New Castle – Delaware’s First Capital

New Castle, Delaware was founded in 1651 by the Dutch, taken over by the Swedes and finally Great Britain. Incorporated into the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by William Penn, as one of its six counties, it was a major port along the Delaware River

Today the State House has been restored, having served as a gymnasium, restaurant and other sundry uses. Some notable judicial proceedings happened in this courthouse. Around 1800 Chief Justice of the Federal Supreme Court Samuel Chase presided over a grand jury hearing judging the seditious articles written by a local newspaper. The grand jury could find nothing. But Chase badgered them and held them in contempt until they accused the newspaper editor of sedition. For this star quality behavior and other equally outrageous acts while conducting juris prudence, Chase joins the distinguished company of Andrew Johnson and William Clinton as receiving the accolades of the articles of impeachment. Like Clinton and Johnson, he did not leave office.

Another landmark case featured the most revered Supreme Court Justice Taney, who also handed down the Dred Scott decision. This regarded an operator of the Underground Railroad, who was subsequently found guilty and fined a great deal of money: another nail into the coffin for the Civil War.

The final case held in the Courthouse was one of the most notorious, Delaware vs. Neal. In 1880 a black man was charged in raping a white woman; a capital offense. His lawyer, losing the case in New Castle Court, petitioned the Federal Government to hear the case based on the exclusion of blacks in the jury selection. Even though blacks comprised seventeen percent of Delaware’s population, none ever served on grand or petit jury. The Supreme Court declared a mistrial, and the new one took place at the new courthouse in Wilmington where he was acquitted. Interestingly enough, the jury in that second trial was also all white, but it was the beginning of adding African-Americans to the jury selection process. William Penn was very foresighted in that even in the 1600’s disputes between Native Americans were to be settled by a jury composed equally of Indians and whites.

Today New Castle is a quiet town with cobblestone and brick streets and sidewalks. The town still captures the spirit of Colonial days and the early nation with its row houses, the Green, town market and the square in front of the Courthouse and city hall.