Penman of the Revolution

1903 edition of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.

Between December 2, 1767 through the following April, a series of protest letters appeared in 19 English-language newspapers in the 13 American colonies from a “A Farmer in Pennsylvania.” Eventually the twelve letters were collected and reprinted and reached an even wider audience, helping to unite the public against the economic restrictions imposed by the Townshend Acts imposed by the British government. 

Written by Pennsylvania lawyer and legislator John Dickinson (1832-1808), the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania were highly influential, paving the way for Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” in 1776 and the fight for independence. From the beginning of the struggle through the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, Dickinson published more works for the American cause than any other individual, earning him the nickname of “Penman of the Revolution.”

Indeed upon learning the news of Dickinson’s death, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “A more estimable man, or truer patriot, could not have left us. Among the first of the advocates for the rights of his country when assailed by Great Britain, he continued to the last the orthodox advocate of the true principles of our new government and his name will be consecrated in history as one of the great worthies of the revolution.”

An editorial team at the University of Kentucky is undertaking a project to assemble Dickinson’s writings–everything from newspaper articles to songs for liberty–into a print edition, a college-level course reader, and a digital edition. Funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the State of Delaware, and private donors, The John Dickinson Writings Project aims to make available all identifiable Dickinson publications and manuscripts from many archives, as well as a robust selection of correspondence.

This October the Library Company of Philadelphia will be hosting an online public seminar (over three evenings) on “John Dickinson and the Making of the U.S. Constitution, 1776-1788” which will trace his innovation contributions from his work on the Articles of Confederation, the Annapolis Convention, the Federal Convention, and the debate over ratification. 

The seminar led by Dr. Jane E. Calvert, chief editor of the John Dickinson Writings Project and Associate Professor of History at the University of Kentucky, participants will explore drafts, notes, and essays, along with selected secondary source readings, to understand Dickinson’s contributions to the U.S. Constitution, reflecting on both what he offered and what his colleagues rejected. Other guests at the seminar are:

  • Liz Covart, Digital Projects Editor for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture at the College of William & Mary, where she hosts the podcast Ben Franklin’s World.
  • John Kaminski, founding director of the Center for the Study of the American Constitution at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He co-edited 32 volumes of The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution.
  • Jack N. Rakove, emeritus W. R. Coe Professor of History and American studies at Stanford University. His work Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (Knopf, 1996) won the Pulitzer Prize in History.

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