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1776: The Movie

Donald Madden as John Dickinson

The Pennsylvania State House
John Adams
Thomas Jefferson
Benjamin Franklin
John Dickinson
James Wilson
Abigail Adams
Silent Men of Congress
Historical Accuracy in 1776
1776 Tidbits
VHS vs. DVD
1776 Laserdisc

Ah yes... the guy you love to hate... from Pennsylvania!

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John Dickinson... what to say, really? He is an annoying thorn in John Adams' side the ENTIRE movie... but he stands up and fights for what he believes in, and for that, he is to be commended.

There is an element of clinging to what is known - familiar - in Dickinson. It is a common human yearning for things to stay as they are - if they are presently good - and never change, for that change might bring something terrible. Dickinson believes that things are, for the most part, going well and therefore there is no reason to break away from England. There may be one in the future, but for now he refuses to give up on the possibility of reconciliation with England. He is also concerned with preserving his way of life, as the southerners. He clings to the things he knows best, as would anyone, and fears change. He is not alone, then or now. Dickinson said it himself (or rather, sang it himself): “why begin, till we know that we can win, and if we cannot win, why bother to begin?” Why indeed, Mr. Dickinson? Can we just try to reconcile with England and hope things return to the way they used to be - those days were so good to us. What Dickinson fails to see and Adams fails to convince him of is that by June/July 1776, what had been done changed everything, and it couldn’t be undone. There was no going back. The only way Adams could see was towards independence, and that was something Dickinson could not accept. There had to be a way! If we just try hard enough to make the King see… if Parliament will just let us have what we ask… there need be no war, no repeat of the slaughter at Breed’s Hill… we can all go on, together, in peace. Not to make Dickinson sound like some kind of hippy, but war is a terrible thing, they all knew that, and if it could possibly be avoided… but, as it is written above, Adams and the other pro-independence people thought there was no other way to end what had already begun. “Good God! It has been more than a year since Concord and Lexington! Dammit man, we’re at war! Right now!”

It would be a difficult decision for anyone to make: try to work with what you have or throw it out and start again from scratch. What would you do in their position? Be honest with yourself - you might learn something. (Interestingly enough, this was the same sort of question that faced the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Revise the Articles of Confederation or throw them out and start from scratch? Both times, the status quo was thrown out and a new government was developed. Humm, is there a pattern?)

Mind you, I am not calling Dickinson or anyone a coward - no, far from it. “Are you calling me a coward?” That I will leave up to John Adams. “Yes, coward!” It is perhaps more of a loyalty to and a love for England Dickinson felt. There is a lot of pride to be counted among the ranks of Englishmen. Just as Dickinson says, “Would you have us forsake Hastings and Magnacarta, Strongbow and Lionheart, Drake and Marlborough, Tudors, Stuarts, and Plantagenets?” That is a lot of history to divorce yourself from emotionally. I think Dickinson didn’t want to see the British Empire split apart, either. According to the American National Biography, Dickinson received part of his education in England (his parents sent him there), which I could see strengthening his ties with England, both literally and emotionally. It is certainly something someone such as Adams wouldn’t have understood - Adams wouldn’t travel outside the colonies until he sailed for France in 1778.

However, I have to say that personally, I agree with Franklin: “We’ve spawn a new race here, Mr. Dickinson. Rougher, simpler, more violent, more enterprising, less refined. We’re a new nationality; we require a new nation.” But that full argument will have to find a place elsewhere, this is John Dickinson’s page.

After all this thought and being pulled from Adams’ view to Dickinson’s and back again, though I am a staunch supporter of Adams and independence, I have to admire Dickinson for his perseverance - it might have been easier to just give into Adams - but he doesn’t (yes, it might have been just as easy for Adams to give into Dickinson). He stand up for what he believes and what his constituents believe (well, some of them anyway - I think Pennsylvania was just as torn as any other colony among the general people) and is just as stubborn as Adams (a trait I idolize in Adams and it would be hypocritical of me not to admire the same trait in Dickinson). I can only say this: had they been on the same side, God help whoever got in their way. Now that would be a force to be reckoned with!

Also, historically speaking, Dickinson did go on to fight in the Continental Army and he was also a supporter and signer of the Constitution. He wanted to protect the land he loved - America - by trying to keep it out of a war with the most powerful nation on Earth and under its protection. When that didn’t work out, he ended up protecting it by helping give it a good, solid government - the foundation that shaped the fate of the nation and its people. For that alone, we are indebted to Dickinson. If there had to be a human antagonist, I am glad it’s Dickinson. And you know he is happy to be the foil to Adams. Those two do love to fight!

I think they fight so much because they are a lot alike. Dickinson is just as fiery as Adams is; he just fires away in a different direction. They have a common urge to protect their rights, to do what they think is right no matter if they are alone or with hundreds of others, and they both are diehard committed to their causes. They both love America as their home and are willing to stand up for her. They both want what is best for their country, and they both think they have the answer as to what is best. Both Dickinson and Adams were also educated in law. Ironically, it seems to be their similarities that kept them apart.

By the way, the first person words in italics above are from my own imagination. The words in “quotation marks” are from the movie.

And of course there is James Wilson, as ever, in Dickinson's shadow (you can see the tip of his hat in the above picture, he's that far in Dickinson's shadow - literally). He does come into his own near the end, but that's for different page...

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"Why is it always Boston that breaks the King's peace?!" - Dickinson, 1776.
 
"Ah, then be careful not to dine with John Adams. Between the fish and the soufflé, you'll find yourself hanging from an English rope. Your servant, sir." - Dickinson, 1776.
 
Fribble!