Caesar Rodney

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Caesar Rodney (October 7, 1728 - June 26, 1784), was an American lawyer and politician from St. Jones Neck, in Dover Hundred, Kent County, Delaware, east of Dover. He was an officer of the Delaware militia during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a Continental Congressman from Delaware, and President of Delaware during most of the American Revolution.

Early life and family

Caesar Rodney was born on his family's farm on St. Jones Neck, in Dover Hundred, Kent County, Delaware. The farm, Byfield, is just north of John Dickinson's mansion, Poplar Hall. He was the son of Caesar and Mary Crawford Rodney, and grandson of William Rodney, who came to America in the 1680s and had been Speaker of the Colonial Assembly of the Lower Counties in 1704. Among the Rodney family ancestors were the prominent Adelmare family in Treviso, Italy. His mother was the daughter of the Rev. Thomas Crawford, the Anglican rector of Christ Church at Dover. Byfield was an 800 acre (3.2 km²) farm, worked by a small number of slaves. With the addition of other adjacent properties, the Rodneys were, by the standards of the day, wealthy members of the local gentry. Sufficient income was earned from the sale of wheat and barley to the Philadelphia and West Indies market to provide enough cash and leisure to allow members of the family to participate in the social and political life of Kent County.

Caesar Rodney was first educated at home, but later attended the Latin School in Philadelphia. His father died in 1745, when Caesar was 17 years old, and the younger Rodney was placed under the guardianship of Nicholas Ridgely, Clerk of the Peace in Kent County. As the eldest son, he ran the family farm for 10 years before entering politics. His mother remarried and had two additional children, but she died in 1763. Subsequently, Caesar was the primary provider for his younger brothers and sisters, and was especially close to his brother, Thomas Rodney, and half sister, Sally Wilson, who kept house for him. He never married. According to tradition, he courted Mary (Polly) Vining, aunt of later U.S. Senator John M. Vining. However, she married the Rev. Charles Inglis, the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Dover, where the family attended school.

Early political career

Thomas Rodney described his brother at this time as having 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." Accordingly, he easily moved into the political world formerly occupied by his father and guardian. In 1755 he was elected Sheriff of Kent County and served the maximum three years allowed. This was a powerful and financially rewarding position in that it supervised elections and chose the grand jurors who set the county tax rate. After serving his three years he was appointed to a series of positions including Register of Wills, Recorder of Deeds, Clerk of the Orphan's Court, Justice of the Peace, and judge in the lower courts. During the French and Indian War, he was commissioned captain of the Dover Hundred company in Col. John Vining's regiment of the Delaware militia. They never saw active service. From 1769 through 1777 he was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the Lower Counties.

Eighteenth century Delaware was politically divided into loose factions known as the "Court Party" and the "Country Party." The majority Court Party was generally Anglican, strongest in Kent County and Sussex County, worked well with the colonial Proprietary government, and were in favor of reconciliation with the British government. The minority Country Party was largely Ulster-Scot, centered in New Castle County, and quickly advocated independence from the British. In spite of being members of the Anglican Kent County gentry, Rodney and his brother, Thomas Rodney, increasingly aligned themselves with the Country Party, a distinct minority in Kent County. As such he generally worked in partnership with Thomas McKean from New Castle County, and in opposition to George Read.

American Revolution

Rodney joined Thomas McKean as a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 and was a leader of the Delaware Committee of Correspondence. He began his service in the Assembly of the Lower Counties in the 1761/62 session and continued in office through the 1775/76 session. Several times he served as Speaker, including the momentous day of June 15, 1775 when "with Rodney in the chair and McKean leading the debate on the floor," the Assembly of the Lower Counties voted to separate all ties with the British Parliament and King.

Because of his military experience, Rodney was named Brigadier General of Delaware's militia. As Delaware and the other colonies moved from protest to self-government and then to independence, the situation in strongly loyalist Kent and Sussex County rapidly deteriorated. Numerous local leaders spoke strongly in favor of maintaining the ties with Great Britain. Rodney and his militia were repeatedly required to suppress the resultant insurrections. Some of the Loyalists were arrested and jailed, some escaped to the swamps or British ships, and some just remained quietly resistant to the new government.

Meanwhile, Rodney served in the Continental Congress along with Thomas McKean and George Read from 1774 through 1776. Rodney was in Dover attending to Loyalist activity in Sussex County when he received word from Thomas McKean that he and George Read were deadlocked on the vote for independence. To break that deadlock, Rodney rode eighty miles through a thunderstorm on the night of July 1, 1776, dramatically arriving in Philadelphia "in his boots and spurs" on July 2, just as the voting was beginning. At least part of Rodney's famous ride was probably made in a carriage. He voted with McKean and thereby allowed Delaware to join eleven other states in voting in favor of the resolution of independence. The wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved two days later, and Rodney signed the famous parchment copy on August 2.

A conservative backlash in Delaware led to Rodney's electoral defeat in Kent County for a seat in the upcoming Delaware Constitutional Convention and the new Delaware General Assembly.

Learning of the death of his friend John Haslet at the Battle of Princeton, Rodney went to join General George Washington briefly in early 1777. Washington soon returned him to Delaware, where, as Major-General of the Delaware militia, his leadership was badly needed to protect the state from British military intrusions and to control continued loyalist activity, particularly in Sussex County.

Amidst the catastrophic events following the Battle of Brandywine, and the British occupation of Wilmington and Philadelphia, a new General Assembly was elected in October 1777. First, it promptly put Rodney and Thomas McKean back into the Continental Congress. Then, with State President John McKinly in captivity, and President George Read completely exhausted, they elected Rodney as President of Delaware on March 31, 1778. Delaware now had a dedicated, energetic and competent leader, but the office of State President in 1778 did not have the authority of a modern Governor in the United States. Rodney's effectiveness came from his popularity with the General Assembly, where the real authority lay, and from the loyalty he had from the Delaware militia, which was the only available means of enforcing that authority.

The career of one notorious Loyalist, Cheney Clow, began at this time. Clow gathered a large group of sympathizers, built a fort, and prepared to march on the new state capital at Dover. Defeated in that attempt, they scattered into the woods and swamps and wrought havoc throughout the rest of the war, earning an animosity that was not easily forgotten afterwards. Rodney took extraordinary steps to try and control Clow and other loyalists by prohibiting trading with the British, requiring oaths of allegiance, and by confiscating property of those that would not take the oaths. Many people left.

Meanwhile Rodney scoured the state for money, supplies and soldiers to support the national war effort. Delaware Continentals had fought famously well in many battles from the Battle of Long Island to the Battle of Monmouth, but in 1780 the whole army suffered its worst defeat at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina. The small Delaware regiment was nearly destroyed and the remnant was so reduced it could only fight with a Maryland regiment for the remainder of the war. And still the Loyalists and privateers along the coast kept Sussex County seething. Rodney had done much to stabilize the situation, but his health was worsening and he resigned his office November 6, 1781, just after the conclusive Battle of Yorktown.

Rodney was elected by the Delaware General Assembly to the United States Congress under the Articles of Confederation in 1782 and 1783, but was unable to attend due to ill health. However, two years after leaving the State Presidency he was elected to the 1783/84 session of the Legislative Council and, as a final gesture of respect, the Council selected him to be their Speaker. Regrettably, his health was now in rapid decline and even though the Legislative Council met at his home for a short time, he died before the session ended.


President of Delaware
Previous Service Dates Successor
George Read March 31, 1778 - November 6, 1781 John Dickinson


Delaware General Assembly
(sessions while President)
Year Assembly Senate Majority Speaker House Majority Speaker
1777/78 2nd non-partisan George Read non-partisan Samuel West
1778/79 3rd non-partisan Thomas Collins non-partisan Simon Kollock
1779/80 4th non-partisan John Clowes non-partisan Simon Kollock
1780/81 5th non-partisan John Clowes non-partisan Simon Kollock

Death and legacy

Rodney died June 25, 1784 at Poplar Grove, his home in St. Jones Hundred, Kent County, Delaware. He was buried in the family plot at Byerly, but the exact location of his grave on the farm is unknown. There is a monument in the Christ Episcopal Church Cemetery in Dover, built over what were believed at one time to have been his remains.

John Adams described Rodney, suffering from asthma as well as skin cancer of the face, as "the oddest looking man in the world; he is tall, thin and slender as a reed, and pale; his face is not bigger than a large apple, yet there is sense and fire, spirit, wit and humor in this countenance." The cancer on his face was a source of great discomfort for many years and was so disfiguring that he often wore a green silk scarf to conceal it. Goodrich summed up his character as "a man of great integrity, and of pure patriotic feeling. He delighted, when necessary, to sacrifice his private interests for the public good. He was remarkably distinguished for a degree of good humor and vivacity; and in generosity of character was an ornament to human nature."

Although they both had military experience, Rodney's background was almost the exact opposite of his predecessor, John McKinly. While McKinly was an Ulster-Scot Presbyterian from New Castle County who was politically aligned with the compromise seeking "Court Party" of the Lower Counties, Rodney was a member of the Anglican gentry from strongly Loyalist downstate who eventually became politically aligned with the independence seeking "Country Party." It should be noted that each man's personal background and family connections were at variance with the majority of their chosen parties. Rodney's personal abilities, including his status as a liaison from the predominantly Ulster-Scot Countries to the predominantly Anglican Courties, helped him to successfully lead a much divided Delaware population through the revolutionary era.

Rodney has many places named in his honor, including the Caesar Rodney School District in Camden, Rodney Square, the central plaza of the city of Wilmington, and a dormitory complex at the University of Delaware. There is an equestrian statue of Rodney in Rodney Square and his statue, along with that of John M. Clayton, represents Delaware in the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol. For the back of the Delaware Statehood Quarter, in 1999 Delaware overwhelmingly chose to use the image of his famous ride to Philadelphia to cast Delaware’s deciding vote for the Declaration of Independence.

Almanac

Elections were held October 1st and members of the General Assembly took office on October 20th, or the following weekday. Assemblymen had a one year term. After 1776, the Legislative Council was created and Legislative Councilmen had a three year term. The General Assembly chose the Continental Congressmen for a one year term and the State President for a three year term.


Public Offices
Office Type Location Took Office Left Office notes
Sheriff Executive Dover October 1, 1755 October 1, 1756 Kent County
Sheriff Executive Dover October 1, 1756 October 1, 1757 Kent County
Sheriff Executive Dover October 1, 1757 October 2, 1758 Kent County
Justice of the Peace Judiciary New Castle 1759 1769 Court of Common Pleas
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle October 20, 1761 October 20, 1762
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle October 20, 1762 October 20, 1763
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle October 20, 1763 October 20, 1764
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle October 20, 1764 October 20, 1765
Delegate Legislature New York October 7, 1765 October 19, 1765 Stamp Act Congress [1]
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle October 20, 1765 October 20, 1766
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle October 20, 1766 October 20, 1767
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle October 20, 1767 October 20, 1768
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle October 20, 1768 October 20, 1769
Associate Justice Judiciary New Castle 1769 1777 Supreme Court
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle October 20, 1769 October 20, 1770 Speaker
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle October 20, 1770 October 20, 1771 Speaker
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle October 20, 1771 October 20, 1772
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle October 20, 1772 October 20, 1773
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle October 20, 1773 October 20, 1774
Delegate Legislature Philadelphia August 2, 1774 March 16, 1775 Continental Congress
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle October 20, 1774 October 20, 1775
Delegate Legislature Philadelphia March 16, 1775 October 21, 1775 Continental Congress
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle October 20, 1775 June 15, 1776 Speaker
Delegate Legislature Philadelphia October 21, 1775 November 7, 1776 Continental Congress
Delegate Legislature York December 17, 1777 June 27, 1778 Continental Congress [2]
Delegate Legislature Philadelphia July 2, 1778 January 18, 1779 Continental Congress [3]
State President Executive Dover March 31, 1778 November 6, 1781
Delegate Legislature Philadelphia February 2, 1782 February 1, 1783 Continental Congress [4]
Delegate Legislature Philadelphia February 1, 1783 June 21, 1783 Continental Congress [5]
Delegate Legislature Princeton June 30, 1783 November 4, 1783 Continental Congress [6]
Delegate Legislature Annapolis November 26, 1783 April 8, 1784 Continental Congress [7]
Councilman Legislature Dover October 20, 1783 June 26, 1784


Delaware General Assembly service
Dates Assembly Chamber Majority Governor Committees District
1783/84 8th State Council non-partisan Nicholas Van Dyke Speaker Kent at-large

Notes

  1. Members of the Delaware Assembly acted unofficially in selecting these delegates as the assembly was not in session.
  2. did not serve
  3. did not serve
  4. did not serve
  5. did not serve
  6. did not serve
  7. did not serve

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