‘Come quickly or freedom will fail’

 

Caesar Rodney’s gravesite is believed to be in Byfield, the site of his plantation that had been handed down for generations in his family. His maternal grandfather settled there in the 1680s. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

Caesar Rodney’s gravesite is believed to be in Byfield, the site of his plantation that had been handed down for generations in his family. His maternal grandfather settled there in the 1680s. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

DOVER — Across the country 99 years ago, Philadelphia journalist Richard J. Beamish’s byline appeared in several newspapers.

“Caesar Rodney’s Ride” was the headline on the syndicated piece.

“How the historians and the romantics have missed the true and dramatic story of Caesar Rodney’s ride is one of the mysteries which surround the Declaration of Independence,” he wrote.

No doubt, it is a dramatic tale, one always worth sharing this time of year.

Beamish narrated the tale in a lengthy poem. It begins:

TEACHERS, tell us of Rodney. Rodney of Delaware!

Some of you start and stammer. Others stand mute and stare.

Put up your sums and fables. Listen that you may hear

The gallop of Caesar Rodney with Death always riding near.

Heat; like a thick, black blanket, closely on Byfield lay.

It harried the flesh and spirit, of him who waited for day,

His fevered eyes watched the candle that blinked like a far-off star.

They looked from a face upon which all the grace was hid by a cruel scar.

Out of the heat and blackness clamors a-trooping came,

Barking of dogs and a thunder of knocks on a door’s stout frame.

Sternly a nurse hissed, “Silence!” and then came a stranger’s call:

“McKean bids you ride. I will be at your side. Come quickly or freedom will fall.”

“He’ll die on the way,” shrilled a servant, but Rodney was out of his bed. “

“Boots, horses and spurs,” he commanded; “and the veiling to cover my head.”

***

A historical marker at the gate of Christ Church notes the efforts to honor Caesar Rodney at the site. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

A historical marker at the gate of Christ Church notes the efforts to honor Caesar Rodney at the site. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

In Philadelphia, the Second Continental Congress was on the verge of a vote on a resolution on the issue of independence from British rule.

Two of the three Delaware delegates, Thomas McKean and George Read, were there but divided.

McKean was among those who believed the Colonies needed to show unanimous support.

Caesar Rodney had to be there.

McKean sent a messenger for Rodney, who had stayed behind in Delaware and apparently was caught up in his work as brigadier general of the Delaware Militia.

McKean’s messenger rapped on Rodney’s door — supposedly on the Byfield plantation east of Dover in the early morning hours of July 1 — to inform him of the impending vote. No one seems to have the definitive answer on where Rodney was or where his dash to Philadelphia began.

We do, however, know that it was a dark and stormy night.

Perhaps in a carriage or by horseback or both, through thunder, lightning and heavy rain, he rode straight to Philadelphia with stops likely in Red Lion and New Castle.

According to an account from McKean, Rodney arrived July 2 still wearing his boots and spurs after an 80-mile journey from Dover.

In the 1880s, a group known as the Rodney Club wanted to pay tribute to Caesar Rodney by dedicating a cenotaph in his honor in the Christ Church cemetery in Dover. The group apparently had the good intentions of re-interring Rodney’s remains there, but historians believe they erred. The monument, which stands 12 feet in height, is a popular historic site in Dover. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

In the 1880s, a group known as the Rodney Club wanted to pay tribute to Caesar Rodney by dedicating a cenotaph in his honor in the Christ Church cemetery in Dover. The group apparently had the good intentions of re-interring Rodney’s remains there, but historians believe they erred. The monument, which stands 12 feet in height, is a popular historic site in Dover. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

Depending on the source, the trip took anywhere from 11 to 18 hours.

Rodney’s physical condition made it all the more dramatic.

He was battling facial cancer, so bad that he wore a scarf to cover his disfigurement. He also had bouts of asthma and was said to be laboring to breathe when he cast the vote for independence on July 2.

Of the small bits of evidence of his ride, there’s a letter to his brother, Thomas, that is often cited.

“I arrived in Congress (tho detained by thunder and rain) time enough to give my voice in the matter of independence … We have now got through the whole of the declaration and ordered it to be printed so that you will soon have the pleasure of seeing it.”

The text was ratified on July 4.

***

And then he came into the city, the half-Tory town of Penn.

Down Passyunk Road he galloped, past wondering women and men.

His yell streamed, a pennon of Freedom, and his limbs hung like bags of sand;

But the horse he bestrode knew the turns of the road and needed no guiding hand.

So to the State House came Rodney, merely the shell of a man.

There McKean met and bore him as gently as only a sturdy friend can.

Steadied him In the chamber, and gloried to hear him declare:

“For the right to be free, and to end tyranny, we vote aye, for our Delaware.”

***

If you have the chance, be sure to take in Independence Hall in your future travels to Philadelphia.

Inside, as you walk across the wood floor to the railing of the Assembly Room, you can see the green-clothed Delaware desk near the front. Upon it, you’ll see a quill and stand that belonged to Rodney.

A tour guide last summer pointed it out to this editor and acknowledged items on display tie back to many of our founding fathers. She missed an opportunity to tell the visitors about the dramatic ride.

You might also want to make a few stops in Delaware to get closer to the Rodney story.

• First, there’s Byfield — the Rodney family’s plantation east of Dover where young Caesar was raised.

The farm dates back to the 1680s when it was settled by his maternal grandfather, Daniel Jones.

A state historical marker along Del. 9, by Dover Air Force Base, notes that Rodney is buried there.

The farmland is private property, so your experience is limited to a view of the landscape.

• In Wilmington, you can see a majestic statue of Rodney on horseback. The site was not along the path of his historic ride, but the city and state took what had been a reservoir and turned it into Rodney Square, a public park.

The statue, the work of James E. Kelly at a cost of $30,000 was dedicated on July 4, 1923.

The bronze bas relief on the base of the statue erroneously says Rodney arrived in Philadelphia on July 4.

• Then there’s The Green in Dover where Rodney resided once he entered public life in 1764.

There, you can imagine the scene when a crier read the Declaration of Independence to the people of Dover for the first time and an unruly crowd ripped a portrait of King George III off the courthouse wall and burned it on The Green.

It was also the site of many troop formations and rallies during the Revolution.

• South of The Green at State and Water streets is Christ Church.

There’s a state marker at the gate that says Rodney’s remains were re-interred there.

It probably should say the good intentions of a group of men led to the transfer of what they thought were Rodney’s remains in an unmarked Byfield grave to a new gravesite behind the church in 1897. This was done well before a group, known as the Rodney Club, dedicated a 12-foot granite monument there in his honor.

The mystery of where Caesar Rodney rests has never been solved. But modern experts still believe Byfield is the place.

Rodney, who served as the fourth president of Delaware from 1778 to 1781, died of cancer in June 1784.

***

In his poem, Beamish concluded:

You know the rest of the story, you teachers who teach by rote,

How prudent South Carolina announced the change of its vote;

How Pennsylvania also veered round in Freedom’s gale;

How the Thirteen broke from their necks the yoke, and a nation came through its travail.

Paint us a noble portrait; Story or Sargent or Chase.

One of the missing Signer. Show us an eager face.

Glorified through its veiling, and we will uplift it where

He ended his ride with Death by his side, brave Rodney of Delaware.

***

 

Reach editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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