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Friday, May 15, 2015

*** Caesar Rodney rode into history

     On October 7, 1728, a farm in Kent County, Delaware wrote into his journal: "Hung some tobacco. Came in, got dinner and killed some squirrels... About eleven o'clock at night, my wife awakened me for she was very bad. I got up and sent for ye midwife and women. But before any came, ye child was born and it was a SON. There was no soul with her but myself, being I believe just about midnight."
     That is how one of American history's finest riders rode into the world, Caesar Rodney of Delaware.
      His father died when he was 17, leaving him, the oldest son, as the head of the family. He studied the law, when not farming, and began a political career in 1755 when he was elected sheriff of Kent County. For the rest of his life he would serve in one capacity or another, often holding multiple offices. Indeed, when he became too feeble at travel in the spring of 1784, the upper chamber of the Delaware General Assembly voted to hold it meetings at his home. No person in Delaware has held so many offices, including leader of each house of the general assembly, lieutenant governor, and governor. He was Captain of the Dover Hundred Company in the French and Indian War, which never saw action, and general of the state's militia in the Revolutionary War, which indeed did see action and acquitted itself well.
     But what made him the hero of Delaware -- indeed, the nation -- was a midnight ride on July 1, 1776. He rode into the night in one of those hot summer nights that you just know will turn into a thunderstorm. On the back roads across small wooden bridges that crossed swollen rivers, Caesar Rodney rode into the pitch black to Philadelphia. He had 80 miles to travel to get to the Continental Congress to cast the decisive vote for independence. His lungs ached from asthma, while his face hurt from a hideous and painful cancer that was tortuously killing him in a slow death. He knew his responsibilities, so he rode.
     Rodney's involvement in state politics began in 1761 with his election to the assembly. Passage of the Stamp Act of 1765 brought out the rebel in him. He became friends with Thomas McKean, a fellow Patriot. Cancer greatly disfigured Rodney's face, which is why there are no known portraits of him. Despite his physical appearance, he was quite popular. His younger brother, Thomas, spoke of Caesar have a "great fund of wit and humor of the pleasing kind, so that his conversation was always bright and strong and conducted by wisdom... He always lived a bachelor, was generally esteemed, and indeed very popular."
     He was a consensus builder, and no firebrand. His calm demeanor was often more effective than the hot words of his colleagues on the side of independence and liberty. John Adams saw the passion within him, writing in his journal after meeting Rodney for the first time in September 1774, “Saturday . . . this forenoon Mr. Caesar Rodney of the lower counties on Delaware River . . was introduced to us. Caesar Rodney is the oddest looking man in the world; he is tall, thin and slender as a reed, pale; his face is not bigger than a large apple, yet there is sense and fire, spirit, wit and humor in his countenance.”
     Tensions rose between the colonials and the British tightened. The colony of Delaware was split between Loyalists and Patriots. However, on June 15, 1775, with Rodney presiding as Speaker of the assembly, and McKean leading the floor debate, the assembly of Delaware voted to severe all ties with the British Crown. As bold, clear and decisive as the vote was, it did not end the debate.
     Meanwhile, George Washington was impressed by Rodney's military record and appointed him general of the Delaware militia, despite its lack of actual combat experience. He organized the militia well, and served in the Continental Congress, alongside McKean and George Read, who sought reconciliation with Great Britain rather than independence. The three would decide Delaware's vote in the Continental Congress.
     Rodney almost missed the big vote. Although he would live another eight years, by June 1776, Rodney was nearly debilitated by his poor health and huge responsibilities, as he also served as a general. That is why he was home rather than in Philadelphia on June 30, 1776.
     McKean sent word that the vote for independence was near. There were enough colonies in favor of independence, but independence would not be declared without unanimity. The Delaware delegation was split 1-1 between McKean and Read. Rodney had to break the tie.
     Which is why despite his pain, the darkness, and the repressive heat which surely would turn into a torrential summer storm, Rodney mounted his horse and rode to Philadelphia. McKean said the tired man arrived at the door at Independence Hall "in his boots and spurs" just in time to cast the vote that made the decision unanimous, save the New York vote, which would be determined by its legislature a month later, rather than by its delegation.
     With some pride, Rodney wrote his brother Thomas, “I arrived in Congress (tho detained by thunder and rain) time enough to give my voice in the matter of independence . . We have now got through the whole of the declaration and ordered it to be printed so that you will soon have the pleasure of seeing it.”
     His exact words that day were "As I believe the voice of my constituents and of all sensible and honest men is in favor of independence, my own judgment concurs with them. I vote for independence."
     Rodney was one of the 34 who signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, with 22 others signing on August 2 after the New York delegation returned to formally support independence.
     Back in Delaware, the voters of Kent County bounced him in the next election, but after the British occupation of Wilmington, Delawareans became Patriots and returned him to the state assembly and the Continental Congress in 1777.
     On March 31, 1778, the assembly elected him president of Delaware, an honorific office; he succeeded Read. Rodney spent the rest of the war raising funds for the state militia, which fought bravely, but suffered losses so devastating at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina on August 16, 1780, that its few surviving soldiers joined Maryland regiments to finish the remainder of the war. Washington wrote to him, “The readiness with which you took to the field at the period most critical to our affairs, the industry you used in bringing out the militia of the Delaware State and the alertness observed by you in forwarding on the troops from Trenton, reflect the highest honor on your character and place your attachment to the cause in a most distinguished point of view.”
      After the war, Rodney begged off from public service but the people of Delaware elected and re-elected him anyway. As I mentioned earlier, when he could not make it to the legislature, the legislature set up shop at his home.
     His body finally gave out and he died on June 26, 1784. His estate went to his nephew, Caesar Augustus Rodney. His last will and testament also provided for the gradual emancipation of his 200 slaves. His grave went unmarked for a century until Delaware's Chief Justice Joseph P. Comegys placed a small slab over his grave. In 1889 the remains of Caesar Rodney were moved to Christ's Church in Dover and a suitable monument erected.
      In 1999, when Delaware had to design a quarter commemorating the state's history, the state showed Caesar Rodney, thin, suffering and in pain, nevertheless riding to Philadelphia to vote for independence and freedom.

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