Commentary: Can we reconcile the contradictions?

By Eddy Seger

Recent events have encouraged many of us to look at our assumptions and relationships. I admit I have struggled with my own long-held beliefs. After inquiries from Dave Bonar, Michael McKain and Skip Carrow, and having the Delaware quarter become part of the debate, I offer my thoughts.

A statue can be a visual tribute to those who have gone before. It affords us the opportunity to say what we value in our personal and shared lives.

I have to admit, I never thought about Caesar Rodney as a slave owner, but I should have. After all, that was the order of the day among the landed. Twelve (one-fourth) of our presidents owned slaves, eight while serving as chief executive: George Washington owned 317; Thomas Jefferson, over 600; James Madison, over 100; James Monroe, 75; Andrew Jackson, 200; Martin Van Buren, one; William Henry Harrison, 11; John Tyler, 70; James Polk, 25; Zachary Taylor, fewer than 150; Andrew Johnson, eight; and Ulysses Grant, one. Even Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, that clear thinker and abolitionist in his old age, held slaves in earlier years.

Eddy Seger

These weren’t perfect men. We weren’t a perfect nation. From the beginning, we ensconced the institution of slavery in our Constitution (remember three-fifths of a person?) and eventually fought a war over it. That didn’t change until the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Then, the injustice continued through Jim Crow laws, Supreme Court rulings (Plessy vs. Ferguson), over 4,000 lynchings, the denial of civil rights, and mass incarcerations. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up where we are? We have every reason to reevaluate the history that has brought us here and where we are going — and who our heroes are.

You have to ask: Why do we have statues? What are the tributes meant to represent? George Washington is on every quarter and dollar bill in the country. Our nation’s capital is named after him, as are monuments and a state, along with numerous schools, roads and institutions. Jefferson is on every nickel, Jackson on the twenty, and Grant on the fifty. They are celebrated, not for their failings, but for the contributions they made to our country. They are honored because they were among the best of their time, as imperfect as it was. On the other hand, statues representing Confederate soldiers and generals honor their bravery and service, but it is bravery in the defense of slavery and service in the destruction of the United States. Many were erected not so much to honor the men as to reinforce white superiority over a surging minority. Statues dedicated to Revolutionary War heroes — flawed as those individuals were — celebrate their deeds in the pursuit of a greater good. Is it possible to hold both thoughts: They were part of a system that dehumanized and held people in horrific bondage and yet made a significant contribution to the advancement of the human condition? The one does not cancel out the other. This is the struggle I have: How do we reconcile the two? We are a bundle of contradictions pitting our aspirations against our realities.

The intent of recognizing Caesar Rodney in statue, coin, schools and squares was to highlight the sacrifices he made to help build a nation. He left the world better than he found it — not perfect, but better. That’s why we honor him. If one purpose of a tribute is not necessarily to hold up an ideal, but to point the way to a better world, perhaps letting someone like Caesar Rodney lead the way is not a bad idea.

Now, it’s up to us to leave it better than we found it.

Eddy Seger was an art and drama teacher at Caesar Rodney High School for twenty-two years (retired in 2007), modified their Horse ‘n’ Rider logo in the mid-eighties, and was given credit by the U.S. Mint for the Delaware Quarter in 1999. He lives in Clayton.