Sunday, May 22, 2011
Apropos Of Not So Much
We just so happen to be watching John Adam again. This favorite quote of John Dickinson's is not in the script, but comes to mind:
The rights essential to happiness...are not annexed to us by parchment and seals; they are born with us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power, without taking our lives.
Despite having called for nonviolent resistance to British perfidy for decades, and ultimately fighting in the Pennsylvania militia during the Revolution, Dickinson was a long holdout against independence. He preferred that the colonies stayed connected with Great Britain and petition for their rights as citizens to be upheld.
Jane Calvert writes in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography*:
On July 1, 1776, the day before the vote on independence, Dickinson opposed the break with Britain in his last speech before Congress. Exemplifying the Quaker conviction that “whatsoever tendeth to break that Bond of Peace and Love, must be testified against," and in full awareness of the consequences of his actions, he said, “My Conduct, this Day, I expect will give the finishing blow to my once too great, and my Integrity considered, now too diminish’d Popularity.”
On July 2, Dickinson absented himself from the vote on independence. By such an act, he knew that the vote would be unanimous and the Revolution would proceed. In preparation for the moment of independence, however, he had already helped raise troops in Pennsylvania and had drafted the Articles of Confederation. He then joined his battalion to fight the British.
Calvert suggests that Dickinson's beliefs and actions were informed by his exposure to Quakerism:
Quakers believed that a constitution—which included the founding principles of government, the laws, and the government itself—was ordained by God and therefore sacred. The sanctity of the constitution was key because, according to Quaker theology, creations of God should not be destroyed by man. They applied this principle, known as the Peace Testimony, to all people and every polity.
But in spite of the sanctity of the constitution, it was not static; rather, it was constantly evolving because it was sacred. The reason for this sacred flexibility was that the constitution was created and continually discerned by the people—all the people—through the direction of God. Because man was fallible and God did not reveal his will all at once, change was a fundamental aspect of Quaker constitutionalism. Thus, although it was sacred and therefore perpetual, the constitution was also amendable as God gave man greater insight into his will and man fixed his earlier mistakes.
I guess it's not surprising that Dickinson would rank high in my list of Revolutionaries along with Jefferson and Hamilton. Well, maybe it is surprising that I would venerate the flawed architect of the Declaration of Independence who owned slaves the same as I would a staunch opponent of independence who worked to abolish slavery.
But I love those contradictions. Both men eloquently laid out their philosophies and put them into effect. The tension between their positions is precisely the environment liberty thrives in. Just as I respect political acts and civil disobedience, I very much appreciate each of their contributions to our nation.
May 22, 2011 | Permalink
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