Harry Dickinson, the Magna Carta, and the American Revolution

On the evening of January 26, 2016, Harry (H. T.) Dickinson, Emeritus Professor of British History at the University of Edinburgh, presented a lecture on “Magna Carta in the American Revolution.” As an audience member, I live tweeted the lecture using #HTDickinson on my Twitter account, @HistoryByPaula and spoke to Dickinson at the reception that followed. This public lecture was given as part of the festschrift in Dickinson’s honour and coincided with the launch of a new book, Liberty, Property and Popular Politics: England and Scotland, 1688-1815 (Edinburgh University Press, 2015). Many of the contributors to the volume were also in attendance.

Harry Dickinson has an unparalleled publication record and excellent reputation in the field of British history. As Gordon Pentland noted in his introduction, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of Dickinson’s first contract with the University of Edinburgh. What has always struck me about Dickinson is his wealth of knowledge, capacity to synthesize vast amounts of information, and ability to make clear connections from which to formulate opinion and further one’s understanding of a topic.

Tuesday’s lecture was no exception. Beginning with a brief discussion of the passing of the Magna Carta in 1215 and 1225, Dickinson provided a detailed analysis the 1225 version’s Chapter 29, and then returned repeatedly to this chapter as he spoke. We followed along his carefully prepared outline of the origins, events, and outcomes of the American Civil War and were amazed as he teased out connections between the rhetoric of the colonists and their British opponents.

Dickinson was able to show numerous ways in which both sides were able to use the rights guaranteed to them by the Magna Carta to support their position in opposition to the other and, after Independence, how the American side concluded that they no longer needed the Magna Carta as they were creating a republic. It was fascinating.

For his sources, he drew from political records, letters, popular pamphlets and treatises, coins, artwork, architecture, and state and national constitutions. In the Q & A that followed, he was apologetic that we were only hearing 6000 words out of the full 22,000 word paper, “Magna Carta in the Age of Revolution,” that he had written on the subject, and I was surprised and happy to receive an email from the event organisers the following day with a link to his work. What a great advantage to be able to dig deeper into the sources, the connections, and the findings following a lecture. I enjoyed the evening and will be hoping to hear him speak again soon.

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