President Trump asked a pertinent question about the removal of historic statues and memorials in his Tuesday press conference, and it deserves a serious answer.
"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?"
Half the press greeted this as an absurd question or suggestion. But a sizable portion of the liberal commentariat nodded their heads: Why should we honor slaveowners? What's the relevant distinction here?
The immediate answer from Trump's critics on Twitter and on cable news was that Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson fought against the United States. Why should they be honored in public places alongside Washington and Jefferson, who created the United States and raised it from a young age? This distinction seems good, but it begs the question. It assumes that rebellion is obviously worse than enslaving other human beings.
There is, however, a much stronger distinction to draw. In each case, ask not what a person might have done wrong, but for what reason they are being honored.
Why does Robert E. Lee have a prominent place in American history, to the point that someone erected a statue of him in Charlottesville in 1924? It is because he was an American general who turned against his country and led an enemy army whose purpose was to overthrow the constitutional order and thereby protect the institution of slavery. Lee doesn't have any other claim to fame that would cause people to erect statues in his honor. He was a Confederate general, period.
So if the people of Charlottesville decide through a lawful and democratic process, as they did earlier this year, that they do not want to honor Lee and wish, rather, to remove his statue, then so be it. It is unecessary to react as though all American history is under assault, or as if their decision is the first step on the road to Thomas Jefferson's damnatio memoriae. That applies regardless of the legal merits of the court case that will determine the fate of Lee's and Stonewall Jackson's statues, and regardless of its outcome. We do not espouse and indeed oppose a growing international movement to expunge memorials of people who, judged by today's standards, would not merit a memorial. But that is not the same thing as saying a community may not remove a statue from its midst if it so decides, or that a statue once erected acquires some sort of sovereignty over all future inhabitants living in its shadow.
Our Founding Fathers may have committed sins graver than Lee's, but we don't honor them for their sins. The Washington Monument isn't intended to hold up George Washington's slave ownership as a positive example. It is to commemorate the bravery and selflessness he displayed in leading the American side in the Revolutionary War, voluntarily giving up his command, and then serving as president. The Jefferson Memorial wasn't erected to honor his hypocrisy on slavery, but his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and his consequential presidency.
Jefferson and Washington were men of their times. They both owned slaves, and Jefferson in particular egregriously abused his authority over at least one of them. But that does not and should not outweigh their accomplishments and their public service. Without their contribution to founding our republic, it's possible our modern ideas about democracy and human rights would not have prevailed here or anywhere else in the world. Any assertion that their sins preclude memorializing and honoring them proudly should receive a vigorous opposition.
It's pretty easy to chip away at men who have been our presidents, or who are memorialized today for their service. FDR ordered the internment of Japanese Americans. Harry Truman deliberately killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians with two nuclear bomb blasts. Abraham Lincoln imprisoned journalists and never renounced his belief, expressed in 1858, that "there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality."
President Barack Obama certainly knew about this when he chose Lincoln as a model for his presidency, announcing his candidacy in Springfield. He appreciated the power of Lincoln as a heroic example. He recognized that a country needs heroes around whom patriots can rally. Holding up Lincoln, or Washington, or Jefferson as a hero does not mean they were saints, or that they didn't hold beliefs that today we view as repugnant.
Trump asked how to draw the line between Robert E. Lee and George Washington. It's a good question, and here's the answer: Lee was being honored for fighting the wrong fight. Washington is honored, despite his wrongs, for fighting the good one.