- Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson
In a provocative monograph, historian Jane E. Calvert puts the Quakers and John Dickinson back into the story of America’s constitutional founding and American political history writ large. Challenging readers to shelve preconceptions of Quakers as apolitical quietists, Calvert convincingly shows Quakers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries [End Page 629] pioneering a then unique tradition of constitutional thought and political action. Amid their struggles, both internal and external, to create a sustainable religious community in England and America, Quakers articulated theories like the perpetual and adaptable constitution. They were the first, Calvert argues, to advance civil disobedience as a constitutionally legitimate mode of nonrevolutionary dissent. The influential though often forgotten founder, John Dickinson, drew upon this Quaker tradition in the revolutionary era, and many Americans have come to accept Quaker-originated theories and practices as fundamental parts of their constitutional democracy. Calvert maintains that Quaker constitutionalism should be included alongside other intellectual traditions like Whiggism and Calvinism that influenced American political culture in the revolutionary period and thereafter. This book is geared for a scholarly audience, and, unfortunately, its price tag is likely to limit its audience even further. Nonetheless, constitutional and political historians should join scholars of Quakers and colonial and revolutionary Pennsylvania in wrestling with Calvert’s bold claims about the Quaker influence on American popular sovereignty.
Quaker constitutionalism originated in the peculiar theologico-political thought that Quakers developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In a lengthy first section comprising five chapters, Calvert painstakingly recovers and unpacks this tradition as it was expressed in both the writings and practices of Quaker theorists, leaders, and church members. The most fundamental roots were planted in-house. Beginning in 1669, Quakers led by George Fox brought structure to their emerging church with their first ecclesiastical constitution. Friends, Calvert emphasizes, viewed their constitution as “sacred and perpetual,” yet open to change (45). Guided by this constitutional vision, Quakers worked to balance unity and dissent within their religious polity. They advocated liberty of conscience for members and invited calm and respectful dissent, but insisted that dissent should never undermine corporate unity.
Calvert illustrates how these theological commitments influenced Quakers’ relationship with the civil polity in England and the colonies. In responding to religious persecution in late seventeenth-century England, for example, Quakers maintained their political allegiance to the English constitution. They revered it as the ultimate protector of their liberties even as they saw that same constitution legitimating the state that was oppressing them. Inspired by the constitution, Quakers employed the new tactic of civil disobedience. To Calvert, this Quaker [End Page 630] mode of dissent contrasts sharply with Whiggism’s advocacy of revolution as the preeminent solution to an oppressive state. Quakers defended liberty not through revolution but through peaceful reform and working within the existing system of government. As Calvert explains, “In their nonviolent protest, Quakers reinforced the fundamental legitimacy of the government even as they limited its scope and redefined its role” (64). Across the Atlantic where Quakers wrote colonial charters and came to dominate political life in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, Friends adapted and broadcasted the basic tenets of their constitutionalism. No longer mere theological premises or useful tactics for a dissenting religious group seeking liberty of conscience in a hostile political environment, Quaker constitutionalism became a component part of Pennsylvania’s political culture.
As the linchpin of Calvert’s study, the enigmatic John Dickinson connects the Quaker constitutionalism of the colonial period to the era of the American founding. Though not actually a Quaker, Dickinson, Calvert argues, was “nonetheless the most visible and articulate spokesman” of Quaker constitutionalism in the revolutionary period (178). In fact, Calvert maintains that Dickinson’s thought and actions during the Revolution become comprehensible when seen within the Quaker theologicopolitical culture in which he was immersed. In this second section of the book Calvert’s narrative gains even greater steam. She traces Dickinson’s activities from late colonial conflict among Quakers in Pennsylvania...