Commentary: Caesar Rodney: legend, myth, man

By Teresa Pierce

Caesar Rodney was no Christopher Columbus or Confederate general.

Whatever your feelings on the latter debated characters of American history, he does not deserve to be lumped in with these classes of men. Over his life, he struggled to reconcile the prejudices of his time with the ideals of America. He had the strength of character to change. How many of us could do the same?

He was born into the culture of slavery, a passive act and not a culture he chose in adulthood. At 17, his father died and in an instant, he became a slaveowner like all his neighbors. That is a harsh fact, but these are also facts. While we have records of others pursuing the enslaved when they escaped, we have no records of Caesar Rodney ever doing the same. In his will, he ordered the arranged freedom of all the enslaved people of his estate even going so far as to legally prevent others from taking the enslaved out of state so to avoid their mandated freedom.

Did he do all he could have? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Teresa Pierce

Yet, he changed his opinion on an issue seen as commonplace and complicated and fought against the prejudices of his time just as we struggle with the prejudices we are brought up with today. The statue of Caesar Rodney is not of Caesar the slaveowner, but instead the man who, sick with cancer on a stormy night, rode to help give birth to a new nation, a nation which would one day fight a war to bring an end to slavery.

I shudder to think what ethical questions today deemed complicated will, when sifted and refined over the next few centuries, be viewed as crystal-clear moral dilemmas. Will future generations treat us with compassion? I hope so. History is harder to live through than it is to judge in hindsight. If the drama which is 2020 has not taught that to the American people, then nothing will.

Caesar was not a man of academia who wrote great tracts on political theory or philosophy, but rather a common-sense man who tried to do the right thing, whose reputation for integrity is found in his obituary: “In the administration of justice, he had no respect of persons, nor was ever awed into unworthy compliance by the frowns of a party — he had the peculiar address of reconciling factions and making them equally good citizens, without injuring the common cause. He was modest without meanness and steady without rudeness.”  Is not that legacy something worth remembering?

One hundred years after his death, a spire was raised in Dover and commemorated by a senator, saying, “What will be inscribed on his monument I know not, but are there words more fitting than those of Emerson?:

‘Spirit, that made those heroes dare,

To die, and leave their children free,

Bid Time and Nature gently spare

The shaft we raise to them and thee.’ ”

His statue does not celebrate his sins but his virtues. Let us instead teach his story in its totality. His body already lies forgotten in an unmarked grave; let us not also forget the man.

Teresa Pierce has a background in historical interpretation and has researched 18th century Delaware for the past five years. She lives in Dover.