Love, Duty, and the Power of Small Things

John Dickinson
John Dickinson


One of the marvels, if not miracles, of the American War for Independence is the purity of motive found among those Founders who led and fought it – a purity of motive linked to faith in God, to their conviction that God gave man moral agency with the intent that he live free, that so far as the cause of America goes, she had been divinely appointed as the refuge for the oppressed,  and so long as she was not the aggressor, He would intervene on her side.

We see these motives and beliefs evident in John Dickinson’s 1767 series “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania”, which he wrote in response to the first subtle and not so subtle steps toward tyranny by England.

Standing up to the Mother Country was risky business for individual and colony –as the New York Assembly recently learned by their dismissal for refusing to house and feed British troops in compliance with the Quartering Act of 1765! So why did Dickinson do it? He explains in Letter 1:

“From my infancy I was taught to love humanity and liberty. Enquiry and experience have since confirmed my reverence for the lessons than given me, by convincing me more fully of their truth and excellence. Benevolence toward mankind excites wishes for their welfare, and such wishes endear the means of fulfilling them. These can be found in liberty only, and therefore her sacred cause ought to be espoused by every man on every occasion, to the utmost of his power.”

One senses in Dickenson’s explanation his ‘love of God and of all men’ and a hint of that biblical doctrine, “perfect love casteth out fear.”

He could have chosen otherwise. In Letter 3 he observes:

 “I am no further concerned in anything affecting America, than any one of you; and when liberty leaves it, I can quit it much more conveniently than most of you: But while Divine Providence, that gave me existence in a land of freedom, permits my head to think, my lips to speak, and my hand to move, I shall so highly and gratefully value the blessing received as to take care that my silence and inactivity shall not give my implied assent to any act, degrading my brethren and myself from the birthright, wherewith heaven itself ‘hath made us free.’

Gratitude impels him on, while reason testifies ‘silence is consent’ and the moral sense witnesses ‘failure to act is unmanly.’

In Letter 3 Dickinson confronts yet another fear:

“Sorry I am to learn that there are some few persons who shake their heads with solemn motion, and pretend to wonder, what can be the meaning of these letters. ‘Great Britain,’ they say, ‘is too powerful to contend with; she is determined to oppress us; it is in vain to speak of right on one side, when there is power on the others; when we are strong enough to resist we shall attempt it; but now we are not strong enough, and therefore we had better be quiet; it signifies nothing to convince us that our rights are invaded when we cannot defend them … it will only draw down heavier displeasure upon us.”

His ready answer:

“As a charitable but poor person does not withhold his mite, because he cannot relieve all the distresses of the miserable, so should not any honest man suppress his sentiments concerning freedom, however small their influence is likely to be. Perhaps he ‘may touch some wheel,’ that will have an effect greater than he could reasonable expect.”

Besides, he adds, “Concordia res parvae crescent. Small things grow great by concord.”

Finally, in Letter 7, Dickinson inspires one more time:

“I hope you will undauntedly oppose; and that you will never suffer yourselves to be either cheated or frightened unto any unworthy obsequiousness. On such emergencies you may surely. without presumption, believe that ALMIGHTY GOD himself will look down upon your righteous contest with gracious approbation. You will be a ‘band of brothers,’ cemented to the dearest ties – and strengthened with inconceivable supplies of force and constancy, by that sympathetic ardor, which animates good men confederated in a good cause. Your honor and welfare will be, as they now are, most intimately concerned; and besides – you are assigned by Divine Providence, in the appointed order of things, the protectors of unborn ages, whose fate depends upon your virtue. Whether they shall arise the generous and indisputable heirs of the noblest patrimonies, or the dastardly and hereditary drudges of imperious task-masters, YOU MUST DETERMINE.”


Steve FarrellSteve Farrell is the Founder and Editor In Chief of Self-Educated American, one of the original pundits at (1999-2008), and the author of the inspirational novel, Dark Rose.