Commentary: Removing statues, but at what cost?

By Michael Mannering

Have we entered an era of self-perceived moral superiority?

Surely, living in the most free, prosperous society in the history of humankind must grant us some justification to look down on the backward and horrifying actions of those who came before us. Or perhaps erasing the sins of the past makes our society feel better about its current failings, which it seldom addresses.

In what can now only be described as the finger-pointing match of the century, Delaware has become the latest backdrop in a national trend with the removal of the Caesar Rodney statue in his namesake square in Wilmington.

Certainly, a first thought would be about what transgression warranted the removal of such an iconic statue. The answer: He was a slaveowner during the late 1700s. There is no denying that he profited from this horrific custom that started well before him and lasted well after his death.

However, the simple fact is that slave ownership was common for men of his social class at the time. Despite this, in recent years, we have witnessed the strange phenomenon of subjecting historical figures to the current moral standards of society, forgoing any positive or even instrumental contributions that the individual made. These individuals could have been the catalyst for change in generations to come, but little does that matter to some today.

So, who was Caesar Rodney besides a slaveowner?

In Delaware’s long and rocky history, he can be seen as one of the state’s most important figures in its early years. On June 15, 1776, with Rodney’s participation, Delaware (the “Three Lower Counties” as it was referred to) declared separation from Great Britain. Days later, he would take part in his most iconic role, his historic ride to Philadelphia through harsh weather, to cast his vote for independence.

Rodney is quoted, “As I believe the voice of my constituents and all sensible and honest men is in favor of independence, and as my own judgment concurs with them, I give my vote for independence.”

But he did not stop at that dramatic ride. He went on to be a trusted general in the Revolutionary War, leading Delaware’s militia, and would later go on to become the state’s fourth president. During his administration, he quelled the groups of loyalists who were organizing to defend English rule.

A lesser-known fact about his life can also be found in Carol E. Hoffecker’s book, “Democracy in Delaware: The Story of the First State’s General Assembly.” She wrote of how Rodney “led an effort in the assembly to end the slave trade in the Lower Three Counties.” Also, in Harold B. Hancock’s book, “Delaware, Two Hundred Years Ago: 1780-1800,” we learn that at the time of Rodney’s death, he willed his slaves to be free.

With some context to the life and times of Caesar Rodney, it doesn’t make sense to remove his statue given the spirit of his remembrance. We must begin to wonder what will be next. Will he be removed from our state quarter? Will Caesar Rodney School District be renamed? Will his statue be taken out of the U.S. Capitol? Does it stop at Caesar Rodney or will George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and others be the next casualty of a movement to selectively erase history?

With a standard like this, it will be interesting to see what our great-grandchildren do to the memorials of leaders from this decade. The realization must be that the only continual truth throughout time is that people are flawed, but what is unique about us will always be our instinctual need to better ourselves. Instead of taking down his statue, we should be honoring him for the ideals he stood for even if he morally fell short by today’s standards.

Let’s just hope that in the years to come, we can learn to acknowledge the faults and accomplishments of people from the past, so we don’t lose our national history along the way.

Michael Mannering is a resident of Newark.