The town of New Castle was Delaware’s first capital. But its first permanent capitol building was in Dover on the east side of The Green that was ordered into existence by William Penn. Begun in 1787 and completed in 1791, capitol #1 served as home to this historically important state’s General Assembly until 1933 when a new building replaced it. Now called the Old State House, it’s opened to visitors Monday through Saturday from 9 am to 4:30 pm and on Sunday from 1:30 until 4:30. It’s really worth checking out.
It was in a building on The Green that’s no longer in existence, the Golden Fleece Tavern, that in 1787 Delaware voted to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Because it was the first colony to get the document to Philadelphia, Delaware has the honor of being The First State. It’s also the one with the least number of counties. Delaware has only 3–New Castle, Kent, and Sussex. But it’s not small in attractions or national importance.
Allen McLane, who moved to Delaware when he was 21, became a Continental Army officer during the Revolutionary War. He helped Washington retake Philadelphia. Captain of a cavalry unit, he was said to be George Washington’s eyes and ears. McLane didn’t like another general and went to Washington with his concerns. Apparently sensitive to criticism, Washington was indignant and sent McLane, as they say, to the woodshed, cutting off all contact. But McLane returned to favor when proven right. The general he dissed was Benedict Arnold.
Delaware was a slave state, but by the time of the Civil War 92% of its slaves had been freed and it had the largest free African-American population of any state. Many Delaware citizens were actively involved in The Underground Railroad.
In the 1880’s a local Chief Justice was in the basement of the State House when he saw something curious, crumpled canvases, in a pile of trash. He pulled out two paintings now attributed to Thomas Sully, noted portrait artist. Now fully restored and incredibly valuable, they hang in the Old State House honoring War of 1812 heroes Jacob Jones and Thomas Macdonough.
By the dawn of the 20th century, the Old State House resembled, no joke, the Adam’s Family’s creepy abode. A Suffragist dynamo named Mabel Ridgely spearheaded restoration that began in 1912. Now a model of Georgian perfection, OSH contains, among other treasures, a rare, free-standing staircase. A stunning, perfectly geometrical recreation of what was reportedly the first of its kind in America makes a visit worthwhile all by itself.
The docents who conduct tours of Old State House are especially well-prepared so expect great stories, a grand building, and lots of updating since you studied but, like me, mostly forgot founding details about our Constitution and Bill of Rights.
I’ll tell you about the current Delaware State Capitol tomorrow.