Essay 64 – Guest Essayist: Robert M. S. McDonald

Can one person’s vote make a difference? Just ask Caesar Rodney.

One of Delaware’s three delegates to the Continental Congress, in July 1776 he broke the tie within his delegation on the question of independence. This was a vote that mattered.

By no means was independence a foregone conclusion—even though Great Britain, for more than a decade, had trampled on Americans’ rights. It placed off limits to Americans lands they helped conquer in the French and Indian War, subjected colonists to taxation without representation, disregarded the right to trial by jury, closed down Boston harbor, dissolved elected legislatures, banned town meetings, and in April 1775 sent troops from Boston to Concord to seize the Massachusetts militia’s arms and ammunition, triggering a war.

Attempts to end the conflict while restoring American liberties went nowhere.

On June 7, 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee advanced the momentous proposition that “these United Colonies are, and, of right, ought to be, Free and Independent States.”

Congress, which was meeting in Philadelphia, tabled the motion to give members time to consult with their colonies’ legislatures.

It also appointed Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson to draft a declaration of independence in the event that Lee’s motion won Congress’s approval. Jefferson did nearly all the work, but it could have been a wasted effort.

Indeed, it almost was. On July 1 members of Congress took a non-binding test vote. While the delegations of nine colonies stood ready to vote for independence, New York—still awaiting instructions from its provincial assembly—had to abstain. Worse, the Pennsylvania and South Carolina delegations opposed independence.

And then there was Delaware. One delegate, Thomas McKean, supported cutting ties with Great Britain. The other, George Read, opposed the move.

McKean, anticipating this result, had already dispatched an urgent message to the colony’s third delegate, Caesar Rodney, who had absented himself from Congress to thwart a potential uprising of Delaware colonists still loyal to the king.

Learning that Congress would vote the next day on the question of independence, Rodney, a 47-year-old lawyer, rode more than 70 miles through thunder and lightning. He crossed several swollen rivers and fast-moving creeks. One account has him making the journey by carriage. Another has him on horseback and notes that he arrived the next morning, just in the nick of time, wearing his boots and spurs.

As he took his seat at the Pennsylvania State House (which, thanks in part to him, is now known as Independence Hall), all eyes focused on the unlikely hero. He was frail and suffered from chronic asthma. Worse still, advanced skin cancer had disfigured his nose and one side of his face, which he covered with a green silk scarf tied across his head.

John Adams, one of the fiercest proponents of independence, had described him uncharitably as “the oddest looking Man in the World.” On the morning of July 2, however, Adams must have considered him one of the most important men in the world.

Addressing the Continental Congress, Rodney declared that “I believe the voice of my constituents and of all sensible and honest men is in favor of Independence.” Adding that “my own judgment concurs with them,” he announced that “I vote for Independence.”

Delaware was now the tenth colony ready to declare itself an independent state.

To anxious supporters of independence, it must have seemed as if, after the previous night’s storm, the clouds had parted.

South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge, who had hesitated the day before, moved South Carolina to favor breaking from Britain as well. Then Pennsylvanians John Dickinson and Robert Morris, who in the July 1 test vote had also opposed Lee’s resolution, rose from their chairs and left the remainder of Pennsylvania’s delegation to make theirs the twelfth to support independence.

With twelve colonies in favor of independence, none opposed, and New York’s delegation abstaining (until July 15, when finally it received instructions to favor independence as well), the United States of America was born.

Adams wrote home to predict that July 2 “will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary” and “the Day of Deliverance.” He predicted future “Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.”

Instead, of course, the significance of July 2 is now largely forgotten. July 4—when Congress ratified Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence—came to be celebrated as the anniversary of America’s birth.

Like July 2, Caesar Rodney is now also largely forgotten. That’s a shame since his life was one of consequence. His epic ride alone earns him a place in America’s pantheon of heroes. He was also a militia officer, a member of his colony’s legislature, a delegate to the 1765 Stamp Act Congress, a judge, “president” (i.e., governor) of Delaware, and a member of Congress under the Articles of Confederation before succumbing to cancer in 1784.

In 1999 Rodney was honored when he was featured (on horseback) on the special-edition Delaware state quarter. In 2020, however, his statue (also on horseback) was removed from its pedestal in Rodney Square in Wilmington, Delaware’s capital city. The fundamental reason for this controversial decision is that he lived and died as a slaveholder.

Slavery as well as many other abhorrent forms of inequality were considered normal in the eighteenth century. Monarchy and tyranny were common nearly everywhere. To Caesar Rodney’s credit, he helped to establish the United States as an exception to this rule. He not only voted to break free from Britain but also signed the Declaration of Independence, which asserted the “self-evident” “truths” that all mankind are equally “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Almost immediately, states with fewer slaves began either to abolish slavery or enact plans for gradual emancipation. Eventually, as the Civil War concluded, President Abraham Lincoln invoked the ideas of the American Revolution to outlaw slavery throughout the United States. The Revolution sparked many other gains for equality, as well. Even today, people appropriate its principles in support of liberty and equal rights.

Whether or not Caesar Rodney returns to his pedestal, his efforts in behalf of independence laid the foundation for a nation that continues to set an example for the world in the messy, dangerous, and uncertain struggle for individual rights.

Robert M. S. McDonald is Professor of History at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he has taught since 1998. A specialist in the eras of the American Revolution and the Early American Republic, he is a graduate of the University of Virginia, Oxford University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he earned his Ph.D. Professor McDonald is editor of the audio series, Thomas Jefferson: American Revolutionary (2020). He is the author of Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time (2016) and editor of Thomas Jefferson’s Lives: Biographers and the Battle for History (2019), The American Revolution: Core Documents (2019), Sons of the Father: George Washington and His Protégés (2013), Light & Liberty: Thomas Jefferson and the Power of Knowledge (2012), and Thomas Jefferson’s Military Academy: Founding West Point (2004). He has published articles in the Journal of the Early Republic, The Historian, and Southern Cultures. A native of Stratford, Connecticut, he lives with his family in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York.

Podcast by Maureen Quinn.

 

 

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