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Read, George (1733–1798), politician and lawyer, was born on 18 September 1733 in Cecil county, Maryland, the eldest of the seven children of John Read (1688–1756), planter, and his wife, Mary Howell (1711–1784). John Read was born in Dublin of an English family of comfortable means. Disheartened by the death of his fiancée he set off for Maryland with sufficient resources to buy property in Cecil county and neighbouring New Castle county, one of the lower counties of Pennsylvania, the future state of Delaware. Here he met and married the Welsh-born Mary Howell, who had come to New Castle as a child with her parents.

George Read attended an academy (1743–6) at New London, Pennsylvania, newly established by the Revd Francis Alison, and then read law (1747–53) with John Moland in Philadelphia, where a fellow student, John Dickinson, became his lifelong friend. Soon after admission to the bar in Philadelphia in 1753, Read moved to New Castle, though he also practised in several adjoining counties. In 1763 he married Gertrude, née Ross (d. 1802), widow of Thomas Till, and daughter of the rector of Immanuel, New Castle's Anglican church, where Read was a communicant; they had three sons and a daughter.

The same year marked Read's appointment as attorney-general of the lower counties, a post he resigned only in 1774, probably in consequence of his increasing involvement in the political disputes with Britain. He was elected to the colonial assembly in 1765 and again in 1768, when he began a long service in the legislature that lasted, one year excepted, until 1788. As protests against parliamentary taxation magnified, Read became a prominent member of various supporting committees until in 1776 he was chosen president of a constitutional convention creating a state government for Delaware. Meanwhile, in 1774 he had begun service as a Delaware delegate to the continental congress. When the congress debated independence in July 1776, Read, like his friend Dickinson, opposed the measure, thinking it too precipitate. But after passage of the Declaration of Independence, Read, unlike Dickinson, signed the document. Significantly, Read was re-elected to congress in the autumn, whereas two Delaware delegates who supported independence were not.

As leader of the moderate party in Delaware during the revolution, Read helped keep Delaware in harmony with neighbouring states, while seeking to calm civil strife and, eventually, to reintroduce neutrals and loyalists, who were numerous, into political life. Although condemned by radical revolutionaries, his vision prevailed. Under his leadership Delaware made an exceptionally smooth transition from colony to state.

After the first elected president of Delaware was seized by the British, Read served briefly, in 1777–8, as acting president. In 1782 he accepted an appointment by congress to its court of appeals for admiralty cases, and he demonstrated his interest in strengthening the national government by attending a convention at Annapolis in 1786 for that purpose, as well as the constitutional convention at Philadelphia in 1787. In his instructions for the Delaware delegation to the latter convention Read included a demand that the delegates insist each state retain an equal vote in any new government. Subsequently, when Virginia delegates proposed proportional representation, Read objected that Delaware's representatives were not empowered to consider such an arrangement and the subject was postponed. But when a compromise granted Delaware equality only in the senate, Read was satisfied.

Delaware approved Read's course when on 7 December 1787 it became the first state to ratify the new constitution. Read was chosen as one of his state's first two senators in 1788 and was re-elected unanimously in 1790. As a strong nationalist he supported Alexander Hamilton's proposals for the course of government until 1793, when he resigned to become chief justice of Delaware under a new state constitution. He was chosen by the legislature to collect and edit the laws of Delaware, which appeared in a two-volume edition in 1797. He died in New Castle on 21 September 1798 and was buried in the yard of Immanuel church; he was survived by his wife.

Among the Reads' contemporaries, two near relatives played significant roles in politics: Gunning Bedford sen., George's sister's husband, was governor of Delaware (1796–7), and Gertrude's brother George Ross as a Pennsylvania delegate was a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence. The Reads' home, on the river-front in New Castle, burned down in 1824; its site was preserved in the garden of the home of their son George Read jun.

John A. Munroe

Sources  

J. A. Munroe, ‘Read, George’, ANB · W. T. Read, Life and correspondence of George Read, a signer of the Declaration of Independence (1870) · J. A. Munroe, Federalist Delaware, 1775–1815 (1954) · D. T. Boughner, George Read and the founding of the Delaware state, 1781–1798 (1968) · [J. Tilton], The biographical history of Dionysius, tyrant of Delaware. By Timoleon (Philadelphia, 1788); repr. with notes by T. Rodney, ed. J. A. Munroe (Newark, 1958) · J. A. Munroe, ‘The Philadelawareans: a study in the relations between Philadelphia and Delaware in the late 18th century’, Penna Magazine of History and Biography, 69 (1945), 128–49 · J. M. Coleman, Thomas McKean (1975) · H. P. Read, Rossiana: papers relating to the … Ross [and] Read [families] (1908) · R. A. Martin, A history of Delaware through its governors, 1776–1984 (1984) · J. T. Scharf, History of Delaware, 2 vols. (1888), 1.186–202 · H. B. Hancock, Liberty and independence: the Delaware state during the revolution (1976)

Archives  

Hist. Soc. Penn., family MSS · L. Cong., family MSS |  Historical Society of Delaware, Wilmington, Richard S. Rodney MSS


Likenesses  

R. E. Pine, portrait, 1784–92, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, National Portrait Gallery · T. Sully, portrait, 1808 (posthumous), Independence National Historic Park, Philadelphia; copy, 1808 · R. E. Pine, portrait, priv. coll. · S. Sartain, engraving (after T. Sully), repro. in Read, Life and correspondence, frontispiece