Human Rights at the American Founding

Fall 2018 Kinder Institute Colloquium Series, Constitution Week Edition

As University of Kentucky Associate Professor of History Jane Calvert noted in setting up her Constitution Week talk at the Kinder Institute, the United States was the first nation founded on the modern notion of rights for all, and rhetoric surrounding human rights has remained since then as a bedrock of American political discourse. But underscoring points like these belies the much larger point of how undefined, complicated, and unmoored this discourse has historically been in the U.S. Particularly if we roll the tape back to the era of the nation’s birth, there is little understanding—or, at the very least, little agreement—about what, exactly, the Founders thought about the subject of rights. And what we can agree on—that their ideas were amorphous and dubiously applied, to be generous—bears little resemblance to discussion of rights today.

Which brings us to the subject of the September 21 talk: Delaware/Pennsylvania statesman John Dickinson, who Prof. Calvert carefully and thoroughly positioned as being miles ahead of other leading founders in his radical (for its time) conception of human rights—so ahead and so radical, in fact, that his contributions to rights discourse were summarily dismissed by contemporaries and first-wave historians alike. (Note: in terms of who qualifies as a “leading founder,” Prof. Calvert included Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Madison, and Hamilton, along with Dickinson).

As a frame of reference for Dickinson’s contributions, she explained how, prior to and immediately after the Revolution, the going definitions of rights and rights-holders in America fell closely in line with the British’s exclusionary construction of the “Rights of Englishmen,” which traces back as far as the Magna Carta. And the Declaration of Independence’s bold proclamation that “all men are created equal”—a “salutary myth,” Prof. Calvert argued, but a myth nonetheless—did little to change this. Construing equality in corporate, versus individual, terms, the Declaration extended rights only to white, mainline-Protestant, property-owning males. All that said, there was one group notably pushing back against this highly segmented conception of rights: the Quakers, who believed that equality and dignity, understood as a freedom from ignorance and from worldly oppression of all kinds, were necessary for individuals to be able to realize their ability to experience the light of God. And as Prof. Calvert noted in transitioning to her assessment of Dickinson, his status as a Fellow Traveler who adopted many Quaker beliefs—and, moreover, his status as the only leading founder with close, meaningful ties to the Quaker faith—can serve as a backdrop for understanding just how radical his ideas about human rights were relative to the dominant currents of thought of the founding era.

Dickinson’s innovations are most apparent in regard to his thinking on two matters in particular: rights for African Americans and rights for women. As for the former, though cases have been made for framing Adams and Franklin as anti-slavery advocates, Prof. Calvert vehemently dismissed such claims in heralding Dickinson as the only disinterested abolitionist among the seven leading founders. She noted, however, that it wasn’t until Somerset v. Stewart (1772) established that chattel slavery was unsupported by English common law that Dickinson began to express a truly secular and humanitarian concern for slaves, rather than a religiously rooted concern about slavery. And how this concern was expressed would evolve and gather intensity over the course of the two decades after the landmark British case. On one hand, Somerset can be seen as a leading factor in Dickinson’s opposing the American Revolution, given that it suggested to him how ending slavery was far more likely under the British constitution than under an undeveloped American legal and political system that was subject to the pro-slavery influence of the southern states. In a view that would take on various, similar tenors over time, it was under this logic that Dickinson deemed the not-yet-united states both the asylum and bane of liberty, claiming that the colonies could not bemoan their own slavery while holding men and women in bondage. During the Revolutionary and pre-Constitution periods, Dickinson would continue to lobby for the rights of enslaved blacks brought into and born in the United States. He attempted, if unsuccessfully, to introduce strong anti-slavery clauses into the Articles of Confederation, as well as the constitutions of Pennsylvania and Delaware, and he unconditionally freed his own slaves, with reparations, in 1786. He remained adamant in his stance on this matter—if equally unsuccessful in his adamancy—during the Constitutional Convention, where he rejected the slave trade on both moral and republican grounds; roundly questioned delegates’ ability to deliberate on a government aimed at preserving liberty while simultaneously withholding this liberty from slaves; and openly declared the framers’ insistence on omitting explicit mention of slavery in the Constitution to be a tacit admission of shame.

As for the second arena in which Dickinson’s radicalism made itself known, much to the dismay of figures like Adams—who were utterly vexed that any man would accept the counsel of women—Dickinson’s thinking on everything from theology to politics to law was heavily shaped not only by his Quaker-influenced ideas about equality but, more practically, by the particular ideas of the women with whom he surrounded himself: Susan Wright, Elizabeth Graeme, Mercy Otis Warren, and Sarah and Mary Norris, to name only a few, the last of whom he married and lived with in what Prof. Calvert described as the Norris sisters’ “Quaker poet sorority” at Fair Hill. And in addition to promoting their voices in public discourse and their place in the literary marketplace, Dickinson was also aggressive in advocating for women’s legal and civil rights. For example, as seen in his defense of Rachel Francisco against accusations of infanticide and concealment, Dickinson was committed to advancing ideas concerning women’s equality under the law–as well as ideas about the injustice of the laws they were singularly subject to–that were unheard of in his time; and in the language of his proposed constitutional provision concerning religious liberty, we see a shrewd attempt to extend to women not only a freedom of conscience but also a freedom of speech and practice that he envisioned extending outward from religious ceremony into society.

Can we call Dickinson a leader, Prof. Calvert asked in closing? That might be a stretch, if only because of the fact that none of his radical ideas about human rights were actually realized in his time. But we might do well, she concluded, to use him as a marker by which to judge other leading founders and, in doing so, secure his rightful place near the beginning of a lineage of Quaker-influenced rights activists in the U.S. that includes William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others.


Jane Calvert received her B.A. from Earlham College and her M.A. and Ph.D. in History from University of Chicago, and she currently serves as Associate Professor of History at University of Kentucky and Director/Editor of the John Dickinson Writings Project (JDP). Her monograph, Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson (Cambridge University Press, 2008; re-issued 2012), is the first of a trilogy of works on Dickinson, with the second slated to be the first modern, scholarly edition of his complete political works and the third, a biography of Dickinson which will be directed toward both popular and scholarly audiences. In addition, the JDP, which is supported by a Scholarly Editions Grant from the NEH as well as by private foundations and individuals, will produce a seven-volume edition of The Complete Writings and Selected Correspondence of John Dickinson, to be published by the University of Delaware Press/Rowman & Littlefield in both print and open-access digital editions. Prof. Calvert’s work has been supported by fellowships from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, American Philosophical Society, and the Huntington Library, among many other places, and her scholarship has appread in History of Political Thought and The Journal of the Early Republic, among others. She is also co-editor, with Ian Shapiro, of the Selected Writings of Thomas Paine (2014), part of Yale University Press’ Rethinking the Western Tradition series.