Riding Out the Storm

The statue of Caesar Rodney in Wilmington

The statue of Caesar Rodney in Wilmington

On July 1, 1776, the Second Continental Congress fell one vote short of a unanimous decision to declare their independence. The motion to split from Great Britain was contingent on winning the vote of the tiny, coastal state Delaware to the south; if it voted in the affirmative, then the Congress would be able to formally adopt the Declaration of Independence and assert itself as an independent nation. Independence was tantamount to treason in the eyes of the British, so any delegate backing the motion placed himself at considerable risk.

In order for Delaware to approve the measure, two of its three delegates needed to appear in person in Philadelphia to vote for independence; otherwise, the state would be considered deadlocked and the unanimity would fail. The Delaware delegation split, with Thomas McKean voting for independence, and George Read voting against. Delaware's third delegate, Caesar Rodney, held the deciding opinion in the vote scheduled for July 2, 1776.

Delaware quarter.jpg

Rodney's capacity as Brigadier General in the Continental Army had called him to Lewes, in southern Delaware, in order to quell a pro-British uprising in late June, and by July 1st, he remained distant from Independence Hall in Philadelphia.  McKean realized the implications of the deadlocked vote and dispatched a rider on a fleet-footed horse to carry a message imploring Rodney to return to Philadelphia at once.  

Rodney suffered from poor health despite being only 47 years of age.  John Adams described Rodney 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." A particularly visible form of cancer, which had begun as a blemish on his nose, covered the entire left hemisphere of his head; in order to hide these scars, he wore a green silk kerchief over his nose and mouth whenever he appeared in public.  In addition, he possessed a persistent and serious case of asthma.  Despite his infirmities, upon receiving the message, Rodney immediately mounted a horse and headed out into a raging thunderstorm toward Philadelphia.


The journey measured about 80 miles, and Rodney persisted through the night of July 1.  The downpour punished the frail rider as it descended in torrents, but he continued to ride over muddy roads, slick paving stones, and over rickety bridges spanning rain-swollen creeks. As morning broke and the clouds cleared, the temperature skyrocketed, so he completed the second half of his journey 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 hunched, wraithlike form still wore his riding habit and heavy boots.  Dust from the ride covered his worn form, and his face remained concealed behind the omnipresent green veil. Rodney strode in to the chamber, boots clomping and spurs jingling, 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 later 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 served 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 portraits 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. 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.
Photograph "Church Street in a Downpour" by Hugh Chevallier at www.geograph.co.uk.
John Turnbulls' painting of the Declaration of Independence hangs in the US Capitol Rotunda, and is on the back of the $2 bill.

"Riding Out the Storm" © 2015 by James Husband