Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April 2: "gentlemanly, a religious enthusiast and a man of plain sense"

Do you know who this is?
-His father abandoned him as a child.
-He attended the Constitutional Convention – but there is no record of his ever making a speech there.
-He was one of the “Midnight Judges” appointed by President John Adams.

He had a career encompassing being a planter, a soldier, a legislator, a judge, a Governor, and one of the thirty-nine men who signed the United States Constitution.

Richard Bassett was born on April 2, 1845 at Bohemia Ferry in Cecil County, located in the northeast corner of Maryland. His father and mother – Michael and Judith Thompson Bassett - owned a tavern and farmed, and his father later deserted his mother. His mother was the great granddaughter and heiress of Augustine Herrman, the original owner of Bohemia Manor – a huge estate in Cecil County. Augustine Herrman was a 17th century Czech explorer, merchant, and cartographer who established Bohemia Manor plantation.

Richard was raised by maternal relatives, including Peter Lawson, from whom he later inherited Lawson’s Bohemia Manor estate. His mother’s family – along with his own initiative and intelligence - provided him with wealth and a plantation. His relatives helped to educate and mold the bright young man into a successful lawyer, planter, and politician.

He read for the law at Philadelphia and received a license to practice law in 1770 at Dover, Delaware. Richard would prosper as a lawyer – and as a planter, eventually owning not only Bohemia Manor, but homes in Dover and Wilmington as well. His success in life illustrated the economic and social opportunities that existed in colonial America. He quickly became a man of property, and began to move with ease in the social world of the local gentry, among whom he developed a reputation for hospitality and philanthropy.

His activities led him into politics. He was elected to serve as a member of Kent County (Delaware) Boston Relief Committee, which collected contributions for those suffering hardship as a result of the Coercive or Intolerable Acts. His work with the committee led to contacts with important figures from Delaware – and ultimately more political responsibilities during the Revolution.

He furthered the military effort by Delaware during the Revolution by being given the responsibility of selection officers based on the criteria of the day – patriotism, popularity to bring in recruits, and military competence - and helped recruit for the only regular Continental military unit from Delaware. He also helped raise troops for the state militia.

In 1777, Richard learned first-hand the responsibilities and duties of the citizen-soldier. When the British entered the upper Chesapeake Bay as part of a move to capture the US capital at Philadelphia, Richard joined the militia as a volunteer – even though he was exempt because of his legislative position. Eventually he assumed command of the Dover Light Horse, Kent County’s militia cavalry unit.

He learned a great deal during his work in the Revolution. He learned how to raise troops and supply them, and to appreciate the concept that cooperation between states was vital. He also learned that sacrifices were required from citizens at all economic and social level. He also adopted a simpler lifestyle for the rest of his live – and became a quiet, serious, efficient public servant who would deal with Delaware’s postwar problems.

In 1778 Richard was converted to Methodism, and became a devout and energetic convert who devoted much of his attention and wealth of the promotion of Methodism.

Richard later served in the state legislature, and helped to draft Delaware’s constitution. He was asked by his state to attend the Annapolis Convention of 1786 as Delaware’s representative. Finally, in 1787 he was asked to be one of Delaware’s representatives to the Constitutional Convention. At the Convention he was described as "gentlemanly, a religious enthusiast and a man of plain sense" with "modesty enough to hold his tongue."

He would diligently attend the meetings of the Convention at Philadelphia. However, he made no speeches, served on no committees, and cast no critical votes. He allowed others to argue for and make the major decisions. But, he did sign the Constitution, and argued so persuasively for the new Constitution at the Delaware ratifying convention that Delaware became the first state to adopt the new document.

He was appointed to the U.S. Senate from 1789 – 1793, and voted there in favor of the power of the President to remove governmental officers, and against Hamilton’s plan for the federal assumption of state debts.

Richard served held the position of chief justiceship of the court of common pleas in Delaware from 1793 – 1799. He was elected Governor of Delaware from 1799 – 1801, when he became one of President John Adams’ “midnight” appointments that became known as the “Midnight Judges” He was to be a judge of the US Court of Appeals, Third Circuit Court. Jefferson abolished his justiceship in 1802, and he spent the remainder of his life in retirement.

He would marry twice: first to Ann Ennals, by whom he had four children; then, after her death, to Betsy Garnett.

He died on August 15, 1815, at the age of 70 and is interred at the Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery, Wilmington, Delaware.

Richard Bassett’s story was one of overcoming obstacles. From abandonment by his father as a child through the difficulties of the Revolution to the establishing of the Constitution, Richard grew in his skills, wisdom, and wealth. He was successful in business, war, and politics. In addition, at a key moment in his country's history, Richard assumed an important role in advancing the cause of a strong central government by promoting the ratification of the Constitution in Delaware.



01.Portrait: Engraving, by Charles B. J. Fevret de Saint-Memin (1802); National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C
03. Constitutional Convention: Library of Congress Digital ID: thc 5a50954
04. 03.Crypt, Find A Grave, Ryan Gleason photo


  1. Great post! Thanks for the history lesson!

  2. Thanks for the comment. I'm learning more through writing about the founding fathers - and the other bio's - than I did about them in college. Hopefully, others will enjoy and learn as well.
    Bassett's life gives us lessons we should learn and apply today. He did not let adversity keep him down.