Posted: Aug. 19, 2011


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

"I've never been here," the governor said.

Jack Markell was standing on the evocative grounds of the John Dickinson Plantation on the outskirts of Dover Air Force Base, ready to be shown around the state-owned estate like any other summer tourist.

Here it was, the third week in August, no better time to take in some of the historic sites of Delaware, so the governor was.

Markell also made his way to the Old Court House in New Castle, the Old State House on The Green in Dover, and Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River. If this was Wednesday, it must be John Dickinson's place.

It was like day tripping, except Markell was fitting his tours into his executive schedule, so it was more like hour tripping. The blessings of a small state.

Some stops involved multi-tasking. Markell makes it a practice to visit all of the state agencies, and nothing prevents him from timing it to a mellowing sunny day. He also signed legislation into law at the Old State House, a favorite.

"I can practically give a tour of the Old State House," Markell said.

The John Dickinson property was a treat. Not only was it Markell's first visit there, but Dickinson was a fellow governor, although governors back then were called presidents. Besides, the two governors are from the same party, sort of. Markell is a Democrat, and Dickinson was a Democrat-Republican, a member of the Jeffersonian party that was the forerunner of the Democrats.

In those early days of the Republic, when the governing was being made up as it went along, Dickinson was also elected the governor of Pennsylvania while he was the governor of Delaware, an anomaly arising from his dual residencies. He actually held both offices for a time before giving up the one in Delaware.

That would top Markell. The most he can show for extra-state credentials is his posts in gubernatorial networks, as the past chair of the Democratic Governors Association and vice chair of the National Governors Association.

Dickinson, who lived from 1732 to 1808, is celebrated as one of the five Delawareans to sign the Constitution at the convention in Philadelphia in 1787. He also attended the Continental Congress that adopted the Declaration of Independence as a Pennsylvania delegate but did not sign, out of concern that separation was coming prematurely. He joined the militia, though.

Dickinson had 37 slaves but freed them all in 1786. They were paid wages afterwards.

Markell toured the grounds with Gloria Henry, the site supervisor, and Vertie Lee, the historic site interpreter. Tim Slavin, the state historic preservation officer, and Chris Portante popped over from the Secretary of State's Office, which runs the historic sites.

There were also some re-enactors like Peter Goebel,  who was dressed the same as the rifleman in the state seal and fittingly enough, fired off a musket. The black powder was real. The charge was a paper cartridge. The report was impressively loud.

The house itself was outfitted with a mix of original items and reproductions. The portrait of Dickinson by Charles Wilson Peale was a copy, but an elegant desk in its time really did belong to Caesar Rodney.

"That's gorgeous. It would look very good in the governor's office," Markell quipped.

There was a moment of consternation when nobody could remember which number governor Dickinson was. (He was the fifth.) Markell had no trouble recollecting his own place in the gubernatorial lineup. He is the 73rd.

"As governor, it's important I do what I can to understand our history, because I'm here for a short period of time, and it's really in the context of all the people who have gone before that I am here," Markell said.

Right. Like inheriting the Transportation Department from Ruth Ann Minner.

Modernity does intrude in this early American outpost. This was the vicinity of the C-5 crash in 2006. Not to mention John Dickinson apparently had the excellent foresight to put in a decent air conditioning system.