Part Three of Six
His name might not be too familiar, but he has the distinction of signing three of the most important documents of the American Revolutionary period; the petition to King George III of 1774, the Declaration of Independence, and the United States Constitution. His name?
Born in the colony of Maryland on September 18, 1733 in the county of Cecil, the young Read was shortly thereafter on the move. His family, while George was an infant, resettled in New Castle, Delaware. When of school age, he attended Reverend Francis Allison’s Academy in New London, Pennsylvania, and one of his classmates was Thomas McKean, a future Signer of the Declaration of Independence as well. George moved on to study law in Philadelphia under the tutelage of John Moland. In 1753, George was admitted to the bar and the next year had settled back in New Castle, Delaware to practice.
Ten years after opening his law practice, George married Gertrude Ross Till, widowed sister of George Ross (another future Signer of the Declaration of Independence). Five children would grace the marriage; John, George Jr., William, John, and Mary. The same year he married, George was appointed by John Penn, Proprietary General, to the position of Crown Attorney General for the three Delaware Counties. He would hold that position until 1774.
In that year, George was one of the representatives to the Continental Congress, where he represented the faction from Delaware that was most sympathetic to reconciliation with Great Britain, which put him at odds with the other colony delegates, including childhood classmate McKean. During the First Continental Congress, Read was in favor of and signed the Petition to King George III on October 25, 1774. This petition respectfully placed the grievances of the colonists in one document to be presented to the British monarch.The response from King George III was not what the colonists expected. This led to greater momentum by some delegates in the Congress for a complete break from Great Britain.
Although reluctant to declare outright independence, George was in favor of supporting opposition to such measures as the Stamp Act and headed Delaware’s Committee of Correspondence from 1764 onwards.
His attendance at the Continental Congress, both the First and Second, was sporadic but he was present to vote against independence in early July. This prompted the overnight, frantic ride of Caesar Rodney to break the deadlock of Delaware’s delegates (McKean had voted in favor of independence). Yet, with independence decided, George did affix his signature to the document, despite what was referred to as his “natural caution.”
Back home in Delaware, the General Assembly called for a constitutional convention and an election for delegates. George was selected to to this convention and would assume the presidency where he guided the McKean drafted proposal that formed the Delaware Constitution of 1776. Read served in numerous posts in the Delaware General Assembly and after a return trip from Philadelphia, where he was attending Congress he became president of the assembly when the sitting president, John McKinly was captured by the British; George narrowly avoided the same fate on the road back from Philadelphia in October 1777.
Replaced by Rodney in an election, George served in the Legislative Council of Delaware and continued in Delaware politics besides taking a year off to recover his health after a bout with illness. On December 5, 1782, George attained the position of Judge of the Court of Appeals in Cases of Capture.
George was one of the delegates sent by Delaware to the Annapolis Convention in 1786, the precursor to the Constitution Convention the following year. As a delegate to the latter, George was a strong advocate of a new national government but also one that guaranteed the rights of small states as well. He was adamant on this last point, even threatening to lead the Delaware delegates out of the convention if this did not happen.
Luckily, it never got to that point and with the adjournment of the Constitution Convention and the new draft of what the government would look like for the United States, George led the ratification battle in Delaware.
In the new government, George was elected as a senator and served through the First and Second Congresses. He resigned his seat, which subsequently stayed vacant or two approximately two years until a successor was named, in 1791 to take a position as Chief Justice of Delaware’s Supreme Court.
The Chief Justice position would be the last political position that George would hold. On September 21, 1798, three days after his 65th birthday, George died in New Castle, Delaware and was laid to rest at Immanuel Episcopal Church Cemetery.
He was described by one biographer in the following way;
“tall, slightly and gracefully formed, with pleasing features and lustrous brown eyes. His manners were dignified, bordering upon austerity, but courteous, and at times captivating. He commanded entire confidence not only from his profound legal knowledge, sound judgment, and impartial decisions, but from his severe integrity and the purity of his private character.”