John Dickinson was both passionate and polite — and served as a role model for political rhetoricians in an era long before the Age of Twitter.
“Complaints may be made with dignity; insults retorted with decency; and violated rights vindicated without violence of words,” he wrote in 1766.
He was responding to unnamed critics in Barbados, who had published an open letter that struck a sycophantic tone toward the British parliament, while simultaneously complaining about the Stamp Act passed by that parliament and ridiculing the “violent spirit raised in the North-American colonies against this act.”
Parliament approved the Stamp Act in 1765, imposing a tax on American colonists they had not approved through their own legislatures.
Dickinson was an eloquent critic of this act. In his view, parliament’s attack on American rights raised a fundamental question about all human rights.
“Kings and parliaments could not give the rights essential to happiness, as you confess those invaded by the Stamp Act to be,” he wrote.
“We claim them from a higher source — from the King of kings, and Lord of all the Earth,” he declared.
“They are not annexed to us by parchments and seals,” he wrote. “They are created in us by decrees of Providence, which establish the laws of our nature. They are born with us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power, without taking our lives.
“In short,” he said, “they are founded on the immutable maxims of reason and justice.”
For the British Parliament to tax colonists not represented in that parliament, Dickinson concluded, “is inconsistent with reason and justice; and subversive of those sacred rights which God himself from the infinity of his benevolence has bestowed on mankind.”
As vehemently as Dickinson argued here — 10 years before the Declaration of Independence — against the acts of a British Parliament and for the God-given rights of American colonists, he ardently considered himself to be a British patriot.
“As to Great Britain, I glory in my relation to her,” he wrote.
“Every drop of blood in my heart is British,” he said, “and that heart is animated with as warm wishes for her prosperity, as her truest sons can form.”
Indeed, this American-born defender of God-given rights had learned the law in London. “From 1753 to 1757, he attended the Middle Temple at the Inns of Court in London and, upon his return to the colonies, established a practice in Philadelphia,” says the biography posted by The John Dickinson Writings Project at the University of Kentucky.
A decade after Dickinson declared that our rights come from the King of Kings, Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, which invoked the same principle.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Jefferson, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Despite being one of America’s leading advocates of this principle, Dickinson declined to support declaring American independence.
“When the vote was taken, refusing to vote against his conscience but knowing that any declaration should be unanimous for the sake of the cause, Dickinson absented himself from the proceedings,” says the John Dickinson Writings Project biography.
Yet Dickinson did fight for the new United States of America.
“Determined to prove his patriotism, in 1777, Dickinson did something nearly unheard of for a gentleman of his stature — he enlisted in the Delaware militia as a private and, ‘with a musket upon (his) shoulder,’ scoured the countryside for supplie(s) and served at the Battle of Brandywine,” says the biography. “He was soon promoted to brigadier general, a commission he resigned later that year. Despite not being a Continental officer, Dickinson was nonetheless admitted to the Society of the Cincinnati as an honorary member for his distinguished service.”
Eighteen centuries before Dickinson and Jefferson argued there was a natural law, created by God, that no nation could disobey, Marcus Tullius Cicero made the same point.
“There is a true law, a right reason, conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil,” Cicero wrote.
“It is not one thing at Rome and another at Athens; one thing today and another tomorrow; but in all times and nations this universal law must forever reign, eternal and imperishable,” he said.
“It is the sovereign master and emperor of all beings,” wrote that Roman patriot. “God himself is it author, its promulgator, its enforcer.”
As Americans celebrate the Fourth of July and more than 240 years of national independence, they should remember and revere not only those who fought to defend this principle, but the principle itself.
Terence P. Jeffrey is the editor-in-chief of CNSnews.com. To find out more about him, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.