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Delaware Governors Leave Their Mark with a List of Firsts

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Delaware loves firsts. As the First Citizen of the First State, the governor has a special place in Delaware’s political lore, so a list of gubernatorial firsts ranks right up there. These firsts go all the way back to the days after independence was declared, as the Colonies refashioned themselves as states and replaced the governors appointed by the Crown with ones they elected themselves. The times being what they were, with events moving at a much slower pace, Delaware dawdled for about six months after the Declaration of Independence was adopted until it got around to electing its first executive in January 1777. 

The first governor—called a “president” in those early days—was John McKinly, a physician who was a political ally of George Read’s. Delaware’s first “president” would never rise to the glory of George Washington, the nation’s first president, who compiled the most magnificent list of firsts in United States history as “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” but McKinly did provide a rather peculiar first for the state’s governors. Any tour of the Firsts of the First Citizens of the First State has to begin with him. Poor John McKinly. The British marched through Delaware on their way to occupying Philadelphia, the first capital, and captured him in September 1777. They imprisoned him in a warship on the Delaware River, where he languished until the Continental Congress arranged for his exchange a year later. So much for his governorship. Pete du Pont, the Republican governor who took office 200 years later in 1977, felt a connection with McKinly. Du Pont was a wildly successful governor, but he had his ups and downs with the legislature nevertheless, and it led him to identify with McKinly’s own trials with the assembly as he languished on the British warship. As du Pont noted in a speech he gave as governor, McKinly could have been home a lot sooner than a year. The British tried to negotiate his release with the state legislators, but they were indifferent. “When the British demanded ransom,” du Pont said, “some allegedly replied, ‘Keep him.’

There is a reason no governor was elected twice until C. Douglass Buck, a Republican, did it in 1928 and 1932. For most of the state’s history, the constitution limited governors to one term. This was an enduring hangover of the high-handedness of the royal governors. Executive authority was regarded so suspiciously that the state did not get over it until a new constitution was adopted in 1897 with a provision allowing a governor to serve two terms, but no more. Even then, it took time to sink in. Doug Buck was quite the historical figure. Not only was he the governor during the Great Depression, he was later a senator during World War II. Buck’s first initial of “C” stood for “Clayton,” as in John M. Clayton, his great-great uncle whose national stature as the secretary of state for President Zachary Taylor was the greatest for any Delawarean until Joe Biden came along. Before Buck got into politics, he was a highway engineer, working for T. Coleman du Pont, one of the famous cousins with Pierre S. and Alfred I., who turned the family enterprise into a modern chemical company. Buck assisted T. Coleman on his famous public-works project, building U.S. 13, and married the boss’s daughter. As governor, Buck was the last to have an office in the Old State House on The Green in Dover and the first to have one in Legislative Hall, which opened in 1933. Buck lived his life at Buena Vista, the family homestead John Clayton built, fittingly along what would become U.S. 13 near New Castle. Buck bequeathed the property to the state, which continues to use it to this day as a stately conference center. As the first two-term governor goes, Delaware could have done a lot worse.

Big Bert Carvel got his two terms for the Democrats the hard way. He won his first one in 1948, lost for re-election in 1952, but came back and won his second term in 1960. He was the first and only Delaware governor to serve non-consecutive terms. Actually, it was something of a wonder that Carvel became the governor, at all. In his day, unlike today, Delaware was a decidedly Republican state. Carvel was only the second Democrat to be elected governor in the 20th century, and Richard McMullen, the first one, got there in 1936 only because the Republicans splintered into the Republicans and Independent Republicans with each faction fielding a candidate. A nationwide restlessness among voters set off a Democratic landslide that had Carvel roaring into office in 1948 against a nondescript Republican candidate. The state’s voters soon returned to their old Republican ways, however, and deserted Carvel in 1952 for J. Caleb Boggs, then the Republican congressman. Carvel waited out Boggs’ two terms and then ran again and won. Carvel was an innovator. He created the modern Supreme Court, vetoed a bill to put the death penalty—which, in those days, meant hanging—back on the books, although the legislature overrode him, and commuted the last sentence for a public whipping ever handed down by a state judge. Carvel also forced through a public accommodations law, outlawing segregation, and it took his personal intervention and towering physique to do it. When the bill was considered in the state Senate, a downstate Democrat tried to sneak out of the chamber to avoid voting on it. Carvel caught him. The senator whined that his district would hang him if he voted yes, but Carvel was having none of it and ordered him back inside to deliver his vote. “Hang and be damned!” Carvel thundered.

The last four governors have all contributed firsts, mostly because of the electorate’s embrace of equal opportunity. Mike Castle, a Republican elected in 1984 and 1988, was the first Catholic governor. Tom Carper was the first Democratic governor to win two consecutive terms in 1992 and 1996. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat, was the first woman to be the governor. Also, she is the longest-serving governor. Not only did she win two terms in 2000 and 2004, she got nearly two extra weeks as the lieutenant governor who moved up to governor when Carper left early to go to the Senate. Jack Markell, the current Democratic executive now in his second term, is the first Jewish governor. Whatever new Firsts of the First Citizens of the First State are out there, bring them on. Because Delaware loves firsts. 

ILLUSTRATION BY BRUCE MACPHERSON

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