Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Riding Out the Storm

On July 1, 1776, the Second Continental Congress was one vote short of a unanimous decision to declare their independence. The state needed to assure the support was tiny, coastal Delaware to the south; if it would support the motion to split from Great Britain, then the Congress would be able to formally adopt the Declaration of Independence and assert itself as an independent nation. Backing independence was a risky proposition, tantamount to treason in the eyes of the British, so it was not easily undertaken.

Delaware at the time had three delegates, two of which needed to appear in person in Philadelphia to vote for independence; otherwise, the state would be considered deadlocked and the unanimity would fail. On July 1st, one of Delaware's delegates, Thomas McKean, was voting in favor, but the other, George Read, was voting against. The only way to avoid a deadlock was if Delaware's third delegate, Caesar Rodney, would break the tie, and the final vote was scheduled for the next day, July 2nd.

Caesar Rodney was an odd looking fellow; John Adams described him as "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." He had developed cancer of the face, which began as a blemish on his nose but spread to cover his whole left hemisphere; in order to hide these scars, he wore a green silk kerchief over his nose and mouth whenever he appeared in public. As Rodney was also a Brigadier General in the Continental Army, it was he who had ridden down to Lewes, in southern Delaware, to quell a pro-British uprising a few days earlier, and so he was not in Philadelphia to cast his crucial vote.

His fellow delegate Thomas McKean, who was present on July 1st, realized the implications of a deadlock vote and sent a fleet-footed rider with a message imploring Rodney to return to Philadelphia at once. Rodney immediately mounted a horse and rode 80 miles to Philadelphia in the middle of the night and through a raging thunderstorm. Rodney, suffering not only from the facial cancer but also from persistent asthma, continued to ride over muddy roads, slick paving stones, and over rickety bridges spanning rain-swollen creeks. July 2nd was reportedly a very hot day, so when the sun rose and the clouds cleared, he was then continuing his ride through scorching mid-Atlantic heat.

Caesar Rodney arrived at Independence Hall in time for the vote just as the debates were finishing, with barely minutes to spare before the vote. He must have been a sight to see among the assembled scholars all dressed in their finery; his tall, thin, pale form was still wearing his riding habit and heavy boots, he was covered in dust and worn from the ride, his face was, as always, covered by the green veil. He strode in to the chamber, still wearing his jingling spurs, and cast his vote in favor of independence. The motion passed; Congress debated specific wording for two days, and, on July 4th, 1776, formally adopted the US Declaration of Independence.

Rodney himself downplayed the ride in a letter to his brother Thomas, saying only that he was "detained by thunder and rain" but arrived in time to vote. He would later serve as the President (that is, Governor) of Delaware from 1778 until 1781, at which time he was forced to resign due to his failing health. He died not long after, a victim of the cancer which had plagued him for so many years. No contemporary pictures of him exist, and he is one of the few members of the Continental Congress who do not appear in John Turnbull's famous image of the presentation of the Declaration of Independence (above). He is, however, memorialized by a dramatic statue in Rodney Square in Wilmington, Delaware, and his image on the back of the state quarter; both depict him during his famous overland horse ride which secured the independence not only of his home state, but of the whole country.

Links and Sources:
"Delaware's Hero for All Times", by Russ Pickett, on the Delaware State website.
Biographical and Geneological History of the State of Delaware, Vol. I, by J.M. Runk and Co., Chambersburg, Pa., 1899.
Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, Volume 1, Carnegie Institute of Washington, 1921.
Image of Caesar Rodney's statue courtesy of Mitra Images.
Image of Delaware state quarter courtesy of the US Mint.
The Painting Declaration of Independence, by John Turnbull, hangs in the US Capitol Rotunda, and is on the back of the $2 bill.

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