The Greatest Founders You’ve Never Heard Of

by Daniel Foster

Why do we celebrate Independence Day on July 4 instead of, say, June 4? Mostly because of John Dickinson. A polymath Delaware plantation owner, Dickinson was trained as a jurist alongside Edmund Burke at London’s Middle Temple, and as the eponymous author of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania was the great literary celebrity of the American cause in the late 1760s and early 1770s. “The American Cicero” no less than Voltaire called him, before an impudent ne’er-do-well pencil-pusher name of Tom Paine stole his market share.  

I’ve pimped Dickinson on the Corner before, and highly recommend David Lefer’s The Founding Conservatives, which I reviewed in NRODT last year, as a place to start on Dickinson and some of the other “lesser” Founding Fathers who, in Lefer’s view (and my own), saved the Revolution from itself.

Dickinson, in particular, figured in every significant crisis of the American founding from the Stamp Act on and, in the year before the Declaration, was arguably the man who kept the colonial cause united. The first Continental Congress had a mostly mediatory feel, a civil dispute “between brothers,” as Charlie Cooke puts it. The Congress seriously considered a proposal to create an American “union” with Britain, governed by a crown-appointed president, and its closing banquet ended with a toast to King George III. But there were radicals in the midst who wanted independence tout court, and it made many attendees nervous enough that they secretly wrote each other affidavits swearing they had voted against resolutions they considered seditious.

Dickinson, even then an elder statesman whom John Adams and others held in awe, was critical in reconciling the radical and conservative factions. As I summarized, following the Lefer book:

Even at the Second Continental Congress, convened against the backdrop of the outrages at Lexington and Concord, Dickinson shrewdly split the difference between revolution and rapprochement, arguing that the aggressive provision for war “must go pari passu with measures of reconciliation.” Dickinson may have been privately convinced that both independence and all-out war were now inevitable, but publicly he was instrumental in securing one final petition to the Crown for the redress of grievances, against the huffing of the Adamses and their bloc of New England and Virginia radicals. What Adams and the radicals didn’t understand was that Dickinson’s “Olive Branch Petition” was really about buying time for war preparations, and giving the colonies something to rally around when Britain inevitably rejected it.

In the fateful summer of 1776, Dickinson’s conservatives were instrumental in securing a one-month delay in voting for independence that John Adams, at the time virulently opposed, would admit in 1813 was critical to readying the continent for war.

But Dickinson’s prudence quickly made him a man out of time, in more ways than one. As June turned to July, he could forestall a vote no longer. Despairing of a war he thought his countrymen were ill prepared to fight, much less win, “It was Dickinson, subsequently, who rose to make the final case against the Declaration, well aware that in doing so he was expending every ounce of goodwill and esteem he had accrued.”

Dickinson thought the Declaration not unjust, but imprudent, and wanted to secure both foreign allies and a new government for America before declaring open war on the greatest empire in the world. When his counsels didn’t prevail, Dickinson and his ally Robert Morris . . . decided of their own accord to stand “behind the bar” during the July 2 vote, and were officially marked “absent.” This tipped Pennsylvania toward independence, and, along with the New York delegation’s abstention, allowed posterity to record the vote as unanimous.

Dickinson drew scorn from every corner of Pennsylvania society as a suspected Loyalist, but although he never signed the Declaration, he proclaimed himself “resolved by every impulse of my soul to share, and to stand or fall with [America] in that scheme of freedom she had chosen.” And that he did. In the same week he stood athwart history, Dickinson made it, drafting the Articles of Confederation, [and] legally christening the days-old republic “The United States of America.” Then, as a colonel in the Pennsylvania militia, he led a battalion to join General Washington’s army in the battle for New York. If a tapestry were made to commemorate the founding of American conservatism, these events would be as good a subject matter as any.

Dickinson and his allies continued to serve the cause throughout the Revolution, even though the Congress was increasingly dominated by men who openly detested them. There is still the historiographical fiction of unanimity and accord among the Founders; Richard Hofstadter called it the “consensus school” of the American Revolution. But the reality is that the war was fought and won amid internal regional, political, and class tensions, and ultimately amid tensions between groups that we would today recognize as radicals and conservatives — the former, mostly agrarians and mostly from New England and Virginia; the latter, mostly merchants and aristocrats and mostly from New York and the Deep South.

You won’t be surprised to hear that conservatives were wise and judicious and that the radicals were, well, idiots who almost bunked the whole thing up.

It was radicals who at every stage niggled and undermined America’s first secret agent, conservative Silas Deane, as he snuck French rifles past a British blockade and signed the commissions of young Gallic adventurers like the Marquis De Lafayette.

It was radicals who, in the middle of a shooting war, shredded Pennsylvania’s long-standing constitution in favor of a novelty that wouldn’t have been out of place in post-Bastille Paris. And it was radicals who summarily excluded from political participation the 40 percent of the (white, male) population they considered political enemies.

It was a murderous radical mob that in 1779 forced James Wilson, a prominent lawyer and signatory of the Declaration, to barricade himself inside his Philadelphia home for having the gall to speak out against the radical government’s arbitary seizures of private property.

It was radicals in the Congress who second-guessed each and every of General Washington’s moves and sought to have his deputies replaced with political allies. And it was radicals who debased the Continental currency into oblivion, bankrupting the revolutionary government and inciting mutinies and near-mutinies across army ranks.

Of course it was conservatives who were left to clean up their mess. My favorite is Dickinson’s pal Robert Morris, the shipping magnate who became the Revolution’s smuggler-in-chief and later both its treasurer and sugar daddy. As the mostly wealthy, landed radicals railed against the ignobility of financial capital (sound familiar?), the conservative Morris had consecrated his personal fortune to the cause of liberty, issuing his own “Morris notes” to backstop the Congress’s floundering fiat money and bankrolling the Battle of Yorktown in hard specie at Washington’s beseeching.

To be sure, all patriots helped win the war for America’s independence, but the conservatives won the war for its character. Not only did Dickinson and acolytes like Morris and John Jay play critical roles in the framing of the Constitution, but their number were augmented by both converts and upstarts. With age and experience John Adams went from Dickinson fanboy to Dickinson foe and back again (hilariously calling Paine’s Common Sense a “poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass” late in his life). And it was Morris who recommended young Alexander Hamilton for the post of secretary of the Treasury, after himself declining it.

Meanwhile it was the radicals, by and large, who became the anti-federalists, and the radicals who were written out of the post-Yorktown story. Sure, a few radicals stuck around long enough to undermine American diplomacy or bungle their way into disastrous wars (::cough:: Jefferson ::cough::), but thankfully, the damage was limited.

So on this Independence Day, in addition to venerating the usual suspects, why not take a second to tip your cap and pour one out for the John Dickinsons and Robert Morrises of the  world — the greatest Founders you’ve never heard of.