Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James
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DICKINSON, John, publicist, born in Maryland, 13 November 1732; died in Wilmington, Del., 14 February 1808. He was the son of Samuel D. Dickinson, who removed to Delaware, became chief justice of the County of Kent, and died, 6 July 1760, aged seventy-one. John studied law in Philadelphia, and subsequently passed three years in reading in the Temple in London. On his return he practiced successfully in Philadelphia. His first appearances in public life were as a member of the Pennsylvania assembly in 1764, and of the Colonial congress convened in New York to oppose the stamp act in 1765. In the latter year he began to write against the policy of the British government, and, being a member of the 1st Continental congress (1774), was the author of a series of state papers put forth by that body, which won for him a glowing tribute from Lord Chatham. Among them were the " Address to the Inhabitants of Quebec," the first "Petition to the King," the "Address to the Armies," the second "Petition to the King," and the "Address" to the several states. Of the first "Petition," which has been credited to Lee, it has been said that "it will remain an imperishable monument to the glory of its author and of the assembly of which he was a member, so long as fervid and manly eloquence and chaste and elegant composition shall be appreciated." In June 1776, he opposed the adoption of the Declaration of Independence because he doubted the wisdom of the measure "without some precursory trials of our strength," and before the terms of the confederation were settled and foreign assistance made certain.
When the question came to be voted upon, he absented himself intentionally, but proved that his patriotism was not inferior to that of those who differed with him, by enlisting as a private in the army and remaining until the end of his term of service. He served again as a private in the summer of 1777 in Delaware, and in October of the same year was commissioned as a brigadier general. In April 1779, he was elected to congress from Delaware, and in May wrote another " Address to the States." In 1780 he was chosen a member of the Delaware assembly, and in the following year elected president of the state. From 1782 till 1785 he filled the same office in Pennsylvania, and served as a member of the convention that framed the Federal constitution, in 1788 he wrote nine letters over the signature of "Pabius," urging the adoption of the constitution, and these were followed in 1797 by a series of fourteen, written to promote a friendly feeling toward France. In 1783 he was influential in founding and largely endowed Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania At this time he was living in Wilmington, Del., where he collected his political writings in 1801. The remaining seven years of his life were passed in retirement. Besides the writings mentioned, he was the author of "Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies" (Philadelphia, 1767; reprinted, with a preface by Dr. Franklin, London, 1768; French translation, Paris, 1769). In 1774 appeared his "Essay on the Constitutional Power of Great Britain over the Colonies in America." In 1796 he received the degree of LL. D. from the College of New Jersey.
His brother, Philemon Dickinson, soldier, born in Croisedore, Talbot County, Maryland, 5 April 1739; died near Trenton, New Jersey, 4 February 1809, went to Dover, Del., with his father in 1740, and studied under Dr. Allison in Philadelphia. He then went to live on his farm near Trenton, New Jersey, and, though possessed of an ample fortune. hazarded it by embracing the patriot cause. He entered the army as colonel of the Hunterdon County battalion in July 1775, and was commissioned brigadier general on 19 October In 1.776 he was a delegate to the provincial congress of New Jersey and member of a committee that drafted a constitution with a clause affirming the independence of New Jersey, which was adopted on 2 July 1776. On 20 January 1777, with about 400 raw troops, who had to wade waist deep through a River to make the attack, he surprised and defeated a large foraging party near Somerset Court House, New Jersey, capturing a few prisoners, forty wagons, and about a hundred English draught horses. He was made major general of the New Jersey forces on 6 June 1777, and on 27 November made an attack on Staten Island, for which Washington thanked him.
During the occupation of Trenton by the Hessians, the enemy plundered General Dickinson's estate. He led the New Jersey troops at the battle of Monmouth, where he displayed great bravery, and was specially mentioned by Washington in his report to congress. In 1778'9 he was chief signal officer for the middle department. On 4 July 1778, he was second to General Cadwalader in his duel with General Conway. He was a delegate to congress in 1782'3 from Delaware, where he owned property, and in 1783'4 was vice president of the New Jersey state council. He was a member of the commission appointed by congress in December 1784, to select a site for the national capital, and, on the resignation of William Patterson as U. S. senator from New Jersey, was chosen to fill his place, serving from 6 December 1790, till 2 March 1793. From this time till his death he lived quietly at his countryseat, "The Hermitage," which was the resort of all the distinguished men who passed through Trenton.
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