President Trump, who I’m pretty sure could not pass a junior-high-level test on U.S. history, suggests that if we take down statues to Robert E. Lee, we must take down statues to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. He’s not right. He’s not wrong. He’s not thoughtful. He’s not helpful. And, as on most matters historical or moral, he thinks everything is about him.
But his gut instinct, which seems to guide almost everything he says and does in a way that is truly alarming, told him that playing the Lee = Washington + Jefferson distraction card would help him in his ongoing effort to energize his political base while helping to extricate him from the latest mess he has created, the one about his comments since the Charlottesville riots. (This morning he carried the discussion further, tweeting, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. …”)
It’s a cynical, illogical ploy, and I’d like to believe it won’t work, but Trump has taught me to fear the canniness of his gut political instincts. So I’ll humbly wait and see. Nothing he has done since taking office has done him much good as far as raising his approval rating with the general population goes, but the question of his relationship with his base is more complicated.
Reputations not carved in stone
You might notice that in passing, I said Trump is “not wrong” about something. Specifically, the day might come when the stain of participation in the institution of slavery will substantially undermine the historical reputations of Washington and Jefferson. Should it? It’s not as though we just found out about their slaves, but historical reputations are not carved in stone either.
Human chattel slavery was wrong, very, very wrong. And those who benefited from it committed a moral crime. It wasn’t a literal crime as long as slavery was legal. Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, as Trump mentioned several times this week, as did most wealthy white southerners.
We know this and always have. Pretty much no one defends the institution of slavery nowadays, but for most of U.S. history, for reasons that I can’t exactly explain but you can intuitively understand, we have given a pass to those slave owners who otherwise played helpful or heroic roles in the story of our founding and our first century.
We were educated and raised on the heroism of Washington and the brilliance of Jefferson. They have been solid, first-class members of the pantheon of early America and — perhaps to maintain that status — we didn’t emphasize the slave-owner part of their résumés.
Trump — in his desperate, pitiful, angry effort to overcome his botched first reaction to the Charlottesville mess, to try to locate a sweet spot between his political reliance on hate-mongers of the KKK and neo-Nazi variety, but also to appeal to more reasonable white southerners on whom he also relies — decided to enlist Washington and Jefferson as character witnesses.
It’s true that hate-mongers and neo-Nazis generated the demonstrations that turned fatal in Charlottesville. But it’s also true, as Trump said, that some of those at the event were there to protest against the recent (narrow 3-2) vote of the Charlottesville City Council to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park. (The park used to be named for Lee, but that change has already occurred. The statue removal has been blocked by a judge pending further action.) Trump noted this statue controversy, and suggested that many of protesters were neither neo-Nazis nor militant white supremacists but admirers of Lee. He would like us to think about folks in that category, the Lee fans, in part because it fuzzes up the good-people-versus-evil-racists frame. Personally, I don’t doubt that some of the demonstrators fit this category, although the category boundaries can get fuzzy.
Robert E. Lee was a skilled general whose leadership probably prolonged the war over secession. For most of post-Civil War history, Lee was presented as a relatively positive figure. As a northern child of the 1950s and ’60s, I was raised to view Lee with respect.
Personally opposed secessionism
Lee was also a slave owner, having inherited many slaves from his wealthy father-in-law. In a letter to his wife long before slavery was abolished, Lee called slavery “a moral and political evil.” But Lee’s father-in-law’s will called for the plantation’s slaves to be freed, and Lee didn’t get it done. Lee also opposed secession (maybe not publicly, since he was a serving officer in the U.S. Army at the time and not encouraged to participate in politics, but clearly in a letter to his son.) But, because he decided to leave his post in the U.S. Army and take on the leadership of the Confederate military, his story is linked with the secessionism that he personally opposed.
There’s more to say about Lee’s attitude toward both slavery and secession, but it is hard to make moral sense of it. He was, in some sense, on both sides of both issues. For most of the century and a half since his death, he has been the most revered symbol of the Confederacy in the South, while respected in the North as a soldier and a gentleman.
But times change. And, although the historical facts generally don’t change, our view of them does. Slavery and racism were always wrong, but the clarity with which that is almost universally understood and the importance attached to condemning those institutions loudly and clearly has grown, which is a good thing.
So, yes, the fact that Washington and Jefferson were slave owners is likely to do more harm to their standing than it formerly has. It’s actually already happened with Jefferson, especially in the years since it has been established by DNA evidence that he not only exploited slaves for the benefit of his wealth, but also had children with Sally Hemmings, whom he owned but who also may have been the great love of his life. It’s complicated.
Jefferson also wrote (in his draft of the Declaration of Independence, which was modified a bit by the editing committee):
We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.
Squaring the sides of Jefferson
Somehow, as good as that sounds (and leaving aside for the moment all-men-but-no-mention-of-women bit) we have to square our admiration for the Jeffersonian sentiments expressed with his status as slave owner. Are we up to the task? Will we downgrade our view of the Declaration because its chief author was a hypocrite?
In dragging Washington and Jefferson into it, Trump was actually just trying to take their reputations hostage, for his own purposes: Instead of thinking about why he was so slow to denounce neo-Nazism and white supremacism, he’d like to change the subject to (unnamed) people who someday might malign Washington and Jefferson.
But yes, as time goes by, assuming the future views of the morality of slave-owning don’t take an upturn, the historical reputation of slave owners past may continue to take some damage, even if they are admired for other aspects of their life stories. I guess we’ve been through worse problems, like the “peculiar institution” of slavery itself, and the bloody horrors of the Civil War that ended that institution.
If one could have a rational discussion with Trump about the matter he raised, one would ask him: Mr. President, is it your position that the fact that someone owned slaves should not be taken in account in considering how much to admire and honor them?
I’d love to hear his response, but I doubt it would terribly edifying. I can’t even imagine him constructing one, but he certainly has figured out how to respond to something other than questions he’s been asked. If he did answer, it would be something about the crimes of Hillary Clinton or the lies of the fake news media. Is that gag ever gonna get old?