Spotlight on Forgotten Founders: John Dickinson

You’ve been drilled on the names of the men who signed that famous piece of parchment in 1776. Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and Hancock are cemented in the American canon but there were sixty four men who fought and argued and begged for John Adams to shut up during that hot American summer. It would be impossible for schools to devote time in the already packed curriculum, so that’s why you have me. Dying to know about the men who weren’t  American superheros but still made impacts that we still feel today? Buckle in, kids, this could take a while.

Meet John Dickinson.

“Hey, Ladies.”

Dickinson was born November 13, 1732 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in Talbot County.  Like most members of the future Congress, he was born well-off, and studied law at the Middle Temple in London for three years.  After his father died, he inherited one his Delaware plantations, known at Poplar Hall. (It’s open for tours!) Seems pretty average for a man of his time so far, right?

If he sounds familiar, you probably remember him as the guy who got into the wicked cane fight with John Adams in 1776.

“Fight! Fight! Fight!”

The 1770s hit America kicking and screaming. And it also hit Dickinson’s social life. In July 1770, Dickinson married Mary Norris, whom he affectionately called Polly. Mary was well educated, owned a 1500 volume library, and ran her own property in Philadelphia. Dickinson was smitten. The two moved to Mary’s Philadelphia property, called Fairhill, and with their combined income, the couple was stupidly wealthy.

Poplar Hall, one of the Dickinson’s many residences

Dickinson was a member of both the First and Second Continental Congress starting in 1774 and 1775, respectively, as a representative from Pennsylvania. Oh yeah, and he was adamantly against declaring independence from Great Britain.

Wait, how could a Founding Father be against independence? No wonder we’ve forgotten him!

First of all, rude. And second, chill out and hang on.

Dickinson was far from a Loyalist. (Hell, he wrote a song called “The Liberty Song“) He repeatedly fought for an Olive Branch Petition to be sent to King George, which passed and obviously failed. On July 1, 1776, Jefferson presented his Declaration of Independence while Dickinson continued to rally that it wasn’t quite time. And when you think about it, he wasn’t stupid to think so. Great Britain had the largest, strongest Navy in the world and, at the time, were squatting right outside the Island of Manhattan, poised to attack. America had no navies and no foreign alliances. If we declared independence, we would be declaring war and would be left defenseless on the seas.

On July 2, he was either not present, or abstained, from voting for or against the Declaration. He also refused to sign the document.

One of the dramatic, yet touching, moments in 1776 is when Dickinson refuses to sign. He stands and says:

“I’m sorry, Mr. President, I cannot, in good conscience, sign such a document. I will never stop hoping for our eventual reconciliation with England. But because–in my own way–I regard America no less than Mr. Adams, I will join the army and fight in her defense–even though I believe that fight to be hopeless. Goodbye, Gentlemen.”

And Adams starts a slow clap and everyone cries and it’s great.

But actually, Dickinson did just that. Though we have no way of knowing what his exact words were (except for his Speech Against Independence, delivered July 1, 1776) he did join the Pennsylvania militia at the rank of a brigadier general, and lead 10,000 to defend Staten Island from the British.

But his story doesn’t end there. He resigned from service in December 1776 and by 1777, he was Delaware’s wealthiest farmer and largest slaveholder. And during this time, he freed each and every one of his slaves. He was the only Founder to do so prior to 1786. However the process was not done overnight and took until 1787 until his slaves were legally free.  Many continued to work for him for pay.

So he’s more than funny quips in a  (fantastic) musical.

dickinsonBut Dickinson’s fabulous life didn’t end there. He prepared the first draft of the Articles of Confederation way back in 1776. donated his library to John and Mary’s College (now known as Dickinson College), represented Delaware at the Annapolis Convention, and served as President of Delaware from 1781-1785.

John Dickinson died on Valentine’s Day, 1808 and is buried in a modest Quaker grave.

Who’s your favorite forgotten Founder? Leave a comment below!

“For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down!”

Ah yes, the Fourth of July. A day off work and an excuse to eat to excess while lighting explosives. America.

Though we have celebrated this holiday for hundreds of years, few know that John Adams was the one who foresaw the pomp and circumstance of July 4th. “I believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival,” he wrote in a letter to his wife, Abigail. “It ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other…”

You're welcome, America. Now blow up some explosives. INDEPENDENCE!!!

You’re welcome, America. Now blow up some explosives. INDEPENDENCE!!!

If you’re so inclined you can also listen to Mr. Feeny himself (William Daniels) as John Adams sing about this in the musical 1776.

Most of the parties happen in the late afternoon or after sundown. That leaves a decent chunk of the day to lounge around in anticipation for the festivities to come. Why don’t you sit down and give 1776 a watch on Thursday? It’s a bit of a doozy (nearly three hours!) but a hilarious interpretation of the events of the summer of 1776. Franklin’s a bit of a creep, Adams is always angry, Jefferson is swoon-worthy, Lee is hilarious, and Hancock just wants to go home. (You can rent it for $2.99 on Amazon! Do it! Start a new tradition before you put your liver into overdrive! Or drink and watch it! Take a shot every time someone tells John Adams to sit down! Don’t worry, you’ll catch on fast.)

"WON'T SOMEBODY OOOOOOOPEN UP A WINDOW!????"

“SOMEONE OUGHTA OPEN UP A WINDOOOOOOOOW!!!”

Documentaries can be dry and a book is hard to swallow in day. A film isn’t. Granted, you’ve been bottle fed the story of the Declaration of Independence since you could wipe your own butt, but I’m sure there’s at least one aspect of it you never knew.

There was originally a slavery clause in the Declaration of Independence? Yup! New York abstained from voting on anything of importance? Sure thing! The delegates fought so much that a motion to even discuss Independence almost didn’t pass? You betcha!

I’m quickly reminded of the recent Spielberg film, Lincoln. Though we obviously knew the 13th Amendment was passed, many watched the final scene with baited breath. 1776 is incredibly similar. At the very least, you’ll notice that 18th century politics doesn’t differ too much for today.

The musical also does an excellent job of rounding out some Founders who aren’t the household names Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin are. John Dickinson is Adams’ main opposition. A delegate from Pennsylvania, Dickinson believed that independence was necessary but the time to declare it could wait. Adams, obviously, disagreed and Dickinson gets to sing a really cool song about being a conservative. (I’m serious. It’s one of my favorite songs in the whole show. Anyone doing a reverse gender 1776? Call me. I do great renditions in my car when driving to work.)

Fun fact. This song was cut from the theatrical movie release because President Nixon thought it was a personal jab towards him.

If this is too much of a history lesson overload, don’t worry there’s a romantic break. The only two female characters in the show are Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson. Abigail only appears in visions John has and their dialogue is based upon the actual letters of the Adams’. Martha Jefferson is introduced when Thomas refuses to write the Declaration of Independence because he misses his wife and Adams is forced to send for her. She also gets an awesome song.

She’s really into dudes that play the violin…

If you’re someone who knows a lot or nothing at all about the Congress of 1776 and the passing of Declaration of Independence, you’ll learn something while watching 1776. And you won’t even know it.

Duel!

HEY. YOU.

DO YOU LIKE GUNS? DO YOU LIKE COOL STORIES ABOUT COOL DUDES WHO DUEL?

WELL HANG TIGHT BECAUSE I’VE GOT A COOL STORY FOR YOU.

July 11, 1804. Weehawken, New Jersey. Two men arrive, only one walks away. One is Aaron Burr, the Vice President. The other, Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury and a signer of the Constitution. You would think that two forty-somethings that helped form our nation would handle personal disputes in a calm rational matter. Well you’d be wrong because these two fought like toddlers.

"Stop hitting yourself. Stop hitting yourself."

“Stop hitting yourself. Stop hitting yourself.”

Both men were orphaned in adolescence and faced extraordinary strife in childhood. Hamilton was born in Nevis, an island in the West Indies. His father abandoned their family when Alexander was 10 and his mother died two years later.  After her death, Hamilton worked as a clerk in a counting house, impressing his bosses so much that they raised money to send him off to school in America. In New York, he attended King’s College–known today as Columbia University.

"I'm better than you."

“I’m better than you.”-Hamilton, age 14

Meanwhile, Burr was an orphan at age two. He was sent to live with an uncle who whipped him. Aaron ran away time after time, but his uncle found him. At age 16, Burr graduated from the College of New Jersey (today, Princeton) as a student of theology, but later turned to a career in law.

Tensions rose between these two men during the American Revolution. Both men were war heroes, either being one of two men of their regiment to survive a battle (Burr) or having their horse shot down from under them and walking away unscathed (Hamilton).

General George Washington heard about Hamilton’s victories and invited him to be one of his aide-de-camps. Though Hamilton was moving up the ranks, he was extremely temperamental. Because he was born in the West Indies, he felt many people judged him for it, causing him to lash out with his peers and even Washington himself.  Burr was invited to become an aide as well, but was almost immediately fired and sent to work for General Israel Putnam.

“George likes ME more!”

After the war, the two were friendly to each other in public, but were rivals in New York City courtrooms, where they both worked as lawyers. In 1791, Burr beat out Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler for a U.S. Senate seat. Hamilton lashed out, thinking Burr ran just to spite him. He wrote letters to lawmakers, hurling insults at Burr.

"Aaron Burr is a stupid, silly, poopy head."

“Aaron Burr is a stupid, silly, poopy head.”

In 1800, Burr ran for President. He tied with Thomas Jefferson and the House of Representatives had to choose the next POTUS. As the House chose, Hamilton once again wrote notes slandering Burr’s name and intentions. Burr was defeated, and he believed it was because of Hamilton’s words. The feud between the two had been given more fuel.

Always the VP, never the P.

Always the VP, never the P.

When Burr’s Vice Presidency was coming to a close, he decided to run for governor of New York. Burr caught wind that Hamilton was once again planning to run a smear campaign against him. Burr lost the election for governor and was infuriated, once again blaming Hamilton for the loss. He wrote his falsifier and requested that Hamilton apologize or Burr would challenge him to a duel. Hamilton chose the duel.

The location would be the Weehawken dueling grounds, across the Hudson River from New York City. The location was the same where, just three years before, Hamilton’s son Philip died from, you guessed it, a duel.

He inherited his father's good looks, too.

He inherited his father’s good looks, too.

Hamilton shot first, but missed. To this day, the jury is out on whether he purposefully missed or misfired. Burr returned fire and hit Hamilton in the lower right abdomen above his right hip. The bullet fractured his third false rib and ricocheted through his liver and diaphragm before lodging into his spine. He collapsed immediately and Burr started to approach his fallen comrade, seemingly out of regret, but he was rushed away to his rowboat.

4-hamilton-burr-duel-1804-granger

Hamilton drifted in and out of consciousness and died the following day. Burr was tried for treason in 1807 but was pardoned. He lived in Europe from 1808 to 1812 and never regained political power. He remarried in 1833 at the age of 77 and frequently remarked about the duel, referring to Hamilton as, “my friend, whom I shot.”

Dueling grounds monument

Dueling grounds monument

Today, a road runs through the original dueling grounds site, but along the bank of the river is a monument with a statue of Hamilton’s bust and a boulder where he is believed to have rested after being wounded. Hamilton’s face is plastered on the ten dollar bill and statues of him are in almost every major city on the East Coast. Burr remains a forgotten figure from history for an act that both men shared equal blame.

Currently, Broadway actor, composer, and lyricist is composing “The Hamilton Mixtape,” a concept album based on the life of the former Secretary of the Treasury. The first song, performed by the character of Aaron Burr, can be watched here:

In addition, Nick Cardiff- who portrays Alexander Hamilton in the YouTube series “I Made America”, performed a response to Miranda’s rap, where he mentions more of the details of the duel (It’s also hilarious–if you have the time, watch the entire series, it’s great. Just great.):

Further Reading:

Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America by Thomas Fleming
Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg
Alexander Hamilton, American by Richard Brookhiser