This Day in History: Caesar Rodney & his midnight ride

On this day in 1784, a signer of the Declaration of Independence passes away. Caesar Rodney is perhaps best known for his ride to Philadelphia on the night of July 1-2, 1776.

Surely his feat was at least as important as Paul Revere’s! Rodney rode 80 miles through a storm, arriving in Philadelphia just in time to ensure that Delaware voted for independence.

Delaware then had three delegates in the Continental Congress. As the Congress debated whether to break with Great Britain, two of the state’s delegates were in Philadelphia: George Read and Thomas McKean. The third delegate, Rodney, was then in Delaware because he had public duties there. But as the critical vote on independence approached, McKean realized that Read would not be supporting it.

If McKean voted “yes” and Read voted “no,” then Delaware’s vote would be divided. Delaware could not support the move toward independence without Rodney’s vote.

Apparently, McKean dashed off an urgent message, urging Rodney to return as quickly as he could. Rodney wasted no time! He immediately departed on the long trip to Philadelphia. Possibly, part of the ride was made in a carriage, but the rest was accomplished on horseback—and in the midst of a storm! Rodney accomplished this feat despite his ill health. He had been struggling with facial cancer and asthma for many years.

Rodney arrived just in time. I met [Rodney] at the State-house door,” McKean later wrote, “in his boots and spurs, as the members were assembling . . . .” Rodney himself wrote his brother: “I arrived in Congress (tho detained by thunder and Rain—) time Enough to give my Voice in the Matter of Independence . . . .”

He rode 80 miles through a storm to cast a vote that would label him a traitor in the eyes of King George! He must have felt *very* strongly about the move toward independence.

Later that year, Rodney helped George Washington’s army in a military capacity, too. The details of his service during these months are scarce, but we do know what George Washington said to him as he departed. Washington wrote a letter of thanks, noting the “readiness with which You took the Field at the period most critical to our Affairs—the Industry you used in bringing out the Militia of the Delaware State—and the Alertness observed by You.” It “reflect[s] the highest Honour on your Character.” Washington concluded.

Rodney served in a variety of public capacities before, during and after the Revolution. He was a member of the Delaware Assembly, an officer in the Delaware militia, a judge, and President of the State of Delaware. He worked hard! And yet, for most of these years, he was struggling with his cancer and asthma.

By the end of the war, Rodney was pretty ill. He had been neglecting his health during the Revolution. He died on June 26, 1784, shortly after the war concluded.

Primary Sources