George Read was a native of the province of Maryland, where he was born on September 18, 1733 to John and Mary (Howell) Read. His grandfather was an Irishman, who resided in the city of Dublin, and was possessed of a considerable fortune. His son, John Read, the father of the subject of the present article, having emigrated to America, took up his residence in Cecil County, where he pursued the occupation of a planter. Not long after the birth of his eldest son, he removed with his family into the province of Delaware, and settled in the county of Newcastle. Mr. Read designing his son for one of the learned professions placed him in a seminary at Chester, in the province of Pennsylvania. Having there acquired the rudiments of the learned languages, he was transferred to the care of that learned and accomplished scholar, the Rev. Dr. Allison, a gentleman eminently qualified to superintend the education of young men. With this gentleman young Mr. Read continued his studies until his seventeenth year, when he entered the office of John Moland, Esq. a distinguished lawyer in the city of Philadelphia, for the purpose of acquiring a knowledge of the legal profession. The intense applications, and the sober habits of Mr. Read, were at this time highly honorable to him. While yet a student, he gave promise of future eminence in his profession. Mr. Moland reposed so great confidence in his abilities, that even before he had finished his preparatory studies, he entrusted to him a considerable share of his attorney business.
In 1753, at the early age of nineteen years, Mr. Read was admitted to the bar. On this event he performed an act of singular generosity in favor of the other children of the family. As the eldest son, he was entitled, by the existing laws, to two shares of his father’s estate, but he relinquished all his rights in favor of his brothers, assigning as a reason for this act, his belief that he had received his proper portion in the education which had been given him.
In the following year, he commenced the practice of law, in the town of Newcastle, and although surrounded by gentlemen of high attainments in the profession, he soon acquired the confidence of the public, and obtained a respectable share of business. In 1763, he was appointed to succeed John Ross, as attorney general of the three lower counties on the Delaware. This office, Mr. Read held until the year 1775, when, on being elected to congress, he resigned it.
During the same year, Mr. Read was connected by marriage with a daughter of the Rev. John Ross, a clergyman, who had long presided over an Episcopal church, in the town of Newcastle. The character of Mrs. Gertrude Ross Read was in every respect excellent. She possessed a vigorous understanding. In her person she was beautiful, and to elegant manners was added a deep and consistent piety. She was also imbued with the spirit of a pure patriotism. During the revolutionary war, she was often called to suffer many privations, and was frequently exposed with her infant family to imminent danger, by reason of the predatory incursions of the British. Yet, in the darkest hour, and amidst the most appalling danger, her fortitude was unshaken, and her courage undaunted.
In the year 1765, Mr. Read was elected a representative from Newcastle County to the general assembly of Delaware, a post which he occupied for twelve years. In this station, and indeed through his whole political course, he appears to have been actuated neither by motives of self-interest nor fear. By an adherence to the royal cause, he had reason to anticipate office, honor, and wealth. But his patriotism and integrity were of too pure a character to be influenced by worldly preferment, or pecuniary reward. The question with him was, not what a worldly policy might dictate, but what reason and justice and religion would approve.
On the first of August, 1774, Mr. Read was chosen a member of the continental congress, in connection with Caesar Rodney, and Thomas McKean. To this station he was annually re-elected, during the whole revolutionary war, and was indeed present in the national assembly, except for a few short intervals, during the whole of that period.
It has already been noticed, that when the great question of independence came before congress, Mr. Read was opposed to the measure, and ultimately gave his vote against it. This he did from a sense of duty: not that he was unfriendly to the liberties of his country, or was actuated by motives of selfishness or cowardice. But he deemed the agitation of the question, at the time, premature and inexpedient. In these sentiments, Mr. Read was not alone. Many gentlemen in the colonies, characterized for great wisdom, and a decided patriotism, deemed the measure impolitic, and would have voted, had they been in congress, as he did. The idle bodings of these, fortunately, were never realized. They proved to be false prophets, but they were as genuine patriots as others. Nor were they, like some in similar circumstances, dissatisfied with results, differing from those which they had predicted. On the contrary, they rejoiced to find their anticipations were groundless. When, at length, the measure had received the sanction of the great national council, and the time arrived for signing the instrument, Mr. Read affixed his signature to it, with all the cordiality of those who had voted in favor of the declaration itself.
In the following September, Mr. Read was elected president of the convention which formed the first constitution of the state of Delaware. On the completion of this, he was offered the executive chair, but chose at that time to de-cline the honor. In 1777, the governor, Mr. McKinley, was captured by a detachment of British troops, when Mr. McKean was called to take his place in this responsible office, the duties of which he continued to discharge, until the release of the former gentleman.
In 1779, ill health required him to retire for a season from public employment. In 1782, however, he accepted the appointment of judge of the court of appeals in admiralty cases, an office in which he continued till the abolition of the court.
In 1787, he represented the state of Delaware in the convention which framed the Constitution Of The United States, under which he was immediately elected a member of the Senate. The duties of this exalted station he discharged till 1793, when he accepted of a seat on the bench of the Supreme Court of the state of Delaware, as chief justice. In this station he continued till the autumn of 1798, his death at New Castle 5 years later, just 3 days after he celebrated his 65th birthday, when he was suddenly summoned to another world. His grave is there in the Immanuel Episcopal Churchyard.
In all the offices with which Mr. Read was entrusted by his fellow citizens, he appeared with distinguished ability; but it was as a judge that he stood pre-eminent. For this station he was peculiarly fitted, not only by his unusual legal attainments, but by his singular patience in hearing all that council might deem important to bring forward, and by a cool and dispassionate deliberation of every circumstance which could bear upon the point in question. To this day his decisions are much respected in Delaware, and are often recurred to, as precedents of no doubtful authority.
In private life, the character of Mr. Read was not less estimable and respectable. He was consistent in all the relations of life, strict in the observance of his moral duties, and characterized by an expanded benevolence towards all around him.