Caesar Rodney

Ceasar Rodney, Delaware (1728-1784)

Caesar Rodney was born near Dover, Delaware on October 7, 1728, on the family plantation known as “Byfield”, the eldest child of Caesar and Elizabeth Crawford Rodney.

Byfield was originally settled in the early 1680s by Caesar Rodney’s maternal grandfather, Daniel Jones. After Jones’ death Byfield became the family seat for three generations of the Rodney family. Caesar Rodney spent his formative years here, and acquired ownership of the property after his mother’s death in 1763.

Caesar’s mother, Elizabeth Crawford, was the daughter of an Anglican minister, the Reverend Thomas Crawford, who was born in Scotland, and was the first missionary sent to Dover, Delaware by the Society for the propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.

Caesar’s grandfather, William Rodney, emigrated to this country in 1681-82, along with William Penn, and was living at Murderkill Hundred, Kent County Delaware, in 1693.

Caesar Rodney’s impressive English ancestry has been documented back to 1095. In his family tree is Sir Henry Seymour, whose sister, Jane Seymour, became the third wife of Henry VIII.

Caesar was the eldest of eight children. At seventeen when his father died, he assumed the responsibility of caring for his mother and siblings and managing the Byfield plantation.

Caesar was educated at the Latin School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After his father died in 1745, he was placed under the guardianship of Nicholas Ridgely, a prominent citizen of Dover, Delaware. The young Caesar was undoubtedly deeply interested in the currents of thought then stirring the colonies.

No portrait of Caesar Rodney exists. We know that he was tormented throughout his life by asthma, and that his adult years were plagued by a facial cancer. He experienced expensive, painful, and futile medical treatments on the cancer. The clearest account of his appearance is found in John Adams’s diary of 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.”

Caesar never married and left no children. We know he professed his love and affection for several Delaware ladies at various times, but was never a successful suitor. It is likely that he accepted these disappointments and put his energy into becoming the single most valuable and productive Delaware citizen.

At age twenty-seven, he was appointed sheriff of Kent County; a series of local and significant offices followed with impressive speed indicating the rigorous public life to come. No Delawarean since has come close to holding the sheer number of his many significant offices. In 1758 he was elected as a delegate from Kent County to the Colonial Legislature at New Castle. In 1762 he was appointed assistant to Thomas McKean to revise and print the provincial laws of the three lower counties in Delaware. In 1765 he was elected to the Stamp Congress, and in 1769 he was appointed to the Delaware Superior Court. When Parliament closed the Port of Boston, he called a special session of the assembly and signed the Articles of Association in 1774. Along with future Declaration signers McKean and Read, Rodney was appointed to the First Continental Congress, and signed the Olive Branch Petition seeking reconciliation with England in 1775.

In 1766, as the Speaker of the Assembly, he introduced a bill to prohibit the importation of slaves into Delaware. At this time he was living in Byfield, a plantation of 1,000 acres, and owned 200 slaves. It is clear that he was pondering questions of the Colony’s and Mankind’s liberty and freedom. Indeed, at his death fourteen years later, he directed that all his slaves should be freed then, or shortly thereafter.

He was the Speaker of the Assembly when in 1776 it declared the independence of the three Delaware counties from the British Crown. During the Revolution, he was a Brigadier General and later a Major General in the Delaware Militia. He served in the New Jersey area during this time, and was responsible for producing the required Delaware troops to General George Washington. As a member of the Council of Safety, he was unable to secure the Council’s timely response to troop equipment needs and bought the necessary items from his own pocket. This effort resulted in many letters to Caesar Rodney from George Washington lauding his work. Correspondence indicates that these two men were well-known to each other and shared a mutual respect and regard.

The apex of Caesar Rodney’s service to his state occurred in the spring of 1776. He, along with Thomas McKean and George Read, were the three Delaware delegates to the Continental Congress. The explosive issue of actual independence was the question of the hour. On June 7, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a brief thunderbolt of a resolution: “Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states . . .” The awesome consequence of this to the country as a whole, and the lives and fortunes of these delegates can hardly be overstated. The entire Congress was potentially placing their necks in a British noose, and the future of the Colonies at mortal risk.

The discussion of the Resolution occupied several contentious weeks. Unanimous agreement eluded its supporters, and a recess was declared. On June 15, 1776 the Delaware Assembly released their three divided delegates to vote their individual judgment in Philadelphia. The Congress reconvened on July 1, 1776.

However, Caesar Rodney was in Delaware dealing with militia creation and Tory problems. The Delaware vote on independence was deadlocked with McKean “for” and Read “against”. A dramatic story began to unfold. McKean sent a courier to Caesar Rodney advising him of the deadlock and Caesar Rodney immediately left for Philadelphia, either on horseback (as depicted in the epic statue on Rodney Square in Wilmington Delaware) or by carriage, as his brother Thomas’s letter states. Riding all night in a torrential rainstorm, he arrived at Independence Hall on July 2, 1776 muddy, wet, and fatigued but “booted and spurred”, and also seriously ill. The eighty mile trip had consumed eighteen hours, and much of his vitality. He was strong enough to break the Delaware tie and vote for independence, adding Delaware to the successful vote that day, and the eventual unanimous vote later in July. Shortly thereafter all three Delaware delegates signed the Declaration of Independence.

Rodney’s own account of his dramatic ride and the Declaration of Independence is contained in a letter he wrote to his brother Thomas, which reads in part:

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.

Loyalist sentiment in Kent County was strong, and he was defeated as a delegate to the state constitutional convention, was not supported in his attempt to join the state legislature, and was not returned as a delegate to the Continental Congress until several years later.

Caesar Rodney was never a firebrand patriot; rather he was the type of “cool and considerate man” he described in a letter to his brother Thomas at this time. During the eight years of actual war, Caesar was in and out of Delaware. The state was a chaotic mix of Loyalist and Whig conflict, and much of his time and energy was spent dealing with this. There were fights large and small throughout the state and many were maimed or killed.

The British Navy constantly penetrated Delaware through the many rivers from the Delaware Bay. They came for food, information, and to press men into naval service. They also invaded and occupied northern Delaware, requiring Rodney in 1777 to command troops in the field for a short time, at General Washington’s express request. The States finances were in perpetual crisis during this period.

Rodney was elected President of Delaware in 1778 for a three year term, and served an additional seven months. The ratification of the Articles of Confederation consumed him for over a year marked by real contention within the Delaware Assembly. As peace approached, Rodney’s frail constitution was played out. He was again appointed to the Continental Congress and the Delaware Assembly, but never served. He had reached the end of his strength and had probably bankrupted himself in service to the state. It is the ultimate irony that Caesar Rodney was to die less than one year from the signing on September 3, 1783, of the Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary war.

Caesar Rodney died at age fifty-six at his home near Dover on June 26, 1784, and was buried at Poplar Grove, his home on the Byfield plantation. In the years after his heroic vote for independence, he truly became the First Citizen of Delaware with his tireless efforts on the state’s behalf. Indeed this selfless service likely hastened his death.

Generations of Delawareans have been left to wonder how this frail and sickly man accomplished so much. He was reported to be a temperate, forbearing and patient man. He was probably what we would today call a “consensus builder”. He was a pragmatic realist, with a wry and ironic sense of life and human nature. He inspired real affection among those who knew and worked with him. Delaware is the beneficiary of his talent and ability, applied over a lifetime. It is significant and remarkable that in all historic sources, there is virtually nothing that reflects discredit on him at any time.

There are different opinions as to where Rodney is buried. Some believe that in 1888, Rodney’s remains were re-interred at Christ Episcopal Churchyard, and an impressive twelve foot granite monument was erected at his gravesite by the National Sons of the American Revolution. Others maintain that his remains are in a field on private land, perhaps on the grounds of his old plantation, and the state has erected a marker to this effect about a mile east of Dover Air Base. The true monument to this great patriot remains the legacy of freedom wrought by this honest, resolute and selfless man.

Caesar’s will left most of his real estate to his nephew, Caesar Augustus Rodney. It also provided for the gradual emancipation of his 200 slaves.

In Washington, D.C., near the Washington Monument, there is a memorial park and lagoon honoring the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the 56 granite blocks there bears the name of Caesar Rodney. In 1934 a statue of Rodney was placed in Statuary Hall in the U. S. Capitol. A large equestrian statue of Caesar Rodney, memorializing his famous ride, looms over Rodney Square in downtown Wilmington, Delaware, and his image on horseback appears on the U.S. Delaware state silver quarter, a state series begun in 2000. Schools, dormitories and (fittingly) marathons are named for him

Thomas Clark Jackson, friend of DSDI member, L. D. Shank III

Sources

  • Barthelmas, Della Gray, “The Signers of the Declaration of Independence,” 1997, McFarland & Co. NC.
  • Frank, William P. “Caesar Rodney, Patriot” (1975), Wilmington, DL
  • Ryden, George Herbert Ph.D, Editor – Letters To and From Caesar Rodney – 1756-1784 (1933), Historical Society of Delaware
  • Scharf, J. Thomas, “History of Delaware,” 1976, Historical Society of Delaware
  • Scott, Jane Harrington – A Gentleman as Well as a Whig (2000), University of Delaware
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