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Biographical Sketches

George Read
George Read

Conservative lawyer George Read was the only signer who voted against independence in the final congressional vote on July 2, 1776. In addition to attaining many prominent State offices, he attended the Constitutional Convention, where he defended the rights of the smaller States, and subsequently served as a Senator in the First Congress.

Read's mother was the daughter of a Welsh planter, and his Dublin-born father a landholder of means. Soon after George's birth in 1733 near North East in Cecil County, Md., his family moved to New Castle, Del., where the youth grew up. He attended school at Chester, Pa., and Rev. Francis Alison's academy at New London, Pa., and about the age of 15 began reading law with a Philadelphia lawyer. In 1753 he was admitted to the bar and began to practice. The next year, he journeyed back to New Castle, hung out his shingle, and before long enlisted a clientele that extended into Maryland. In 1763 he wed the widowed sister of future fellow signer George Ross, and she bore him four sons and a daughter.

While crown attorney general (1763-74) for the Three Lower Counties (present Delaware), Read protested against the Stamp Act. In 1765 he began a career in the colonial legislature that extended for more than a decade. A moderate Whig, he supported nonimportation measures and dignified protests. His attendance in Congress (1774-77) was irregular. Like his friend John Dickinson, he was willing to protect colonial rights but was wary of extremism. He balloted against independence on July 2, 1776, apparently either bowing to the strong Tory sentiment in Delaware or believing reconciliation with Britain was still possible.

That same year, Read gave priority to State responsibilities. He presided over the Delaware constitutional convention, in which he chaired the drafting committee, and began a term as speaker of the legislative council, which in effect made him vice president of the State. When the British captured Wilmington the next fall, they captured the president, a resident of the city. At first, because Read was away in Congress, Thomas McKean, speaker of the lower house, took over as acting president. But in November, after almost being captured himself while he and his family were en route to Dover from Philadelphia, newly captured by the British, Read assumed the office and held it until the spring of 1778.

During 1779, in poor health, Read resigned from the legislative council, refused reelection to Congress, and began a period of inactivity. In the years 1782-88, he again sat on the council, and concurrently held the position of judge of the court of appeals in admiralty cases. Meantime, in 1784, he 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. He later led the ratification movement in Delaware, the first State to ratify.

In the U.S. Senate (1789-93), Read's attendance was again spasmodic, but when present he allied with the Federalists. He resigned to accept the post of chief justice of Delaware. He held this office until his death at New Castle 5 years later, just 3 days after he celebrated his 65th birthday. His grave is located there in the Immanuel Episcopal Churchyard.

Drawing: Oil, 1860, by Thomas Sully, after Robert E. Pine, Independence National Historical Park.

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Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004