On Wednesday, in concluding the White House Conference on American History, which was led by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and featured mostly non-historians attacking actual historians, the president signed an executive order to promote “patriotic education” by convening a “1776 Commission.” This was an apparent dig at the New York Times’s 1619 Project on the beginning of American slavery.
And he announced the latest famous name for the heroes’ garden: Caesar Rodney.
You’re not alone if you said, “Caesar?”
Rodney was one of the 56 men — all White, of course — to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and was one of three delegates representing his colony in the Continental Congress. In early July, he was home tending to local affairs when he received word that the other two delegates were hopelessly deadlocked on the issue of independence.
“Caesar Rodney was called upon to break the tie, even though he was suffering from very advanced cancer, he was deathly ill,” Trump said Wednesday. “Rodney rode 80 miles through the night through a severe thunderstorm from Dover to Philadelphia to cast his vote for independence.”
Historical fact check: It’s unclear if Rodney rode on horseback, as is often depicted, or inside a carriage, as his brother later claimed in a letter, according to the Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. And while he did suffer from a facial cancer that he covered with a scarf for much of his life, it’s also unclear if it was “very advanced” in 1776, as he lived until 1784.
Whoever might be tasked with sculpting his likeness will have some trouble, because Rodney never sat for a portrait. John Adams once described him, rather rudely, as “the oddest-looking Man in the World … his Face is not bigger than a large Apple.”
So why does Trump want to honor the somewhat obscure Rodney and not, say, a founder with a signature as bold as his? Or all 56 of them, for that matter?
As luck would have it, Rodney came from Delaware, the home state of former vice president Joe Biden, Trump’s opponent in the November presidential election.
And there’s something else about Rodney that became relevant this past summer: He was an enslaver. He enslaved about 200 people on his plantation at the time of his death, according to the society.
A statue of Rodney stood for nearly 100 years in Wilmington, Del. But in June, during national protests over racial injustice, the mayor ordered that it be removed — along with one of Christopher Columbus — and stored “so there can be an overdue discussion about the public display of historical figures and events,” Mayor Mike Purzycki said.
Trump has been a vocal opponent of statue removal, incorrectly claiming in his speech Wednesday that he had signed an executive order making it so “if you demolish a statue without permission, you immediately get 10 years in prison.” (Laws already exist against destroying statues, and a 10-year sentence is neither “immediate” nor mandatory.)
In honoring Rodney, Trump attacked his opponent Wednesday.
“Joe Biden said nothing as to his home state’s history, and the fact that it was dismantled, dismembered and a Founding Father’s statue was removed,” Trump said.
Present-day fact check: The statue has not been dismembered.
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