Bad Behavior

Gunning Bedford’s Restless Body

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A portrait of Gunning hangs above the fireplace in the parlor of his restored home in Wilmington.

Today we’ll meet Gunning Bedford. Just one of them. There were actually nine of them, which was enough to even confuse this Gunning’s daughter but we’ll come to that later.

I had been saving these photos of Gunning Bedford’s house since December (yes, those are Christmas decorations in the photos to give me away!) but it wasn’t until I recently went to the Wilmington Brandywine Cemetery (remember that post, here) where I saw his memorial and took it as a sign to stop hiding his house photos just because they are cell phone photos. It’s a Masonic Lodge now, difficult to access but for once or twice a year, it’s time to share the photos.

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The back of Lombardy Hall.

Gunning Bedford, the one we’ll be talking about today, was a Delaware lawyer, politician and a signer of the Constitution {different than the Declaration of Independence in 1776, see how they differ here if you’re curious}. If any man has been muddled by history it is Gunning. A popular name in the family, there were nine Gunning Bedfords, including his first cousin who was the governor of Delaware and alive at the same time as the Gunning we’re talking about. Actually seven of the Gunning Bedfords were contemporaries and alive all at once…and they all lived in the same region. It’s not documented if they could even keep themselves straight 😉 .

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Gunning’s own daughter, Henrietta, was even confused. She mistakenly told people that her father had served as an aide-de-camp to George Washington and had been a heroic Revolutionary War soldier. Many of the historical inaccuracies still repeated today about his life can be attributed to her. Her will and papers further embellished his career, including an article published in the New York Times after her death which continued the legend.

Her father actually added the “Jr.” to his name in order to distinguish himself from his cousin, Gunning Sr. who was the prominent Continental Army officer. Apparently this didn’t distinguish him enough for Henrietta.

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The Real Gunning Bedford

The Gunning Bedford in this unfortunate memorial is mainly remembered by those in history for his stinging one-liner at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, which is often repeated in documentaries and in museums: “I do not, gentlemen, trust you.”

Gunning was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as one of 11 children to a respected builder and alderman named Gunning Bedford. He attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) where he graduated as valedictorian in 1771. Just a few years later in 1779, Gunning has risen to Delaware’s attorney general office. In his official capacity he was entrusted with prosecuting important governmental matters as well as the more mundane cases of “assault and battery, larceny, fornication, horse stealing and keeping tippling houses [like a tavern].”

More sensationally, due to the Loyalist activity in Delaware during the Revolution Bedford prosecuted several individuals charged with treason. This included the leader of the Cheney Clow insurrection.

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Sidenote: To the Gallows

While a majority of Americans favored independence around a third of people did not. In Cheney Clow’s area of Delaware (Kent County) the Loyalists far outnumbered Patriots and resentment was stirring.

Cheney’s first act of “rebellion” was quiet. He refused to pay taxes to Delaware, his allegiance being only to the king of Britain, he claimed. That quickly snowballed: he and his fellow Loyalists constructed a fort.

In April of 1778, a small party of Delaware militia were sent to investigate, fearing that the Loyalists would march on the city and start a fight. The Loyalists didn’t wait to march onto the city for action. During the investigation a gunfight erupted right there. The fort was burned after the Loyalists fled. Of the 100 Loyalist participants, 50 were captured and 20 were sent off to enlist.

A few years later, in 1782, local sheriffs visited the Cheney Clow home for back taxes. One of the sheriff’s men, named Joseph Moore, was killed during a gunfight and Cheney was arrested and charged with the murder. Moore had been shot in the back while aiming at Cheney making it much more likely that he had been accidentally killed by one of his fellow men.

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Four years would pass before Cheney would be brought to trial. The jury found him not guilty of treason. Still he was not released from prison. Instead he was charged with murder.

During the trial the sheriff testified that Moore had been shot in the back and had probably been killed by one of his own men. Despite his testimony and little other evidence the jury convicted Cheney of murder and he was sentenced to hang.

The Governor, fearing political backlash, did not pardon him despite wishing to do so. Instead he postponed the execution indefinitely without setting a new date. For six years Cheney lived. After a new governor took office and Cheney was still not pardoned his family gave up their pleas and Cheney Clow was sent to the gallows. It had been ten years. Reportedly he sang a hymn as they walked him to his death.

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The front of Lombardy Hall, Bedford’s home. It is now a Masonic Lodge.

The Undeadliest Duel

Rising in political office, Gunning was elected to Congress. There he challenged New Jersey Congressman Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant to a duel after Sergeant made a reference to him which Gunning viewed as offensive and slanderous. What was said was unfortunately not recorded for history.

American dueling at this time was largely used in the political arena as a way to intimidate or humiliate a political opponent. It also demonstrated how sincere a man was because he was willing to risk his own life to defend his views. Because of the newly popular play about Alexander Hamilton (who died in a duel) you could imagine this was a common occurrence. But dueling wasn’t actually that dangerous. Less than 20% of people actually died.

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In any case, Gunning had overplayed his hand. Sergeant called on his Congressional colleagues to solve the matter and Gunning was summoned. There he was read a resolution that found him “guilty of high breach of the privileges of his house, in sending a challenge to one of the members during the course of debate.” Gunning took the hint, apologized and asked Congress and Sergeant for a pardon.

His career recovered. He delivered a speech at the Convention in Philadelphia, where he fought for small states rights. Delaware was then, and remains, a small state. This is when he closed his speech with the famous line: “I do not, gentleman, trust you.” The U.S. Constitution was signed in 1787 and Gunning was appointed as a judge by Washington, a position he held until his death.

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Three Burials, One Man

In 1782 Gunning joined a Masonic lodge. It’s still around and is called the No. 1 of Delaware. Fittingly his house, Lombardy Hall, was painstakingly restored by the Masons not long ago and is used as their Lodge. They open it to the public only on special occasions.

Like all old houses it is rumored to be haunted (he did die in the house at the age of 64)…which might hold more water because it was used for years after as a morgue until the Masons bought it in 1967. In fact the house is in a cemetery now. Ironically, Gunning is not buried there but in the downtown cemetery we just visited in this post, here. When Gunning died it was still farmland and not yet a cemetery.

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The Masons have hung up a list detailing the house and land’s frequent transfers until they became custodians of the historic property.

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gunning-bedford-lombardy-front-door Gunning’s burial would not be so simple. When he died in 1812 he was buried in a Presbyterian Churchyard in Wilmington. Later the church was closed (it’s the city library now) and his remains were moved to a private monument at a Masonic Home.

In 2013 the Masonic property was sold and yet another place had to be found for the restless body of Gunning Bedford. His family settled on a concrete vault in the historical Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery, which in the end was only a few blocks from his original burial place.

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Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, “Gunning Bedford, Jr. at the 1787 Constitutional Convention: Are His Most Famous Words A Myth?” by Andrew A. Zellers-Frederick from “Delaware History”, volume 31-32, 2005-09*.

*Thank you to the Delaware Law School for the use of their Special Collections local history materials.

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