I’ve reached the end of my short series of local legal historic sites associated with Delaware’s signers of the Constitution. Previously we’ve covered Gunning Bedford Jr., Jacob Broom, George Read, and John Dickinson. Our final Delaware signer is Richard Bassett. One of the biggest difficulties in writing this profile is coming up with a physical historic site related to Bassett. Bassett was once one of the richest men in Delaware, owning estates in Maryland and Delaware and a house in Wilmington. None of these houses remain. The only remaining site is his burial place, in the Bayard-Bassett vault in the Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery.
Richard Bassett was born in Bohemia Ferry in Cecil County Maryland. His parents ran the Bohemia Ferry Tavern. Bassett’s father left his family. Luckily for Bassett his mother was an heir to Bohemia Manor, a huge estate in Cecil County. Bassett was adopted by Peter Lawson, a lawyer, who was also an heir to Bohemia Manor, which Bassett eventually inherited. Lawson trained his adopted son as a lawyer. Bassett became a member of the Delaware Bar in 1770 and began his practice in Dover, Delaware.
During and after the Revolution, Bassett served at the Delaware State constitutional convention and was a member of the state Legislative Council and House of Assembly and the captain of a troop of cavalry. In 1787 he was chosen as a member of Delaware’s delegation to the Constitutional Convention. He never spoke at the convention but voted in favor of the new Constitution.
He was elected to the United States Senate in 1788 where he supported a strong judiciary. He was governor of Delaware in 1798, resigning in 1801 when he was named a judge of the Third Circuit by John Adams. He was one of the “midnight judges” whose position was eliminated in 1802 by the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801 by the new administration of Thomas Jefferson. Bassett published a pamphlet arguing against the elimination of the judges and in favor of judicial independence.
Besides his political and legal activities Bassett was also a strong supporter of the Methodist Church. He converted to Methodism in the 1780s and supported Francis Asbury and other Methodist ministers. He invited Methodist preachers to Bohemia Manor and held camp meetings there. His religious scruples led him to oppose slavery, freeing his own slaves and trying to convince Delaware to abolish slavery.
Bassett was married twice. He had no sons, but one of his daughters, Ann, married James A. Bayard, who became a U.S. Senator for Delaware and founded a dynasty of Delaware Senators including Richard H. Bayard, James A. Bayard, Jr., Thomas F. Bayard, Sr. and Thomas F. Bayard, Jr. Bassett died in 1815 at Bohemia Manor.
Photo credit: Engraving, by Charles B. J. Fevret de Saint-Memin (1802). From Wikimedia
For more information on Richard Bassett see:
Robert E. Pattison. “The Life and Character of Richard Bassett.” Papers of the Historical Society of Delaware (1900)
Gaspare J. Saladino. Bassett, Richard. American National Biography. Oxford University Press, 1999, v. 2