The 4th of July celebrates the birthday of America, but I don’t think a lot of horse people are aware of just how important horses were to the beginning of the world’s greatest free nation.

While many may have heard of Paul Revere’s famous ride to alert Boston of the British army’s impending attack, (on the Narragansett pacer, Brown Bess), a more important cross-country ride was undertaken on the night of July 1 and 2, 1776, by Delaware patriot Caesar Rodney (1728-1784) from Dover, Delaware to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a distance of about 80 miles, which in those days was a solid two-day journey…

Rodney is credited with being the deciding vote – just one – that sealed the fate of the Continental Congress, and made official the break for independence from England.

This was a huge step and it was no wonder that the Constitution had these words: “…we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” – the delegates gathered there knew that voting for independence meant most would be signing their own death warrants. The courage of these men was simply breathtaking when you study the times and the danger that they lived in. It makes Rodney’s ride even more courageous….

Let’s set the stage. To explain why this vote was so crucial:

From the Delaware Historical Society:

“After the resolution for independence was introduced in Congress in June, Rodney returned home to Dover.  When fellow delegate Thomas McKean learned that a vote on independence was about to take place, he sent an express messenger to Rodney.  Rodney’s presence was vital.

Declaration of Independence

In the Continental Congress, each colony had one vote based on the votes of its individual delegates.  Delaware had two other representatives.  Thomas McKean would vote for independence, George Read would vote against it.  Those votes would cancel each other out, leaving Delaware without a vote unless Caesar Rodney was present to vote for independence.

Rodney received McKean’s message on the evening of July 1, he left Dover immediately for Philadelphia.  It is not known whether he rode a horse or took a carriage, the exact route he took, or how long the journey lasted.  Rodney arrived in Philadelphia on the afternoon of July 2, just in time cast his vote.

Because of Caesar Rodney’s heroic ride, Delaware voted for independence in 1776, the first state to so ratify the resolution; thus its nickname, ‘The First State’…. The wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved two days later, [July 4] and Rodney signed the famous parchment copy on August 2.”

About Rodney:

Rodney was a gentleman farmer from Kent County, Delaware, who was active in Delaware politics for 25 years. His father died while he was a teenager and he became head of the household at a young age. Rodney by historical accounts was a good human being.

Caesar Rodney

He took care of his family, his business, and had time for politics. One of his first elected offices was as county sheriff, which in those days was a position of influence and popularity. He was a believer in the independence movement, and held many elected offices before and after the vote for independence in 1776. Rodney served as a Delaware delegate to the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1776 with McKean and Read.

Once the Revolution began, General George Washington wrote him a letter detailing how he should muster militia to help in the war effort against the British, who had sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and landed at Elkton, MD., and marched toward what Washington thought might be Philadelphia. (Instead the British turned north, went to Kennett Square, and met Washington at the infamous Battle of Brandywine.)

Rodney suffered from either throat cancer or cancer of the jaw. It is known that he used to muffle his face to hide the scars or look of the skin. Artists who created the great statue of Caesar Rodney in downtown Wilmington had to just guess what he may have looked like. But it’s certain that growing up on a plantation near Dover, on land that is probably now part of the Dover Air Force base, he was probably an experienced horseman.

Back to the ride:

One of the reasons we know about Caesar Rodney’s ride was his famous “thunder and rain” letter written to his brother, Thomas, detailing the journey. This letter exists today and is under the care of the Delaware Historical Society.

Caesar Rodney’s heroic “thunder and rain” ride is commemorated in a statue

Evidently, he left that evening after he received the message. He probably rode north of Dover on horseback, likely one of his own horses which would have been a better bred Thoroughbred or thoroughbred type saddle horse, as far as probably Odessa or Middletown.

The flooded streams, lightning, mud and thunder of overnight storms made a difficult ride even more treacherous. If you break the journey apart into approximate 20-mile increments, it is clear that he rode the first 20, north of Dover, in the wee hours of the morning.

The next 20 miles again were undertaken early in the morning, likely from midnight on, from what is now Odessa and Middletown to a middle point in Delaware, probably somewhere near today’s St. Georges (the great C & D canal was yet to be built) in what is now Newport or Christiana. This may have the most difficult portion of the journey, but we don’t know exactly what route he took.

It’s likely he had to change horses after every 20 or 30 miles, so by the time he was near Christiana, he was probably on his 2nd horse. They think he might have taken a carriage from this point east to Chester and then continued towards Philadelphia, as the roads likely were a bit better the further north he went. Nonetheless, the thunderstorms would have made a lot of the roads heavy.

The last portion of the trip, was 20 miles due east to the city. It is certain he was moving as fast as horses would take him, either under saddle or in a carriage. He must have been exhausted when he arrived at the meeting house. His “dramatic arrival in Philadelphia, wearing mud-splattered clothing, and still in boots and spurs,” to cast the deciding vote for Delaware, allowed the “aye” vote to total 11 states and thus ratified the resolution, led directly to the Revolutionary War, and changed the world.

In contrast today, due to high speed freeway Route 1 through Delaware from Dover to Wilmington, the trip takes just 60 minutes!

The horses:

We have no idea what kind of horse Rodney may have ridden, or used, but it is likely these colonial-era horses were at least partially of Thoroughbred or imported blood. Horses were very precious in pre-revolutionary America. Only the wealthy could import them due to expense, and most families could only afford one horse.

Delaware’s quarter

This one horse had to be saddle horse, carriage horse, and farm horse, and they were wiry, tough, and hardy. They probably looked a lot more like today’s Standardbred than today’s Thoroughbred. Many did not have good heads or nice outlines, and many were fed only what could be produced on family farms rather than raised on fancy hay and grain. Judging by the period tack, the horses were narrow and probably not much over 15 hands.

The wealthy families with lots of land and good forage, could raise many horses and could afford multiple saddle horses and carriage horses along with heavier animals for farm use. (George Washington loved his good saddle horses, which were Thoroughbred, from what evidence historians have found. In addition, he loved both racing horses and foxhunting, which required a good solid riding animal. )

Today a statue of the horse and Caesar Rodney aboard stands in the center of the city of Wilmington, and was the model for the Delaware quarter.

Happy Independence Day to you and your horses!