Hon. Mahlon Dickerson
Morris Co. Up

Biographical and Genealogical History of Morris County New Jersey. Illustrated. Vol. II., Lewis Publishing Company, New York and Chicago, 1899.

Prominently identified as he was with the commercial and political interests of Morris county, Hon. Mahlon Dickerson will for years to come be remembered as a man whose beneficent influence extended throughout the state of New Jersey and who was conspicuous in his public life for his fidelity to the trusts reposed in him, and for his advocacy of any measure that would advance or improve the interests of the state. As a judge, a general, a member of the legislature, governor of New Jersey, a member of congress, and secretary of the navy in the cabinet of President Andrew Jackson, he fulfilled the duties of those incumbencies in a faithful, intelligent, and circumspect manner and with a high degree of executive ability. As a private citizen he owned and worked the Succasunna iron mine, now known as the Dickerson mine. The following sketch of his life was prepared by Edmund D. Halsey, of Morristown, for another purpose, and is inserted here by permission.

Governor Mahlon Dickerson, of whose name it has been well said none have been respected, honored and distinguished in New Jersey, was descended from the Puritan Philemon Dickerson, who emigrated from England early in the history of Massachusetts colony and who was among the freemen of Salem in 1638. In 1643 he purchased from the Indians a large tract of land on the north shore of Long Island and took up his residence at Southold. Here he died at the age of seventy-four, leaving two sons, Thomas and Peter.

Peter Dickerson, son of Thomas, and grandson of Philemon, came to Morris county, New Jersey, in 1741, and on October 20, 1745, married his first wife, Ruth Coe, daughter of Joseph Coe. He was an ardent patriot and his house in Morristown was from the beginning of the difficulties with Great Britain a gathering place for those of a kindred mind. He took an active part in awakening and organizing the opposition to the acts of the British crown, and on the 9th of January, 1775, he was appointed one of the "committee of observation" for Morris county. On the first day of May following he was elected a delegate to the provincial congress which met at Trenton the same month. February 7, 1776, he was commissioned captain of a company in the Third Battalion of the first establishment and on the 29th of November following captain of a company in the Third Battalion of the second establishment. Both the companies he commanded were equipped at his private expense, and the money he so advanced stands to his credit this day at Washington, unpaid. He died May 10, 1780, in his fifty-sixth year. He had eight children by his first wife, one of whom, Esther, married Colonel Jacob Drake, who was also a delegate from Morris county to the provincial congress of 1775, and who was colonel of the western regiment of New Jersey militia until resigning to become a member of the first assembly of New Jersey.

Jonathon Dickerson, the second child and oldest son of Peter, was born on September 20, 1747 (O.S.), and on the 12th of October, 1768, was united in marriage to Mary Coe, daughter of Thomas Coe, by Rev. Timothy Johnes. Like his father, he took a prominent part in the politics of his county. He also displayed the talent for invention for which many of his descendents have been distinguished. The eleventh patent issued by our government, bearing the signature of Washington, was granted to him for an improved water wheel. In 1783 he was a member of the state legislature from Morris county. The iron mines with which his region of the country abounded, and which have added so much to its wealth, were then little regarded. The rich ore bed now known as the Dickerson mine was originally returned by the proprietors of West Jersey in 1715 to John Reading, who a year or two afterward sold it to Joseph Kirkbride for a mere trifle, though the presence of the mineral was so well known even to the Indians that they called the neighborhood "Sukahsining." meaning black rock (magnetite), and usage has changed this to Succasunna. Jonathon Dickerson seems to have recognized its value, and in 1779 we find deeds to him from some of the Kirkbride heirs; and in partnership with one Minard Le Fevre he purchased the whole. He was not, however, successful in making a fortune from his speculation, and it remained for his son, Mahlon, who bought the property from the heirs of his father and Le Fevre, to develop its wealth, and in his hands it yielded a handsome income, which made its owner independent.

Jonathon Dickerson died November 7, 1805, leaving six children: Mahlon, the oldest and the subject of this sketch; Silas; Mary, afterward the wife of David S. Canfield; Aaron, John B. and Philemon. His widow survived him many years and died March 1, 1827. She was buried with her husband at Succasunna.

Mahlon Dickerson was born at Morris Plains, near the State Hospital for the Insane, in Morris county, April 17, 1770. He probably fitted for a college at Morristown, which at that time possessed a classical school. In the manuscript diary of Joseph Lewis, a wealthy gentleman of Morristown, and clerk of the county, is this entry: "1786, Monday, 27th of November, Jonathon Dickerson's son (Mahlon began to board at 7s per week."

In 1789 Mahlon entered the American Whig Society at Princeton and graduated the same year at the College of New Jersey, in the same class as Dr. Hosack. He returned to Morristown and engaged in the study of law, and in November, 1793, was admitted to the bar of New Jersey. In the following year he accompanied Captain Kinney's cavalry company in the expedition sent to western Pennsylvania to suppress the whisky rebellion, - probably as an unattached volunteer, as his name does not appear in the list of that command. He was one of Governor Miffin's aids during the expedition.

During the years 1795 and 1796 he was in active practice in his native county, his name frequently appearing in the minutes of the court. In the record of a case in the common pleas, July term, 1797, is the quaint entry that "Mr. Mahlon Dickerson, the attorney for the above named plaintiff, having removed to foreign parts and having agreed that Alexander C. Mc Whorter be substituted, &c., the court ordered the substitution be made." The "foreign parts" were in the city of Philadelphia where he was admitted to the bar of Pennsylvania the same year, and where he entered the law office of John Milnor, afterward a distinguished clergyman of the Episcopal church. He was shortly afterward elected one the common councilmen of Philadelphia, and in 1802 he was appointed by President Jefferson, of whom he was a devoted admirer, commissioner of bankruptcy. On January 1, 1805, Mr. Dickerson was appointed by Governor McKeon, adjutant-general of Philadelphia. His name also appears in the record as quartermaster-general. The title of "general", adhered to him through life, and even after his appointment as governor it was one most generally given to him. His resignation of the position of adjutant-general was accepted July 22, 1805, and he was the same day appointed recorder of the city of Philadelphia. The later office, he used to say, was more congenial to his tastes than any of the higher posts he was afterward called to fill. He resigned it, however, October 2, 1810, to return to Succasunna to develop the mineral property of which he came into possession.

A very earnest and active member of the Republican party, then in the ascendancy, and of popular manners and sound legal attainments, his career in Philadelphia was a very successful one. He shared his prosperity with the other members of the family and assisted largely in the education of his younger brothers. His brother Aaron he enabled to graduate at Princeton in 1804, and assisted him in establishing himself in a fair practice in Philadelphia as a physician. The daughter of Dr. Aaron Dickerson is the widow of the late Attorney General Vannata, of New Jersey. His brother Silas was instantly killed January 7, 1807, in Stanhope, New Jersey, his great coat catching a screw in a rapidly revolving axle and drawing him into some machinery for making nails which he was having erected. Philemon, the youngest brother, after his graduation studied law with the General in Philadelphia and succeeded him as judge of the United States district court of New Jersey. He was also governor of New Jersey and one of its congressmen. His son, Edward M. Dickerson, is one of the most prominent lawyers of New York city.

Returning to private life, General Dickerson was not permitted to remain in private life, but in the three following years, 1811, 1812, and 1813, he was as many times successively elected a member of the state assembly from Morris county. The legislature of 1813 met October 26th, and four days afterward Hon. William S. Pennington resigned his position as third justice of the supreme court, and Mr. Dickerson was the same day appointed to fill the vacancy and was also appointed reporter of the court. He declined the latter office, however, on the 9th of February following. At the joint meeting of the legislature to elect a United States senator, November 3, 1814, his named was mentioned and he received a flattering vote. No choice was made at this meeting, and the next held in February, Mr. Dickerson's name was withdrawn and Hon. James J. Wilson was elected. At the joint meeting held October 26th,1815, he was unanimously elected governor of New Jersey, and was re-elected to that high office without opposition October 28,1816.

He resigned the gubernatorial chair February 1, 1817, having been elected on the 23d of the previous month United States senator for the six years beginning March 4, 1817. So satisfactory was his course in the senate to the people of this state that on November 1, 1822, he was elected his own successor for another six years, without opposition. His term of office expired March 6, 1829. His previous election had been during the "era of good feeling," but before the last term expired the strife between Jackson, Clay, Adams and Crawford had begun. He had allied himself closely to the cause of "Old Hickory" and the legislature to choose his successor was strongly Whig. At the joint meeting, which assembled January 30, 1829, the resignation of Ephraim Bateman, the other senator from New Jersey, was sent in from the governor and was accepted by a vote of only twenty-nine to twenty-seven, those voting in the negative being mostly Whigs. The meeting then proceeded first to elect a senator to fill the vacancy caused by this resignation. The names of Theodore Frelinghuysen and Joseph W. Scott were brought forward, but withdrawn with the understanding that they were to be candidates for the long term. The names of Samuel L. Southard, William D. Ewing, William N. Jeffers, Mahlon Dickerson and Garret D. Wall were mentioned for the short term. The Whigs, though having a majority of the meeting, were divided between Southard, the popular secretary of the navy under Adams, and Ewing, the chairman of the meeting. Ten calls of the meeting were had without result. Mr. Southward's vote varied from twenty to twenty-five, and Mr. Ewing's from eight to thirteen, the Democrats voting for Dickerson and Wall or for Dickerson alone. After the tenth ballot Hon. Stacey C. Potts offered the following resolution: "Resolved, that in the opinion of this joint meeting the Honorable Samuel L. Stouthard is not an inhabitant of the state of New Jersey, and therefore not eligible to the office of senator in the congress of the United States under the third article of the constitution of the United States, and that his name be withdrawn from the list of nominations."

For this resolution all the Democrats and six of the Ewing men voted, and it was carried by a vote of twenty-nine to twenty-six. This made the friends of Mr. Southard so indignant that eight of them cast their votes for Mr. Dickerson, who was elected on the next ballot but one, by a vote of twenty-eight for him, twenty-three for Ewing and two for Hall. Mr. Frelinhuysen was chosen immediately after for the long term by a vote of thirty-five against twenty-one for Mr. Scott.

In the organization of the senate in the following December, Governor Dickerson was made chairman of the committee on manufactures,-a position he was eminently qualified to fill. He was an ardent supporter of the tariff, and agreed with the president in protecting American Industry, so far as legislation could do it. Examing the proceedings of the senate during the time he was a member, it will be seen that the subject seldom failed to bring him to his feet. All, or nearly all, of his published speeches were on this subject. Though not as brilliant or as eloquent as many of his associates, he was scarcely less influential in legislation, through his familiarity with his subject, which close study and earnest application gave him.

The affection of his constituency in New Jersey for him never wavered. At a meeting of the Jackson members of the legislature in April, 1832, the resolution was adopted "that we recommend our fellow citizen, Mahlon Dickerson, as a suitable candidate to be supported by the delegation of New Jersey (for vice president) in convention, and they be requested to present his name as the first choice of New Jersey." Nor was his name mentioned only by those of his own state: the Jackson men throughout the country favored his nomination as a fit successor to Calhoun, who had become alienated from them. At this junction Mr. Van Buren's rejection as minister to England by the senate made his vindication necessary to his party, and they resolved to make him vice-president. Mr. Dickerson warmly seconded this resolution, and withdrew his own name from the canvass. In all the political struggles of the day and the various combinations of parties and cliques which characterized that period he adhered most strenuously to the principals and policies of Jackson, and possessed his constant friendship. His term of United States senator expired in March, 1833, and in the fall of that year he was elected by the people of the county to represent him in the legislative council of the state.

On the 20th of May, 1834, he was nominated by the president as minister to Russia, and the appointment was confirmed by the senate on the 26th. It is said he was persuaded by Mr. Van Buren to decline this position, and remain in the country to further his (Mr. Van Buren's) plans for the presidency. Let this be as it may, the position was declined, and the president shortly after sent his name to the senate as secretary of the navy to succeed Mr. Woodbury, and the appointment was confirmed by the senate on the 30th of June. He continued to occupy this place in the cabinet during the remaining years of Jackson's term and during the first two years of Mr. Van Buren's. He resigned his seat in 1838 and again retired to private life.

While he was in office the difficulty in Boston harbor in regard to the figure head of Jackson upon the ship Constitution occurred. The modern effigy, half sawn in two, and the correspondence in relation to it are still in the possession of the governor's family. On the 30th of January, 1835, when crazy Lawrence attempted to assassinate Jackson in the capitol, Dickerson was walking with the president in the procession and shared his danger. He was one of the principal witnesses in the trial that followed.

In September, 1840, he was appointed by Mr. Van Buren judge of the United States district court for the state of New Jersey, to succeed Judge Russell. He held the office but about six months, when he resigned (in 1841) and was succeeded by his younger brother, Philemon, who held the position many years.

In 1844, when the constitution of his state, framed amid the confusion of the Revolutionary war and in great haste, had proved itself ill adapted to the wants of the state, Mr. Dickerson was selected by the citizens of Morris county to represent them in convention, where his judicial training and practical good sense made him a valuable member.

In 1846 and 1847 General Dickerson was president of the American Institute, and in the minutes of the proceeding of that body, October 5, 1846, and October 5, 1847, may be found two addresses delivered by him, which are characteristic. The reader is not left in doubt as to what the speaker thought of protection, and in the closing sentence of one he speaks of free trade as "a system as visionary and impractical as the everlasting and universal pacification of the world."

He was admitted an honorary member of the New England Historic Genealogical Society March 7, 1848.

After his retirement from public life the General spent the remainder of his days at the handsome residence which he erected about 1844 near his mine, among the mountains of Randolph. His windows commanded a view of one of the finest sections of his state, and his large private library afforded him constant amusement when his business gave him much leisure. On the garden and grounds about his house he lavished much time and money, planting trees and shrubs of every variety attainable. He was never married but made his home with his nephew, Frederick Canfield, whose tastes for the natural sciences were akin to those of his uncle and whose interest family made his last years comfortable and happy.

He died at his home on the 5th of October, 1853, the immediate cause of his death being a heavy cold. It was really the general breaking up of the system by reason of old age, hastened perhaps by a stroke of paralysis which came upon him the year before. He was buried in the church yard on Succasunna Plains, where a plain monument marks his grave, bearing the inscription: "Mahlon Dickerson, son of Jonathon and Mary Dickerson. Born April 17, 1770, died October 5th, 1853. His biography is written in the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Records of his country. 'Mark the perfect man and behold the upright; for the end of that man is peace.'"

General Dickerson was of fine personal appearance, standing six feet two inches high and showing the possession of a sound, rugged constitution. He was a hard student, devoting himself assiduously to the mastery of every subject he had to deal with. Notwithstanding the time taken by his business, public and private, he found opportunity to master several languages and attain distinction as a botanist. He was eccentric in some respects, and regardless of his personal appearance. A little incident illustrative of this trait, as well as his care for others, is worth relating. While living in Philadelphia a tailor brought to him a pair of pantaloons which by mistake in the measure proved entirely too short. He was unwilling to throw them on the hands of the luckless tradesman, but had them pieced out at the bottom and wore them so.

He was a man of the highest integrity, having the very spirit of honesty. At one time he paid his men in the bills of a bank which shortly after suspended, before the men had used their money. He at once called in the worthless currency, redeemed it with good, and stood the loss himself. At another time he paid a workman a trifle less than was due him; but the man, supposing he had been overpaid, quietly left the neighborhood with what he supposed was his employer's money. The general, discovering his own mistake, pursued the man for several miles and until he overtook him. Here he lectured him on his dishonest purpose and then paid him the trifle still due him.

He was not a professor of religion, but respected those who he believed were religious. It is said that on one occasion, when some persons at his table were speaking slightingly of religion and lightly of the inconsistencies of religious people, he called their attention to an excellent lady, known to them all, the widow of his brother Silas, with the remark that there was one person at least whose piety was unquestioned. The remark was so just that it concluded the talk on that subject.

None of the decisions rendered by him while on the supreme-court bench of New Jersey are found in the reports, there being very few cases of any kind reported at the time. He no doubt contributed to the newspapers of the day, but, otherwise than this and his reported speeches while in the senate, he left no published work behind him. At the time of his death obituary notices were published in many of the state papers, perhaps the best in the Trenton True American and the Newark Daily Advertiser. Short sketches of his life can be found in the Biographical Encyclopedia of New Jersey, in Drake's Biographical Dictionary, and in several other compendiums of biography. Several excellent portraits have been preserved of him in the Dickerson family, and a small engraving has been taken from one of them.

Sincere in his professions and unyielding in his convictions of right, generous and faithful in his friendships and consistent in his political faith, his unbroken popularity for so many years among the people he represented can easily be accounted for. Few lives present so constant a succession of political services, and seldom political honors been more worthily bestowed.

Transcribed by Christopher Cresta

This page was last modified on:  01 January, 2014

Copyright 1999-2014 by Brianne Kelly-Bly, all rights reserved.