Mahlon Dickerson (1770-1853)

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Mahlon Dickerson, (1770-1853)

Mahlon Dickerson: a portrait of an early 19-th century gentleman

From the collections of the New Jersey Historical Society, Newark, New Jersey

Mahlon Dickerson was one of 20 members of the class of 1789 at Princeton (then the College of New Jersey). Admitted to the bar in 1793, he saw his law career interrupted briefly by service as an aide to Governor Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.1

The 1797 minutes of the Morristown, New Jersey court noted that Dickerson had "removed to foreign parts," that is, to Philadelphia. By that time he was fully engaged in the growing struggle between the factions that had developed in the decade of Philadelphia's period as national capital. He practiced law in Philadelphia from 1797 to 1810, but his main activities even then were in politics. In what had become a family tradition, he devoted most of the rest of his life to political service in elective and appointive office.

His letters and diary entries of his Philadelphia period have a man-about-town flavor. There is a claim to sophisticated living in judging that Jefferson kept a table inferior to none in America. At the same time, he had a reputation, as least while in Philadelphia, similar to that he attributed to Jefferson: " . . . in his address [attire] not very particular."

In 1810, not long after the death of Lewis, "the most sincere friend I ever had," Mahlon's father died. Having lost his brother Silas in an earlier machine accident, Dickerson returned to New Jersey to manage the family iron mine. His successful administration of one of the richest iron deposits in the East enabled him to build a mansion named Ferromonte (Mountain of Iron) and live much in the style of his idol Jefferson but with greater financial security than Jefferson.

He was a justice of the state supreme court when in 1815 elected governor of New Jersey. After 16 years as a U.S. Senator, he became Secretary of the Navy in 1834. Probably none of his long-past walks with Lewis matched in drama the one in which he was walking with the President when an attempt was made on Jackson's life.

He remained a bachelor all his life. Ferromonte, its garden and library, were shared with the family of a nephew, but he was usually alone there each Christmas Day, working among books, papers and mementos of a political life. He died in 1853, surviving Lewis by many years and indeed all of the principals in the Philadelphia events of 1803-1807.

1. Distillers in Pennsylvania rioted when an attempt was made to enforce a tariff on whiskey. The protest was broken by troops sent by President Washington. Dickerson and Lewis, then strangers to each other, were volunteers in the government force.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program