Vol. 19, No. 38

Aug. 24, 2000

Book examines Delaware patriot's life and times

All Delawareans know about Caesar Rodney and his famous ride to cast his vote for American independence. His statue in the heart of downtown Wilmington, his image on the Delaware quarter and the portrayal of his character in the musical 1776 all commemorate his important role in the founding of the fledgling nation.

Now a new definitive biography of Caesar Rodney, A Gentleman as Well as a Whig: Caesar Rodney and the American Revolution by Jane Harrington Scott, has been published by the University of Delaware Press as part of its Cultural Studies of Delaware and the Eastern Shore series. The book, sponsored by the Colonial Dames of America in Delaware, took six years to research and write.

Against the background of colonial Delaware, Philadelphia and the surrounding region, Scott writes of Rodney's personal life, his political and military career, his friendships and relationships with the movers and doers of the time.

"Caesar Rodney was a courageous man, balanced in his reactions, firm in his convictions but calm and not highly emotional, and trusted by all who knew him," she said.

Born in 1728 and educated at home and at the Latin School in Philadelphia, Rodney never married and was very close to his brother, Thomas, who was 16 years younger. In contrast to Caesar, Scott describes Thomas as an "often foolish and hotheaded man," whose public career closely followed his older brother's. Thomas also managed Caesar Rodney's lands and took care of his finances, and "the results were ultimately disastrous," according to the author.

Much that is known about Caesar Rodney is revealed in the letters between the two brothers, and they were an invaluable resource for the book, Scott said. Thomas admired Caesar and described him as having a "greate fund of wit & humor his conversation was always bright Gentleman Whig Book and strong & Conducted with Wisdom...."

In the early days, Rodney, who began his military and political career in 1755 as a captain of a company of foot militia and high sherriff of Kent County, regarded himself as an Englishman. Scott describes the many events, beginning with the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act that ultimately led Caesar and the other founding fathers to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

From the beginning, Caesar was involved. He, Thomas McKean and George Read represented Delaware at the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 and later at the Continental Congress in 1774. In the early summer of 1776, Caesar, as chief executive of Delaware assembly and a brigadier general in the Delaware militia, was in Sussex County addressing Tory uprisings when the first vote of the Declaration of Independence took place, with McKean voting for and Read against in a tie for Delaware. McKean immediately sent for Caesar.

Although Scott questions the picture of a vigorous Rodney riding horseback, as portrayed by

the well-known statue, his journey was crucial.

By that time, he suffered from cancer and asthma and may have traveled by carriage to Philadelphia. "However, he made the journey," Scott wrote, "it was a tired and ill Caesar who arrived at the State House on the afternoon of Tuesday, July 2. Caesar wrote to Thomas that McKean met him 'at the state house door, in his boots and spurs, as the members were assembling.' He had traveled through thunder and rain over 80 miles of muddy roads and crossed about 15 streams by ford, bridge or ferry to give 'My Voice in the matter of Independence.' "

Although not in good health, Rodney continued to play an active role in the Revolution as a brigadier general and as Delaware's second elected chief executive, dealing with the problems of desertion, spies, Tories and the British, who, led by General Howe, captured Wilmington and Philadelphia.

Returning to Dover in 1782, Rodney was again selected speaker of the state legislature. In 1784, Thomas joined his brother at his home, Poplar Grove, and in June he posted a notice that Caesar Rodney, "Speaker of the Legislative Council and member of Congress, and president, Captn General and Commander in Chief of the Delaware State" had died at the age of 57.

The book also gives a lively and colorful picture of colonial Delaware before, during and after the Revolutionary War. "I discovered that the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence were surprisingly controversial in Delaware, and, as a result, there was outbreaks of dissension and unrest throughout the state," Scott said

This is the first history book Scott has written. She is the author of several books on natural history, including Between Ocean and Bay: A Natural History of the Delmarva Peninsula and Field and Forest: A Guide to Native Plant Communities for the Gardener and Naturalist, as well as books for children.

–Sue Moncure