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  • Writer's pictureLucius Junius Brutus

Joe Biden and the Pennsylvania-Delaware Relationship

Earlier today, President-elect Joseph Biden gave touching remarks at Delaware’s Major Joseph R. “Beau” Biden National Guard Reserve Center in New Castle. From there, he’ll proceed to Washington in advance of tomorrow’s inauguration. “I’ll always be the proud son of Delaware,” he said at the gathering. “When I die, Delaware will be written on my heart.” Biden, who represented Delaware in the United States Senate for 36 years, was actually born in Pennsylvania -- a fact that he frequently referenced while stumping across the Keystone State on campaign trails. In his 2008 Democratic National Campaign speech, for example, he frequently referenced his Pennsylvania roots -- a move seen by many pundits as politically-savvy. proclaimed that. This time around, he did much the same, reminding voters in Pittsburgh that he grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania. On Election Day, he orchestrated a political stunt designed to remind voters in the swing state of his birth, coming back to his childhood home in Scranton and writing a now-historic message on its walls: “From this house to the White House.” So, though Biden will be just the second United States President born in Pennsylvania (the other being James Buchanan, for those keeping score at home), he is a self-proclaimed native son of Delaware when off the campaign trail. Any fair observer, even chagrined Pennsylvanians now slighted by the President-elect’s decided preference for their neighbors, wouldn’t degrade his decision to play to his political advantages. But, surprisingly, Biden’s fluid identity between Pennsylvania and Delaware actually speaks to a longstanding historical relationship between the two states. You may be surprised to learn that there were, strictly speaking, really just twelve colonies in British North America. As a matter of fact, Delaware, for decades, lacked a charter from the British Crown. Delaware, then known as the three lower counties, were instead part of the Crown’s 1681 land grant to William Penn. Through this grant, Penn had become the single largest private landowner in the British Empire. By 1682, he had sailed to the New World, voyaged up the Delaware River, and founded the capital of his new colony: Philadelphia. All along, Penn envisioned Pennsylvania (“Penn’s Woods”) as a model society, establishing freedom of worship for fellow Quakers and one of the most open societies of the early republic. But the three lower counties remained a thorn in his side. In the early years of the Pennsylvania colony, Penn had decided to allow the lower counties to have their own legislature as a matter of convenience. And though the Delaware grant was technically part of Pennsylvania, it gained enough de facto autonomy to be considered its own colony by everyone in British North America. But for most Delawareans, this de facto status was insufficient. Most people living in the lower counties were actually Dutch, Swedish, and English settlers who had predated Penn’s charter and therefore chafed at the imposed unification with the rest of the colony. It was for this reason that, in 1704, the lower counties were allowed to split and formally become their own colony. Though this settlement might have cleaved the two states apart with some finality, their fates nevertheless remained intertwined throughout American history. Because as a matter of fact, two key border disputes have kept the states locked in conflict for more than three centuries. Both disputes are the direct result of poor cartography and their premise would seem to be the pretty basic question of which land belongs to which state. The basic problem for 18th-century figures was that drawing an accurate map from across the Atlantic Ocean was just plain difficult. Worse, it seems like the British Crown had a hard time keeping track of who had been promised what. And so, in 1682, Charles II created a massive legal problem by granting William Penn the city of New Castle. The king, who had granted the colony of Maryland to the Calvert family in 1632, created an exclusion zone around the city of 12 miles. The idea was simple: everything within the circle belonged to Penn, everything beyond the circle belonged to the Calverts. But there was a problem of basic geometry: the Calverts had been promised all territory up to the 40th longitudinal parallel (a line) and the Penns had been promised everything within a 12-mile circle of New Castle (a circle). If you look at this map you’ll begin to see the problem:

In short, if you draw a line 12 miles due west from New Castle, it goes past the 40th parallel. In other words, there was a non-negligible amount of territory promised to two families. This is the first problem posed by the charter’s Twelve Mile Circle. It is also the basis of a running battle known as the Penn-Calvert Disputes. Not shown in the above picture is the fact that the Twelve Mile Circle also extends across the Delaware River, across the waterway until it hits the border of New Jersey:

This created serious problems for the two states when New Jersey tried to authorize BP to build a Liquefied Natural Gas terminal on the Delaware River. In 2007, the two states sued each other. This was not the first time the waterway had been subject to litigation, including suits reaching the Supreme Court in 1877, 1934, and 1935. But the 2007 spat was particularly nasty, with Delaware state representatives considering a symbolic bill to call out the state’s National Guardsmen and New Jersey state representatives making comments about deploying the battleship USS New Jersey that had been moored in Camden. But ultimately, the Court ruled in favor of Delaware, the BP terminal idea was scuttled, and conflict was averted. But the other interesting legal question deriving from these charters was equally vexing. Because if you look back at the original map, there was some territory claimed by two colonies but also some territory claimed by no colony. Because the border was defined by a line and a circle, there’s a small outcrop of land not given to Penn or Calvert -- now known as the Wedge. These 684 acres were the subject of considerable disagreement between Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania for almost 300 years. Only in 1921 was it finally agreed to give the grant to Delaware. Throughout the course of American history, these two states have been intertwined. John Dickinson, often known as the “Penman of the Revolution” and the author of both the “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” and the Olive Branch Petition, was in some ways a prototype for President-Elect Biden. Dickinson had been sent to the First and Second Continental Congresses as a Pennsylvania delegate from 1774 to 1776, resigning his commission to fight in the Revolution. But in 1779, after years of military service in both the Pennsylvania and Delaware militias, he returned to the Continental Congress -- this time as a delegate from Delaware. In this, Dickinson gained the rare distinction of representing multiple states in the Continental Congress. But Dickinson further embodied the close ties between the two states after the Revolution. In 1781, Dickinson left the Congress to join the Delaware State Assembly. Shortly thereafter, he was unanimously elected the President of Delaware, a position that was a precursor to the state’s governorship. But 11 months later, Dickinson was drawn back to Pennsylvania and was elected President of Pennsylvania by that state’s Executive Council. For more than three months, Dickinson as the president of both states -- creating the legal oddity that he was, for the only time in American history, simultaneously serving as the chief executive of two states. Since the early republic, the two states have shared a close relationship, working together on numerous important economic and infrastructural projects that have helped both become strong contributors to the Mid-Atlantic region. But Biden’s election, and his split lineage, should remind us all of the historical ties between Pennsylvania and Delaware.

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