George Read was described by a contemporary as tall, slight, agreeable, austere, and sternly moral. His public career also showed him to be a man possessed of strong principles. After a lengthy search for a moderate solution to the crisis with England, he became a Patriot and supported the Revolution wholeheartedly. But he was determined that his small state should not trade the tyranny of a distant Parliament for that imposed by a combination of its powerful neighbors. He worked hard to create a strong national government that would perpetuate the freedoms won in the Revolution.
CAREER BEFORE THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Read was the son of an Irish immigrant, a well-to-do landowner from Dublin who eventually settled his family in New Castle, Delaware. Read attended local schools in Chester, Pennsylvania, and Reverend Francis Alison's well-known academy in New London, Pennsylvania, before reading law under John Moland of Philadelphia. He married Gertrude (Ross) Till, daughter of a future signer of the Declaration of Independence. Read established a legal practice in New Castle in 1754 and quickly developed a local reputation as an honest lawyer and a clientele that extended beyond the boundaries of his colony. He began his public career when he accepted appointment from the Royal governor as attorney general (1763-74) of the Three Lower Counties (the colonial name for Delaware). But he was soon speaking out in sympathy with those protesting Parliament's increasing interference with colonial self-government. In reference to the Stamp Act, an internal tax which Parliament sought to use to recoup the cost of the French and Indian War, he said that if it or anything like it were enforced, "the colonists will entertain an opinion that they are to become the slaves" of Great Britain and will endeavor "to live as independently of the mother country as possible."
Elected to the colonial legislature (1765-76), Read worked in union with the moderate representatives of the local merchants and landowners to press for nonimportation measures to protest Parliament's actions. Later he supported the committees established throughout the colonies to organize relief for the citizens of Boston, who were suffering from the severe economic measures imposed by Parliament in the wake of the Tea Party.
Read represented Delaware in the Continental Congress (1774-76). An irregular attendee, he moved in conservative Patriot circles with delegates such as his friend (and fellow signer of the Constitution) John Dickinson. They were willing to fight for colonial rights, but were wary of extremism. Although he voted against independence on 2 July 1776 because he thought that reconciliation with Great Britain was still possible, he came round and, on 4 July, fully supported the Declaration.
Read presided over Delaware's constitutional convention (1776), where he exercised more influence than any other member. He chaired the drafting committee, serving as a voice for moderation by balancing the revolutionary impulses of the people with the legitimate rights of property owners. His service as speaker of the Legislative Council (the upper house of the Delaware legislature) made him, in effect, the assistant governor of the state. In November 1777, after narrowly escaping capture by British troops while en route from Philadelphia to Dover, he assumed the presidency (governorship) of Delaware, a post he held until March 1778. Back in the Legislative Council in 1779, he drafted the act authorizing Delaware's ratification of the Articles of Confederation. Reflecting the views of the smaller states, Read argued that taxes levied by Congress should be based on the population of the states, rather than on the value of lands and improvements, and that the title to western lands should be held jointly with specific limits placed on the claims of individual states to them.
Following a brief retirement necessitated by ill health, he resumed his seat in the Legislative Council (1782-88) and also served as judge on the state's court of appeals and on a commission to settle land claims in disputes with Massachusetts and New York. He was primarily active in promoting measures to improve the state's commerce and finances. Ignoring popular pressure, he opposed inflationary measures that he feared would impair Delaware's long-term financial credit.
CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. At the Convention, Read immediately pushed for a new national government based on a new Constitution. As he put it: "to amend the Articles was simply putting old cloth on a new garment." He was a leader in the fight for a strong central government, advocating, at one time, the abolition of the states altogether and the consolidation of the country under one powerful national government. "Let no one fear the states, the people are with us;" he declared to a Convention shocked by this radical proposal. With no one to support his motion, he settled for protecting the rights of the small states against the infringements of their larger, more populous neighbors who, he feared, would "probably combine to swallow up the smaller ones by addition, division or impoverishment." He warned that Delaware "would become at once a cypher in the union" if the principle of equal representation embodied in the New Jersey (small-state) Plan was not adopted and if the method of amendment in the Articles was not retained. He favored giving Congress the right to veto state laws, making the federal legislature immune to popular whims by having senators hold office for nine years or during good behavior, and granting the President broad appointive powers. Outspoken, he threatened to lead the Delaware delegation out of the Convention if the rights of the small states were not specifically guaranteed in the new Constitution.
CAREER AFTER THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Read was elected as one of Delaware's first US. senators (1789-93). In the Senate he allied himself with the Federalists, supporting assumption of state debts, establishment of a national bank, and imposition of excise laws. He resigned in 1793 to accept the post of chief justice of Delaware, which he retained until his death in 1798.
BIRTH: 18 September 1733, near the community of North East in Cecil County, Maryland
DEATH: 21 September 1798, in New Castle, Delaware
INTERMENT: Immanuel Episcopal Churchyard, New Castle, Delaware