Caesar Rodney was born on his father’s farm in St. Jones Neck in Dover Hundred, Kent County, Delaware, on October 7, 1728. His family were prominent members of the community. Caesar was the eldest of son of eight children of Caesar and Elizabeth Crawford Rodney and grandson of William Rodney. William Rodney emigrated to the American colonies in 1681–82, along with William Penn. Speaker of the Colonial Assembly of the Delaware Counties in 1704. Rodney’s mother was the daughter of the Rev. Thomas Crawford, Anglican rector of Christ Church at Dover. Among the Rodney family ancestors were the prominent Adelmare family in Treviso, Italy, as attested by genealogy studies.
The family farm, Byfield, was an 800 acre farm with many slaves. With the addition of other adjacent properties, the Rodneys were, by the standards of the day, wealthy members of the local gentry. The plantation grew to 1,000 acres, and was worked by 200 slaves; it earned sufficient income from the sale of wheat and barley to the Philadelphia and West Indies market to provide enough cash and leisure to allow members of the family to participate in the social and political life of Kent County.
He was tutored by his parents and may have attended a local Parson’s school, but received no formal education. Caesar lived here until his father’s untimely death when he was sixteen years of age. After his father’s death he was orphaned and was placed under the guardianship of Nicholas Ridgely, who was a clerk of the peace in Kent County, and this seems to be the root of Rodney’s interest in politics. The sixteen year old Rodney was known for his wit and excellent political skills.
He rose to prominence in Delaware and served in the militia during the French and Indian War. After the war he served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. In 1755, under the royal government, Rodney was commissioned High Sheriff of Kent County, Delaware. This was quite a distinction for a man twenty-two years of age, and he apparently honored the distinction, for in succeeding years his official capacities grew to include registrar of wills, recorder of deeds, clerk of the orphan’s court, and justice of the peace. At age thirty he attained his first elected office as a representative in the colonial legislature at Newcastle. He served in that position, reelected each year except 1771, until the legislature was dissolved in 1776 and then resumed the seat as a representative to the Upper House of the State of Delaware until 1784.
Rodney was a leading patriot in his colony, a member of the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, a formative member of the Delaware Committee of Correspondence, a military leader in the colonial militia, and a delegate to the Continental Congress from formation until 1777. The following year he was elected President of the State of Delaware for a three year term, a duty that he assumed even as he served as Major-General of the Delaware Militia. In this office he played a crucial part not only in the defense of his own colony but in support of Washington’s Continental Army, for Delaware had a record of meeting or exceeding its quotas for troops and provisions throughout the revolutionary conflict. Rodney’s health and strength flagged for a time. He suffered from asthma and from a cancerous growth on his face, for which he never attained proper treatment. He saw his colony through the war at the cost of personal neglect.
Throughout the American Revolutionary War, Caesar Rodney served as Brigadier General of Delaware’s militia. He was one of the few delegates to the Continental Congress that had earlier military experience. During the Revolution, Rodney was promoted to Major-General of the Delaware militia by George Washington. Here he served until the Battle of Brandywine which resulted in the State President of Delaware, John McKinly, being captured by the British and George Read relieving himself of duties to poor health and exhaustion. These events placed Caesar Rodney and Thomas McKean back into the Continental Congress. Rodney replaced McKinly as President of Delaware and reignited Delaware’s passion for the revolution. His natural charisma allowed him to influence much of Delaware’s politics and his relentless devotion to the cause changed Delaware’s political landscape. Rodney began enforcing his authority and confiscating loyalist property and began scouring Delaware for supplies to help the Continental Army. The men of Delaware went on to fight bravely and distinguish themselves in the Battle of Monmouth, but was nearly destroyed when Gates fled the field at the Battle of Camden. By the end of 1781 Rodney had stabilized Delaware. The coast still had to deal with loyalist privateers, but incidents were lower than it had been before. His health began to take a serious decline and he was forced into resignation shortly after the siege of Yorktown.
Like Paul Revere, Caesar Rodney is famous for a midnight ride. Rodney’s ride ended up at the doorstep of Independence Hall where he cast the decisive Delaware vote for Independence. On June 30, a motion for Independence had been put forward with nine colonies voting for independence, two voting against, New York abstaining while the Delaware delegates had split their vote. Delaware delegate Thomas McKean was in favor of independence, while George Read voted against. Rodney, also a delegate form Delaware was absent during this vote. While there was technically enough support to carry the motion, the Continental Congress didn’t want to go forward and declare independence without unanimous support.
Rodney had been away from Congress because his role as a Brigadier General in the Delaware militia, forced him back to Delaware to squelch a Loyalist riot. McKean got word to Rodney that his vote for independence was desperately needed in Congress. All night, as the first of July, 1776, turned into the second, Rodney rode through a thunderstorm. He covered 80 miles and arrived at Independence Hall’s doorstep in time to cast his decisive vote. Years later Thomas McKean remembered meeting Rodney at the door “in his boots and spurs.”
Rodney’s vote decided the matter. Delaware was going to war.
Once the voting for independence concluded and debate resumed, Rodney is remembered for puncturing the self-importance of the Virginia delegates who believed they were the mighty rock on which independence rested.”Let [Virginia] be of good cheer,” he said, “she has a friend in need; Delaware will take her under its protection and insure her safety.”
John Adams described Rodney as “…the oddest looking man in the world; 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 this countenance.” It was not an appearance to quicken the heart of a woman, however, and it is said that Rodney remained a bachelor because Molly Vining, the woman he loved, married a rector — and soon after died.
In 1782 he was again elected to the national Congress, but was forced to decline the office due to failing health. He nonetheless continued to serve as Speaker to the Upper House of the Delaware Assembly. He died in that office, in June of 1784.