He was a founding father, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an American hero—but most have probably not heard of Caesar Rodney or his dramatic 18-hour midnight horseback ride to Philadelphia to cast a critical, deciding vote in favor of separating from Great Britain.
One reason most may not know the Delaware delegate’s name could have to do with his face. Rodney suffered from a facial deformity, likely caused by a cancer, that he obscured with a green scarf or handkerchief. This could explain why there are very few portraits of Rodney—contributing to his lack of notoriety.
Despite his obscurity, Rodney played a critical role during the second Continental Congress meeting in 1776 at what is now Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Initially, Delaware’s two attending delegates were split in their votes of whether to declare independence from Great Britain, with George Read against separating, and Thomas McKean in favor. According to Jonathan S. Russ, a historian at the University of Delaware, Rodney was home tending to his own business affairs and the state militia when he received word of the tie vote.
“He then famously rode 80 miles toward Philadelphia, through a thunderstorm, entered into the convention and broke that deadlock, casting his vote in favor of Delaware declaring its independence from Great Britain with the other colonies,” Russ says.
Leigh Rifenburg, chief curator for the Delaware Historical Society, says Rodney was exhausted and ill, but his breaking of the tie was crucial, placing the colony firmly on the side of independence. “Despite the risks, all three delegates later signed the Declaration of Independence. Paul Revere’s ride is better known, but Rodney’s ride had the greater impact on the future of the colonies that would become free and independent states.”
A planter by trade, as well as a slave owner, Rodney’s vote made the Congress’s decision to declare independence unanimous. “Delaware was not a place of great political grandstanding at the time,” Russ says. “If anything, Rodney was pragmatic for a man of his day and felt that he had long been involved in Delaware governance and that the time had come for independence.”
Rodney, who served as an assemblyman, delegate and state president, was also a critical part of the supply effort for the American Revolution cause, getting supplies up and down the peninsula, according to Mike DiPaolo, executive director of the Lewes Historical Society in Lewes, Delaware. “We often forget about the logistical elements in war; he may not have led people into battle but he kept them fed,” he says.
Rodney could not be characterized as a particularly fiery patriot in the way that John Adams, Richard Henry Lee and others were, but Rifenburg notes that Rodney worked quietly and steadily on the ground for the cause of independence. “He held countless public offices, served as Brigadier General of the Delaware Militia and often paid for troop supplies from his own pocket when they were not supplied by Congress,” she says. “He kept up an active correspondence with George Washington, whose letters reflect a great deal of respect for Rodney and his work.”
John Adams, according to the nonprofit Independence Hall Association in Philadelphia, once described Rodney (who never married) 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.”
Rodney, Russo says, tried to cover the facial mass as well as possible, “but in so doing drew just as much attention to himself.” Among the most prominent representations of Rodney is a monument of the founding father on horseback that resides in Rodney Square in Wilmington, Delaware. Made more than a century after his 1784 death, the likeness was used on the 1999 Delaware state quarter.
“And, of course, everyone asked, ‘Why did Delaware put Paul Revere on its quarter?’” DiPaolo says. “There’s obviously a big disconnect—when there’s no representations of you and you come from a small state, despite the magnitude of what you did, sometimes it’s easy for your story to be lost amongst the larger players.”