George Read — A Founding Father from Delaware

September 18, 1733–September 21, 1798

George Read was a lawyer and statesman from Delaware who is most famous for signing the Declaration of Independence, despite voting against the Lee Resolution. Read also served as the Governor of Delaware and Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court.

George Read, Founding Father, Delaware, Portrait

George Read. Image Source: Life and Correspondence of George Read by William Read, 1870, Archive.org.

George Read Quick Facts

  • Born — September 18, 1733, in Cecil County, Province of Maryland.
  • Parents — John Read and Mary Howell.
  • Spouse — Gertrude Ross Till. They had four children, John, George Jr., William, and Mary.
  • Died — September 21, 1798, in New Castle, Delaware, at the age of 65.
  • Buried — Immanuel Episcopal Churchyard in New Castle.
  • Famous For — Signing the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

George Read, Founding Father of the United States

George Read was a Founding Father from New Castle, Delaware, who rose to prominence during the American Revolution and played an important role in the establishment of the United States of America. 

During his illustrious career, he held significant roles in American politics, including serving as a Continental Congressman from Delaware, a delegate to the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, president of Delaware, and a member of the Federalist Party. Read also served as a U.S. Senator from Delaware and Chief Justice of Delaware.

George Read is regarded as a Founding Father of the United States who signed some of the most important documents in American history. 

  1. 1774 — Humble Petition to the King
  2. 1774 — Continental Association
  3. 1775 — Olive Branch Petition
  4. 1776 — Declaration of Independence
  5. 1787 — United States Constitution
Declaration of Independence, Committee of Five, Trumbull
Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull. Image Source: Wikimedia.

George Read, a Short Biography and Timeline

George Read was born on September 18, 1733, near North East in Cecil County, Maryland. His parents were Colonel John Read and Mary Howell. George was the first of their six children, who were all boys. 

Soon after, the family relocated to New Castle, Delaware, where Read spent his formative years. He received his education at schools in Chester, Pennsylvania, and at Reverend Francis Alison’s academy in New London, Pennsylvania. Around the age of 15, he started studying law in the office of John Morland, a Philadelphia lawyer.

1753 — Legal Career

In 1753, after being admitted to the bar, Read started his legal career. The following year, he returned to New Castle, where he established his law practice and quickly established a client base that extended into Maryland. 

1763 — Marriage

In 1763, he married Gertrude Ross Till, the widowed sister of his future fellow signer, George Ross. That same year, he was appointed as Attorney General for the Lower Three Counties (Delaware), and he served in that position until 1774.

1765 — Stamp Act Crisis

Read voiced his opposition to the Stamp Act. In 1765, he started his lengthy career in the colonial legislature. Read supported non-importation measures and non-violent demonstrations against the Stamp Act.

1766 — Correspondence with Benjamin Franklin

About a month after the Stamp Act was repealed, the customs collector for the Port of New Castle, William Till, died. Despite his opposition to the Stamp Act, Read sent a letter to Benjamin Franklin in London. Read asked him to submit his name to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury to be considered as Till’s replacement.

Franklin did as Read asked, however, Read did not receive the appointment. According to Read’s biographer, his son William Read, it was because of his opposition to the Stamp Act, but because there was a change in the British government. This was confirmed by a letter to Read from Samuel Wharton, dated November 14, 1766. Wharton said:

“You may readily judge how I was chagrined when I found you had lost the office. Dr. Franklin writes that he had an absolute promise of it for you from the Marquis of Rockingham; but…there was an unfortunate change in the ministry, and Alderman Trecothick applied to the Duke of Grafton, and obtained it for Mr. Walker.”

1774 — Continental Congress

During his tenure in the First Continental Congress (1774) and Second Continental Congress (1775–1777), his attendance was inconsistent. Similar to his friend John Dickinson, Read was willing to defend the rights of the colonists as Englishmen but he took a cautious approach. 

1776 — Independence and Delaware Constitution

On July 2, 1776, he cast his vote against the Lee Resolution, possibly influenced by the strong Loyalist sentiment in Delaware or holding onto the belief that reconciliation with Britain was still a viable option. However, when it came time to sign the Declaration of Independence, Read supported the measure and signed his name.

Afterward, Read shifted his focus to his state responsibilities. He assumed a key role in the Delaware Constitutional Convention, where he led the drafting committee that drafted the first state constitution. He also served as the speaker of the legislative council, effectively becoming the vice president of the State.

1777 — Governor of Delaware

When the British captured Wilmington in the fall of 1777, they also captured the sitting president — a position that was the same as Governor — John McKinly, a resident of the city. Initially, due to Read’s absence in Congress, Thomas McKean, the speaker of the lower house, assumed the role of acting Governor. 

Thomas McKean, Portrait
Thomas McKean. Image Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art.

However, in November, after nearly falling into British captivity himself while traveling with his family from Philadelphia to Dover — which had also fallen under British control — Read stepped into the position of Governor and held the office until the spring of 1778.

1779–1778

In 1779, due to declining health, Read resigned from the legislative council. He declined re-election to Congress and took a short break from politics. However, between 1782 and 1788, he returned to the council and also served as a judge of the court of appeals in admiralty cases. 

1786–1787

In 1786, Read attended the Annapolis Convention, and the following year, he was a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention. He played a leading role in Delaware’s ratification of the U.S. Constitution, with Delaware becoming the first state to approve it.

1789–1793

During his tenure in the U.S. Senate from 1789 to 1793, Read’s attendance was inconsistent. However, when he was in attendance, he aligned with the Federalist Party. Eventually, he chose to resign from the Senate to assume the position of Chief Justice of Delaware.

1798 — Death

Read held the office of Chief Justice until he died on September 21, 1798, in New Castle, just three days after his 65th birthday.

About George Read, an Overview and History of His Life and Career

This overview of Read’s life and career is adapted from the following:

  1. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence, Benson J. Lossing,  1870.
  2. Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, Charles Goodrich, 1836.
  3. The Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Nathaniel Dwight, 1851.

Early Life and Family

George Read was of Irish parentage. His grandfather was a man of wealth, who resided in Dublin, Ireland. One of his sons, John, left Ireland around 1726 and emigrated to America. He settled in Cecil County, in the Province of Maryland, where he became a respectable planter. 

John’s son, George, the first of six brothers, was born in 1733. Soon after, the Read family moved to Delaware and settled on the headwaters of the Christiana River.

Education

George Read was placed in a school of considerable repute at Chester, in Pennsylvania, where he made much progress in Latin and Greek, his father having previously instructed him in all the common branches of a good English education. 

Read was afterward placed under the care of the Reverend Doctor Allison, who at various times had charge of several pupils, who were afterward members of the Continental Congress or held other high official stations, including Charles Thompson, who went on to become the Secretary of the Continental Congress.

Upon completing his education at Allison’s school, Read commenced the study of the law in the office of John Morland, a distinguished barrister of Philadelphia. He was very studious, and during his pupilage in the profession, he possessed the entire confidence of his instructor, who also became his good friend. 

Legal Career

Read was admitted to the Philadelphia Bar in 1753, at the age of 19, and then commenced a career of honor and usefulness to himself and others. As soon as he was admitted to the bar as a practicing attorney he voluntarily released, by deed, all the legal rights that he had in the estate of his father, on behalf of the rest of the children. Read insisted that he had received his share in full in the expenses of his education and that he believed that it would be unfair to the others if he claimed his inheritance.

In 1754, he settled in the county of New Castle, Delaware, and opened his law office. Although competitors of eminence were all around him, Read soon rose to their level.

Attorney General of Delaware

At the age of 29, he succeeded John Ross as Attorney General for the “Lower Counties on the Delaware” of Kent, Sussex, and New Castle. This office he held until elected a delegate to the Continental Congress, in 1774.

Marriage to Gertrude Ross Till

In 1763, Read was connected by marriage to Gertrude Ross Till, a daughter of the Reverend John Ross, a clergyman, who had long presided over an episcopal church, in the town of Newcastle. 

The character of Mrs. Read was in every respect excellent. She possessed a vigorous understanding. In her person, she was beautiful, and to elegant manners added a deep and consistent piety. 

She was also imbued with the spirit of pure patriotism. During the Revolutionary War, she was often called to suffer many privations and was frequently exposed with her infant family to imminent danger, by reason of the predatory incursions of the British. 

Yet, in the darkest hour, and amidst the most appalling danger, her fortitude was unshaken, and her courage undaunted.

Delaware General Assembly

In 1765, Read was elected a member of the General Assembly of Delaware and was re-elected to the office for eleven consecutive years. 

Read Supports the Patriot Cause

In this station, and indeed through his whole political course, he appears to have been actuated neither by motives of self-interest nor fear. By adherence to the royal cause, he had reason to anticipate office, honor, and wealth. But his patriotism and integrity were of too pure a character to be influenced by worldly preferment, or pecuniary reward. 

The question with him was, not what a worldly policy might dictate, but what reason, justice, and religion would approve.

The Stamp Act Crisis

He was one of a committee of that body, who, in view of the odious features of the Stamp Act, proposed an address to the King on behalf of the people of the Province. 

Read clearly perceived, however, that remonstrances from isolated Colonies would have but little effect, and he was one of those patriots of prudence and sound judgment, who looked to a general Convention of representatives of the several Colonies, as the surest means through which the sense of justice in the home government could be reached. 

He also heartily approved of the system of non-importation agreements, and by assiduous labor, he succeeded in engaging the people of Delaware in the measure.

The Intolerable Acts

When the sufferings of the people of Boston, from the effects of the Act of Parliament known as the “Boston Port Bill,” excited the warmest sympathy throughout the Colonies, and subscriptions for their relief were everywhere made.

On the thirty-first of March, 1774, the British Parliament passed an act for the punishment of the people of Boston for the destruction of tea in the harbor, on the sixteenth of December previous. 

It provided for the virtual and actual closing of the port. All importations and exportations were forbidden, and vessels were prohibited from entering or leaving that port. 

The Customs, Courts of Justice, and all government offices were removed to Salem; and on the arrival of Governor Thomas Gage, a few days before the first of June (the time the act was to take effect), he called a meeting of the General Assembly of Massachusetts at Salem. 

Thus all business was suddenly crushed in Boston, and the inhabitants were reduced to great misery, overawed as they were by large bodies of armed troops The people of the colonies deeply sympathized with them and lent them generous aid. 

And, strange as it may appear, the city of London subscribed one hundred and fifty thousand dollars for the poor of Boston

Read, along with Nicholas Van Dyke, was made the channel of transmission of the donations of the people of Delaware, and he was exceedingly active himself in procuring pecuniary and other aid.

Continental Congress

On August 1, 1774, Read, along with Caesar Rodney and Thomas McKean, was appointed by the Assembly of Delaware, as a delegate to the First Continental Congress that met in September of that year, at Philadelphia. 

He was a delegate also in 1775 and 1776, and during the early part of the latter year, his labors were divided between his duties in Congress and the affairs of his own State.

Read’s Conflict Over Independence

When Richard Henry Lee introduced the proposal for independence to Congress, Read was opposed to the measure and ultimately gave his vote against the Lee Resolution. This he did from a sense of duty: not that he was unfriendly to the liberties of his country, or was actuated by motives of selfishness or cowardice. At the time, he deemed the question premature and inexpedient. 

In these sentiments, Read was not alone. Many gentlemen in the colonies, characterized for great wisdom, and a decided patriotism, deemed the measure impolitic and would have voted, had they been in Congress, as he did. 

The idle bodings of these, fortunately, were never realized. They proved to be false prophets, but they were as genuine Patriots as others. Nor were they, like some in similar circumstances, dissatisfied with results, differing from those which they had predicted. 

On the contrary, they rejoiced to find their anticipations were groundless. When, at length, the measure had received the sanction of the great national council, and the time arrived for signing the Declaration, Read signed his name, with all the cordiality of those who had voted in favor of it.

George Read and the Legend of Caesar Rodney’s Ride

When Congress voted on the Lee Resolution, Read voted against it, and McKean voted for it. Rodney was in Delaware and rushed back to Philadelphia to cast the deciding vote. According to legend, he rode most of the night through strong thunderstorms to cast his vote in favor of the Lee Resolution, which ensured Delaware voted to declare independence from Great Britain.

Delaware’s Constitution and Government

In the following September, Read was elected president of the convention which formed the first constitution of the state of Delaware. On the completion of this, he was offered the executive chair but chose at that time to decline the honor. 

Read Helps Defend Delaware

When, in 1777, soon after the Battle of Brandywine, Governor McKinly, the President of the State, was taken prisoner by the British, Read, who was Vice President, was obliged to perform his duties. He discharged them with fidelity and at the same time he was active in the Committee of Safety. On one or two occasions he marched with the militia, musket in hand, to repel invasion. 

Read Avoids Capture

On his return to Delaware at the time Governor McKinly was made prisoner, Read and his whole family narrowly escaped the same fate. His family was with him in Philadelphia, and he was obliged to pass down the Jersey side of the Delaware River and cross at a place where the river was five miles wide. 

He procured a boat and proceeded within sight of the ships of the enemy. Before reaching the shore the boat grounded, and, being perceived from one of the British vessels, a skiff was sent in pursuit. 

Read had time to efface every mark from his baggage that might identify him, and so completely did he deceive the inmates of the skiff, by representing himself as a country gentleman just returning from an excursion with his family, that his pursuers kindly assisted in landing the ladies and the children and in getting his boat ashore.

Delaware Politics

His arduous duties at length affected his health, and in August 1779, he resigned his seat in the Assembly of Delaware. He was re-elected, however, the next year. 

In 1782, he was appointed one of the Judges of the Court of Appeals in Admiralty cases, and he retained the office until that tribunal was abolished. 

Border Dispute Between Massachusetts and New York

In 1785, Read was appointed by Congress as one of the Justices of a special court to adjudicate in a case of dispute about territory between Massachusetts and New York.

Annapolis Convention and Constitutional Convention

In 1786, he was a member of the Convention that met at Annapolis, in Maryland, to consider and repair the defects in the Articles of Confederation. This Convention led to the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, which framed the U.S. Constitution. Read, who aligned with the Federalists, represented Delaware at the convention and signed the document.

Chief Justice and Death

In 1788, he was elected a member of the Senate of Delaware, under the new Constitution, and he occupied a seat there until 1793, when he was elevated to the bench, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of his State. He occupied that station until the autumn of 1798, when death, by a sudden illness, closed his useful life, in the sixty-fourth year of his age.