The Difference Between Robert E. Lee and George Washington

The President made some remarks today about Robert E. Lee, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, basically an ongoing attempt to divert the negative publicity he has been getting because he can’t seem to get it right when it comes to the Alt-Right, the Neo-Nazi movement, and the issue of white supremacy.  Among the many levels of help he needs when it comes to making public statements, he needs someone who can help him get the history correct.  One of the qualifications of a president should be a thorough knowledge of American History, or at least, the ability to do some research in advance before speaking about it.  The current President needs a lot of help in this area.

Trump questioned whether statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would now be subject to removal like those of Robert E. Lee because they also owned slaves.  The answer is no, because the point he was trying to make, that taking down statues of Robert E Lee is political correctness running amok over culture and historical tradition, is not supported by historical fact.  Merely owning slaves isn’t the real issue.  Washington, Jefferson, and others among the founding fathers, were part of a culture in which slavery was an accepted institution.  The incongruity that exists because the author of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves has long been a topic for discussion in countless history classes.  But there are vast differences between Washington and Jefferson on one side, and Lee on the other.

There are some interesting, quirky connections between Washington and Lee.  Lee was born on a Virginia plantation in an elegant home owned by his parents, but during his childhood, his father went broke, and eventually moved the family to a small house in Alexandria. Lee attended Christ Church, the Anglican-turned-Episcopalian church in Alexandria of which George Washington had been a member, and had attended.  Lee married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the great-granddaughter of First Lady Martha Washington and her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis.  Mary’s parents owned Arlington Plantation, directly across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, and the mansion at the top of the hill became their residence.  That’s quite a pedigree, and those connections should have served to make Lee, who attended West Point for his commission, a patriotic and loyal American.

So you don’t think there’s a difference between Washington, who served the country and devoted his later years to building the nation, Jefferson, who authored its foundational documents and helped define and build democratic principles into the nation’s government, and Lee, who took advantage of the resources his country had given him, trained as a general in its military academy, and then turned against it in rebellion, siding with his state’s defense of the institution of slavery, instead of defending the constitution and the unity of the country?  Yes, all three men owned slaves.  Washington recognized how degrading it was, and there is evidence that he cared for his slaves as well as the times allowed, freeing them in his will upon his death.  There is also documentation that Jefferson treated his slaves very well, freeing many of them, and providing for their well being.  Both men took action, within the limits of the restraint of the social fabric of their time, which promoted the eventual demise of institutional slavery.  Lee is also said to have treated his slaves well, but he chose to turn his back on his country to defend his state and its decision to go to war to protect the institution of slavery, and the white supremacy that was a philosophical foundation of the practice. Why does that deserve having a statue made of you?

The statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and other confederate leaders that dot the South were put up during a time when the effects of Reconstruction, mainly the government’s intervention to protect the civil rights of African Americans in the period following the Civil War, were being rolled back by a succession of Presidents and Congresses, beginning with Woodrow Wilson.  The Ku Klux Klan, sensing political support, grew larger and more bold, and helped to create an atmosphere in which such statues and monuments were built with public support and with tax dollars, in public places.  Prior to this time, it would have been very difficult, perhaps impossible, to put up a statue of Lee, or a monument to Davis.

We’re not going to take down statues and monuments to Washington, Jefferson, or other founding fathers.  They were slave owners, as were most of the wealthy and powerful men of their time.  They were caught up in the ideology of the day, time, and place, which relied heavily on the use of slave labor to produce a profitable plantation.  We recognize the history of slavery, and its impact on American settlement, economic and social development, politics, and just about everything else.  Yes, they owned slaves, but the ideals and principles which they built into the American democratic republic were eventually interpreted as applying to everyone, and the groundswell of support that was received as a result of that interpretation led to the eventual abolition of institutional slavery, and the extension of the guarantees of individual rights to all citizens, regardless of their race.  Did they foresee the day when that would happen?  I believe the evidence points to the fact that they did.  They were certainly major contributors to the ideals which made it possible.

Lee’s background, and his connection to the Washington family provided him with the same opportunity.  And at a critical moment, when the country was coming to the conclusion that slavery was an immoral affront to a Holy God, he made a choice to turn his back on his country, the principles of his faith, and his military oath and commission to defend those who were rebelling against the United States, and who held to the ideals of white supremacy.  He took command of the largest, and most effective military division of an enemy country, gave orders leading to attacks on American soldiers, and fought to defeat its principles of liberty by denying it the opportunity to prosperity.   More than 400,000 people, mostly soldiers of both sides, died as a result of his decision making ability.  At war’s end, the President of the United States, Andrew Johnson, had him arrested for treason.  Read the constitution’s definition of that principle, if you want to know why.  It was Ulysses Grant, Lee’s fellow West Pointer, who got him off the hook.

How would you feel if, in the wake of World War 2, statues had been erected honoring Alfred Jodl, Wilhelm Keitel and Adolf Hitler in public parks and in front of courthouses in the United States?  That’s exactly what it is like for African Americans, and for any Americans who are sickened and disgusted by the ideas of white supremacy, represented by the Confederate States of America and promoted by those who fought for it.  Our country exists as it does today, with a constitution proclaiming liberty and justice, and defending the “inalienable rights” of humanity, in spite of the Confederacy’s attempt to destroy and defeat it.  It is only the initial origin of the confederate states as part of the United States which forces us to share a common history.  During its existence, it was an enemy state not unlike Nazi Germany in ideology, including the belief that slavery was the natural product of a “social order” that determined white people were superior to dark skinned people.  If individuals want to display the symbols and monuments of that disgusting part of our past, free speech under the constitution they tried to destroy permits them to do so, on their own property.  But get it off public property and the tax rolls.

And let’s get this straight.  There were no “good” people in the mob in Charlottesville who marched through town carrying torches, and baseball bats, deliberately attempting to provoke people to violence, and shouting Nazi and anti-semitic slogans.  Good people protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, Mr. President?  Hardly.  And there wasn’t any violence until some of the white supremacists provoked it.  Many of those there to protest against the alt-right were clergy, or associated with a group of local churches who organized the protest.  The white supremacists were completely responsible for the violence, and for the death caused when one of their number rammed his vehicle into the crowd.  Their leader took responsibility for that, and promised more deaths resulting from their hatred and vitriol.   Hearing him speak so hateful toward anyone who doesn’t share his race or his ideology brought one word to mind.






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