From the Editor: The Importance of Understanding Our History

Reflections on an underrated founding father.

In this era of so-called fake news and alternative facts, it seems that understanding our history is especially important. As you’ll read in writer John Sweeney’s story, a little of both has distorted the prevailing view of the man, though it could be argued that no founding father was more essential in articulating our national identity. For Dickinson’s relatively low historical profile, thank the kind of personal conflict that characterizes politics today. One can only imagine how different things would be for Dickinson—how much worse—if his critics had used Twitter.

Dickinson would become eventually known as the Penman of the Revolution for the influence of his “Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania,” a widely published series of essays that began in 1767. The very first expressed his love of humanity and liberty, a sacred cause that “ought to be espoused by every man, on every occasion, to the utmost of his power.” The letters then explained how British policies denied the Colonies the freedom to manage their own affairs.

Dickinson’s notion of liberty would be echoed as one of the inalienable rights expounded in the Declaration of Independence a few years later. Though he had foreseen a need to take up arms in the cause of independence, he had always hoped for a peaceful reconciliation with the crown. When invited to sign the declaration, he declined. The need for war was real, he believed, but the timing was bad.

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That was too wimpy a position for John Adams, an editor of the declaration. Spoiling for a fight, Adams worked behind Dickinson to diminish his personal clout and to break up Pennsylvania’s sway over the other Colonies so that he could start the war he wanted so badly.

Dickinson—a military veteran, unlike the bellicose Adams—had already written to King George III to threaten war. Had he advertised the fact, perhaps Adams—and posterity—would have been kinder.

We know how the story ends: Adams’ view won out, and we entered a long, bitter war with too few troops, too little training and insufficient munitions, and without the real support of foreign allies. There’s no telling whether or not the war would have been shorter or less costly had the Continental Congress heeded Dickinson. The point is, the forceful personality triumphed over good sense and reason, and for that, there was a price. The fact that the Colonies eventually triumphed should not diminish the fact. Often in the early days of the republic, we could have been defeated or, later, collapsed. The prudent course likely would have minimized the damage so, at all times and in all circumstances, we are wise to remember our history—not to ignorantly repeat our mistakes.

—Mark Nardone • Executive editor 

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