Both were great generals. Both Virginians. Both came from slave-owning plantation families.
Is it really so far-fetched to put Robert E. Lee in the same category as George Washington, as President Donald Trump suggested Tuesday?
Many historians say yes.
“It’s a ridiculous conflation,” said Professor Alice Fahs of the University of California, Irvine. “He’s not a founding father, and it’s as though Trump thinks he is. It’s really astonishing. It’s amazing.”
Trump’s remarks on Tuesday came as he was defending those who have sought to preserve the statue of Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, the focus of a violent weekend clash in which an anti-racist protester was killed. The president didn’t exactly equate the Confederate general with the nation’s founding fathers. But he noted a similarity sometimes glossed over — ownership of slaves by figures who nobly stand or sit astride horses on U.S. pedestals — and he asked: If you’re going to be pulling down statues, “where does it stop?”
“So, this week it’s Robert E. Lee,” he said. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?”
There is no notable movement to tear down the Washington monument.
Most historians are in agreement that Washington and Jefferson’s ownership of slaves has tainted the positive legacy they left. And some monuments and memorials to both men attempt to address that part of their lives.
For some, monuments to those founding fathers “force us to contemplate the centrality of slavery to the making of the nation,” said Gregory Downs, a history professor at the University of California, Davis who studies the impact of the Civil War on the United States. But he also said the difference between the nation’s first president, George Washington, and then man who sought to secede from the nation, Robert E. Lee, isn’t complicated.
“It is obvious that traitors in arms to the nation are not equivalent to those who created it,” he said.
Adding to the complexity of the debate, many Lee memorials were erected long after the Civil War as part of an effort to rehabilitate Lee’s reputation and denigrate his victorious opponent Ulysses S. Grant, who fought to preserve the nation and later defended black civil rights as president.
In that sense the memorials “celebrated two historical crimes,” Downs said. “First, treasonous secession for the purpose of preserving and expanding slavery forever. Second, the violent and fraudulent creation of Jim Crow segregation.”
Associate Professor Michael Green of the University of Nevada Las Vegas added, “A lot of Southerners glorified Lee into something more than he was.”
Lee has been portrayed as kindly to slaves, which he was not, and conflicted about which side to fight for, which is inaccurate, Green said.
He concedes, however, that if “my ancestors had fought for the Confederacy, it’s possible I would feel a little differently. It’s important to look at historical figures so that we don’t look up at them or down on them, but from all angles.”
He said that historical consensus is very different now than when Trump learned it in school decades ago. People like Lee were presented as heroes and people like Frederick Douglass, about whom the president seemed to have little knowledge earlier this year, weren’t presented at all.
Lee and Washington in the same class? Said Downs: “Had the Confederacy won, a new nation founded on perpetuating slavery would have celebrated Robert E. Lee as its George Washington. Luckily for us, that effort failed.”
Andrew Dalton reported from Los Angeles.