The Cost of Liberty
The Life of John Dickinson
The Cost of Liberty offers a sorely needed reassessment of a great patriot and misunderstood Founder.
It has been more than a half century since a biography of John Dickinson appeared. Author William Murchison rectifies this mistake, bringing to life one of the most influential figures of the entire Founding period, a principled man whose gifts as writer, speaker, and philosopher only Jefferson came near to matching. In the process, Murchison destroys the caricature of Dickinson that has emerged from such popular treatments as HBO’s John Adams miniseries and the Broadway musical 1776.
Dickinson is remembered mostly for his reluctance to sign the Declaration of Independence. But that reluctance, Murchison shows, had nothing to do with a lack of patriotism. In fact, Dickinson immediately took up arms to serve the colonial cause—something only one signer of the Declaration did. He stood on principle to oppose declaring independence at that moment, even when he knew that doing so would deal the “finishing blow” to his once-great reputation.
Dubbed the “Penman of the Revolution,” Dickinson was not just a scribe but also a shaper of mighty events. From the 1760s through the late 1780s he was present at, and played a significant role in, every major assemblage where the Founders charted America’s path—a claim few others could make. Author of the landmark essays Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, delegate to the Continental Congress, key figure behind the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, chief executive of both Pennsylvania and Delaware: Dickinson was, as one esteemed historian aptly put it, “the most underrated of all the Founders.”
This lively biography gives a great Founder his long-overdue measure of honor. It also broadens our understanding of the Founding period, challenging many modern assumptions about the events of 1776 and 1787.
Published: September, 2013
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“John Dickinson’s vigorous defense of Americans’ rights as Englishmen won him renown throughout the colonies in the 1760s, but his refusal to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776 diminished his reputation and came to be unfairly seen as his defining moment. . . . With The Cost of Liberty, a brisk, admiring biography, journalist William Murchison provides a fuller portrait.” —Wall Street Journal “[A] thoughtful and highly readable biography . . . Mr. Murchison, who illuminates a complex period in our history and with a sure and often novelistic touch brings his subject back to vivid life, makes a powerful and convincing case for restoring John Dickinson to his rightful place in the first rank of the Founders.” —Washington Times “One can read hundreds of biographies of the worthy men and women from the founding era, and this would be on the short list of those most beautifully written. . . . William Murchison has done his duty to what is left of the republic by restoring to us in charming and trenchant prose one of its greatest early leaders. This is an achievement I will pass along to my students and recommend to all lovers of liberty.” —Chronicles “[We should] 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. . . . Murchison gives us a surprisingly riveting narrative. . . . Murchison shows with especial care and poignancy how much of a loss to the American conservative intellectual tradition, and to conservative ways of reading the Declaration and the Constitution, our neglect of Dickinson has been.” —The American Conservative “John Dickinson is perhaps the most neglected and least understood of the Founders of our nation. A man of principle and wisdom, Dickinson influenced the course of events and shaped the outcome in critical ways. William Murchison has brought him to life and cleared up some vital areas of the Founding. This book is truly a must read.” —Forrest McDonald, Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, author of Novus Ordo Seclorum “The Cost of Liberty is a delightful book—lively, warm, amusing, and intelligent. It brings a brave and wise man splendidly back to life.” —Richard Brookhiser, author of James Madison and What Would the Founders Do? “John Dickinson is the most neglected of the true giants of the American War for Independence. Bill Murchison has written a book finally, and fully, worthy of the author of more of our nation’s founding documents than any other man. This biography will stand for the ages.” —John Willson, professor emeritus of history at Hillsdale College “Like his biographical subject, John Dickinson, William Murchison possesses wisdom, a felicitous prose style, and a shrewd understanding, as Murchison puts it, of ‘the value of no in political affairs.’ The Cost of Liberty is a gem.” —Bill Kauffman, author of Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin “This splendid new account of John Dickinson represents the perfect marriage of subject and author. It is hard to think of a Founder more deserving of a second and third look than the admirable Dickinson. And it is hard to think of a writer more worthy of our admiration than Bill Murchison, a master of the English language.” —Wilfred M. McClay, Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma