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Tracing Dover’s role in history step by step

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DOVER, Del.

Go on one of Nate Davidson's "Revolutionary Dover" walking tours of Delaware's capital, and you'll hear why this city of some 34,000 is a living repository of American Colonial and Revolutionary history.

Mr. Davidson, an enthusiastic student of the state, is a historical interpreter, one who looks the part in 18th-century garb, from his three-cornered hat down to his buckle shoes.

"I had looked forward to teaching in public school. I'm still teaching, but in a different way," says Mr. Davidson, 26, a native of Milford, Del., who majored in history and education at the University of Delaware.

"It is very interesting, telling people about Delaware history, explaining the significant role this state played in the Revolution," he says.

Delaware, remember, was the first state to approve the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Not for nothing does it call itself "the First State."

And Dover, established by William Penn in 1683, was itself home to a raft of actors on the Revolution's stage.

The Revolution revisited

On his tour of the city's historic downtown, Mr. Davidson introduces visitors to the town's historic homes and public buildings and to the area known as the Green, a grassy rectangle where 200 years ago the Delaware militia drilled and farmers sold their wares at market.

He also brings to vivid life the many characters who played significant roles in Revolutionary Delaware: Caesar Rodney, for example, whose courageous midnight ride from Dover to Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress was meeting, enabled him to cast a vote that overcame an impasse and led to the Congress' voting for the Declaration of Independence. Rodney's breakneck journey is celebrated here every Independence Day.

And Mr. Davidson tells of others: people like Richard Bassett, a force for moderation in a very heated time and a prime mover in the effort to approve the Constitution, and the Irish Presbyterian immigrant John Haslet, who died a hero's death at the Battle of Princeton fighting under Gen. George Washington.

Then there was the enticing, intelligent Mary Vining, whom Mr. Davidson calls "the Belle of the Revolution." Vining was a Dover native admired by the Marquis de Lafayette; the love of her life was Gen. "Mad" Anthony Wayne, the Revolutionary War hero who died before they could marry.

After the general's death, Mr. Davidson notes, admiringly, "Vining never married, but the legend of her powers remained part of Delaware lore."

Others — patriots, farmers, craftsmen, housewives, Quaker pacifists and British loyalists, or Tories — played a part in Dover's Revolutionary maelstrom, and Mr. Davidson strives to bring them all to life.

It's important, he says, "to try and make everything as authentic as possible."

Heritage Park

Mr. Davidson's living history tour is one of several programs sponsored by the First State Heritage Park, a "park without boundaries" created in 2004 by Gov. Ruth Ann Minner.

Encompassing a walkable few blocks in downtown Dover that includes the historic homes and buildings and the Green, Heritage Park and its programs are designed to introduce non-Delawareans to "the public history not well known outside Delaware" and to help natives "appreciate their own history more deeply," says Elaine M. Brenchley, director of the park's projects.

Another Heritage Park goal, says Lee Jennings, state historian of cultural and recreation services, is not to succumb "to elitism, telling the tales of a few high caliber citizens only," but "to tell everyone's story."

Embodying an era

Walking tours like Mr. Davidson's — and rentable audio guides for visitors who prefer to tour on their own — introduce visitors to such Dover gems as the Old State House on the Green, completed in 1792 and now a museum (though closed for renovations); the 1728 Ridgeley House on the Green, where descendants of the original family still live; and Christ Episcopal Church at South State and Water streets, built in 1754, where a memorial to Caesar Rodney can be found.

They also include mention of such long-gone places as a tavern, originally called the King George, that perfectly reflected the spirit of the time: Its name was changed to the George Washington Tavern when the Revolution began.

Also on hand are the Spirits of the Green, park employees dressed in 18th-century garb who pose as servants employed at the nearby Golden Fleece Tavern, on the northeast corner of the Green and State Street.

The Golden Fleece, whose original building has been replaced, was large enough to hold meetings of citizens and delegates who couldn't fit into the smaller Old State House. That made it a hotbed of Revolutionary activity and, in 1787, the site of Delaware's ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Servants there would have had access to the latest gossip about what was happening in Dover.

"Servants overheard all kinds of news. They were the best informed people in town," Mr. Jennings says.

In fact, the Spirits are full of information about Dover's history; they teach visitors how to play 18th-century games, such as lawn bowling, and on occasion may burst into 18th-century song and perform Colonial dances.

A man of courage

Looming larger than any of the players in Dover's historical drama is Caesar Rodney, Delaware's greatest Revolutionary hero, the man who made possible the Declaration of Independence.

Rodney was born in 1728 and grew up on Byfield, the family farm (now gone) south of Dover near what is now Dover Air Force Base. As the scion of an old Delaware family, his background was privileged by Delaware standards (the Virginia and Maryland aristocrats were far richer), but he is said to have had the common touch.

"Caesar Rodney was a complex man, and at the same time a straightforward, down-to-earth farmer," says Delaware actor Dick Pack, who portrays Rodney in "Caesar Rodney Rides Again," a central feature of Dover's Fourth of July celebrations.

From the time he was 27, Rodney, who had a strong sense of community, held more public offices than anyone else in Delaware's history, Mr. Pack says — among them Kent County sheriff, major-general of the Delaware militia, president of the state of Delaware (an office comparable to governor) and member of the upper house of the state Assembly.

"He wasn't nearly as well-educated as some of the other Founding Fathers, but he had the respect of men like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson."

Yet he was not a well man, Mr. Pack says. He suffered from asthma and gout, and had a facial cancer that left him disfigured.

Mr. Pack doesn't wear a scarf, as Rodney did to disguise his disfigurement. "I found it too limiting as a actor," he says, but in his performance he does mention the affliction.

Rodney's ride

Rodney's ride came on July 1 and 2, 1776, as the delegates in Philadelphia had reached an impasse. Nine of the 13 colonies had voted for a break from Great Britain, but the push was on for unanimity: Anything short of that, the Congress feared, would indicate division — and weakness.

Delaware was undecided. One of its delegates, Thomas McKean, had voted yes. Another, George Read, who thought a proclamation of independence too hasty a move, voted no. Rodney, the third delegate and the man who could break the tie, was 80 miles from Philadelphia, helping to quell a loyalist rebellion in Sussex County, south of his home county of Kent.

When news of the impasse reached Rodney, he hastened northward. By horseback or carriage or a combination of both (historians differ, but Mr. Pack suspects he went the whole way by carriage), Rodney arrived at the Congress on July 2, casting his vote for independence.

South Carolina and Pennsylvania, initially opposed, went along. That brought the total to 12 voting for independence and none against. New York (whose delegates were instructed by their legislature to seek reconciliation) withheld its vote so that there would be no negative votes.

And so the Declaration was proclaimed on July 4, and Caesar Rodney was one of its signers. When news of the proclamation reached Dover, Mr. Davidson says, "it was met with loud huzzahs by crowds of patriots on the Green."

A divided people

The most enlightening part of Mr. Davidson's tour may be his description of the warring factions that rent Dover during those early Revolutionary days.

Indeed, Delaware had become so divided by the summer of 1776 that things might have gone either way, for independence or against. Witness George Read's "no" vote on independence and Caesar Rodney's trouble with the Sussex Tories, who had besieged the port town of Lewes.

In fact, news of the Sussex rebellion had reached England and was received as proof that the Americans' push for independence would fail.

At that time Dover was a town of about 1,200 and Delaware's three counties altogether had a population of about 60,000, according to William Henry Williams' "The First State." But even in such a small population, the Revolution deepened the divisions more profoundly than they had been before.

The factions were not just social — smaller landholders and the landless resented families who held bigger estates — but geographic and religious as well, says Russ McCabe, director of the Delaware Public Archives. The Archives, near the Green on Duke of York Street, has Delaware's copy of the Bill of Rights on loan from the U.S. National Archives and is exhibiting it through July 4.

"New Castle County and Wilmington in the north were close in spirit to Philadelphia — more industrial, less rural, and for independence," Mr. McCabe says.

Sussex, Delaware's southernmost county, by contrast, "had ties with Tidewater and plantation Virginia and had Tory sympathies," he explains. The in-between county, Kent, had ties to both north and south.

But the divisions were also religious, with immigrant Presbyterians from Ireland in favor of the break with the mother country, and Anglicans, who tended to conservatism — "especially those in Sussex County and, to a lesser extent, in Kent," Mr. McCabe says — lukewarm on independence if not outright against it.

An exception was Caesar Rodney, who was Anglican and pro-independence.

To complicate matters, Delaware also had Quakers who were pacifist and a rapidly rising number of Methodists, Mr. McCabe notes. In England, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, urged fealty to King George, which made the loyalty of Methodists in Delaware suspect.

Yet only one Delawarean was executed for treason committed during that war, Mr. Davidson notes during his walking tour: the much despised Cheney Clow, a Methodist convert and ardent British loyalist throughout the Revolution. The tour guide points to the spot where the jail stood that held Clow more than 200 years ago.

Honoring the heroes

Caesar Rodney succumbed to his illnesses in 1784. Where he is buried is a subject of debate. It's certain that he isn't at the Christ Church gravesite where his tombstone sits. Most likely he's in the Rodney family plot at Byfield, south of Dover.

Mr. McCabe hopes that archaeologists some day will solve the problem of "this extraordinary man's" burial site. Meanwhile, a monument to Delaware's Revolutionary soldiers will be put in place in 2008 on the east side of Legislative Hall.

Its three soldiers, 18 feet high, will be a striking memorial to Delaware's contribution to the American Revolution, "a contribution that's not so nearly well known as it should be," he says.

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