1. George Read – the one who voted against independence
At age 15, Read began studying the law, and he was admitted to the Philadelphia Bar in 1753, when he was only 19 years old. Before he had even passed the bar exam, however, he was entrusted with numerous legal responsibilities under the tutelage of well-respected Pennsylvania lawyer John Moland. Like many of the other Founding Fathers, he stood in opposition to Parliamentary measures like the Stamp Act in the 1760s. But for more than a decade he publicly maintained the belief that the colonies’ interests and Britain’s interests could be peacefully reconciled.
When he was elected to the first Continental Congress on behalf of Delaware, it looked as though his voice would be drowned out by two far more liberal delegates, Thomas McKean and Caesar Rodney. However, Rodney’s asthma and skin cancer kept him out of the legislative body a good deal, which empowered Read enough to endanger Delaware’s participation in the revolution (see #2 below).
Once the revolution had begun, Read defended his state admirably, raising money, troops and supplies to assist the counter-invasion war effort.
2. Caesar Rodney – the one who barely made it
Rodney was one of three delegates to the Congress from Delaware, along with George Read and Thomas McKean. But owing in part to his illnesses, Caesar spent most of his time outside of the capital, usually attending to military duties as a brigadier general in the Delaware militia. He was leading an investigation into Loyalist activity in Sussex County when, on the evening of July 1, he received a dispatch from McKean: on July 2, the delegates were going to vote on whether or not to sever ties from Britain. Read and McKean were deadlocked in their stances on independence – if Delaware was to be a part of the movement, Rodney’s vote was needed to break the tie.
Leaving from his home at midnight, Rodney rode all night through a thunderstorm to the capital. The precise details of Caesar’s Midnight Ride have been skewed a bit as the story entered the folklore – Rodney either arrived at Independence Hall just as the debate was ending or while the vote was already in progress. All versions of the story have the same dramatic ending, though; Rodney entered the hall, unkempt and covered with mud, and announced, “As I believe the voice of my constituents and of all sensible and honest men is in favor of independence, my own judgment concurs with them. I vote for independence.”
This is a pretty nifty story, to be sure. But Rodney may also be remembered for what John Adams said about him: “Caesar Rodney is the oddest-looking man in the world.”
3. John Witherspoon – the one who coined “Americanism”
According to the president’s biography on the Princeton website, he was “a man of strong convictions,” but introduced students to ideas with which he had publicly disagreed. He is remembered as a dynamic intellectual who brought the thinking of the Scottish Enlightenment into the mainstream in the colonies. Indeed, his ideas have a direct link to the nation’s history, since the students who graduated during his tenure included one president (James Madison), one vice-president (Aaron Burr), 60 members of Congress and three Supreme Court justices.
But even though he had only a meek presence in the political sphere, Witherspoon was the person who coined the term “Americanism” in an essay on language. When John Adams visited Princeton in 1774, he met with Witherspoon and was seriously impressed. The future president of the U.S. said the college president was “as high a Son of Liberty, as any man in America.”
On a less historical note, Reese Witherspoon, who played Elle Woods in the Legally Blonde movies, is a direct descendant. John would surely be proud.
4. Robert Morris – the one who went from prince to pauper
As George Washington faced down a war that at times looked hopeless, Morris toiled in and out of Congress to help keep the country’s finances afloat. In addition to borrowing money from the states, he sponsored troops on his own on occasion, taking out personal loans and sending them the army’s way. It was Morris who acquired the loan from France that financed Gen. Washington’s Yorktown campaign.
As the Superintendent of Finance under the short-lived Articles of Confederation, Robert demanded that he should personally purchase all Army and Navy supplies and once again fell back on his own checkbook to help stabilize the fledgling country’s budget.
After declining Washington’s offer to be the first Secretary of the Treasury under the new Constitution, Morris became a senator for the state of Pennsylvania. To his detriment, he also began speculating, on overextended credit, in the south and in the District of Columbia. Knowing he couldn’t pay off his debt, he tried to flee creditors, but to no avail. He wound up in debtors’ prison for three years. Upon his release in 1801, his wealth and property had dissipated and, for the next five years until his death, the once-rich Morris lived in poverty.