Caesar Rodney's Amazing Ride for Colonial Independence
Delaware State Quarter
Introducing Caesar Rodney
The days leading up to national independence of the American colonies can be looked at from various perspectives, such as that of George Washington, President of the Continental Congress, or that of Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence. But in 1776 there was a man who, in spite of his remarkable accomplishments, is relatively unknown in the modern world. Caesar Rodney, as well as having been a member of the Continental Congress, is distinguished by having been the Delawarean who has held more public offices than any other.
Pennsylvania State House/Independence Hall
The Call for Independence
Philadelphia, June 7, 1776. The Second Continental Congress was in session at the Pennsylvania State House. Delegates from the thirteen colonies were in attendance when a Virginia delegate by the name of Richard Henry Lee made this sixteen word resolution:
"Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states.”
No immediate action was taken by the Congress on the Lee Resolution in order that the colonies could take time to resolve any differences. It was of the utmost importance that decisions regarding independence from Britain be made unanimously. Any sign of division would certainly be exploited by King George III. Such lack of resolve would also act as a wedge between the differing parties. The colonies could ill afford either of these to become a reality.
Front of Independence Hall
Caesar Rodney Back in Delaware
In these early days leading up to independence, delegates to the Continental Congress from each colony cast, as a group, one vote which reflected the will of their home assembly. Delaware made the decision to allow their three delegates to vote individually according to their own personal convictions. Thomas McKean, George Read and Caesar Rodney, the three Delaware delegates, were divided on the subject of independence. McKean and Rodney supported independence while Read opposed it.
On June 15, 1776, Delaware became the first of the colonies to declare itself to be a free and independent state, owing no allegiance to the British crown. The response in Delaware by those who opposed independence was to form a counter revolutionary force. Not only was Caesar Rodney a delegate to the Constitutional Congress, he was also brigadier general of the Delaware militia. It fell to him to deal with the uprisings in the Colony. Consequently, Rodney left Philadelphia to return to Delaware sometime prior to June 30 even as the push for national independence was reaching its zenith.
Threat to Independence: Lack of Unity in Congress
On July 1, Richard Henry Lee’s resolution that the colonies declare independence, was discussed by the Congress as a whole. A vote regarding the resolution was scheduled for the next day, July 2. The delegates from each colony, other than the three from Delaware, would have a single vote reflecting the will of the governing body in their respective colonies. The Delaware delegates had been freed to vote as individuals. Since Rodney was not in Philadelphia, only Read and McKean would vote on behalf of Delaware. With Read being opposed to independence and McKean being for it, they would succeed only in canceling each other’s vote. In that case, Delaware would not take a stand on the issue and therefore, unanimity of the colonies would be sacrificed.
McKean saw this unacceptable scenario unfolding and sent a messenger to Dover, Delaware to impress upon Rodney the need to immediately return to Philadelphia. Rodney responded without delay, leaving Dover on July 1 with the hope of arriving in Philadelphia, 80 miles away, on the following day, July 2.
George WashingtonClick thumbnail to view full-size
Caesar Rodney's Ride
At this point it would be good to reveal the ill health of Caesar Rodney. He was afflicted with a terrible case of facial cancer. The condition was so advanced that he made a practice of wearing a green, silk covering over the side of his face. In addition, he suffered greatly with asthma.
In spite of these ailments, Rodney headed out for Philadelphia. The exact route is not known for sure, but it is believed that he would have taken the quickest route, that of the post riders. As far as is known, Rodney rode, stopping only to change horses and eat.
It must have been a grueling ride, not only because of the distance and his poor health, but also because of the weather. A Thunderstorm dogged his steps for much of the journey. When it wasn’t raining, the heat was nearly unbearable. Following cobble streets, dirt roads, dangerous river crossings and dilapidated bridges he arrived in time to vote in favor of independence. Wearing boots and spurs, Caesar Rodney strode into the Pennsylvania State House and walked out of Independence Hall.
Declaration of IndependenceClick thumbnail to view full-size
Declaration of Independence
It is not known for certain what Rodney said to the assembly when he arrived, but the following words have been handed down as representative of his statement.
As I believe the voice of my constituents and of all
sensible and honest men is in favor of independence,
my own judgment concurs with them. I vote for independence.
The outcome was impacted by much more than Rodney’s single vote. Prior to July 2, Pennsylvania and South Carolina were settled on voting against Independence. Moved by Rodney’s determination, the delegates of both colonies voted in favor of Independence. New York was prevented from voting on July 2 because they had not received their voting instructions from the New York Assembly. Ten days later, they joined the rest of the colonies, voting for independence.
Two days later, on July 4, 1776, The Continental Congress voted to adopt the Declaration of Independence, although New York abstained for ten days before they added their votes in favor.
The unity of the colonies was preserved and a new nation was born.