The Epic Ride That Kick-Started the American Revolution
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because just showing up is half the battle, and sometimes the more challenging half.
By Sean Braswell
As a lesson in history, the bronze statue dominating Rodney Square in downtown Wilmington, Delaware, is a monumental screw-up. The robust, square-jawed patriot astride the horse is colonial statesman Caesar Rodney, who, as the text at the base of the statue reads, rode from “Dover to Philadelphia to cast Delaware’s vote for the Declaration of Independence — July 3 and 4, 1776.” Never mind that Rodney was, as one biographer put it, “a frail 46-year-old, with a body wasted by chronic asthma and a face scarred by cancer,” or that his ride occurred on July 2, or that he most likely rode in a carriage.
In many ways, however, the truth behind Rodney’s famous ride is even more impressive than the flawed monument to it. Rodney not only deserves his Wilmington perch, but, more than that, the story of his 80-mile journey — to cast the tiebreaking vote in favor of independence — deserves a place in the American canon alongside the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere’s celebrated ride.
Rodney embarked upon an 80-mile journey in heavy rain.
It is easy to forget that even in colonial times, America was a nation divided, including on the critical issue of whether it should in fact become a nation. When Delaware’s state assembly, headed by Rodney as speaker, voted to support Virginian Richard Henry Lee’s resolution to the Second Continental Congress for American independence from Great Britain in June 1776, rebellions by Tory loyalists broke out across the state, and Rodney, who was also a brigadier general in the state’s militia, was dispatched to quell the discontent. After nearly a century of British control and economic partnership, not to mention British warships patrolling off the state’s eastern coast, Kim Burdick, author of the new book Revolutionary Delaware: Independence in the First State, tells OZY few Delawareans were interested in disrupting that relationship or provoking an attack.
Descended from a respected Anglican family that had lived in the state for three generations, Rodney was no firebrand and had held virtually every significant office in the state, from sheriff to legislator to judge. He was amiable and well-liked but had never married, perhaps because of his odd appearance and ill health; plagued by severe asthma throughout his life and, as an adult, by a facial cancer, he was frequently short of breath and wore a silk scarf to hide his disfigured face. “Caesar Rodney is the oddest looking man in the world,” former U.S. President John Adams once wrote. “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.”
As Rodney dealt with Tory militias in Delaware that June, a 33-year-old Virginian named Thomas Jefferson was holed up on the second floor of a rented house in Philadelphia, slaving for two weeks in the summer heat on a declaration for the congress to consider. When the delegates reconvened in Independence Hall on July 1, Rodney was not among them, believing his vote was unnecessary since his fellow Delaware delegates, Thomas McKean and George Read, would follow the state assembly’s endorsement of independence. In the first vote, however, nine colonies voted in favor, two (Pennsylvania and South Carolina) against, with New York abstaining and Delaware deadlocked 1–1 after Read decided not to support the resolution. Believing that unanimity among the states should be a prerequisite for such a big decision, the congress decided to schedule a second and final vote for the next day.
When the session disbanded, McKean, furious with Read, immediately dispatched a courier to fetch Rodney, who was in Dover, Delaware. When the message reached Rodney around midnight, he embarked upon an 80-mile journey — today, it would take 90 minutes by car — which would take over 14 hours in heavy rain, crossing no less than 15 waterways by bridge, ferry or ford. Equestrian statues aside, a gentleman of Rodney’s stature would almost certainly have traveled by carriage, particularly in a harsh storm, and indeed his brother Thomas later wrote in a letter that Caesar had “called for his carriage” to journey to Philadelphia right away.
By horse or carriage, Rodney’s overnight passage was a bold and gutsy act for someone in his condition. And as McKean, who met his fellow Delawarean outside Independence Hall on the afternoon of July 2, would later recall, Rodney arrived exhausted and sick “at the state house door in his boots and spurs, as the members were assembling.” Delaware was the 13th and last colony to vote that day, Rodney’s deciding vote breaking the tie and preserving a unanimous march toward independence (Pennsylvania and South Carolina changing their votes and New York ultimately coming off the sidelines), ending in the signing of Jefferson’s declaration. Thirty years later, McKean would describe how Caesar Rodney, who became president of Delaware before dying at the age of 56 in 1784, stood that day in Independence Hall and cast his vote, declaring:
As I believe the voice of my constituents and all sensible and honest men is in favor of independence and my own judgment concurs with them, I vote for independence.
You can see the square-jawed Rodney, in his boots and spurs with his riding whip, on a plaque (with another incorrect date) at the rear of the Rodney Square monument. It may not be a historically accurate depiction, but somehow one feels that Caesar Rodney’s epic ride deserves nothing less.