Founding Fathers Friday: Caesar Rodney

by Derrick G. Jeter

If Caesar Rodney had never mounted his horse on the evening of July 1, 1776, the United States of America may have never come into being.
Rodney, the bachelor son of a Delaware planter, lived on his 800-acre estate, Byfield, outside of Dover. Though he made his living, not as a planter but as a servant of his colony. From the age of twenty-seven until he died at the age of fifty-six, Rodney was a sheriff, assemblyman, assembly speaker, deed recorder, justice of the peace, congressman, major general in the Delaware militia, and president (governor) of Delaware.
Within the tiny boarders of Delaware Rodney is celebrated as a hero—and rightful so, for it was Rodney, as much as anyone in 1776, who secured independence for America.
When the delegates to the Continental Congress took an official poll on Richard Henry’s Lee’s resolution, on July 1, Delaware was split down the middle. Delaware sent three delegates to Philadelphia: Thomas McKean, George Read, and Caesar Rodney, but Rodney was away attending to some trouble started by Loyalist in his corner of the colony. McKean was a staunch rebel, but Read . . . well, Read was like a reed and leaning on the side of caution. With the official vote set for the following day, Delaware was deadlocked and a deadlocked Delaware would mean that Lee’s resolution would fail and independence would be postponed or defeated.
McKean immediately dispatched a rider to fetch Rodney back to Philadelphia.
In 1776, Rodney was forty-seven years old and in poor health. He suffered from asthma and had a painful, cancerous tumor on his face. Ten years earlier, a lesion appeared on Rodney’s nose and began to spread to the left side of his face. Philadelphia doctors removed a portion of the tumor in 1768, leaving a nasty scar, which Rodney hid with a green veil. (Portraits of Rodney almost always show him in right profile.) What Rodney lacked in looks, however, he more than made up for in character and dash. John Adams said that Rodney was “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 sense and fire, spirit, wit, and humor in his countenance.”
Character and dash was just what was needed if Delaware was to ensure American independence.
McKean’s messenger reached Byfield in the evening, just as a terrible storm was brewing. Rodney, ignoring his own health, spurred his boots, ran to his barn, and saddled his horse . . . and off he went at a gallop. It was 80 miles from Byfield to Philadelphia, a trip, that under normal circumstances, was covered in two days. But these were not normal circumstances. Caesar Rodney’s midnight ride is the stuff of legend. All that could be heard through the peels of thunder that evening was the sound muffled hoof beats and splashing puddles; all that could be seen that evening was a mysterious, veiled horseman illuminated briefly by flashes of lightening.
On the morning of July 2, the delegates took their seats. Sitting at the table of Delaware was George Read and Thomas McKean—Caesar Rodney’s chair was empty . . . but not for long. In burst a soaking, mud-splattered, and exhausted skeleton of a man. And when Delaware was called, Caesar Rodney answered yea.
Two days later, on July 4, after the language of the Declaration was approved, Rodney wrote to his brother (the only surviving letter from that date in which a signer mentions the Declaration of Independence). The letter, now housed at the University of Virginia, reads in part:
I arrived in Congress (tho detained by thunder and rain) time enough to give my voice in the matter of Independence. . . . We have now got through with the whole of the declaration and ordered it to be printed so that you will soon have the pleasure of seeing it.
After signing the Declaration on August 2, 1776, Rodney went on to fight for independence as a general in the Delaware militia, supporting Washington in the field, especially during the campaigning in New Jersey. For a brief time, Rodney commanded the post at Trenton, after Washington’s stunning victory there in 1776, and defended his sate when British troops marched into Delaware in 1777. From 1778 to 1781, Rodney served a governor and lived long enough to see independence won in fact. He died in June 1784, before Delaware become the first state to ratify the new Constitution.
A lifelong bachelor, Rodney had no children of his own. But today, Caesar Rodney—the savior of independence—has a state full of children who celebrate his heroic midnight ride.