Rodney was born in 1728 on his father's 800-acre plantation, Byfield, near Dover in Kent County. In 1745, as the eldest child, he inherited the plantation. Despite a lack of formal and legal education, a decade later he accepted the first of a series of county offices: high sheriff, register of wills, recorder of deeds, clerk of the orphans' court, justice of the peace, militia captain, and cotrustee of the loan office.
On the provincial level, for most of the period 1758-76 Rodney functioned as a justice of the Superior Court for the Three Lower Counties (present Delaware) and as a legislator in the lower house, including many tours as speaker. Between 1765 and 1774, he owned and occupied a townhouse that he used while in Dover. He and Thomas McKean compiled the colony's laws, and they both attended the Stamp Act Congress (1765). Three years later, the two of them and George Read, all three later to sign the Declaration, drafted a protest to the King concerning the Townshend Acts. In 1774, after Parliament closed Boston Harbor, Rodney usurped the prerogative of the proprietary Governor by calling a special meeting of the legislature at New Castle, the first Revolutionary convention in the State. Rodney, McKean, and Read were sent to the First Continental Congress.
Although a congressional Member for 2 years, Rodney was often absent in Delaware, sometimes presiding over the legislature and sometimes meeting military responsibilities. In May 1775 he was elected a colonel in the militia, and in September moved up to brigadier general. Late the next June, while the independence resolution was pending in Congress, he was investigating Loyalist agitations in Sussex County. On the evening of July 1, after his return to Byfield, he received McKean's dispatch pointing out that Read had voted against independence that day and pleading with Rodney to hurry to Philadelphia to break the tie. Riding all night through a thunderstorm and stopping only to change horses, he completed the 80-mile trip just in time to make possible an affirmative vote for Delaware.
This brought down the wrath of the Kent County conservatives on Rodney, who was not reelected to Congress nor to the legislature and not appointed to the State constitutional convention. Out of office, that fall and the next year he turned to military affairs, recruiting troops and taking part in minor actions in Delaware and New Jersey. In September 1777 acting State president McKean commissioned him as a major general.
That spring, the legislature had designated Rodney as an admiralty judge. In December it reelected him to the Continental Congress. The next year, it nominated him as State president (1778-81), in which capacity he stimulated the Delaware war effort. When he left office, he belatedly sought medical treatment in Philadelphia for a cancerous growth on his face, which had been bothering him for a decade and which he had covered with a green silk veil. In 1783, though a dying man, he entered the State senate and accepted the speakership, but passed away the next year at the age of 55. Interred originally at Byfield Plantation, his remains are now buried in the yard of Christ Episcopal Church in Dover.
Drawing: Detail from the lithograph "Signers of the Declaration of Independence," published in 1876 by Ole Erekson, Library of Congress.
Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004