Memory  /  Argument

What Trump — And His Critics — Get Wrong About George Washington and Robert E. Lee

The two men owned slaves — but at vastly different moments in American history.

In the wake of violence over the removal of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, President Trump has conflatedGeorge Washington, who led the war effort to found our country, with Robert E. Lee, who led the war effort to try to end it. Conservative commentators have supported the president’s historical claim. Tucker Carlson amplified it, asserting that if we are to dishonor Lee because of his slaveholding, consistency compels us to undertake the same unthinkable gesture with the father of our country.

Scholars have been right to criticize this argument. It abuses history in its defense of public works honoring the history of white supremacy. And it poses a false equivalence between very different figures, placing Washington — our first president — on the same slippery slope as Lee.

But critics, in their zeal to distance Washington from Lee, have overstated the differences between the two men, and in the process, have failed to explain clearly why the comparison is suspect. For both men were indeed slaveholding rebels. Both expressed ambivalence about slavery, but both also exemplified the aristocratic ideals of their respective planter regimes. And both fought for visions of freedom that depended on the subordination and exploitation of another “race.”

The two differed, however, in one critical respect: They stood at opposite ends of the history of slavery’s long demise. This shifting historical context of slavery — and the process by which it was challenged — matters if we want to understand why all slaveholders were not the same, and why we need not feel compelled to treat them as if they were.