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Caesar Rodney: hero or racist?

bas relief of Caesar Rodney at Independence Hall

Up until a couple of years ago, the statue of Caesar Rodney was prominently featured in downtown Wilmington, commanding a square named after this famous Delaware patriot.

I was looking forward to photographing it for the “Delaware Before the Railroads” book, but when I went to Rodney Square over the summer, the statue was no longer there. Yes, the base was there, including its bas relief of Rodney arriving in Philadelphia to cast his vote ‘yea’ on whether Delaware wished to approve the Declaration of Independence.

Caesar Rodney statue at Wilmington’s Rodney Square being removed; June 2020.

Where’d the statue go? Well, Rodney wasn’t a Confederate general, but he WAS a slaveholder. Monuments to slaveholders aren’t in vogue at the moment. Wilmington mayor Mike Purzycki said in a news release in June 2020 that the statue was being “removed and stored so there can be an overdue discussion about the public display of historical figures and events.” Purzycki is white in a city that is 57% African American.

Here’s the thing. The reason Delaware created that monument in the first place, and why roads and schools are named after him, is that he put duty to country above convenience, above comfort, above his private affairs.

1999 Caesar Rodney special issue quarter

That July of 1776, Rodney was attending to business on his plantation in Dover, when a messenger came galloping up to him to inform him that the two delegates representing Delaware at the Continental Congress then in session in Philly were deadlocked: one was ready to vote ‘yea,’ one was ready to vote ‘nay’ on whether Delaware wished to approve the Declaration of Independence that had been put forward. Rodney was the person who could break the tie.

He’d just been in Philly working with the congress as one of Delaware’s three elected delegates, but congress had taken a break. Rodney went back to Dover, thinking he had some time before discussions resumed. But the push toward war was coming faster than anyone had anticipated, the congress quickly re-assembled, and now Rodney was needed back, and fast.

He dropped everything, grabbed a horse, rode through the night over rough dirt backroads, through a fierce thunderstorm, stopping only to change horses on his ride. He didn’t stop to eat, he didn’t stop to sleep.

Only two Delawareans have a statue in the US Capitol. Caesar Rodney is one of them.

He pressed on till he arrived in Philadelphia a day later, marched into the hall where proceedings were happening, and cast the tie-breaker vote. The vote that said Delaware was in. Delaware approved the Declaration of Independence.

Would you have dropped everything to do what he did?

A large majority of Delaware’s political class in 1776 owned slaves. George Washington owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Shall we tear down the Washington Monument? Close the doors of Monticello?

I’m concerned that we are erasing history by trying to overcorrect for the fact of these early leaders being slaveholders. Yes, slavery was evil, we certainly should not celebrate its ugly presence in American culture. But we’re throwing out the baby with the bath water. We’re holding America’s forefathers accountable to our current day standards, rather than the standards of the time they lived in.

I am not ashamed to be proud of Caesar Rodney’s heroic ride. I don’t like the fact that he held slaves, but that doesn’t overshadow his accomplishment. I’ll be running the bas relief photo of him at the top of this post  in “Delaware Before the Railroads”.

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