Big plans mean big worries: John Dickinson and the establishment of this country

Written by Holly Mengel on February 7th, 2011

Thinking about starting a new organization or a new business?  How about a new nation?  John Dickinson’s papers give just the smallest hint into what it took to create a new nation, geographically vast and ideologically diverse.  What I love about Dickinson’s papers are the notes he took about the problems that arose and required solutions.  They show that he was a thinker and a planner.  In fact, he did not sign the Declaration of Independence:  not because he believed that remaining a part of Britain was the right thing to do, but because he did not believe that America was ready to be independent.  His papers prove that he had a right to worry!

Unknown size: small.

Some of Dickinson’s biggest concerns related to providing for an army of a brand new country fighting to preserve their independence … and even though I knew the story of American soldiers leaving bloody trails in the snow because they did not have shoes, I guess I never really thought about the planning that is required to determine what a new army needs. As a result, there are a lot of lists (and I do love a list) determining what food each soldier needed as well as the type of munitions necessary to succeed.

Unknown size: small.

Then, after winning the war (and this collection includes a letter from Thomas Barclay telling of the peace treaty in 1783), how about paying for it?  Our founding fathers started with the Articles of Confederation and an intentionally weak federal government.   Dickinson needed to worry about changes in imports and exports.  And he really needed to worry about the foreign debt, which according to records in the collection, amounted to more than 7 million dollars in 1783 (other sources place it closer to 12 million).  I just checked an inflation calculator which tells me that that amount would be a staggering 123 million dollars in today’s money.  Perhaps that is not too much for today’s United States, but I feel sure that it was an overwhelming sum to a group just establishing themselves.  All these issues made it clear that the Articles of Confederation were not really going to work.  So, Dickinson and his colleagues wrote the Constitution.  All in a day’s work, I suppose, when your name is John Dickinson!  I like that Dickinson was a worrier … had I lived during the late 1700s, I would have felt comfortable about the future of the country knowing that someone like Dickinson was thinking about all the potential problems and coming up with solutions.

I occasionally (alright, constantly) worry about this project being completed within the time frame.  However, after working on this collection, I felt much more confident.  After all, I only have to manage the processing of 114 collections in 27 months … I don’t have to start a new county or feed an army.  So, if you ever feel a little overwhelmed by your plans, I highly recommend that you come to the Library Company of Philadelphia and look at Dickinson’s papers.  I suspect that you will suddenly feel like you can do whatever you have set your mind to do!

 

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