"A skiff made of paper"
With patriotic nostalgia, we often imagine the scene at Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1776 wherein the delegates of the 13 colonies fervently voted in unison to break from England in response to the king's excesses. However, several delegates abstained from voting or voted against independence. The most notable of these was John Dickinson of Pennsylvania.
Dickinson was devoted to American rights under Britain's unwritten constitution and led several attempts to address the king's abuses by penning his Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, a series of broadsides read throughout the colonies and in Europe in the years leading to the revolution. While he agreed with his fellow colonial leaders that the colonies' claims against England were well founded on principles of self-governance, he believed a resolution short of independence could be found if cooler heads prevailed.
Dickinson's great foe was John Adams who had little patience for "the farmer's" continued attempts to retard the momentum toward independence. Dickinson pleaded for new petitions and a delegation to be sent to England, and he wrote a set of resolutions preventing the Pennsylvania delegates from voting for independence. His proposals were attacked "with spirit" and rebuked with "utmost contempt" by fellow delegates. Dickinson acknowledged that the colonies should "prepare vigorously for War" but should still give England another chance at reconciliation.
Public support for radical action against Britain was kindled by Thomas Paine's Common Sense, published in January 1776 and England's insistence that repression was the only policy it would pursue. By April of 1776, it became clear that independence would be declared. On the eve of the vote for independence, Dickinson gave an impassioned speech knowing full well the damage to his reputation would be complete. He begged the delegates not "to brave the Storm in a Skiff made of Paper,"insisting that the Congress should consult with France and await its recommendation, and warning that the colonies were ill prepared for war and even less prepared to rule themselves. To read the entire speech, click here.
Dickinson could not vote in favor of the Declaration of Independence but he also knew that any declaration should be unanimous for the sake of the cause. Therefore, he abstained from voting. The new government of Pennsylvania quickly dismissed Dickinson from the congressional delegation. He would spend the rest of his life attempting to restore his reputation. Upon his death, Thomas Jefferson wrote a glowing recollection of Dickinson, "A more estimable man, or truer patriot, could not have left us." And even his long-time rival, John Adam, wrote a note of appreciation for Dickinson, "There was little Aristocracy among us, of Letters and Talents. Mr Dickinson was primus inter pares - first among equals."