himself, even if to justify his position to himself alone. That his argument was cogent and his motives honorable led to his gaining the respect, though not the agreement, of his associates.


Dr. M. I. Kuhr is Professor in the Department of Communication at Slippery Rock State College. The article is adapted from a paper presented before the Speech Communication Association of Pennsylvania.