Patrick Rael is professor of history at Bowdoin College and author of “Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865.”
President Trump told his supporters in Phoenix on Aug. 22, that the media is "trying to take away our history and our heritage" and is giving a platform to hate groups. (The Washington Post)

In the wake of violence over the removal of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, President Trump has conflated George 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.

President Trump asked if statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson should be removed since they owned slaves while speaking in New York on Aug. 15. (The Washington Post)

Trump is not the first to compare secessionists like Lee to the Founding Fathers. In fact, the Southern Rebels of 1861 cast themselves very much in the mold of American Revolutionaries. Most statements justifying secession called directly upon the “great principles asserted in the Declaration of Independence,” as Georgia’s secession convention put it. South Carolina’s convention directly cited the declaration’s right of revolution, which stated that whenever any “form of government becomes destructive of the ends for which it was established, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government.”

Secessionists hearkened to the founding principles of the United States with some justification. The American Revolutionaries fought to protect liberty, and particularly the freedom to enjoy personal property. But in an age of slavery, could humans be both people and property? That was the question the Founders’ generation raised when it established a new society predicated on absolute rights. Did one person’s right to “legally” possess human property supersede the right of self-ownership of those who constituted that property?

The question bedeviled the Revolutionary generation. On the one hand was the obvious hypocrisy of advocating universal liberty while practicing slavery. On the other was the reality that humans defined in law as property provided the labor that generated the profits on which many of the Colonies depended.

It would take almost a century for the country to resolve the issue, for Washington’s generation failed to excise it from the U.S. Constitution. Constitutional guarantees of slave property like the fugitive slave clause (Article 4, Section 2) and the three-fifths clause (Article 1, Section 2), which permitted slaveholding states to count 60 percent of their bound populations toward their representation in Congress and the electoral college, gave slaveholders potent legal protections and immense political power.

As a result, while the abolition of slavery began in Vermont in 1777, it would take decades of sacrifice and political activism to challenge its dominance. It ended only as the result of a sectional conflict that fractured the nation’s political system, driving it into a civil war that claimed as many as a million lives. In no other Atlantic slave society did ending the institution require such a massive cataclysm — one begun over slavery but fought overwhelmingly by white men who did not even own slaves.

The intervening years witnessed an enormous transformation in understandings of slavery. What many white Americans first viewed as a necessary if perhaps lamentable institution became seen as a backward one that needed to be abolished. But it wasn’t that slavery changed. It was that ideas about it changed. Slavery became immoral because people began to decide it was. The American Revolution helped initiate that process, while the Civil War helped conclude it.

Herein lies the difference between these two men: Washington stood at the beginning of the debate about ending slavery in the United States and Lee at the end. Washington wondered about slavery when its morality first became a subject of widespread public discussion; Lee wondered about slavery just as that discussion was being resolved once and for all by the bloody civil war he helped lead.

The two men were not the same, for they stood for different causes: Washington for a national independence committed to unfulfilled promises of universal human liberty. Lee for a national independence committed to limiting liberty’s promises to white people alone.

Reductionist history might serve defenders of Confederate monuments, but our public discussions deserve better. As we continually debate the best way to commemorate our past, let us resolve to treat history with the thoughtfulness and nuance it deserves.