Magazine article The American Conservative

The Anti-Jefferson

Magazine article The American Conservative

The Anti-Jefferson

Article excerpt

The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson, William Murchison, ISI Books, 252 pages

Few habits of speech and thought inhibit our appreciation of those who created the United States of America more than our tendency to refer to them as "the Founders." Not that the Founders do not form an identifiable group, and not that they are undeserving of the veneration such a term implies. But such usage too often has the effect of herding together a remarkable and unruly cast of characters--men who ventured boldly into largely uncharted territory during a peculiarly fluid and experimental moment in the history of British North America--and seeking to impose upon them an uncharacteristic uniformity, as if they were being shoved into position for an official Olan Mills group photograph. This in turn has the effect of flattening out the lively and contentious diversity of views in circulation about the shape the nation should take, and it fuels the tendency to regard a handful of texts, such as the articles making up the Federalist Papers, subtle and insightful and influential as they were, as the necessary and sufficient and authoritative expression of the views of "the Founders."

But the American political tradition is a tradition of debates, and moreover of debates that are rarely entirely settled. Far from being a tradition upheld by massive tomes, its documentary record more closely resembles a patchwork of occasional pieces composed in response to particular circumstances--Tom Paine's Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, the Federalist papers, the Webster-Hayne debates, the writings of John C. Calhoun, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and more. Most of our greatest political texts were produced in the white heat of political need; none was the product of systematic and detached reflection in the manner of the great treatises of European political thought.

It is, to repeat, a rich tradition of reflection and debate on certain recurrent themes, a political midrash devoted to the endless consideration and reconsideration of such fundamental matters as sovereignty, the separation and division of powers, the meaning of federalism, the sources of political authority, the proper place of religion in public life, and the rights and responsibilities of individuals. If the Founders of the American nation were engaged in the establishment of a "new science of politics," to use Tocqueville's term, then one needs to point out that the science was not settled, and still isn't.

All the more reason, then, to 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: John Dickinson (17321808). Indeed, one could argue that Dickinson is not merely neglected but forgotten. There has been very little biographical work on him, and to the extent that present-day readers will be aware of him at all, it will either be from association with Dickinson College in Pennsylvania or from the sour opposite-number portrayal of him in the celebrated 2008 HBO miniseries "John Adams" (or a similarly disagreeable straw-man gig in the less-celebrated Broadway musical "1776").

Little attention is paid to Dickinson's eloquent response to the Townshend Duties in 1767, in which he patiently made the case that it was the King and Parliament, not the colonists, who were breaking faith and riding roughshod over the ancient rights of self-governing Englishmen. Even less attention is paid to his 1797 "Letters of Fabius," which provided a powerful apologia for the Constitution, though one that was insistent upon the necessity of cultivating virtue in the citizenry--a theme stressed by the anti-Federalists in their arguments against ratification and downplayed by Madison, Jay, and Hamilton in the Federalist. …

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