It’s early July of 1776 and the Continental Congress is meeting in Philadelphia. At stake: Will the colonies join in a declaration of independence from Great Britain?
A pivotal figure in the debate is John Dickinson, Quaker member of the Pennsylvania delegation. He has spoken passionately of his desire to avoid the catastrophic bloodshed he believes will follow such a declaration and his belief in pacifism as the right path. Pennsylvania has voted no each time the question turns to a vote and a number of other states are following Pennsylvania’s lead.
John Adams of the Massachusetts delegation and future President of the United States negotiates with holdout states and understands that a declaration of independence will be possible if — and perhaps only if — John Dickinson can be swayed from his position. Adams and Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin visit with Dickinson privately the evening before the crucial next vote.
The art of negotiation is so beautifully captured in the scene that follows, part of the brilliant 2008 mini-series, John Adams, based on the seminal work by historian David McCullough (affiliate link).
“Consider this, Mr. Dickinson. That two of Pennsylvania’s own delegates, myself being one of them, rose up today in opposition to you,” says Franklin.
“I will not compromise my beliefs,” replies Dickinson emphatically, restating his position yet again. There is a tense silence in the room as all three contemplate what can be done with this Gordian knot.
Finally, Adams comments, “A man of your reputation and honesty should never compromise his beliefs, sir.” It is an important gesture, acknowledging Dickinson’s values and integrity and illustrating an important negotiation principle: It is right to acknowledge things you value in your negotiation partner, even while you still disagree with their position — not as a ploy, but as a genuine acknowledgement of the things that ally you amidst the things that divide.
“I thank you for that, Mr. Adams,” says Dickinson. Then he adds, “Understand me, sir. Likely you are right and we shall be driven to independence. But now is not the time for so dangerous and irrevocable an action. I cannot lend my voice to hasten our ruin.” It is the first time he has admitted that he believes the declaration is unavoidable and it is also a subtle and crucial shift in his position, from one that adamantly opposes to one who cannot lend support.
He has done what happens in negotiations not infrequently: Reciprocated Adams’ generous gesture with one of his own. He has, without saying so explicitly, invited help with resolving a quandary that is weighing upon him. Rarely are a person’s positions purely black and white and it is possible, with good negotiation skill, to create the space where they feel ready to expose the gray with which they are wrestling. That’s where hope lives.
“Perhaps,” muses Franklin, “if you were to find yourself somehow, uh, indisposed tomorrow.” All three men look at each other somberly and in silence. Franklin has just proposed a way to bridge what appeared to be an impossible chasm: How to allow Dickinson not to compromise his religious beliefs yet also allow him not to stand in the way?
The next day, the question of independence again comes to a vote. Attorney General Charles Lee reads the resolution: “These colonies are, and of a right ought to be, free and independent states. And that all political connection between them and the country of Great Britain is, and of a right ought to be, totally dissolved.”
The New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts delegations each vote yes. New York, another state that has voted no in the past, chooses to step out of the way even while not agreeing with the resolution; New York abstains. Connecticut and New Jersey vote yes. Pennsylvania is next. John Dickinson’s chair is pronouncedly empty and Pennsylvania votes yes in his absence. Delaware, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and then Georgia vote yes.
The Declaration of Independence has just become reality.