The Olive Branch petition

olive branch petition
John Dickinson, the drafter and supporter of the Olive Branch petition

Although the path to war and separation may, in 1775, have seemed inevitable, there were still those who sought peace with Britain and reconciliation with the king. One of these was John Dickinson, wealthy Pennsylvania delegate to both Continental Congresses. Dickinson, an eloquent writer, had been a prominent detractor of Westminster’s policies during the 1760s. His Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania were among the best political criticisms of British attempts to tax the colonies. Unlike Paine or both John and Sam Adams, however, he blamed these policies on errant ministers in London, rather than any fatal schism between England and America. For Dickinson, an admirer of the British constitution, the real quarrel was with parliament – not the king or Britain as a whole.

Dickinson’s goal was reconciliation with England rather than separation and independence. He acknowledged the difficulties of imperial rule and the failings of the British ministry, however he refused to… “There are many persons who, for their own ends, extol the advantages of a republic over monarchy. I will not undertake to examine which of these two forms of government merits the preference. I know, however, that the English nation, after having tried them both, has never found repose except in monarchy… the English constitution seems to be the fruit of the experience of all anterior time… when the counterpoise of monarchy shall no longer exist, the democratic power may carry all before it and involve the whole state in confusion and ruin.”

The task was passed to Thomas Jefferson who would, a year later, be engaged in drafting the Declaration of Independence. Dickinson and his supporters thought Jefferson’s tone too forceful and his language too extreme, so Dickinson himself rewrote much of Jefferson’s draft. Its text pledged loyalty and allegiance to the king and affection for America’s place in the British empire:

The union between our Mother Country and these colonies, and the energy of mild and just government, produced benefits so remarkably important, and afforded such an assurance of their permanency and increase, that the wonder and envy of other Nations were excited, while they beheld Great Britain riseing to a power the most extraordinary the world had ever known.

Dickinson went on to lay blame for Anglo-American tensions at the feet of George III’s ministers, as well as unnamed “artful and cruel enemies” (perhaps alluding to propagandists and agitators in America). He offered the king practical solutions for solving the crisis, such as the negotiation of future taxation and trade policies with the colonies, in order to avoid future disputes. Unfortunately for Dickinson, at the same time the ‘Olive Branch petition’ arrived in London, so too did a rather aggressive letter written by John Adams, which had been seized by British authorities. Adams’ letter spoke disdainfully about Dickinson’s petition and expressed the view that war was inevitable. The king’s perspective was that the Continental Congress was an illegal political gathering, that its utterances were sedition, and that the attacks on British soldiers in Massachusetts were acts of rebellion. Adams’ letter confirmed the king’s distrust and he refused to accept Dickinson’s petition. A last chance at conciliation had been spurned and the radicals in America claimed their actions to have been vindicated.

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