Civil War Profiles: John Dickinson confronts the slavery issue

Long before the Civil War, slavery became firmly planted in the state of Delaware. The first slave arrived here in 1639, and a steady flow would follow, given the magnet of labor-intensive tobacco crops — especially in Sussex and Kent counties. But after reaching substantial levels in the 18th century, slavery in Delaware began a steep decline, resulting from transformations in social and agricultural policies.

In “Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865,” William H. Williams describes the evolution of slavery in the state, and the primary practitioners of the institution. Beginning in 1741, Samuel Dickinson — originally from Talbot County, Md. — established a prosperous farming enterprise on Jones Neck along the St. Jones River southeast of Dover.

Dickinson sent his son John to Philadelphia for a college education, and then to the Temple in London to study law. John Dickinson would become a leading figure during the revolutionary years, although he was not in favor of separation of the colonies from England and abstained from signing the Declaration of Independence (
declaration/related/dickinson.htm). Faced with a fait accompli as the Revolutionary War played out, he was elected to the Continental Congress in 1779 and the Delaware General Assembly in 1780.

John Dickinson, who was one of the largest slave owners in Delaware, would influence the institution’s decline in the state. Although many slave owners mistrusted or even feared their slaves, Dickenson had a more positive attitude. He trusted his slaves sufficiently to assign them the responsible duty of carrying messages over long distances during the Revolution.

Realizing that greater financial returns could be gained by hiring some of his slaves out, rather than having them work in the fields, Dickinson was one of the first in the state to adopt this practice. It soon became common in Delaware, and throughout the South.

With a mostly benevolent attitude toward slaves, he led the fight to keep them from being sold off and separated from family members and relatives. He also ensured that his former slaves had medical attention when required. He had his personal physician check on their health after they had become old and infirm.

Dickinson favored the abolition of slavery, but his motives were not totally altruistic. His slaves, in certain ways, had become a burden. When members of the Society of Friends in Delaware, especially in Kent County, decided to manumit their slaves during the Revolutionary War, fellow Quaker Dickinson followed suit. By the end of 1786, he had freed 58 of his slaves, keeping only a handful for personal use.

Dickinson’s duality on the slavery issue, however, came to the fore over the question of property ownership. Although he was an abolitionist, he served as a spokesman for a group of Delaware whites who challenged the right of free blacks to acquire property. At the Delaware Constitutional Convention in 1792, he proposed including the words, “None but white persons shall hereafter be capable of becoming freeholders within the state.”

This was in contradiction to the 1787 law that guaranteed the right of free blacks to acquire and hold private property. Dickinson’s proposal, however, was strongly opposed and defeated. Other members of the convention were enraged about Dickinson’s stance on the issue, because they had previously viewed him as being sympathetic to the interests of blacks.

Dickinson’s legacy as a prominent Delawarean and leader during the post-colonial period is enshrined in his plantation home on Jones Neck. It was common for prosperous slave-owning farmers to build substantial brick homes for their families. The State of Delaware maintains the Dickinson home, and invites the public to visit and learn more about the lifestyle of the period.

The State of Delaware’s John Dickinson Plantation website is at
museums/jdp/jdp_main.shtml. There, you will find a photo gallery of the Dickinson home and visitor information. Included is a description of various tours and special events. You can also call (302) 739-3277 or email Gloria Henry at

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan’s latest book is “Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” (May 2015). Contact him at, or visit his website