Founding Fathers Friday: George Read
by Derrick G. Jeter
It could be said of George Read that he was a flip-flopper, because on the question of independence he voted against it before voting for it. Popular depictions of Read cast him either as an unprincipled man (at worse) or a man with the spine of a chocolate eclair (at best). Both characteristics are uncharitable, however, though there is little doubt that Read was a complex man. He was, after all, the only man who voted against independence and yet signed the Declaration.
Read was no intellectual pigmy—he was admitted to the bar at the age of nineteen. Nor was he a secret Tory, a loyalist in patriot clothing. Like John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, who became his friend, Read believed in the inevitability of separation from England; he simply thought the time was not yet ripe in the summer of 1776. Read gave ardent backing to the the Non-Importation Agreements—the trade boycott with Great Britain—and was outraged by the Boston Port Bill, an act by Parliament to shut down the Boston Port after the tea party, until reparations for the tea were paid in full. Read’s home county raised a reported $900 for the relief of Bostonians and was delivered to them under his signature. Samuel Adams, the super-rebel, wrote Read a note of thanks.
But all of this took place before July 2, 1776.
Selected in 1774, along with Caesar Rodney and Thomas McKean, to represent Delaware in the First Continental Congress, Read became fast friends with John Dickinson. Both men shared the opinion that delegates like John and Samuel Adams were moving too fast toward independence, and therefore, in their opinion, the ruination of the country. Both men sought reconciliation with the mother country, but would accept independence if such a reconciliation couldn’t be achieved. But both men believed that Congress hadn’t done enough, by the summer of 1776, in offering an olive branch to King George III. Unlike Dickinson, who is viewed as heroic and principled, if not tragic—as if he were a player in a Greek play—Read is viewed at smarmy and dishonorable. As the criticism goes, at least Dickinson did the honorable thing by abstaining from voting on July 2 and not signing the Declaration.
But before we pass too severe a judgment on Mr. Read, we should try to understand the dangers of the time. In hindsight, knowing the outcome of America’s revolution, it’s easy to say we would have voted with John and Sam and the others, and would have signed out names as boldly as Hancock. But in the heat of that summer, thirteen small colonies were risking the full force of the most powerful nation on the earth. America’s army was a rag-tag band of individual rebels, colonial militia, and an assortment of disgruntled native-Americans and blacks. The officer corps was mostly composed of bookish generals and colonels—those who had no real military training, except what they read out of a book; fewer still had any military experience. And if this wasn’t enough to cause one to think twice about rushing headlong into a vote for independence, America had no real functioning government. Congress wasn’t free to act independent of the various colonial governments that had sent delegates to Philadelphia. And to compound the danger, there was always the question of how to fund a revolution.
In this light it’s easier to see why Read and others were a little skittish about voting for independence.
But once the resolution passed, Read, ever the patriot, backed the will of the people and would put his neck on the line. On August 2, when Read signed the Declaration, Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania said that he “did so with a rope about his neck.” Read agreed: “I know the risk, and am prepared for all consequences.
Read raised money for troop supplies and even took up arms in the Delaware militia—hardly the activities of man with the backbone of a chocolate eclair. And though he didn’t personally suffer from the war, he did have one close call with British troops. Here’s how an early biography recounted this encounter.
When, in 1777, soon after the battle of brandywine, Governor McKinley, the President of the State, was taken prisoner by the British, Mr. Read, who was Vice President, was obliged to perform his duties. He discharged them with fidelity, and at the same time he was active in the Committee of Safety. On one or two occasions he marched with the militia, musket in hand, to repel invasion. On his return to Delaware at the time Governor McKinley was made prisoner, Mr. Read and his whole family narrowly escaped the same fate. His family were with him in Philadelphia, and he was obliged to pass down the Jersey side of the Delaware [River], and cross at a place where the river is five miles wide. He procured a boat and proceeded within sight of the ships of the enemy. Before reaching the shore the boat grounded, and, being perceived from one of the British vessels, a skiff was sent in pursuit. Mr. Read had time to efface every mark from his baggage that might identify him [as a member of the Continental Congress], and so completely did he deceive the inmates of the skiff, by representing himself as a country gentleman just returning from an excursion with his family, that his pursuers kindly assisted in landing the ladies and the children, and in getting his boat ashore.
After the war, Read served as a delegate at the Federal Convention of 1787, which drafted and passed the Constitution. He was one of only six men to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. (The others include Robert Morris, Benjamin Franklin, George Clymer, James Wilson, and Roger Sherman.) And he is the only man to sign the Constitution twice. Read’s old friend, John Dickinson, originally from Pennsylvania, was then a delegate to the Constitutional Convention from Delaware, but had to leave Philadelphia before the signing. So, in Dickinson’s place, Read forged his friend’s signature.
Read was a ardent Federalist. And through his tireless efforts, Delaware became the first state to ratify the Constitution. A claim to fame Delaware proudly wears to this day: “The First State.”