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signer

George Read (signer)

George Read (September 18 1733 September 21 1798) was an American lawyer and politician from New Castle, in New Castle County, Delaware. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a Continental Congressman from Delaware, a delegate to the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, President of Delaware, and a member of the Federalist Party, who served as U.S. Senator from Delaware and Chief Justice of Delaware.

Early life and family

Read was born September 18 1733 in Cecil County, Maryland, near North East, the son of John and Mary Howell Read. John Read was a wealthy English resident of Dublin, Ireland who came to Maryland as a young man and was one of the founders of Charlestown, Maryland in Cecil County. When George Read was an infant the family moved to New Castle County, Delaware, settling near the village of Christiana. As he grew up, Read joined Thomas McKean at the Rev. Francis Alison's Academy at New London, Pennsylvania and then studied law in Philadelphia with John Moland. He was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar in 1753 and a year later he returned home to establish a practice at New Castle, Delaware.

In 1763 Read married Gertrude Ross Till, daughter of the Rev. George Ross, the Anglican rector of Immanuel Church in New Castle, and widowed sister of George Ross, also a future signer of the Declaration of Independence. They had five children, John, George Jr., William, John, and Mary, who married Gunning Bedford, Sr., a future Governor of Delaware. They lived on The Strand in New Castle. Their house was in what is now the garden of the present Read House and Gardens, owned by the Delaware Historical Society. They were members of Immanuel Episcopal Church.

In 1763 John Penn, the Proprietary Governor, appointed Read Crown Attorney General for the three Delaware counties and he served in that position until leaving for the Continental Congress in 1774. He also served in the Colonial Assembly of the Lower Counties for twelve sessions, from 1764/65 through 1775/76.

American Revolution

Eighteenth century Delaware was politically divided into loose factions known as the "Court Party" and the "Country Party." The majority Court Party was generally Anglican, strongest in Kent County and Sussex County, worked well with the colonial Proprietary government, and was in favor of reconciliation with the British government. The minority Country Party was largely Ulster-Scot, centered in New Castle County, and quickly advocated independence from the British. Read was the epitome of the Court party politician; from 1763 to 1774, he served as the colonial Attorney General. As such, he generally worked in opposition to Caesar Rodney and his friend and neighbor, Thomas McKean.

Read, therefore, like most people in Delaware, was very much in favor of trying to reconcile differences with Great Britain. He opposed the Stamp Act and similar measures of Parliament, and supported anti-importation measures and dignified protests, but was quite reluctant to pursue the option of outright independence. Nevertheless, from 1764 he led the Delaware Committee of Correspondence and was elected to serve along with the more radical Thomas McKean and Caesar Rodney in the First and Second Continental Congress from 1774 through 1777. He was frequently absent though, and when the Congress voted on American Independence on July 2 1776, Read surprised many by voting against it. This meant Caesar Rodney had to ride overnight to Philadelphia to break the deadlock in Delaware's delegation in favor of independence. However, when the Declaration of Independence was finally adopted, Read signed it, joining the cause in spite of his natural caution.

Government of Delaware

Anticipating the Declaration of Independence, the General Assembly of the Lower Counties declared its separation from the British government on June 15 1776. Once the Declaration of Independence was actually adopted, the General Assembly called for elections to a Delaware constitutional convention to draft a constitution for the new state. Read was elected to this convention, became its President, and guided the passage of the Thomas McKean-drafted document, which became the Delaware Constitution of 1776.

Read was then elected to the first Legislative Council of the Delaware General Assembly and was selected as the Speaker in both the 1776-77 and 1777-78 sessions. At the time of the capture of President John McKinly, Read was in Philadelphia attending Congress, and after narrowly escaping capture himself while returning home, he became President on October 20 1777, serving until March 31 1778. During these months the British occupied Philadelphia and were in control of the Delaware River. Read tried, mostly in vain, to recruit additional soldiers and protect the state from raiders from Philadelphia and off ships in the Delaware River. The Delaware General Assembly session of 1777-78 had to be moved to Dover, Delaware for safety and the Sussex County General Assembly delegation was never seated because disruptions at the polls had negated the election results.

After Caesar Rodney was elected to replace him as President, Read continued to serve in the Legislative Council through the 1778-79 session. After a one-year rest nursing ill health, he was elected to the House of Assembly for the 1780-81 and 1781-82 sessions. He returned to the Legislative Council in the 1782-83 session and served two terms, through the 1787-88 session. In 1782 he was appointed Judge of the Court of Appeals in admiralty cases.


Delaware General Assembly
(sessions while President)
Year Assembly Senate Majority Speaker House Majority Speaker
1777/78 2nd non-partisan George Read non-partisan Samuel West

U.S. Constitutional Convention

Read was again called to national service in 1786 when he represented Delaware at the Annapolis Convention. Because so few states were represented, this meeting produced only a report calling for a broader convention to be held in Philadelphia the next year.

At what became the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Read again represented Delaware. Quoting from Wright & Morris in their Soldier-Statesmen of the Constitution,

"Read immediately argued for a new national government under a new Constitution, saying 'to amend the Articles was simply putting old cloth on a new garment.' He was a leader in the fight for a strong central government, advocating, at one time, the abolition of the states altogether and the consolidation of the country under one powerful national government. 'Let no one fear the states, the people are with us;' he declared to a Convention shocked by this radical proposal. With no one to support his motion, he settled for protecting the rights of the small states against the infringements of their larger, more populous neighbors who, he feared, would 'probably combine to swallow up the smaller ones by addition, division or impoverishment.' He warned that Delaware 'would become at once a cipher in the union' if the principle of equal representation embodied in the New Jersey (small-state) Plan was not adopted and if the method of amendment in the Articles was not retained. He favored giving Congress the right to vote state laws, making the federal legislature immune to popular whims by having senators hold office for nine years or during good behavior, and granting the U.S. President broad appointive powers. Outspoken, he threatened to lead the Delaware delegation out of the Convention if the rights of the small states were not specifically guaranteed in the new Constitution."
Once those rights were assured, he led the ratification movement in Delaware which, partly as a result of his efforts, became the first state to ratify.

United States Senator

Following the adoption of the Federal Constitution of 1787, the Delaware General Assembly elected Read as one of its two U.S. Senators. His term began March 4 1789, he was reelected in 1791, and resigned September 18 1793. Read served with the pro-administration majority in the 1st and 2nd Congress, during the administration of U.S. President George Washington. As Senator he supported the assumption of state debts, establishment of a national bank, and the imposition of excise taxes. He resigned as Senator to accept an appointment as Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court and served in that capacity until his death.

Read's resignation from the U.S. Senate was before the first session of the 3rd Congress assembled, but it was not until February 7 1795, 4 weeks before it adjourned, that Henry Latimer was elected to replace him. One of Delaware's U.S. Senate seats was, therefore, vacant from September 18 1793 until February 7 1795.

Death and legacy

Read died September 21 1798 at New Castle, Delaware and was buried there, at the Immanuel Episcopal Church Cemetery.

William T. Reid in his Life and Correspondence described Read as "tall, slightly and gracefully formed, with pleasing features and lustrous brown eyes. His manners were dignified, bordering upon austerity, but courteous, and at times captivating. He commanded entire confidence, not only from his profound legal knowledge, sound judgment, and impartial decisions, but from his severe integrity and the purity of his private character." However, a fellow delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 noted that "his legal abilities are said to be very great, but his powers of oratory are fatiguing and tiresome to the last degree; his voice is feeble and his articulation so bad that few can have patience to attend him." Historians like John Munroe have generally recognized that all in all, Read was the dominating figure in Delaware politics during his career, directly or indirectly providing consistent and reliable leadership to the new state.

On The Strand in New Castle, Delaware is the house built by his son, George Read, II. It is owned by the Delaware Historical Society, restored and opened to the public. There is a school named for him in New Castle and a dorm at the University of Delaware.

Almanac

Elections were held October 1st. Members of the General Assembly took office on October 20th, or the following weekday. State Assemblymen had a one year term. The Legislative Council was created in 1776 and Legislative Councilmen had a three year term. The General Assembly chose the Continental Congressmen for a one year term and the State President for a three year term. They also chose the U.S. Senators, who took office March 4, and had a six year term. However, Read's first term was only two years to establish a rotation.

Public Offices
Office Type Location Elected Took Office Left Office notes
Attorney General Judiciary New Castle October 20 1763 October 20 1774
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle 1764 October 20 1764 October 21 1765
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle 1765 October 21 1765 October 20 1766
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle 1766 October 20 1766 October 20 1767
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle 1767 October 20 1767 October 20 1768
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle 1768 October 20 1768 October 20 1769
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle 1769 October 20 1769 October 20 1770
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle 1770 October 20 1770 October 21 1771
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle 1771 October 21 1771 October 20 1772
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle 1772 October 20 1772 October 20 1773
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle 1773 October 20 1773 October 20 1774
Continental Congressman Legislature Philadelphia August 2 1774 September 5 1774 October 26 1774
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle 1774 October 20 1774 October 20 1775
Continental Congressman Legislature Philadelphia March 16 1775 May 10 1775 October 21 1775
Assemblyman Legislature New Castle 1775 October 20 1775 June 15 1776
Continental Congressman Legislature Philadelphia October 21 1775 October 21 1775 November 7 1776
Delegate Convention New Castle August 27 1776 September 21 1776 State Constitution
Councilman Legislature Dover 1776 October 28 1776 October 20 1779 Speaker
Continental Congressman Legislature Philadelphia November 7 1776 November 7 1776 December 17 1777
State President Executive Dover October 20 1777 March 31 1778 acting
Assemblyman Legislature Dover 1780 October 20 1780 October 20 1781
Assemblyman Legislature Dover 1781 October 20 1781 October 20 1782
Councilman Legislature Dover 1782 October 20 1782 October 20 1785
Councilman Legislature Dover 1785 October 20 1785 October 20 1788
Delegate Convention Philadelphia May 14 1787 September 17 1787 U.S. Constitution
U.S. Senator Legislature New York March 4 1789 March 3 1791
U.S. Senator Legislature Philadelphia March 4 1791 September 18 1793 resigned
Chief Justice Judiciary Dover September 30 1793 September 21 1798 State Supreme Court


Delaware General Assembly service
Dates Assembly Chamber Majority Governor Committees District
1776/77 1st State Council non-partisan John McKinly Speaker New Castle at-large
1777/78 2nd State Council non-partisan Caesar Rodney Speaker New Castle at-large
1778/79 3rd State Council non-partisan Caesar Rodney New Castle at-large
1780/81 5th State House non-partisan Caesar Rodney New Castle at-large
1781/82 6th State House non-partisan John Dickinson New Castle at-large
1782/83 7th State Council non-partisan Nicholas Van Dyke New Castle at-large
1783/84 8th State Council non-partisan Nicholas Van Dyke New Castle at-large
1784/85 9th State Council non-partisan Nicholas Van Dyke New Castle at-large
1785/86 10th State Council non-partisan Nicholas Van Dyke New Castle at-large
1786/87 11th State Council non-partisan Thomas Collins New Castle at-large
1787/88 12th State Council non-partisan Thomas Collins New Castle at-large


United States Congressional service
Dates Congress Chamber Majority President Committees Class/District
1789-1791 1st U.S. Senate Pro-Administration George Washington class 1
1791-1793 2nd U.S. Senate Pro-Administration George Washington class 1
1793-1795 3rd U.S. Senate Pro-Administration George Washington class 1

Notes

References

  • Conrad, Henry C. (1908). History of the State of Delaware, 3 vols.. Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Wickersham Company.
  • Hoffecker, Carol E. (2004). Democracy in Delaware. Wilmington, Delaware: Cedar Tree Books. ISBN 1-892142-23-6.
  • Martin, Roger A. (1984). History of Delaware Through its Governors. Wilmington, Delaware: McClafferty Press.
  • Martin, Roger A. (1995). Memoirs of the Senate. Newark, Delaware: Roger A. Martin.
  • Munroe, John A. (1954). Federalist Delaware 1775-1815. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University.
  • Munroe, John A. (2004). Philadelawareans. Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press. ISBN 0-87413-872-8.
  • Racino, John W. (1980). Biographical Directory of American and Revolutionary Governors 1607-1789. Westport, CT: Meckler Books. ISBN 0-930466-00-4.
  • Scharf, John Thomas (1888). History of Delaware 1609-1888. 2 vols. Philadelphia: L. J. Richards & Co. ISBN 0-87413-493-5.

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