The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson

The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson

by William Murchison

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“Makes a powerful and convincing case for restoring John Dickinson to his rightful place in the first rank of the Founders.” —The Washington Times 

The Cost of Liberty offers a sorely needed reassessment of a great patriot and misunderstood Founder.
It has been more than a half century…  See more details below


“Makes a powerful and convincing case for restoring John Dickinson to his rightful place in the first rank of the Founders.” —The Washington Times 

The Cost of Liberty offers a sorely needed reassessment of a great patriot and misunderstood Founder.
It has been more than a half century since a biography of John Dickinson appeared. Author William Murchison rectifies this mistake, bringing to life one of the most influential figures of the entire Founding period, a principled man whose gifts as writer, speaker, and philosopher only Jefferson came near to matching. In the process, Murchison destroys the caricature of Dickinson that has emerged from such popular treatments as HBO’s John Adams miniseries and the Broadway musical 1776.
Dickinson is remembered mostly for his reluctance to sign the Declaration of Independence. But that reluctance, Murchison shows, had nothing to do with a lack of patriotism. In fact, Dickinson immediately took up arms to serve the colonial cause—something only one signer of the Declaration did. He stood on principle to oppose declaring independence at that moment, even when he knew that doing so would deal the “finishing blow” to his once-great reputation.
Dubbed the “Penman of the Revolution,” Dickinson was not just a scribe but also a shaper of mighty events. From the 1760s through the late 1780s he was present at, and played a significant role in, every major assemblage where the Founders charted America’s path—a claim few others could make. Author of the landmark essays Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, delegate to the Continental Congress, key figure behind the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, chief executive of both Pennsylvania and Delaware: Dickinson was, as one esteemed historian aptly put it, “the most underrated of all the Founders.”
This lively biography gives a great Founder his long-overdue measure of honor.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“John Dickinson’s vigorous defense of Americans’ rights as Englishmen won him renown throughout the colonies in the 1760s, but his refusal to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776 diminished his reputation and came to be unfairly seen as his defining moment. . . . With The Cost of Liberty, a brisk, admiring biography, journalist William Murchison provides a fuller portrait.”
Wall Street Journal

“[A] thoughtful and highly readable biography . . . Mr. Murchison, who illuminates a complex period in our history and with a sure and often novelistic touch brings his subject back to vivid life, makes a powerful and convincing case for restoring John Dickinson to his rightful place in the first rank of the Founders.”
Washington Times

“One can read hundreds of biographies of the wor­thy men and women from the founding era, and this would be on the short list of those most beautifully written. . . . William Murchison has done his duty to what is left of the republic by restoring to us in charming and trenchant prose one of its greatest early leaders. This is an achieve­ment I will pass along to my students and recommend to all lovers of liberty.”

“[We should] be grateful that the veteran journalist William Murchison has chosen to employ his incomparable pen and vivid historical imagination in the cause of bringing back to life one of the most underrated and misunderstood of the Founders, whose intelligence and courage are badly needed in our time. . . . Murchison gives us a surprisingly riveting narrative. . . . Murchison shows with especial care and poignancy how much of a loss to the American conservative intellectual tradition, and to conservative ways of reading the Declaration and the Constitution, our neglect of Dickinson has been.”
The American Conservative

“John Dickinson is perhaps the most neglected and least understood of the Founders of our nation. A man of principle and wisdom, Dickinson influenced the course of events and shaped the outcome in critical ways. William Murchison has brought him to life and cleared up some vital areas of the Founding. This book is truly a must read.
Forrest McDonald, Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, author of Novus Ordo Seclorum

The Cost of Liberty is a delightful book—lively, warm, amusing, and intelligent. It brings a brave and wise man splendidly back to life.”
Richard Brookhiser, author of James Madison and What Would the Founders Do?

“John Dickinson is the most neglected of the true giants of the American War for Independence. Bill Murchison has written a book finally, and fully, worthy of the author of more of our nation’s founding documents than any other man. This biography will stand for the ages.
John Willson, professor emeritus of history at Hillsdale College

“Like his biographical subject, John Dickinson, William Murchison possesses wisdom, a felicitous prose style, and a shrewd understanding, as Murchison puts it, of ‘the value of no in political affairs.’ The Cost of Liberty is a gem.
Bill Kauffman, author of Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin

This splendid new account of John Dickinson represents the perfect marriage of subject and author. It is hard to think of a Founder more deserving of a second and third look than the admirable Dickinson. And it is hard to think of a writer more worthy of our admiration than Bill Murchison, a master of the English language.”
Wilfred M. McClay, Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma

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The Cost of Liberty

The Life of John Dickinson

By William Murchison

ISI Books

Copyright © 2013 William Murchison
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-3550-0



In the young land they called home, the Dickinsons bulked larger than most. For one thing they had arrived earlier than most. The great migrations of the seventeenth century had deposited Walter Dickinson on Maryland's Eastern Shore in 1659, shortly after his initial arrival in the Virginia colony. In time the newcomer acquired four hundred acres of tobacco land in Talbot County and another eight hundred in neighboring Delaware's Kent County. The commodious home he built on his Maryland properties he called Crosiadore, in tribute to his lush tobacco fields. The name, from the French Croix d'Or, meant Cross of Gold.

As wealth and distinction increased, so the family grew, one generation succeeding another. To Walter's grandson Samuel and his second wife, Mary Cadwalader, a well-educated member of a solid Philadelphia Quaker family, was born, on November 13, 1732, a son, named John for his mother's father. A second son, Thomas, followed in 1734, only to die as a child. A third son, Philemon, born in 1739, became a revolutionary war general of some note.

The neighborhood of Crosiadore, for all the bounty of its soil, presented real drawbacks. It was arduously distant from Philadelphia, the uncontested center of life in the "middle" colonies of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. (The last was a mostly self-governing appendage of Pennsylvania.) Then there was the obstructive behavior of the local Quakers, in whose fold the Dickinsons lived out their religious life. In 1739 Samuel's only daughter, Betsy — one of just two living children out of the nine born to him and his first wife, Judith — wished to wed a highly respectable non-Quaker, the son of Maryland's chief justice. The Quakers would have none of it. The Third Haven Quarterly Meeting pronounced the union "disorderly" for occurring outside the Meeting. Samuel, for his part, was determined that Betsy should marry the man of her choice. No rebuke fell upon him, but he swiftly disassociated himself from the Meeting.

The disadvantages of the neighborhood became more and more obvious. Samuel resolved to relocate his seat of activity nearer the six square miles of rich wheat land he had acquired in Kent County, Delaware, with its ready access to Philadelphia by means of the Delaware River — or, alternatively, two days by horseback or carriage. He turned over Crosiadore and its lands to Betsy and her brother Henry and gave orders for the construction of a suitably imposing Georgian-style house at Jones Neck, some five miles below the new village of Dover — Delaware's future capital. Here he brought his family in January 1740. Here, in spirit at least, John Dickinson dwelt for the rest of his long, active life, never ceasing to love the house and its lands, returning to them whenever he could. "All nature is blooming around me," he would write during one such rural reunion in the late 1780s, "and the fields are full of promises."

The young John Dickinson received the somewhat loose-jointed but appropriately dignified upbringing experienced by the children of the colonies' rural gentry. There were rides and romps, and also lessons. He took to the latter with special keenness. Samuel Dickinson engaged for his older son an Irish-born tutor so able he would work his way up eventually to the chancellorship of Delaware. William Killen was only ten years older than John. By Isaac Sharpless's account, Killen filled his charge's mind "with high ideals and aided him to secure an English style remarkably simple and elegant and effective, which no one of that day, except perhaps Franklin, equalled." If credit properly belongs to Killen, he merits more than a cold paragraph in the chronicle of the times. His pupil's prose, in the 1760s and '70s, became a slingshot, carrying throughout the colonies and England itself the deepest, choicest arguments for the justice of the colonial cause.

It became clear enough to all concerned that, much as John might love the land, he was better cut out to be a lawyer than a farmer. As a cousin would later say of him, "His proficiency in his studies filled the minds of his parents with delight." Samuel Dickinson was himself a lawyer, with high respect for books and learning. It was resolved that John would go, in 1750, to Philadelphia to read law under one of the city's legal luminaries, John Moland. A fellow Moland student was George Read, who became Dickinson's warm and longtime friend, and eventually chief justice of Delaware.

The legal profession in those days was less a profession, by subsequent standards, than an association of independently, not to say irregularly, trained men with a common outlook concerning duties, responsibilities, and hope of gain. "During the whole colonial period," writes Daniel Boorstin, "America probably did not produce a single lawyer who was deeply learned by the strict English standards. Americans tended to be smatterers and admirers of the law, never its high priests." Frequently the colonial litigant found a layman sitting as judge in his cause, applying common sense to a given situation, insofar as the various parties might agree with another's ad hoc definition of common sense. In a country without law schools, books of law were not easily procured. (Sir William Blackstone's formative and formidable Commentaries on the Laws of England would not be published until 1765–1769.)

Colonial law practice did, however, produce a few grave and worthy eminences. There was Moland, for instance; throughout the colonies were others. The Dickinsons decided John would join their company. It would be advisable in that event for him to cross the Atlantic and take up the study of English law at the source. Thus, in 1753, he took ship for London, to join the Middle Temple.


The privilege of study at the Middle Temple was not unique for young colonials. It was considerable all the same: an extended sojourn at the source of English guarantees of hallowed rights. John Dickinson's time at the Middle Temple influenced decisively not just his appraisals of method under law but also his understanding of the manner in which inclinations become claims, claims become rights, and rights take on a solemnity and power capable of binding a people together.

In no country besides Britain were the rights of subjects and the duties of rulers spelled out so specifically and candidly — the consequence of power collisions dating from Magna Carta, in 1215, that had produced agreements designed to avert future collisions. The majesty of law oversaw and ruled for or against — in theory, at all events — the passions of those who came to its notice.

English history had prepared Englishmen to think of themselves as shielded from arbitrary or purely spontaneous actions on their rulers' part. This was by slow and grave process of accretion. The common law — "that ancient collection of unwritten maxims and customs ... excellently adapted to the genius of the English nation," Blackstone called it — was no abstraction. It was an organism, with breath of its own, nurtured by practice and precedent. It proved an important bulwark against tyranny of the roi soleil variety, at the court of Louis XIV and elsewhere on the continent. The great Lord Coke, who would become England's first lord chief justice, chose rashly (as it turned out) to throw at King James I the majestic prescription of the thirteenth-century jurist Bracton: Rex non debet esse sub homine sed sub Deo et lege — the king ought not be under man but under God and the law. At which claim against the undue assertion of his royal powers, James "fell into the highest indignation as the like was never knowne in him." Coke, in understandable alarm, "fell flatt on all fower." In due course he rose. Before his death in 1634, when James's son Charles I reigned, he had entrenched all the more deeply in his countrymen's minds the doctrine of law as larger than the lot of them. As free countries went in the eighteenth century, none was so free as Britain, or so proud of its freedoms. Blackstone explained it: "The absolute rights of every Englishman (which, taken in a political and extensive sense, are usually called their liberties), as they are founded on nature and reason, so they are coeval with our form of government."

A lawyer was a principal custodian of this great tradition: no mere mechanic of words and phrases, meaningless in themselves. His touch, rightly applied, brought life to ideas and truths with bearing on the daily condition of men and women. Not that the lawyer's training quite matched the importance of the vocation. Through the four Inns of Court — the Inner and Middle Temples, Gray's Inn, and Lincoln's Inn, named for the hostels where students once lived — ran the exclusive path to membership in the English bar. The call to the bar was in fact a call to the bar of the Inn itself. The problem, from the eighteenth-century law student's standpoint, was that the Inns had not flourished as educational institutions for something like two centuries. With the passage of time, their pedagogical methods became more and more haphazard and uncoordinated. One scholar calls legal education, in John Dickinson's day, "a very melancholy topic."

There was, to begin with, no effective teaching at the Inns. The student of law was "left to his own resources" — "obliged to get his knowledge of law by means of undirected reading and discussion, and by attending in chambers, in a law office, or in the courts." The courts themselves were not always prepossessing institutions. "Counsel were distinguishable from the idlers waiting to hear the judgments, or the shoppers chatting, only by their gown and bands," notes Liza Picard in her examination of life in mid-eighteenth century London. "Far from there being silence in court, Counsel had to contend with spectators 'in deep discourses upon some irrelevant subject ... and young ladies actually sewing each other's clothes together amidst titters and suppressed laughter.'" Blackstone, a Middle Templar, lamented the manner in which "a raw and inexperienced youth" was expected "to sequester himself from the world, and by a tedious lonely process to extract the theory of law from a mass of undigested learning; or else by an assiduous attendance on the courts to pick up theory and practice together, sufficient to qualify him for the ordinary run of business." Mother England's concept of adequacy in legal education doubtless exceeded that of her colonial brood, but perhaps not by so very much.

The laxity of the Inns, as John Dickinson encountered it, cannot have been precisely what he had contemplated as he shuffled through legal papers and law books at John Moland's law office in Philadelphia. For all that, Middle Temple training was, in the colonies, prestigious and desirable. If the North American colonies partook of the mother country's legal and constitutional heritage, why not sup at her table, at least for a time? The colonists, accordingly, had been comparatively heavy patrons of the Inns since the late seventeenth century. "This vogue of the Inns," says Boorstin, "seems to have increased unaccountably after about 1750: of approximately 236 American-born members of the Inns of Court before 1815, over half were admitted between 1750 and 1775." South Carolina supplied about a third of the total, Virginia a fourth. Maryland sent more to the Inns than Pennsylvania, New York, or Massachusetts. Five signers of the Declaration of Independence — including all four South Carolinians present — had studied at the Middle Temple. The fifth, Dickinson's friend Thomas McKean of Pennsylvania, had begun his labors there just two years after Dickinson's return, in 1756. Fifteen-year-old John Rutledge of South Carolina — elder brother of the Declaration signer Edward — took up residence at the Middle Temple less than a year after Dickinson's arrival. Already ensconced there was William Drayton of South Carolina. Some of Dickinson's English contemporaries at the Middle Temple would achieve distinction: among them, Edward Thurlow, the future lord chancellor who was a noted foe of colonial reconciliation save on the Crown's terms, and William Cowper, the poet, translator of Homer, and author of well-known evangelical hymns. Blackstone had joined in 1741, receiving his call to the bar in 1746.

Young John Dickinson reached England on December 10, 1753, after a fifty-nine-day voyage, the greater portion of which, so he informed his parents, he spent "confined ... to the cabbin and mostly to my bed" by illness. Then, London itself. The foremost city of the British Empire, its origins dating to the Romans' Londinium, was a cauldron of wonders and contradictions: refinement and elegance; squalor and crime; Hogarthian horrors and classical town houses; church steeples soaring above warehouses and wharves that received and distributed the goods of the world; a wide and murky river leading wistfully in one direction to the pastures of Oxfordshire, in the other direction to the gray terrors of the ocean. "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford," the eminent, and quintessential, Londoner Dr. Samuel Johnson observed. Johnson's monumental Dictionary would come forth, to vast acclaim, during Dickinson's time in the city. Although the French might claim Paris as the center of civilized endeavor, there were impressive countervailing arguments for London, whose 650,000 residents (give or take 50,000) not only outnumbered the Parisians by 20 percent or so but also constituted more than 10 percent of all the people in England. Yet it was a place compact enough that a pair of gentlemen who set out to walk around it in 1763 found the task took a mere seven hours.

No twenty-two-year-old from colonial Philadelphia could have seen anything like it, inasmuch as there was nothing anywhere like it to see. Dickinson — in exceedingly mature and sophisticated letters to his parents — conveyed just the sense of place and occasion that they must have hoped for as they parted with their son. "More is learned of mankind here in a month," he wrote, "than can be in a year in any other part of the world." Again: "London is the place where a person may learn Truth, where, unless he is an absolute fool, he may see human nature in all shapes." He turned with eagerness to his new manner of life. From the shared chambers he occupied at first, with new floors and a laundress to light the fire at 7 a.m. and put on the kettle, he moved in the spring to chambers of his own. His habit was to rise at 5 a.m. and read for eight hours, "which is as much as I can or ought to do ... I dine at four, & am in bed by ten."

There was, of course, a great deal to do. The likes of Coke and Sir Edmund Plowden, the Tudor scholar and jurist, kept company in Dickinson's chambers with the noble Romans in Tacitus, Cicero, and Sallust. Dickinson was piecing together, bit by bit, a comprehensive view of the affairs of mankind and the law's role as arbiter. "Amongst others," he wrote in August 1754, "I am putting in my little oar, & exerting my small strength ... convinced ... that there cannot be upon earth a nobler employment than the defence of innocence, the support of justice, & the preservation of peace and harmony amongst men. These are the offices of my profession, & if my abilities are but equal to my inclination, they will not be undischa[r]gd by me." The intellectual aspects of law practice suited him as well: "I may say, without boasting, I have taken as much pleasure in unraveling an intricate point of law as a florist receives when he sees some favorite flower, which he has long tended himself, at last unfold its glowing colours & breathe its sweet perfumes." "The barr" itself he found "a perfect comment upon the written law, & every great man at it is in some measure a master & instructor to the young students who have the wisdom to attend here."

He paid due attention to the city's sights — always with a philosophical eye. The "walks frequented by the antient sages of the law" kindled veneration in him. Among the city's monuments he deduced that life "teaches how trivial is every thing in it." Westminster Abbey, where he liked to walk "with pleasing awe," showed him "the ravages made by TIME in the honours of kings & the most illustrious families." On visiting a small parish church, he was struck to find Sir Francis Bacon lying "amongst ploughmen and labourers." Here, clearly, was a young man who took the long view of things: passionate enough, but able to focus passion on large objects. Among certain things he was coming to know about himself was the complexity of his own instincts. In his heart, the law and the land vied for attention. A journey to Kent — England's garden — reinforced his love of nature and the furrowed earth. He found — unaccountably, given the reasons he had come to England in the first place — "a great attraction" toward "the noble retirement of Kent." He might, he told his father, become a useful community member there, "by prosecuting debts for Sunday cloaths." Or he might, after acquiring some honors, "turn husbandman & till the bed which in a short time will receive me. But before I go that far, I must take care that my first steps be well planted."


Excerpted from The Cost of Liberty by William Murchison. Copyright © 2013 William Murchison. Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

William Murchison is a widely published author, journalist, and commentator who specializes in historical and cultural subjects. A former editor at the Dallas Morning News, he is a nationally syndicated columnist and has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, National Review, the Weekly Standard, First Things, and many other publications. 

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