Richard Bassett (politician)

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Richard Bassett
Richard bassett.jpg
Governor of Delaware
In office
January 15, 1799 – February 20, 1801
Preceded by Daniel Rogers
Succeeded by James Sykes, Jr.
Chief Justice
Delaware Court of Common Pleas
In office
March 1793 – January 15, 1799
Preceded by new position
Succeeded by James Booth, Sr.
United States Senator
from Delaware
In office
March 4, 1789 – March 3, 1793
Preceded by new position
Succeeded by John M. Vining
Personal details
Born (1745-04-02)April 2, 1745
Cecil County, Maryland
Died August 15, 1815(1815-08-15) (aged 70)
Kent County, Delaware
Political party Federalist
Spouse(s) Ann Ennals
Betsy Garnett
Residence Dover, Delaware
Profession lawyer
Religion Methodist

Richard Bassett (April 17, 1745—August 15, 1815) was an American lawyer and political figure from the state of Delaware who, as a veteran of the Revolutionary War and delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, is considered one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. A member of the Federalist Party, he served in the Delaware General Assembly, as Governor of Delaware, and as U.S. Senator from Delaware. He holds the Senate Rank of 1, as the most senior United States Senator during the First Congress of the United States.[1]

Early life and family[edit]

Bassett was born at Bohemia Ferry in the Province of Maryland's Cecil County. His mother, Judith Thompson, had married part-time tavern-owner and farmer Michael Bassett who deserted the family during Richard's childhood. Since Judith Thompson was the great granddaughter and heiress of Augustine Herrman, the original owner of Cecil County's massive estate of Bohemia Manor, her family raised young Richard. Eventually this heritage provided him with inherited wealth, including the Bohemia Manor plantation as well as much other property in Delaware's New Castle County.

Richard Bassett House in Dover, Delaware

Bassett studied law under Judge Robert Goldsborough of Province of Maryland's Dorchester County and, in 1770, was admitted to the Bar. He moved to Delaware and began a practice in Kent County's court town of Dover, which, in 1777, became the newly independent state's capital city. By concentrating on agricultural pursuits as well as religious and charitable concerns, he quickly established himself amongst the local gentry and “developed a reputation for hospitality and philanthropy.”[2] In 1774, at the age of 29, Richard married Ann Ennals and they had three children, Richard Ennals, Ann (known as Nancy) and Mary. After Ann Ennals' death he married Betsy Garnett in 1796. They were active members of the Methodist Church, and gave the church much of their time and attention.

Professional and political career[edit]

Bassett was a reluctant revolutionary, more closely in tune with the approach of George Read than with his neighbors from Kent County, Caesar Rodney and John Haslet. Nevertheless, in 1774 he was elected to the local Boston Relief Committee. When the new government of Delaware was organized, Bassett served on the 1776 Delaware Council of Safety, and was a member of the convention responsible for drafting the Delaware Constitution of 1776, which was adopted September 20, 1776. He was then one of the conservatives elected to 1st Delaware General Assembly, and served for four sessions, from 1776/77 through 1779/80. Subsequently, he was a member of the House of Assembly for the 1780/81 and 1781/82 sessions, and returned to the Legislative Council, for three sessions from 1782/83 through 1784/85. He concluded his state legislative career with a final term in the House of Assembly during the 1786/87 session. He thereby represented Kent County in all but one session of the Delaware General Assembly from independence to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution of 1787.

However, Bassett’s most notable contributions during the American Revolution were his efforts to mobilize the state’s military. Some sources credit him with developing the plans for raising and staffing the 1st Delaware Regiment, with his neighbor, John Haslet at its command. Known as the "Delaware Continentals" or "Delaware Blues", they were from the smallest state, but at some 800 men, were the largest battalion in the Continental Army. In his book 1776, historian David McCullough describes them as "turned out in handsome red trimmed blue coats, white waistcoats, buckskin breeches, white woolen stockings, and carrying fine, 'lately imported' English muskets". Raised in early 1776, they went into service in July and August 1776. Bassett also participated in the recruitment of the reserve militia that served in the “Flying Camp” of 1776, and the Dover Light Infantry, led by another neighbor, Thomas Rodney.

When the British Army marched through northern New Castle County, on the way to the Battle of Brandywine and the capture of Philadelphia, Bassett “appears to have joined his friend Rodney in the field as a volunteer”. Once the Delaware militia returned home after the British retired from the area, Bassett continued as a part-time soldier, assuming command of the Dover Light Horse, Kent County's militia cavalry unit. in 1799 Bassett was elected governor of Delaware and held his position until 1801.

Later issues and Methodism[edit]

Bassett was one of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention and, without supplying much input, signed the Constitution. Meanwhile, the Delaware Constitution of 1776 was in need of revision, and Bassett once again joined with another of Delaware's Founding Fathers, John Dickinson in leading the convention to draft a revision, which became the Delaware Constitution of 1792. Upon his retirement from the United States Senate in 1793, Bassett began a six-year term as the first Chief Justice of the Delaware Court of Common Pleas. At the time it was a court of general civil jurisdiction and the predecessor of the present Delaware Superior Court. By this time Bassett was formally a member of the Federalist Party, and as such was elected Governor of Delaware in 1799. It was during his time in office that Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours first came to Delaware to begin his gunpowder business.

However, it was also during his term that Thomas Jefferson was elected President of the United States, causing great concern for the future of the country among the Federalists. The retiring President John Adams, rushed the Judiciary Act of 1801 through the Federalist 6th Congress, creating a number of new judgeships on the United States circuit courts. Being a staunch Federalist and old political ally, Adams, on his last day in office, February 18, 1801, appointed Bassett, as part of the so-called "midnight judge" appointments, to one of the positions, judge of the Third Circuit. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on February 20, 1801, and received his commission the same day. But the legislation was repealed by the new Jeffersonian 7th Congress, and his tenure ended quickly on July 1, 1802. He never again held public office.


Delaware General Assembly
(sessions while Governor)
Year Assembly Senate Majority Speaker House Majority Speaker
1799 23rd Federalist Isaac Davis Federalist Stephen Lewis
1800 24th Federalist James Sykes Federalist Stephen Lewis
1801 25th Federalist James Sykes Federalist Stephen Lewis

In addition to his high profile in government, Bassett was a devout and energetic convert to Methodism. Having met Francis Asbury in 1778 at the home of their mutual friend, Judge Thomas White, Bassett soon had a conversion experience, and for the remainder of his life devoted much of his attention and wealth to the promotion of Methodism. He and Asbury remained lifelong friends. This association caused him to become linked in many people’s minds to the loyalists, as both White and Asbury were viewed to be opposed to the war. But it also led to a strong abolitionist belief, which led him to free his own slaves and advocate the emancipation of others.

Death and legacy[edit]

Bassett died at Bohemia Manor and was first buried there. In 1865 his remains were moved to a Bassett and Bayard mausoleum in the Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery in Delaware's largest city, Wilmington.

Bassett was a stout man of medium build. He was very fashionable and influential in society. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787 he was described as "gentlemanly, a religious enthusiast and a man of plain sense" with "modesty enough to hold his tongue". Bassett’s daughter, Anne married James A. Bayard, a U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator, and they were the ancestors of the branch of the Bayard family that has played a prominent role in Delaware politics ever since. His niece and adopted daughter, Rachel McCleary, married Governor Joshua Clayton of yet another family long prominent in Delaware politics.

Bassett Street in Wisconsin's capital, Madison, is named in his honor.[3]

Almanac[edit]

Elections were held October 1 and members of the General Assembly took office on October 20 or the following weekday. State Legislative Councilmen had a three-year term and State Assemblymen had a one-year term. The General Assembly chose the U.S. Senators, who took office March 4 for a six-year term. However, Bassett's term was only four years to establish a rotation.

Beginning in 1792 elections were held the first Tuesday of October. The State President became the Governor and was popularly elected. He takes office the third Tuesday in January and had a three-year term. Judges of the Courts of Common Pleas were also selected by the General Assembly for the life of the person appointed. U.S. Circuit Court Judges were appointed by the President and approved by the U.S. Senate.


Public Offices
Office Type Location Began office Ended office notes
Delegate State Convention Dover August 29, 1776 September 20, 1776 Delaware
Legislative Councilor Legislature New Castle October 20, 1776 October 20, 1779
Legislative Councilor Legislature Dover October 20, 1779 October 20, 1780
Assemblyman Legislature Dover October 20, 1780 October 20, 1781
Assemblyman Legislature Dover October 20, 1781 October 21, 1782
Legislative Councilor Legislature Dover October 21, 1782 October 20, 1785
Assemblyman Legislature Dover October 20, 1786 October 21, 1787
Delegate Convention Philadelphia May 14, 1787 September 17, 1787 United States
U.S. Senator Legislature Philadelphia March 4, 1789 March 3, 1793
Delegate State Convention Dover November 1792 June 12, 1792 Delaware
Chief Justice Judiciary Dover September 6, 1793 January 9, 1799 Court of Common Pleas
Governor Executive Dover January 9, 1799 February 20, 1801 resigned
Judge Judiciary Dover February 20, 1801 July 1, 1802 U.S. Circuit Court


Delaware General Assembly service
Dates Assembly Chamber Majority Governor Committees District
1776/77 1st State Council non-partisan John McKinly Kent at-large
1777/78 2nd State Council non-partisan George Read Kent at-large
1778/79 3rd State Council non-partisan Caesar Rodney Kent at-large
1779/80 4th State Council non-partisan Caesar Rodney Kent at-large
1780/81 5th State House non-partisan Caesar Rodney Kent at-large
1781/82 6th State House non-partisan John Dickinson Kent at-large
1782/83 7th State Council non-partisan Nicholas Van Dyke Kent at-large
1783/84 8th State Council non-partisan Nicholas Van Dyke Kent at-large
1784/85 9th State Council non-partisan Nicholas Van Dyke Kent at-large
1786/87 11th State House non-partisan Thomas Collins Kent at-large


United States Congressional service
Dates Congress Chamber Majority President Committees Class/District
1789–1791 1st U.S. Senate non-partisan George Washington class 2
1791–1793 2nd U.S. Senate non-partisan George Washington class 2


Election results
Year Office Subject Party Votes % Opponent Party Votes %
1798 Governor Richard Bassett Federalist 2,490 52% David Hall Republican 2,068 44%


Legal offices
Preceded by
Newly created seat
Judge of the U.S. Circuit Court for the Third Circuit
February 20, 1801 – July 1, 1802
Succeeded by
Seat abolished

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ SENATORS OF THE UNITED STATES 1789-2012 at the website for United States Senate
  2. ^ Wright, Jr., Robert K.; MacGregor Jr., Morris J. "Richard Bassett". Soldier-Statesmen of the Constitution. Washington D.C: United States Army Center of Military History. Call #E302.5.W85 1987. 
  3. ^ Origins of Madison Street Names at the website for Wisconsin Historical Society

References[edit]

  • Conrad, Henry C. (1908). History of the State of Delaware. Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Wickersham Company. 
  • Hoffecker, Carol E. (2004). Democracy in Delaware. Wilmington, Delaware: Cedar Tree Books. ISBN 1-892142-23-6. 
  • Munroe, John A. (1954). Federalist Delaware 1775-1815. Rutgers University, New Brunswick. 
  • Martin, Roger A. (1984). History of Delaware Through its Governors. Wilmington, Delaware: McClafferty Press. 
  • Martin, Roger A. (1995). Memoirs of the Senate. Newark, Delaware: Roger A. Martin. 
  • Scharf, John Thomas (1888). History of Delaware 1609-1888. 2 vols. Philadelphia: L. J. Richards & Co. ISBN 0-87413-493-5. 

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