Richard Bassett (1745–1815)
Bassett was born in Maryland, the son of a tavern keeper who deserted his wife and family and left them destitute. Bassett was fortunate to be taken in by a wealthy relative from whom he inherited an estate. After passing the bar, Bassett moved to Delaware, where he succeeded both as a lawyer and a planter. Thus, despite his stormy childhood, Bassett rose to wealth and social status, the owner of not one but three elegant estates in Maryland and Delaware. During the Revolution he served in the military as a captain of a state cavalry unit. Entering politics, he served as a delegate to Delaware’s constitutional convention and enjoyed terms in both houses of his state legislature. His nationalist leanings led him to attend the Annapolis convention in 1786. At the Philadelphia convention, he was virtually invisible, saying nothing and serving on no committees. Yet after the Constitution was adopted, Bassett’s political career blossomed. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1789 to 1793, and from 1793 to 1799 he was chief justice of the court of common pleas. He was a loyal Federalist, despite his opposition to Hamilton’s plan for the federal government to assume state debts, and a supporter of John Adams for the presidency. He became governor of Delaware in 1799 and only left this post in order to accept appointment as one of John Adams’s last-minute appointees to the U.S. Circuit Court. When the Jeffersonians abolished his judgeship, he retired from public office.
Gunning Bedford Jr. (1747–1812)
An imposing man in both heft and stature, Bedford came from a distinguished family with roots in Virginia and Delaware. An honors graduate of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), Bedford was a classmate of another convention delegate, James Madison. After studying law Bedford moved first to Dover and then to Wilmington, where he rose quickly in local and state politics. He sat in the state legislature, on the state council, and in the Continental Congress. For much of the 1780s, he was Delaware’s attorney general. At the Philadelphia convention, Bedford frequently took the floor during debate, usually to champion the interests of the smaller states. Sociable and good-natured, Bedford was well liked by most members of the convention. In 1789 President Washington appointed Bedford to the federal district court of Delaware, an office he held for the remainder of his life. After his appointment to the court, Bedford abandoned politics, preferring philanthropy, working for the abolition of slavery, and living the life of the gentleman farmer. Never self-conscious about his obesity, Bedford would probably not have minded his epitaph, which read “his form was goodly.”
Jacob Broom (1752–1810)
The oldest son of a blacksmith turned farmer, Broom began as a farmer and a surveyor but soon developed a prosperous career as a shipper, importer, and real estate speculator. He played no active role in the Revolution, seemingly content to serve in local Wilmington government throughout the 1770s. He sat in the state legislature from 1784 to 1786 and again in 1788. Although he was chosen as a delegate to the Annapolis convention, he did not attend. At the Philadelphia convention, he was especially conscientious, never missing a session, but he played a minor role in the deliberations. When the convention ended, Broom returned to local Wilmington politics and to a position as chair of the board of directors of that city’s Delaware Bank. He was a vocal supporter of internal improvements, endorsing the construction of more toll roads, canals, and bridges, but his primary enthusiasm seemed reserved for local philanthropic and religious activities.
John Dickinson (1732–1808)
Dickinson was born in Maryland, the son of a prosperous farmer who moved his family to Delaware while Dickinson was still a boy. He was educated by private tutors and then studied law in Philadelphia and London. Brilliant and talented, he moved quickly into politics, serving in both the Delaware and the Pennsylvania colonial assemblies during the 1760s. A conservative, he was often pitted against Benjamin Franklin in political battles between Pennsylvania proprietor interests and the popular faction. When tensions began to develop between England and the colonies, Dickinson defended colonial interests in the pamphlet wars of the 1760s and 1770s. His Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, critical of British policy but urging a peaceful resolution to the conflict, earned him the nickname “Penman of the Revolution.” His support for the colonial cause was undercut by his resentment of the radicalism of New England’s political leadership, and he continued to work for a peaceful solution to the political problems despite increasing support among others for independence. In the Continental Congress, Dickinson voted against the Declaration of Independence, but as soon as it passed, he enlisted in the military. He refused to serve in Congress as a representative of Delaware and resigned his seat in the Pennsylvania assembly, retiring from politics for several years. In 1779 he returned to the Continental Congress, where he signed the much-revised version of the Articles of Confederation he had drafted in 1776. He continued to move back and forth between the political worlds of Delaware and Pennsylvania, serving as president of Delaware’s Supreme Executive Council in 1781 and president of Pennsylvania the follow- ing year. A nationalist, he chaired the Annapolis convention. Throughout the Constitutional Convention, Dickinson was plagued by illness; at fifty-four, he looked far older, an emaciated figure, usually dressed in black. Despite his failing health, Dickinson took an active and influential role in the Philadelphia convention, helping to put the Great Compromise in place. He was forced to leave the convention before its work was ended and was not present to sign the Constitution, which he had played a vital role in creating. After the convention Dickinson devoted his energies to writing about politics rather than participating in them.
George Read (1733–1798)
Born in Maryland, Read grew up in Delaware, the son of a wealthy landholder. He received a good education and, like so many of the convention delegates, took up the practice of law. His successful practice included both a Delaware and Maryland clientele. By the 1760s Read had entered local politics, serving as the Crown’s attorney general in Delaware, but following the Stamp Act, he abandoned royal appointment for a seat in the colonial legislature. Moderate by nature, he supported nonimportation and protests that he considered dignified rather than rowdy. He took a seat in the Continental Congress but attended only sporadically. Like his friend John Dickinson, Read voted against independence although he eventually signed the Declaration. Once the war began, he concentrated on state rather than national politics until poor health forced him to retire from politics altogether in 1779. He returned to public life in 1782 and in 1786 attended the Annapolis convention. At the Philadelphia convention, Read championed the interests of small states, but he proved less effective than other small-state champions because he was a poor speaker. He led the ratification movement in Delaware and was rewarded with a seat in the first U.S. Senate. He resigned from national office to accept the post of chief justice of Delaware and remained on that bench until his death.
The delegate biographies are excerpted with the generous permission of Carol Berkin, author of A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (Harcourt). Copyright © 2002 by Carol Berkin.