46. Rodney’s Ride

With Independence Day approaching , I thought it timely to post the following excerpts from John Haslet’s World in regard to Caesar Rodney’s overnight ride to Philadelphia to vote for American independence at the momentous session of the Continental Congress on July 2, 1776. It was less famous than Paul Revere’s ride, to be sure, but arguably more important to the cause of American independence.

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No Delawarean played a more influential part in the American Revolution than Caesar Rodney, who is probably best known for the stirring, eighty-mile overnight ride that he made from his home in Dover to Philadelphia during a violent storm. He left at midnight on July 1, 1776 and reached the Pennsylvania State House on July 2, when his vote broke the tie among Delaware’s delegates to the Continental Congress and enabled the delegation to join with the other colonies in exercising a united choice for independence. Rodney’s absence from Congress at the time resulted not from any act of self-indulgence but the heavy load of public responsibilities that befell him as Assembly speaker and a militia general.

According to popular imagination, and the statue in Wilmington’s Rodney Square that was designed by James Kelly and dedicated on July 4, 1923, Rodney made the journey on horseback; however, it is more likely that as an eighteenth-century gentleman, especially one in chronically frail health, he would have traveled by carriage. The weary rider appeared in Philadelphia wearing his boots and spurs, in the recounting of fellow Delaware delegate Thomas McKean, but whether he came by horseback or carriage, or both, Caesar reported to his younger brother Thomas, “I arrived in Congress (tho detained by Thunder and Rain) time Enough to give my Voice in the matter of Independence.”

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Rodney, fresh from his overnight Dover-to-Philadelphia ride, voted on July 2 for Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee’s resolution for independence, siding with Thomas McKean against their fellow delegate from Delaware, George Read—then among the large number of Delawareans who had not abandoned hope of a reconciliation with Britain. Rodney’s absence during the debate over the resolution on July 1 had prevented the Delaware delegation, deadlocked between McKean and Read, from casting a vote in favor, but now his endorsement enabled Delaware to take its place with eleven other colonies (New York abstaining) in support of the resolution, while Pennsylvania and South Carolina—in opposition the day before—switched sides to make it unanimous. On July 4, after extended debate by the Congress meeting as a Committee of the Whole House, the same twelve colonies—now states—that had voted for Lee’s resolution adopted Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Rodney’s presence in Philadelphia on July 2 and the vote he cast is rightly regarded as one of the most unsung efforts by one of America’s most underappreciated Founding Fathers. In other words, his support for the cause of independence was patently fourthcoming (so to speak).

For anyone who might be interested:

You can listen to a recording of an interview I had with historian Brady Crytzer, host of Dispatches—the podcast of the Journal of the American Revolution—about my recent JAR article, Edward Hand’s American Journey, on the Dispatches website (episode 167).