I’m guessing that if you’re not from Delaware and you’re not a history buff you don’t know who John Dickinson was. If I learned his name in my high school and college American history classes, I’d long since forgotten it. But for years, every time I drove to Dover and passed the sign pointing to his home, I’d been curious about him.
When my parents visit me here in Delaware, I drag them to all the places I want to see but that Mitch won’t go to – mostly museums and historical sites. They are as interested as I am about historical sites and, being from Nebraska, they never shy away from a road trip. So when they were here for Thanksgiving, we headed north so I could finally learn about John Dickinson.
The John Dickinson Mansion and Plantation is just south of Dover off of Kitts Hummock Road. The tour starts at the barn midway down the tree-lined driveway. Inside the barn we watched a short film about Dickinson’s life.
Known as the Penman of the Revolution, his pamphlets highlighting the injustices forced on the colonies by England excited the public towards revolution. But he wanted to exhaust all peaceful and diplomatic options, and make sure the colonies were prepared – united and with foreign backing – before taking up arms. This made him too conciliatory and moderate for the mood of the day. Also, he was a Quaker and wanted to avoid war. He recognized though that the vote for independence needed to be unanimous. So instead of voting against it, he abstained.
However, once independence was declared, he was one of the first to join the militia and was one of only two members of the Continental Congress to fight against the crown. He helped draft the constitution, wrote articles explaining it so that the public would back it, and was a signatory.
Dickinson owned slaves even though Quakers strictly believed in the equality of all people. A year after the Philadelphia Quakers barred any members from owning slaves Dickinson conditionally manumitted (set-free) his slaves. The condition, though, was ten more years of slavery (he actually set them all free in nine years).
He was definitely not the only founding father to own slaves – Washington and Jefferson being probably the most famous. Even Benjamin Franklin was a slave-owner at one time. I think everyone has an inner conflict of greed versus morals. But slavery is on a different level. The hypocrisy is hard to understand and shouldn’t be overlooked.
Once we finished the video and read the informational placards in the barn, we headed to the main house of the plantation for the guided tour. The first thing our guide showed us was the view from the front door. He pointed out a line of trees in the distance past miles of recently harvested fields and said it was the St. Jones River. The proximity to the river had made the plantation very profitable because the crops could easily be loaded onto ships.
It seems impossible that the shallow, mud-choked tidal creeks we see these days could actually be used for transportation but he said that they used to be deep. He explained that deforestation for cropland filled in the rivers. And then, for the St. Jones River anyway, the Army Corps of Engineers straightened it, which caused it to silt in faster.
We never, ever learn from our mistakes, do we?
We continued on to tour the rest of the house – the parlor, Dickinson’s office, reading room, dining room, upstairs bedrooms, and what is thought to be the kitchen but which now houses a large weaving loom.
Here are a few of interesting tidbits we learned (or at least that I remember!):
*Caesar Rodney (the guy who rode overnight from Dover to Philadelphia to cast the deciding vote for the Declaration of Independence) lived just across the road from John Dickinson.
*The common belief is that people in the 1700s were, overall, smaller in stature than what we are today. But that is not completely true. While common people and most slaves were smaller, wealthy people of that time period were basically the same size as the current population. That is because the wealthy could afford a more plentiful and healthful diet.
*Beds were draped in mosquito netting during the summer months (makes sense – I just always thought of that as a tropical invention).
*Dickinson split his time between Philadelphia and Delaware and carried a “traveling clock” with him wherever he went. I guess that’s what you did before the clock/radio was invented!
*The dining room was trimmed in bright green paint. It turns out this used to be the most expensive color of paint to make. So guests invited to dinner would see the color of the paint and know how wealthy the Dickinson’s were.
Several outbuildings including a smokehouse, granary, stables, and a log’d dwelling, dot the grounds. But it was freezing cold the day we went (even for the Nebraskans!) so we headed straight back to the car after leaving the house.
Our more famous founding fathers have always seemed superhuman to me – brilliant, unbelievably brave, and almost clairvoyant in being able to see the future path of our country. But as we drove away, I just couldn’t get all warm and fuzzy about Dickinson. Yes, he was on the wrong side of the vote for independence, but he was extremely smart and courageous and played an integral part in our country’s independence. The passion didn’t come through though. He probably just needs to hire a better PR person.
Just because I didn’t get teary-proud about Dickinson doesn’t mean that I didn’t like the trip. Not at all. The tour was very interesting and the grounds were beautiful. I highly recommend a visit. The John Dickinson Mansion and Plantation did it’s job: It made me want to know more about our country’s revolutionary history.
When you go:
- The guided tours don’t seem to be on any set schedule. They started one for us when we arrived which was great. With only three of us on the tour we were able to ask as many questions as we wanted.
- In the winter they are closed on Sundays and Mondays. They are open Sunday afternoons during the summer.
- There is no entry fee. They ask for donations.
- The tour starts at the barn and then you walk to the main house. It isn’t very far at all but you’ll want to dress for the weather!