clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The huge problem with Trump comparing Robert E. Lee to George Washington

We celebrate the good things the founders did. Confederates didn’t do anything good.

In fresh tweets Thursday morning, Donald Trump, a life-long New Yorker with no personal or familial connection whatsoever to the Confederate States of America, once again stood up for the principle that honoring the leaders of a 19th century rebellion whose goal was to entrench the institution of chattel slavery is similar to honoring the founders of the United States of America.

Trump offered similar remarks at a disjointed Tuesday press conference. “Was George Washington a slave owner?” he asked, rhetorically. “So will George Washington now lose his status ... are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson?”

Tucker Carlson sought to further muddy the waters on his Fox News show Tuesday night, by observing that figures such as Plato and Mohammed also owned slaves.

These arguments aren’t exactly offered in good faith. But even then, they reflect a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the Confederacy as a project — and of the difference between commemorating its leaders compared to America’s Founding Fathers.

Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and the other politicians and generals who served the Confederate States of America aren’t noteworthy historical figures who also happened to benefit from the institution of slavery. They are historical figures who are noteworthy almost exclusively because they led an insurrection against the United States of America, an insurrection whose primary purpose was to perpetuate slavery.

Owning human chattel — and offering intellectual and political defenses of the institution of American slavery — is an important and dishonorable part of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy. But it’s the entirety of Davis’s legacy.

We celebrate the good things about the founders

Historiographical arguments about the relative merits of the different Founding Fathers are a staple of American intellectual life, playing out in scholarly works and popular histories and even Broadway musicals. The reputations of individual founders wax and wane over time. Jefferson’s reputation is currently in something of a slump, thanks to revelations about Sally Hemings and “Cabinet Battle No. 1.”

Still, Jefferson’s contributions remain largely celebrated today. That’s in keeping with another staple of American life: The big-picture point of the pantheon of American founders is to celebrate the good things about them. A commission established by Yale University in the wake of controversy over one of their residential colleges being named after John Calhoun introduces the useful concept of a historical figure’s “principal legacy.” They observe that Frederick Douglass said and wrote some offensive things about Native Americans, but that nonetheless his principal legacy is as an abolitionist and civil rights leaders.

By the same token, Jefferson is in the pantheon because he wrote the Declaration of Independence and because of his wartime diplomatic service. Alexander Hamilton is in the pantheon because he wrote the Federalist Papers and laid the foundations of the American political economy. Washington is in the pantheon because he was the military leader of the successful war of independence and because he established the peaceful transfer of power from president to president.

It’s true that the real historical figures at work were more complicated than the storybook heroes conventionally presented to young children. But the storybook hero version of Washington makes sense because Washington really did participate in great acts worth celebrating, even if he also did terrible things like own human beings as personal property or sleazy things like pick the location for the nation’s capital to maximize the value of his own landholdings.

Confederate leaders, by contrast, are being celebrated purely for doing something bad.

There are no good parts to the Confederacy

Running parallel to the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Arlington, Virginia, you will find the Jefferson Davis Highway. And while the parkway commemorates the father of his country — a man who was also a slave owner — only an extraordinarily stupid person would believe that the highway is commemorating a former Cabinet secretary from the Franklin Pierce administration.

The reason there is a highway named after Jefferson Davis in Virginia is that Virginia was one of the states that seceded to join the Confederate States of America and Davis was the civilian leader of the CSA. And the CSA itself was a political project that had no real purpose other than to maintain slavery as an institution. Its political leaders like Davis attempted to destroy the country in order to keep their slaves, and CSA military leaders, like Lee, contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in pursuit of that cause.

There were certainly people associated with the Confederacy who were noteworthy for other reasons. Judah P. Benjamin was the first Jewish US senator before he became a member of Davis’s Cabinet. But he’s an obscure figure in Jewish-American history precisely because American Jews, with good reason, don’t feel comfortable celebrating a major CSA political figure. Overwhelmingly, the monuments to Confederate generals and politicians are there because they led a pro-slavery insurrection, not despite it.

It would obviously be unreasonable to expect every celebrated historical figure to be without any kind of significant blemish. But the case against Confederate statuary is setting a much lower bar. It demands only that a celebrated historical figure have done something worth celebrating. Washington, Jefferson, and other mainstream American historical figures all clearly meet that test. Lee and Davis clearly flunk it.