George Read, who died on this day in 1798, was the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to have voted against it.
He was born near the town of North East in Cecil County, Maryland, on September 17, 1733. While still a child, his family moved to New Castle, Delaware, where he was raised. His mother was the daughter of a Welsh planter, his father a wealthy landowner. He attended school, first in Chester, Pennsylvania, then at the Reverend Francis Alison Academy in New London, Pennsylvania. At the age of fifteen, he began studying with John Moland, a Philadelphia lawyer, and was admitted to the bar in 1753, at the age of nineteen.
Soon after, he moved back to New Castle and began the practice of law, residing in New Castle but maintaining a country retreat outside of the city, which he named Stonum.
As the eldest son of a wealthy landowner, Read was entitled to two shares of his father's estate, but he voluntarily relinquished all rights in favor of his brothers, assigning to them his part of the estate.
It wasn't long before his clientele extended into Maryland. In 1763, he married Gertrude Ross till, the widowed sister of George Ross, who was also to be a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He and his wife had four sons and one daughter.
|Read Mansion, New Castle, Delaware|
His public career began when he accepted, in 1763, an appointment to succeed John Ross, his father-in-law, as Attorney General of the Three Lower Colonies, which was the colonial name for what was to become Delaware. Soon, however, he was speaking out against Parliament, specifically the Stamp Act, an internal tax enacted as a means of recouping British expenses during the French and Indian War. With enactment of the Stamp Act, he said that the colonists will be made to feel as if they were slaves of Britain, predicting that it would result in a move for separation from Great Britain.
Politically, Read was a moderate Whig, supporting nonimportation measures and controlled protests. While he was elected to the Colonial Legislature in 1765, his attendance was irregular. Along with his friend, and fellow signer, John Dickinson, Read was wary of extremism and in favor of working things out with Great Britain, so much so that others worried that he might sway Delaware away from independence.
On July 2, 1776, Read voted against independence. Still, despite his personal misgivings, he supported the majority vote and signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4th.
Read presided over the Delaware Constitutional Convention, chairing the drafting committee, and began a term as Speaker of the Legislative Council, a position second only to that of the President of Delaware. When the British took Wilmington in 1777, they captured the President. As Read was then away in Congress, Thomas McKean, the Speaker of the Lower House, took over as acting president. In November, after barely escaping capture by the British en route, Read assumed the office, holding it until March of 1778.
Back in his position on the Legislative Council in 1779, Read drafted an Act authorizing Delaware's ratification of the Articles of Confederation. Read argued that taxes levied by Congress should be based on the populations of the states, not on the value of lands and improvements. Worried that the tyranny of Parliament would be replaced by a combination of powerful neighbors, he championed the cause of smaller states.
Later that year, due to poor health, he resigned from the Legislative Council and refused re-election to Congress, remaining out of public office until 1782, when he once again took a seat on the Council, while simultaneously holding a position as judge of the court of appeals in admiralty cases.
In 1786, he attended the Annapolis Convention; and the following year, participated in the Constitutional Convention, missing few if any sessions. While arguing for the rights of small states, he favored strong executive powers. He led the ratification movement in Delaware, the first state to ratify.
Read was elected to the United States Senate in 1789, holding the office until 1793. In the Senate, where he tended to side with the Federalists. Whether for poor health or other reasons, his attendance was erratic. In 1793, he resigned, accepting a position as Chief Justice of the State of Delaware, a position he held until his death five years later, on September 21, 1798, just three days after his 65th birthday. He is buried in the Immanuel Episcopal Graveyard in New Castle, Delaware.