“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?”
But historians say those statements completely gloss over key differences among the men, what they did and what they accomplished.
What Trump said
On Saturday, white supremacists from around the country descended on Charlottesville, a college town more than 100 miles southwest of Washington, to protest the removal of a statue of Lee. The unrest turned deadly when a car allegedly driven by a Nazi sympathizer plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring more than a dozen others.
Three days later, a president who had been reluctant to explicitly condemn white supremacists again blamed “both sides” for the violence and pushed back against removing Confederate statues during a heated exchange with reporters at Trump Tower.
When a reporter said that Washington and Lee are not the same, Trump responded: “George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status?”
“Are we going to take down — excuse me — are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? … Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner.”
Historians on Trump’s view: ‘The most kind explanation of that can only be ignorance’
To make an equivalency between two of the Founding Fathers and Confederacy leaders is not only “absurd,” but also “unacceptable for the president of the United States,” said Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association.
“They accomplished something very important. Washington and Jefferson were central to the creation of a nation … Lee and Stonewall were not being honored for those types of accomplishment,” Grossman said. “They were being honored for creating and defending the Confederacy, which existed for one reason, and that was to protect the right of people to own other people.”
Trump has said that he’s a fan of history yet he does not seem to trust historians.
Douglas Blackmon, an author and senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, said Trump either does not understand the history of the Confederacy or he’s sympathetic to white nationalist views.
“It’s the difference between a monument to the founder of our nation, and a monument to a key figure in an effort to break apart the nation,” Blackmon said. “The most kind explanation of that can only be ignorance, and I don’t say that to insult the president.”
To suggest that association with slavery is the only criteria on whether a historical figure should be honored is an equally faulty argument, Blackmon said, because one would be hard-pressed to find any 18th- and 19th-century leader of great consequence to American life who never owned slaves.
“It would be impossible to remember them if an association with slavery is the only criteria,” Blackmon said.
Why the slave owner argument doesn’t hold up
Twelve United States presidents, including Washington and Jefferson, owned slaves.
Washington became a slave owner at age 11. More than 300 slaves lived on his Mount Vernon estate, and he owned 123 of them. Jefferson owned about 175 slaves when he wrote that “all men are created equal” in his draft of the Declaration of Independence. Historians say one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, bore six children by him.
But that does not mean they should be equated with people who worked to destroy the union they helped to create, said Denver Brunsman, a history professor at George Washington University.
“In terms of race and slavery, in Washington’s case, he set up a framework that, while not perfect, is dedicated to universal liberty. He set up the prospect of future equality,” Brunsman said. “We can look at Washington and say that he foresaw a multiracial America.”
Washington turned against slavery privately, making no public action to abolish it, Brunsman said. Several months before his death in December 1799, he wrote a will that left directions for the emancipation of his slaves after his wife, Martha, died.
“He freed their slaves, provided for their education, which is what we would call job training,” Brunsman said. “And again, that vision is quite different from the vision of the Confederacy, which was founded on the premise of slavery forevermore.”
Jefferson was different and, by many accounts, his views on slavery were more complex and often conflicting.
He openly denounced slavery, calling it a “moral depravity,” “hideous blot” and an “abominable crime.” He wrote a law to ban the importation of African slaves and proposed an ordinance that would outlaw slavery in the Northwest Territories. But Jefferson was not driven by a sense of racial equality. Rather, his motivation was his belief that black slaves were racially inferior to white Americans, and the two groups could not live in harmony. Therefore, Jefferson believed, they must be emancipated and removed from the United States, according to historian Christa Dierksheide.
But years later, the would-be emancipator’s emancipation efforts “virtually ceased,” wrote historian David Brion Davis.
“If we think of Washington evolving on this issue, in many ways, Jefferson devolved. He became worse over the course of his life,” Brunsman said. “But that doesn’t take away from the universal language of freedom that he provided us in the Declaration of Independence.”
Debate on Confederate statues continues
Some say that while Confederate statues should be removed, they should not be destroyed. Instead, they should be moved to museums as a reminder of what they symbolize.
“These statues are an important part of history,” Grossman said. “The argument to keep them to remind ourselves of what we did when we created these statues, that’s not a ridiculous argument.”
Blackmon said he used to have a more moderate view that attempts to reconcile varying interests: Keep the monuments but add signage or adjacent exhibits that explain their origin. But that has changed in light of recent events, and Blackmon said he now believes Confederacy statues should be taken down.
“If the president of the United States can’t understand that these statues are offensive to millions of citizens that he governs … then there is no way that the people who agree with him are going to be persuaded to understand it any better than he can. It’s simply not going to be resolved,” he said. “When you reach a point that there are hate groups that engage in terrorist attacks, that these statues are being appropriated and used in those way … simply take [them] down.”
After the violence this weekend, compounded by widespread criticism of the president’s response to it, Grossman said he can only hope that Confederacy symbols and statues will someday be unequivocally delegitimized.
“We can debate forever all sorts of things,” he said. “What we should stop debating is whether the Confederacy itself offers legitimacy to any political position.”