Richard Basset


Birth: 2 April 1745, at "Bohemia Manor," Cecil County, Maryland
Death: 15 August 1815, in Kent County, Delaware
Interment: Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery, Wilmington, Delaware

Engraving, by Charles B. J. Fevret de Saint-Memin (1802); National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian
Institution, Washington, D.C.; gift of Mr. & Mrs. Paul Mellon.

Richard Bassett, who represented Delaware at the Constitutional Convention, devoted
most of his career to the service of his county and state. Reflecting the particular interests
and needs of his region, he concentrated on agricultural matters, local military
organization; and religious and charitable affairs. Only rarely and for the briefest periods
during his adult life did he even travel outside the boundaries of Kent County. Yet at a
key moment in his country's history, Bassett assumed an important role in advancing
the cause of a strong central government. He led the fight for ratification of the
Constitution in Delaware, an effort crowned on 7 December 1787 when his state became
the first to approve the new instrument of government.

Bassett's experiences as a politician and soldier during the Revolution broadened his
political horizons. The war had demonstrated, even to a man whose concerns had
seldom transcended the confines of his state, the need for greater regional and national
cooperation for the mutual interest of every community and section. In Bassett's case, the
war transformed him into an effective proponent of a truly cohesive union of all the
states.

The Patriot

Bassett's life illustrates the economic and social opportunities that existed in colonial
America. He was born in Cecil County, Maryland. His father, a part-time tavern keeper
and farmer, abandoned his family when Bassett was a child. The young man had to
depend on the assistance of his maternal relations, but with their help, he eventually
became a lawyer and acquired a small plantation. In 1770 he moved to Dover, Delaware,
where he practiced law and pursued his agricultural interests. 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.

Bassett's legal and charitable activities led naturally to politics. In 1774 he was elected by
the voters of Kent County to serve as a member of its Boston Relief Committee. In this
role Bassett helped to collect contributions for those suffering hardship as a result of the
Coercive Acts, a series of political and economic measures that Parliament had enacted to
reassert its control over the colonies, but which the colonists interpreted as a blow to
their liberties. The committee brought Bassett into close working relationship with the
leaders of the local Patriot movement: Caesar Rodney (who would later sign the
Declaration of Independence), his brother Thomas, and John Haslet, the future
commander of Delaware's Continental Army regiment. This association led to further
political responsibilities during the Revolution, when Bassett represented the citizens of
his county in a variety of offices. He participated in the convention that drafted
Delaware's constitution and served three terms in the state senate and one in the lower
house of the state legislature. As a member of both the Delaware and Kent County
Councils of Safety, which functioned as the executive arms of those political bodies,
Bassett also had the opportunity to help manage the day-to-day fortunes of his state
during the crucial years of the Revolution.

The Soldier

Bassett's close association with military affairs began early in 1776 when he helped plan
the mobilization of Delaware's forces for service in the Revolution. He developed plans
for the organization of Haslet's regiment (perpetuated by today's 198th Signal Battalion,
Delaware Army National Guard), the only unit of Continental regulars recruited in the
state. Relying on his legal and political skills, he coordinated the all-important task of
selecting officers for the regiment, measuring nominees against the military criteria of the
day: patriotism, sufficient popularity to attract recruits, and military competence.
Bassett's selections were clearly a success; Haslet's regiment was later judged among the
very best combat units in Washington's command.

Bassett was instrumental in raising a militia unit to serve as Delaware's contribution to
the Flying Camp, a mobile reserve that provided Washington with some 10,000 men who
could be called forward to join the continentals holding New York City. He also helped
organize Captain Thomas Rodney's Dover Light Infantry, a company of volunteer militia
which served in the Trenton-Princeton campaign late in 1776.

Later emergencies allowed Bassett to learn firsthand the responsibilities of the
citizen-soldier. During the summer of 1777 the British entered the upper Chesapeake Bay
with the objective of capturing Philadelphia, the American capital. Under Washington's
defense plan, Delaware mobilized its militia force under the command of General Caesar
Rodney; its mission was to maintain a sector of the cordon thrown up between the
approaching British and the capital by combined troops from the middle states. Rodney's
units were also expected to delay any possible British drive south toward Baltimore until
Washington's continentals could arrive on the scene. Although legally exempted from
militia service because of his legislative position, Bassett nevertheless appears to have
joined his friend Rodney in the field as a volunteer. The Delaware militia returned home
after the British retired from the area, but Bassett continued as a part-time soldier,
assuming command of the Dover Light Horse, Kent County's militia cavalry unit.
Bassett gained a great deal of practical experience and insight during his service in the
Revolution. On one hand, he learned how to raise troops and supply them in the field so
well that his state repeatedly called on him to manage its mobilizations. But as events
propelled him from local leadership to a major role in state affairs, Bassett also came to
appreciate the more general point that cooperation between the states was vital.
Planning for the common defense against the British in 1777 required him to coordinate
frequently with military leaders in Pennsylvania and Maryland as well as with the
strategists in Washington's Continental Army. At the same time, his militia service
demonstrated to him that sacrifices would be required from citizens of every economic
and social level if the concept of the citizen-soldier was to remain effective. The war even
seemed to have a profound effect on Bassett's personality, prompting him to adopt a
simpler lifestyle. Gone was the ambitious social leader of the local gentry. Instead a quiet,
serious, and "most efficient" public servant emerged to deal with the state's postwar
problems.

The Statesman

Designing a new national government for the victorious colonies posed a dilemma for
politicians like Bassett who represented a small state. A strong central government might
well promote economic prosperity and guarantee civil liberties, but it might also
subordinate the local interests of the smaller states to the overriding concerns of their
larger, more populous neighbors. Bassett's wartime experiences, however, convinced him
that the weak government created by the Articles of Confederation had to be
strengthened. In 1786 he agreed to represent Delaware at the Annapolis Convention, a
meeting called to discuss closer economic cooperation among the states. The Annapolis
gathering resulted in a call to the states to meet in Philadelphia the next year to design a
new government. Bassett again represented Delaware. Although he rarely addressed the
Constitutional Convention, Bassett strongly supported the Great Compromise advanced
by his colleague John Dickinson and others. Designed to protect the rights of the small
states, the compromise called for a national legislature that gave an equal voice to all
thirteen states in a Senate composed of two representatives from each, but which
respected the rights of the majority in a House of Representatives based on population.
Actually, Bassett's major contribution to the cause of strong government was made after
the Convention. The work of the Founding Fathers would clearly have come to naught
if the new Constitution had failed to receive the approval of the states, and historians
agree that Bassett was the most important leader in the fight to win ratification in
Delaware. Here the political skills and personal alliances that he had forged during the
Revolution came to the fore, enabling Bassett to convince his colleagues that a strong
central government indeed supported the interests of the smaller states. He won their
unanimous agreement just five months after the document had been drawn up in
Philadelphia.

Bassett's growing popularity in his state was then rewarded by his election to the new
United States Senate. While he continued to support strong government, he allied
himself with the moderate wing of the Federalist party that had gathered around Vice
President John Adams. As a senator, for example, he supported President Washington's
right to control the internal workings of the executive branch through the power of
dismissing appointed officials, but he opposed some of Secretary of the Treasury
Alexander Hamilton's more extreme proposals for advancing the powers of the
presidency. Reflecting the continuing concerns of the small states, Bassett was the first to
vote for locating the new national capital away from New York and Pennsylvania in an
independent federal enclave on the banks of the Potomac River. Bassett's political
interests had never strayed far from the affairs of his state. Even before ending his Senate
service, he played a principal role, along with John Dickinson, in drafting a new
constitution for Delaware. In 1793 he began a six-year term as first chief justice of
Delaware's court of common pleas, and in 1796 he served as a member of the Electoral
College in the presidential election. Bassett followed his previous Federalist loyalties by
casting his electoral vote for John Adams. In 1799 he was elected governor. Bearing in
mind the lessons he had learned during the Revolution, Governor Bassett actively
executed his responsibilities as commander in chief of the Delaware militia, working with
veterans of the Continental Army to improve its organization. He was particularly
conscious of the importance of leadership in a military unit and devoted much care to the
selection and commissioning of militia officers as a means of ensuring the revitalization
of his states military forces.

Bassett's tenure as governor of Delaware was the natural culmination of a public life
spent in service to his state. Although his remarkable contribution to the cause of strong
national government epitomized the breadth of his vision, his active promotion of an
effective union of the states was always motivated by concerns for the interests, welfare,
and liberties of his own home state.
Delaware Military History