|Gunning Bedford Biography|
Gunning Bedford, Jr.
Gunning Bedford, Jr., statesman, signer of the United States Constitution, Freemason, and jurist is one of Delaware's most distinguished and colorful patriots. With nine other Gunning Bedfords in the family, Delaware's signer of the Constitution is always referred to as Gunning Bedford, Jr., to differentiate him from his grandfather, his father, his son, three first cousins--including Governor Gunning Bedford who is generally called Gunning Bedford, Sr.--two second cousins, and a third cousin.
Gunning Bedford, Jr. was born in Philadelphia in 1747, the fifth of eleven children. He left there when he was twenty years of age to attend Nassau Hall, which later became Princeton University. After graduating in 1771, in the company of James Madison, he returned to Philadelphia and studied law under Joseph Read, a noted lawyer. In late 1772 or early 1773 he married Jane Ballareau Parker, the daughter of James Parker, a printer who had learned his trade from Benjamin Franklin. The Bedfords had three children, none of whom married.
In 1775 General George Washington appointed Bedford to the position of Muster Master General but little other information is available about his Revolutionary War activities.
Bedford spent a year in Dover in 1779 before moving to 606 Market Street in Wilmington. In 1784 at the age of 37, he was appointed Delaware Attorney General. In 1789 Washington chose him as the first judge of the United States District Court for the District of Delaware. Bedford also served in the Continental Congress from 1783 until 1786.
By 1786 the government that had been established under the Articles of Confederation was floundering. Beford, along with George Read, Jacob Broom, John Dickinson, and Richard Bassett was appointed a commissioner to meet in Phildadelphia for what was to become one of the most important events in our country's history--the United States Constitutional Convention.
Bedford took his seat in the Convention on May 28, 1787 and regularly attended its sessions. The account book of the auditor of the State of Delaware shows that he was paid for attending at least sixteen days. Bedford spoke out warmly in favor of a federal government whose powers should be vested in congress and withheld from the executive. He feared the undue oppression of the larger states, and he repeatedly insisted that all states should be represented equally.
At the convention on June 30, 1787, Bedford made a bold and celebrated speech in which he accused Massachusetts, Virginia, and Pennsylvania of selfishness in their votes. He exclaimed, "If you possess the power, the abuse of it cannot be checked. You dare not dissolve the confederation; if you do, the small states will find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith who will take them by the hand and do them justice." The speech threw the convention into a turmoil. Later Bedford tried to explain his comments by saying that he did not mean that the small states would court the aid of foreign powers, but that the federal compact should be considered intact until dissolved by the acts of the larger states. He also said, somewhat apologetically, that some allowance ought to be made for the habits of his profession as a lawyer in which "warmth was natural and sometimes necessary." The larger states showed signs of weakening after hearing these sentiments so emphatically expressed. Early in July, a compromise committee headed by Benjamin Franklin, with Bedford as a member, recommended that in the second branch of Congress each state should have an equal vote. On July 16th when a vote was taken, the greatest of compromises was adopted by a narrow 5-4 vote.
Bedford returned to Dover where he used his eloquence to encourage Delaware's early ratification of the Constitution. He and Richard Bassett signed both the Constitution and Delaware's ratification document.
Gunning Bedford, Jr. was active in the fraternal and social life of Wilmington. In 1799 he was elected President of the Lyceum of Delaware, a bi-weekly debating society, and in 1802 he served as president of the Wilmington Academy. He is quoted as saying, "The establishment of schools for the purposes of education is on all hands justly acknowledged to be an object of the first importance." In 1806 Bedford was elected as the first Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of Delaware. Four of the five signers of the United States Constitution from Delaware were Masons: Bedford, Broom, Dickinson, and Read.
What did Bedford look like? A Wilmington paper of 1803 described him as "a very large, stout, bony, brown horse 16 1/2 hands (5 ft. 8 in.) high." Like Chief Justice Marshall and Chancellor Ridgely of Delaware, he disliked French doctrines and habits of dress. He never adopted trousers but adhered to short breeches with knee buckles. He wore a cue with powdered hair. Another colorful description of Bedford is found in a bound volume of memoirs and papers belonging to Major William Pierce, a representative from Georgia at the Constitutional Convention. Pierce records that, "Mr. Bedford was educated for the Bar, and in his profession, I am told, has merit. He is a bold and nervous Speaker, and has a very commanding and striking manner;--but he is warm and impetuous in his temper, and precipitate in his judgment. Mr. Bedford is about 32 years old [he was actually forty], and very corpulant" There is no question that he was an imposing figure.
In 1785 Judge Gunning Bedford, Jr. purchased two hundred and fifty acres of land on the Concord Pike from Charles Robinson. Included on the land was a five room stone house. A south wing was added to the house, and seven years later the Bedfords moved there. The house was equivalent to similar important houses of its day, forty-six feet by thirty feet, though it seems small today. Gunning Bedford, Jr. died in this house in 1812. His daughter Henrietta erected a monument over his remains. The following inscription summarizes his life.
of a joyful resurrection
through faith in Jesus Christ
here rests the mortal part
Born in Philadelphia, A.D. 1747
Graduated at Nassau Hall,
New Jersey, A.D. 1771
with great distinction
Having studied law in Philadelphia
he practiced in Delaware
distinguished by his eloquence
as an advocate, Attorney General
(and of Congress)
and one of the delegates to the Convention that
framed the Constitution of the United States
by whose efforts, with those of other delegates,
two Senators were obtained for the State of Delaware.
He received from Washington the Commission of
first judge of the District Court of the United States
for the District of Delaware
which he held till his death in 1812
He so behaved in these high offices as to deserve and
receive the approbation of his fellow citizens.
His form was goodly, his temper amiable,
his manner winning, and his discharge
of private duties exemplary.
Reader, may his example stimulate
you to improve the talents
--be they five or two, or one--
with which God has entrusted you.
Harold T.J. Littleton, PGM
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