The Difference Between George Washington and Robert E. Lee

The former helped create the United States of America; the latter betrayed it.

In his third — and most appalling — set of remarks on a violent white supremacist rally, 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? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” The next day, Trump doubled down on this message via Twitter, suggesting that his defense of Confederate monuments is no passing whim but a deeply held conviction. 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 created 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 to cover his substantial debts.

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? For, in the case of former U.S. Army officers such as Lee and Jackson, violating their oaths to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic”? For triggering the most bloody conflict in American history? For fighting to keep their fellow citizens in bondage?

There is nothing praiseworthy about any of this even if, like all soldiers, many Confederates showed considerable prowess and bravery in battle. But then so did Nazi German generals such as Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian. The same could be said of Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor. Heck, even the 9/11 hijackers were undoubtedly courageous if also deeply twisted. Why not honor them while we’re at it? The cause in which bravery is displayed matters a lot, and the cause of the Confederacy, to maintain and preserve slavery, was evil. Therefore we should not pay tribute to its leaders. Full stop.

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.

The most praise-worthy thing that Lee did was to conclude the peace at Appomattox in April 1865 and reject calls to wage guerrilla warfare against the Union.But his motives were only partly altruistic — he feared that an insurgency would destroy the social system dominated by the South’s plantation class. The fact that Lee, like German and Japanese leaders, was willing to accept defeat after being soundly beaten does not obviate his fundamental crime in waging war on a country he had pledged to serve.

If there is any Confederate worthy of special recognition it isn’t Lee but his subordinate, Gen. James Longstreet, who after the war battled white supremacist militias in New Orleans that were seeking to deprive freedmen of their rights. But it is precisely for this reason that Longstreet became anathema to his fellow Confederates. No statues to Longstreet were erected until one finally went up at the Gettysburg battlefield in 1998.

And, no, it isn’t rewriting history, as Trump claims, to take down statues honoring Confederates. The real attempt to rewrite history was undertaken by white supremacists who made a fetish of honoring the Confederacy so as to preserve segregation — the oppression of freed slaves and their descendants — when it was under challenge from the 1860s to the 1960s. Mainstream historiography has already been revised to dispel the myth of the “Lost Cause” that was created by white supremacists after the Confederacy’s defeat. Taking down the statues is simply allowing the statuary to catch up with the history.

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.