Some might consider George Read the father of the State of Delaware, for he was the author of her first Constitution in 1776, and of the first edition of her laws. He figured in her Assembly no less than 12 years, was Vice – President of the State, and at one time her acting chief magistrate. He wrote the address from Delaware to the King, which Lord Shelbourne said so impressed George III that he read it over twice. He may be the most conspicuous figure in the Delaware Record, for Thomas McKean and John Dickenson were more closely allied to Pennsylvania than to Delaware; and while Caesar Rodney was prominent in the time of the Declaration and afterwards as President of Delaware, his premature death in 1783 cut short his career. Read was one of the two statesmen, and the only southern statesman, who signed all three of the great State papers on which our country’s history is based: the original Petition to the King of the Congress of 1774, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
In person, Read was tall, slight, graceful, with strong but refined features, and dark brown eyes. His manners were dignified and formal, yet courteous and at times captivating. He dressed with great attention to detail, style and elegance, evidenced by the amethyst studded shoe buckles he wore the day he signed the Declaration of Independence.
Born on September 18th, 1733 on a family estate in Cecil county Maryland, George Read was the eldest son of Colonel John Read of Maryland and Delaware. His father, the Colonel, born in Dublin on January 15, 1688, descends in the Ancient Family of Read back to Sir Thomas Read who was one of the knights who accompanied King Henry the Sixth when he held his Parliament at Reading in 1439. After receiving a classical education under Dr. Francis Allison, he studied law and was called to the bar at age nineteen in Philadelphia, eventually moving to New Castle, Delaware in 1754. On January 11th, 1763 Read married Gertrude Ross, daughter of the Rev. George Ross rector of the Emmanuel Church of New Castle, a vigorous pillar of the Established Church in America. The marriage was a powerful union, as the Ross family was prominent and esteemed in the community: beyond the position of her father, Gertrude’s brother John had been attorney-general under the crown, her brother the Rev. Aeneas Ross was celebrated for his patriotic sermons during the revolution; while still another brother George Ross was an eminent judge and signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Having been appointed attorney general under the crown at the early age of twenty-nine, Mr. Read felt it to be his duty, and perhaps a nod to advance diplomacy, to warn the British government of the danger of attempting to tax the colonies without giving them direct representation in Parliament; and in his correspondence with his friend Sir Richard Neave, afterwards governor of the Bank of England, he gave utterance, eleven years before the Declaration of Independence, to the remarkable prophecy that a continuance in this mistaken policy would lead to independence and eventually to the colonies surpassing England in her staple industries. Finding no indication of change in the crown’s position to the colonies, he resigned the position of attorney-general and accepted a seat in the First Congress, which met at Philadelphia in 1774. A diplomat at heart, Read still hoped for reconciliation, and voted against the initial motion for independence, however, he finally signed the Declaration of Independence when he concluded there was no hope for reconciliation with the crown; and from that point on was a constant originator and ardent supporter of measures on behalf of the national cause. An indication of his commitment to the cause, Read subsequently introduced this resolution to congress: “…that anyone who shall willfully break this agreement (The Declaration) shall have his name published in the Public Newspapers as a betrayer of the civil rights of America and forever be deemed infamous and a traitor”. Like most principled individuals who committed themselves to the cause of independence, Read’s actions were not without consequence. During the war Read’s home was confiscated by the enemy, his wife was taken captive and he driven from place to place to avoid capture for six years.
George Read was President of the Constitutional Convention in 1776, and the author of the first Constitution of Delaware and of the first edition of her laws. In 1782 he was appointed by Congress a judge in the National Court of Appeals in Admiralty. Three years later Congress made him one of the commissioners of a federal court to determine an important controversy in relation to territory between New York and Massachusetts. In 1786 he was a delegate to the convention which met at Annapolis, Maryland, and he took part in those proceedings which culminated in the calling together in 1787, of the convention in Philadelphia which framed the Constitution of the United States. In this august body he was a prominent figure, in particular with regard to the rights of smaller States to a proper representation in the Senate. Read again represented Delaware. Quoting from Wright & Morris in their Soldier-Statesmen of the Constitution, “Read immediately argued for a new national government under a new Constitution, saying ‘to amend the Article was “simply putting old cloth on a new garment.” He was a leader in the fight for a strong central government, advocating, at one time, the abolition of the states altogether and the consolidation of the country under one powerful national government. ‘Let no one fear the states, the people are with us;’ he declared to a Convention shocked by this radical proposal. With no one to support his motion, he settled for protecting the rights of the small states against the infringements of their larger, more populous neighbors who, he feared, would ‘probably combine to swallow up the smaller ones by addition, division or impoverishment.’ He warned that Delaware ‘would become at once a cipher in the union’ if the principle of equal representation embodied in the New Jersey (small-state) Plan was not adopted and if the method of amendment in the Article was not retained. He favored giving Congress the right to vote state laws, making the federal legislature immune to popular whims by having senators hold office for nine years or during good behavior, and granting the U.S. President broad appointive powers. Outspoken and backed by his constituency, he threatened to lead the Delaware delegation out of the Convention if the rights of the small states were not specifically guaranteed in the new Constitution. Immediately after the adoption of the Constitution, which Delaware, largely under his direction, was the first to ratify, he was elected to the Senate of the United States. At the expiration of his first term he was re-elected to a second then resigned in 1793 to accept the office of chief justice of Delaware which he filled until his death on September 21st, 1798.
Chief Justice Read commanded public confidence, not only from his profound legal knowledge, sound judgment and impartial decisions, but from his integrity and estimable private character. Those who differed from him in opinion believed that he was acting from a sense of duty, and declared that there was not a dishonest fiber in his heart nor an element of meanness in his soul. He left three distinguished sons, George Read, second, for thirty years United States district attorney of Delaware; William Read, consul-general of the Kingdom of Naples, and John Read, Senator of Pennsylvania; and one daughter Mary Read, who married Colonel Mathew Pearce, of Poplar Neck, Cecil county Maryland. George Read , the signer, was an ardent member of the Church of England and afterwards of the American Episcopal Communion, and for many years was one of the wardens of Emmanuel Church, New Castle; he lies in that beautiful quite graveyard, where seven generations of the Read family repose.
The colonial Read mansion, on the west bank of Delaware Bay, in New Castle, in which George Read, the signer lived and died, was the scene of elegant hospitality for many long years. Here the leading magnates of the colonies were entertained before the revolution, and within its hospitable walls were gathered from time to time groups of fashionable friends from different parts of the South, as well as Philadelphia, Annapolis and New York.
George Washington and many of the native and foreign Revolutionary generals and all foremost statesmen of the republic slept under its roof and enjoyed the hospitality of its owners. Although the original house was lost to fire, the signer’s son George built the house that stands in its place today at 42 The Strand in New Castle. The mansion, which is regarded as one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture, and its beautiful gardens are maintained for public posterity by The Historical Society of Delaware and remain a treasured asset of the community to visit and a tribute to the Read family.
Widely recognized as a man of not only the highest integrity, but of great generosity, George Read contributed significantly of both his time and money to the service of his country. He was a man endowed with a large circle of warm friends who looked up to him for guidance and advice. An example of his dedication to friendship was his long support for John Dickenson, the famed “Penman of the Revolution”. After articulating the central positions for American colonists resisting the new British policies of colonial taxation in his series Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, Dickenson, whose reticence was focused more toward Parliament than the King, refused to sign the Declaration of Independence greatly damaging his popularity and social standing. It is said that through the continued friendship and political and personal influence of George Read, Dickinson’s public position was restored; he later became President successively of Delaware and Pennsylvania, and afterwards one of the delegates to the convention which framed the Constitution of the United States.
There are several original portraits of George Read of Delaware, most notable among them is John Trumbull’s painting “The Declaration of Independence” which is in the Capitol at Washington D.C, and reproduced on the back of the U.S. two dollar bill. (Read is the 5th person from the right). He also figures prominently in various other historical pictures: “The Signing of the Constitution of the United States of America” by Rossier, and in a “Dinner At General Washington’s to George Read of Delaware” by M. Armand Dumaresq (Collection of William Astor Esq. NY). The principal persons represented are General and Mrs. Washington, Chief Justice Read, the Marquise de Lafayette and Richard Henry Lee. George Read is also an important figure in “The Dinner Club of Congress of 1775” also by Dumaresq. The correspondence of George Read has preserved the memory of this interesting and select social gathering. It was composed of the following eight members who dined together every day except Sunday, viz. Randolph Lee, Washington, and Harrison of Virginia, Chase of Maryland, Rodney and Lee of Delaware and Alsop of New York.
Reflecting on the life of George Read is to peak in a window to our country’s incubation and early political history. Given the significant contributions to his community, his good counsel and loyalty to friends, and his principled evaluation and judicious deliberation of the issues of the day, it is quite fitting to discover that the signer was among the crowd gathered on the balcony or “outer gallery” of Federal Hall in Philadelphia to witness and celebrate George Washington’s inauguration as the first President of the United States of America. If a man is to be judged by the company he keeps, there is little more to say about George Read than he was a distinguished member of the esteemed fraternity we now refer to as Our Founding Fathers.
Denis d. Frelinghuysen and Maj. Harmon Pumpelly Read- 2007
- C. Berkin, A Brilliant Solution (Harcourt Inc, Orland, FL, 2002)
- Major Harmon Pumpelly Read, F.R.G.S., Rossiana, Paper and Documents Relating to the History and Genealogy of the Ancient and Noble House of ROSS, of Ross-shire, Scotland, and its Decent from the Ancient Earls of Ross, together with the Descent of the Ancient and Historic family of READ from Rede of Troughend, Reade of Barton Court, Berks, and Read of Delaware, The Argus Co, Printers, Albany New York, November 1, 1908
- General Meredith Read, The History of Delaware
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