During President Donald Trump’s remarkably equivocal Charlottesville, Virginia, press conference last week, he raised a question worth consideration:
“This week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
It’s a good question. Trump, of course, is using it disingenuously to support his unseemly nonposition on white supremacy, but it’s instructive to ask ourselves why more Americans are favoring the removal or destruction of statues commemorating the heroes of the Old South but not clamoring to tear down the Washington monument or rename our nation’s capital.
George Washington did, indeed, own slaves, which makes him, by definition, a white supremacist. And he wasn’t a particularly benevolent master. He was reluctant to flog his slaves and break up slave families, but this wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule for him, and sometimes he bowed to necessity.
He worked his slaves hard, often from sunup to sundown, six days a week. And despite his reluctance to separate slave families, he did not allow that scruple to interfere with the economic necessities of running a Virginia plantation.
It’s tempting to give George and Martha a pass because they were born into a culture that saw the subjugation of blacks as part of the normal order of the universe. In fact, when a trusted slave occasionally tried to escape, they were hurt as much as angered that a black man or woman might want to reject their care and benevolence.
But plenty of other Colonials knew better. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and many others recognized that slavery is evil. In fact, Washington himself knew it was wrong; he always had long-range plans to emancipate his slaves but never got around to implementing them.
So what’s the difference between George Washington and Robert E. Lee? A quick answer might be that Washington was hoping to create and establish our nation and Lee was doing his best to destroy it.
But I think remoteness in time is relevant as well. In some ways, the Colonial world can seem as distant as the days of Arthurian legend, a period of American history steeped in superstition and scientific ignorance, when white men predominated, medicine was primitive, punishments were brutal, Native Americans were massacred and witch-burning was only a few generations out of date.
The Civil War, on the other hand, is comparatively recent, much more of the modern era. I’m not that old — OK, I’m 68 — but I was in elementary school when Life magazine reported the death of the last Civil War veteran. The Civil War remains present in the minds of many Americans. It has never been entirely resolved, and the iconography of the Confederacy is still immensely powerful.
It’s so powerful that it can galvanize the deranged — such as Dylann Roof, the Charleston, South Carolina, shooter, and James Alex Fields, charged with killing a woman in Charlottesville — to unspeakable acts of violence. And it serves as the culture in which the virus of racial hatred and white supremacy thrives. As long as the heroes of the Confederacy — Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson — are honored and memorialized in public places, they will serve as rallying points for racial haters.
No one is rallying around Washington or Jefferson. They were racists and white supremacists, but no one looks to them to affirm those repugnant values.
In some respects, citizens and organizations that want to preserve the heritage of the Old South have overplayed their hands. They’ve allowed the courage and principles of the heroes of the Confederacy — as misguided as they were — to be hijacked and put into the service of a hateful ideology that has been a part of the fabric of our nation from the beginning.
Here’s the distinction that Trump fails to make: For all their faults, Washington and Jefferson helped create the elusive American ideal of equality, justice and tolerance. Lee, Jackson and Davis gave up on it.
John M. Crisp is a columnist for Tribune News Service. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.