VOLUME 41, ISSUE 3
Distributed quarterly by mail and email, the Conservative Caucus of Delaware's newsletter contains relevant information and insights from noted leaders, authoritative stakeholders and like-minded members who demonstrate their passion for the truths we hold dear by putting pen to paper!
The Forgotten Founder: Caesar Rodney
Most Delawareans have heard of Caesar Rodney, whether because they’ve heard of the Caesar Rodney School District, or seen his statue in Wilmington before the city decided to remove it in 2020 in the name of “having an overdue discussion about the public display of historical figures and events.” Few know what he stood for and how important he is in the founding of the United States of America.
Caesar Rodney was born on October 7th, 1728 in St. Jones Neck in East Dover Hundred, near present-day Kitts Hummock. His grandfather, William Rodney had emigrated to America in the late 17th century and served as speaker of the Colonial Assembly of the Delaware Counties in 1704. His maternal grandfather was a well-known Reverend in Dover of the local Anglican church. During his childhood, the Rodney family owned an 849-acre farm called Byfield, which included over 200 slaves, who worked on the farm’s wheat and barley crop.
His father died when he was 17 years old and young Rodney’s guardianship was turned over to Nicholas Ridgley, a colonial justice on the Supreme Court of the Lower Counties of Delaware. It was with Justice Ridgley where Rodney developed an interest in politics and public service. He got his career start in 1755 when he was commissioned High Sherriff of Kent County by the Royal
Government of Great Britain. During his service, he was involved in setting up Kent County’s election system and managing the county’s tax rate.
Three years later, he won his first election to become a representative to the colonial legislature at New Castle’s Court House. Although Delaware didn’t have official political parties, he and his brother Thomas were usually aligned with the “Country Party,” a party of Scots and Irishmen centered in New Castle County, as opposed to the
majority Court Party, which was predominately of Anglicans from below the canal. His closest political ally during his 12-year tenure in the Colonial Assembly was Thomas McKean, a prominent Sussex County politician, who would join Rodney in the Continental Congress.
In 1765, Rodney and McKean travelled to New York City to be a part of the “Stamp Act Congress,” the pre-
decessor to the Continental Congress which would later declare independence from Great Britain. It was the first-ever formal gathering of colonial representatives to plan a
protest to British taxation policies, namely the hated Stamp Act that imposed burdensome taxes on colonial print materials.
Rodney wrote home that the colonial representatives had a difficult time balancing colonists’ rights with the powers of both Parliament and the King of England because at that time the thought of separating from
England had not yet occurred. Eventually the delegates drafted a
Declaration of Rights and Grievances, the first of many efforts to petition the
Crown and Parliament for representation. Caesar Rodney maintained a copy of the records of this first Congress, one of only two records which survives to this day.
Rodney returned home and joined the local militia and continued his service in the Colonial Delaware Legislature and continued his anti-British activities as the colonists became more and more unhappy with England. Finally, on June 15th, 1776, Rodney and McKean led a debate on the floor in New Castle to formally call for Delaware to sever all ties with
Parliament and the King.
By this time, he was now a man in his forties and indeclining health. He had been suffering from asthma and a cancerous growth on his face, for which no proper medical treatment was available at the time. He left New Castle to head to Sussex County to deal with some Loyalists, who were attempting to keep Delaware loyal to the Crown and then retired to his estate to rest.
On the evening of July 1st, 1776, Rodney was at home with his servants when a messenger came to the door and asked for Rodney to appear. The messenger explained that he had been sent by McKean, who had headed to Philadelphia following the New Castle vote to join the Continental
Congress in a vote to formally sever all ties with Great Britain. Each colony was voting and Delaware was deadlocked at one, with McKean voting for independence and George Read voting against. They needed a tiebreaking vote to decide whether America would be a nation free of Britain and have a chance to survive, or remain subservient to the King and Parliament.
Rodney was not in any condition to head 70 miles north to Philadelphia, especially in the dead of night. He was, however, a strong patriot and had dedicated his service to the
Continental Congress and its aims from the first Stamp Act Congress until this day. Despite being ill and seeing a thunderstorm approach, Rodney rode through the dark night “in his boots and spurs,” arriving in Philadelphia on July 2nd, 1776, the day the vote for independence was scheduled. Standing before the other Founders, Caesar Rodney boldly declared “I arrived in Congress (though detained by thunder and rain) time enough to give my voice in the matter of independence…” and cast his vote with McKean to create the new United States of America.
Rodney’s vote proved to be one of the differences for independence. The Continental Congress had agreed not to consider independence unless at least nine colonies voted for it, but in reality, they were seeking a unanimous vote. Had
Rodney sided with George Read, it is possible Congress would have had second thoughts about starting a war with Great Britain, the greatest military power at that
time. But because of his fierce dedication to patriotism, he cast one of the most critical votes in American History to give the Congress the courage to boldly declare “we hold these truths to be self-evident.”
General George Washington asked Rodney to serve as Delaware’s governor and major-general of the Delaware
militia during the war. Rodney successfully led repulsions of several attempts by the British to capture Delaware and also ordered the attack on Loyalist insurgents in Sussex County during the 1780 Black Camp Rebellion. He also helped General Washington find troops, money, and supplies from Delaware to continue the fight.
Rodney continued to serve in the Continental Congress and as President of Delaware until Charles Cornwallis
surrendered at Yorktown, by which time Rodney’s health was failing him. Despite knowing his health was in terminal
decline, he continued to serve in the legislature and became Speaker of the Upper House of the Delaware Assembly in 1782, and did so until he finally died in his home on June 26th, 1784 at the age of 55.
Despite all of his sacrifices and service to the new nation, Rodney is not as well-known as many of the other Founders. He suffered from poor health for most of his life and famously wore a green scarf to hide his face once it became disfigured by the tumor. John Adams wrote of him: “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 a fire, spirit, wit and humor in his
He never married and had no children. He was known as a consensus builder and not a firebrand with a strong
personality. Unlike our other Founders, many of whom have homes or monuments in their honor, Rodney was buried in an unmarked grave on his property just east of Dover Air Force Base.
If you visit Washington DC, on the National Mall, look for the Constitution Gardens, inscribed in the garden on a
Memorial are the names of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. At the top of the Delaware names, you will find Caesar Rodney’s signature and name.
Although he will never be as famous as many of the other men whose signatures and battle cries endured long after the last bullet of freedom was fired, it is because of him, a man with a cancerous tumor on his face and the daring to ride through a dark and stormy night, who mutually pledged to the other founders his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor to build this great nation, that we owe much. ■