Born on September 18, 1733, on a family estate at North East, Cecil County,Maryland, George Read was the eldest son of Colonel John Read of Maryland and Delaware. His father, the Colonel, was born in Dublin, Ireland, on January 15, 1688, and was descended from Sir Thomas Read who was one of the knights who accompanied King Henry VI when the king held his Parliament at Reading in 1439. Read’s mother was the daughter of a Welsh planter.
He attended a school in Chester, Pennsylvania, then the Philadelphia Academy under Doctor Francis Allison at New London. At fifteen he graduated and proceeded to study law at the office of John Moland in Philadelphia. He was admitted to the Philadelphia Bar in 1753 at the age of nineteen. He moved to New Castle, Delaware, in 1754. He enlisted a clientele that extended into Maryland. During this period he resided in New Castle, but maintained Stonum, a country retreat near the city. He established quite a reputation in New Castle and was appointed Attorney General to three Delaware counties, an office which he resigned in 1774 when he was elected to the First Continental Congress. In 1764, the period leading up to the Stamp Act protests, Read joined the Delaware Committee of Correspondence and was active in the patriot movement. A moderate Whig, he supported nonimportation measures and dignified protests. At the Continental Congress he found Lee’s Resolution for Independence to be too hasty and voted against it, the only signer of the Declaration to do so, apparently either bowing to the strong Tory sentiment in Delaware, or believing reconciliation with Britain was still possible.. When it was adopted, however, he joined the majority in working toward independence.
Read could be called a “moralist.” But when the chips were down, Read took up the cause. He even helped raise funds to aid those in Boston who lost business because of the Boston Tea Party.
In reality, Read was not the only delegate who voted against the resolution for independence on 2 July 1776, but as he was the only delegate from Delaware to do so, his “voice” took on special importance. Read had become friends with John Dickinson from Pennsylvania. Dickinson was outspoken advocate for caution. Dickinson thought independence was a premature step. Of the three Delaware representatives, Caesar Rodney did not arrive in Philadelphia in time to vote on 2 July, which left Read, who asked for the delegates to “wait,” set against pro-independence delegate Thomas McKean. Without Rodney’s vote, Delaware’s part in the independence movement would be thrown out as a draw. Therefore, McKean sent a courier to Rodney, who reportedly rode all night to reach Philadelphia in time. It was an 80-mile journey from Dover, Delaware, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Rodney arrived in time to keep Read’s “nay” vote from hurting the independence movement.
Others who opposed independence abstained from voting. Some voted against the move for independence and later refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. It was only Read who voted against the measure, but still signed the document. It was never that Read supported the British, he just worried for a fledgling country with no army. Even so, after the vote, Read raised money for troops and supplies. He also became part of the militia.
On January 11, 1763, Read married Gertrude Ross Till, daughter of the Rev. George Ross rector of the Emmanuel Church of New Castle. Gertrude was a widow. The marriage was a powerful union, as the Ross family was prominent and esteemed in the community. In fact, her brother George Ross was an eminent judge and was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Gertrude bore Read fours sons and a daughter.
In 1776, Read was called upon to join the Constitutional Convention in Delaware, where he served as president of the committee that drafted the document. In 1777 the British captured Delaware governor John McKinly, and Read (then vice governor of the state) took over as governor in the emergency. He lead the state through the crisis of the war, raising money, troops, and supplies for the defense of his state.
in 1784, Read had served on a commission that adjusted New York-Massachusetts land claims. In 1786 he attended the Annapolis Convention. The next year, he participated in the Constitutional Convention, where he missed few if any sessions and championed the rights of the small states. Otherwise, he adopted a Hamiltonian stance, favoring a strong executive. He later led the ratification movement in Delaware, the first state to ratify.
In 1779 he suffered a bout of poor health and had to retire from official duties. He recovered, however, and was appointed Judge in Court of Appeals in admiralty cases three years later. Read went on to be twice elected State Senator under the new constitution, and later still was appointed Chief Justice of the State of Delaware. He held the office until his death at New Castle 5 years later, just 3 days after he celebrated his 65th birthday. His grave is there in the Immanuel Episcopal Churchyard.