In his third — and most appalling — set of remarks on a violent white supremacist rally, President Donald Trump not only engaged in moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and anti-racist counter-protesters, he went so far as to defend the grudge that brought the white supremacists to Charlottesville in the first place.
“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” the president said. “So this week, it is 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?” Even the president’s outside attorney, John Dowd, got into the act, circulating an email claiming, “You cannot be against General Lee and be for General Washington, there literally is no difference between the two men.”
This is moral sophistry of a high order. At the most basic level, the difference between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, on the one hand, and Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, on the other, comes down to this: The former helped create the United States of America; the latter fought against it. It’s as simple as that. And it doesn’t take a lot of knowledge of history — which the president plainly does not possess — to grasp that basic distinction.
This helps to explain why there are, in fact, no calls to raze the Washington Monument or the Jefferson Memorial even from those who believe that the United States should pay reparations for slavery. True, Washington and Jefferson were slaveholders, and they were acutely conscious that this shameful practice contradicted the soaring ideals of the Declaration of Independence. That is why Washington in his will freed his slaves after his death (although his widow continued to own her own slaves). Jefferson, for his part, freed five slaves in his will and the other 130 were sold by his estate.
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But Washington and Jefferson also created a system of government that, while stained by the original sin of slavery, nevertheless established certain “unalienable rights” that would finally be vindicated after the struggles of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. That Jefferson and Washington were flawed human beings does not negate their greatness or the debt that we owe them for creating our country.
By contrast, what is it that we are supposed to be grateful to the Confederates for? For seceding from the Union?
Attempts to suggest that Robert E. Lee was somehow different — that he was a glorious cavalier who embodied a noble “Lost Cause” — are founded on little more than ahistorical mythology. As noted by Adam Serwer in the Atlantic, while Lee was troubled by slavery, he was not an advocate of emancipation. He was, in fact, a cruel taskmaster as both a slave-owner and a general. “During his invasion of Pennsylvania,” Serwer notes, “Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enslaved free blacks and brought them back to the South as property.” Moreover: “Soldiers under Lee’s command at the Battle of the Crater in 1864 massacred black Union soldiers who tried to surrender.” After the war, Lee opposed giving the vote to freed slaves.
There is still a place for Confederate statues and even Confederate flags. But that place is on battlefields and museums where history can be recounted in an even-handed and accurate fashion. It is not in public squares where such monuments serve as rallying symbols for neo-Nazis. The very fact that white supremacists are so bent on preserving Confederate statues, by force if need be, tells you all you need to know about why the president of the United States should not be defending them.
Max Boot is a fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.