Sunday, January 10, 2016

Forgotten Hero: Caesar Rodney

When we think of the "Founding Fathers" there are several names that immediately come to mind: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Every educated Americans learns about (or, at least, is supposed to learn about) these people at school, for it was their wisdom and heroism that brought tour country into existence. Yet there were literally dozens of other men equally deserving of the title "Founding Father". These men may not grace our history textbooks, yet they all played critical and even decisive roles in the American Revolution and deserve to be remembered.

One such man was Caesar Rodney of Delaware.

Rodney was born on October 7, 1728, to a wealthy, prominent and politically active Delaware family. At an early age, he was already being elected to numerous local offices and serving as an officer in the Delaware Militia. Going against most of the members of his class and social background, Rodney aligned himself with the Patriot cause as the dispute between Britain and its American colonies gained momentum in the 1760s.

Rodney first stepped onto the national scene when he was selected as a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress in 1765. At the same time, he became a leader in Delaware's Committee of Correspondence, helping maintain contact with Patriots in other colonies in order to share information and coordinate joint political and economic measures against the British to pressure them to back down. He also served as Speaker of Delaware's state assembly. Under his leadership, almost immediately after news had arrived of the first battles with the British at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, Delaware voted to severe all ties with the British Empire.

Rodney was one of three men sent by Delaware to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. His views leaned strongly towards independence and he became a natural ally to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the other advocates for a full separation from Britain. Yet all was not well in Delaware, where Loyalist activity was an ever-present danger, as it was in every American state. As a militia leader, Rodney was often absent from Philadelphia to deal with the Tory threat back home.

The two remaining Delaware delegates were divided on the issue of independence, with Rodney's friend Thomas McKean in favor and George Read opposed. Consequently, the Delaware delegation was unable to cast a vote as debate began in June, 1776, on the question of independence. Despite the hard work of John Adams and the other pro-independence delegates, the issue remained balanced on a knife's edge, with New York, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania uncertain as to which way they would vote when the time came.

McKean sent an urgent message to Rodney that he was desperately needed in Congress to cast the tie-breaking vote in the Delaware delegation. Immediately upon receiving the message on July 1, despite being ill, Rodney mounted his horse and took off on an epic ride through the darkness to reach Philadelphia before the vote was taken. He was slowed by an immense thunderstorm, but managed to reach the city. According to legend, he strode into the meeting hall with his boots and spurs still on his feet, soaking wet, just in time to cast his vote in favor, which in turn caused the state of Delaware to become a supporter of the motion for independence.

It's possible, though far from certain, that Rodney's action helped push South Carolina and Pennsylvania into the independence camp as the voting took place. The final vote turned out to be twelve for independence, zero against, with only New York abstaining. It was as close as they could get to a unanimous vote and history has so remembered it. Had Delaware joined New York in abstaining, which is what would have happened had Rodney not made his midnight ride, the situation would have appeared much less tidy and would have given the British and their Loyalist allies more encouragement. The United States of America owes a great debt to the heroics of Caesar Rodney.

Caesar continued to contribute to the cause for the rest of the war. He became President of Delaware (equivalent to the governorship) in 1778 and continued to play a large role in the state militia, as well as serving again in the Continental Congress. He bent his energies towards suppressing Tory disaffection, while raising troops and procuring supplies for the Continental Army. Ill and exhausted, Rodney resigned within a month of the final military victory over the British at Yorktown.

Worn out by his heavy exertions in the cause of American independence, Caesar Rodney died in 1784, having lived just long enough to see enacted the peace treaty recognizing the new nation he had done so much to create. Shamefully, history has largely forgotten Caesar Rodney. Considering how much we owe the man, we need to start rectifying that.

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