New-York Historical Society

Before the Declaration of Independence…

Portrait of John Dickinson published by R. Wilkinson, May 1783. PR 52 Portrait File

Portrait of John Dickinson published by R. Wilkinson, May 1783. PR 52 Portrait File

The line between historical obscurity and fame is often a fine one. It’s not surprising then that on July 4th no one thinks about the most important document produced by Congress before the Declaration of Independence: the Declaration of the Causes and of the Necessity of Taking Up Arms. As its title implies, it was a justification for armed resistance to England’s abusive treatment of the colonies, with a chronicle of outstanding grievances.

Like many such historic texts written “by committee” its authorship has been the subject of some curiosity. Roger L. Kemp offers the now accepted explanation in Documents of American Democracy: A Collection of Essential Works. On June 26, 1775, after Congress had scrapped the first draft by John Rutledge of South Carolina, it appointed to the committee Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson, of Pennsylvania. Ultimately, Dickinson wrote the final version, incorporating content from a previous draft by Jefferson. Though that draft is held by the Library of Congress, an original draft, in Dickinson’s hand, resides at the New-York Historical Society.

The first page of Dickinson's draft of the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, 1775. AHMC - Dickinson, John

The first page of Dickinson’s draft,1775. AHMC – Dickinson, John

Perhaps influenced to some extent by his Quaker roots, Dickinson favored a measured course of action and so Congress presumably intended for him to mollify Jefferson’s more combative rhetoric.  In fact, Dickinson’s demeanor had previously led John Adams to reflect in his diary that “Mr. Dickinson is very modest, delicate and timid.”  He would also later oppose the Declaration of Independence, believing it was premature for such a drastic measure. Still, the Declaration of Causes suggests Dickinson’s approach did not preclude defiance. After all, the title itself is indicative of its purpose: a defense of “taking up arms” by the colonies. Even excepting Jefferson’s rebellious influences, the document was far from conciliatory. Among the more quotable of Dickinson’s prose is “Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable.”

Detail of Dickinson's draft of the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for taking up Arms. AHMC - Dickinson, John

Detail of Dickinson’s draft of the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for taking up Arms. AHMC – Dickinson, John

With the events at Lexington and Concord already three months old, Congress adopted the resolution in Philadelphia on July 6th 1775. It’s no secret that  the Crown’s lack of movement would precipitate the Declaration of Independence the following year. The rather obvious, but critical, difference was that the Declaration of Causes merely threatened King George III with colonial independence while the Declaration of Independence severed ties unequivocally. As for Dickinson’s role in it, contrary to some sources he did not actually vote against the Declaration of IndependenceHe simply remained absent while Congress voted on it. What’s more, he subsequently played an active political and military role in the colonial cause.

That brings up an interesting side note. For some time after John Trumbull painted his famous work Declaration of Independence, Stephen Hopkins was identified as the man in the hat standing off to the side of the proceedings; however, art historian Irma Jaffe confirmed in the 1970s that this identification was incorrect and the figure was instead John Dickinson.

W. Greatbach's print of John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence, with Dickinson highlighted. PR 68 Subject File

W. Greatbach after John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence with Dickinson highlighted. PR 68 Subject File

In any event, over two hundred years later, our nation infuses the Declaration of Independence with monumental significance while the Declaration of the Causes of Taking Up Arms remains something of a footnote to most Americans — and unjustly so. Although it’s understandably of secondary importance, it still offers a unique record of the escalating discontent in the colonies, and represents the  penultimate step to declaring independence from England. Taken in that light, it’s hardly an insignificant piece of American history.

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