Washington is not next

President Trump, in comment on the events in Charlottesville, noted that George Washington was a slaveholder, and wondered, “Is it George Washington next week?” No, he’s not.

First, George Washington was a slaveholder and the founder of the nation. The subtle thing, which I don’t think Trump was hinting at, is how we can look up to Washington as founder of the nation without looking up to him as a slaveholder. That’s a complicated thing. The not complicated thing is that a statue to Washington memorializes his efforts to found and unite our country. I don’t think any statues to Washington were put up to honor his slaveholding.

In contrast, Robert E. Lee’s most important contribution to history was leading the Confederate Army in the Civil War. It may be that you can debate whether Lee did what he did because he was defending the first government in the world to be based on the “great physical, philosophical, and moral truth” of slavery, or if he was defending his home, or whatever. I think it is clear that statues to Lee are mostly about his leading of the Confederacy, not about his service in the Mexican-American War or his leadership of West Point, nor about his possible equivocation on slavery.

This is why Stonewall Jackson is next. He doesn’t stand for anything beyond leadership in the Civil War.

Second, the Charlottesville statue is not a holy relic. It was unveiled in 1924. It was paid for by the same man who endowed the a chair in Fine Arts at the University of Virginia. The artist was the same man whose most famous work is a sculpture of Ulysses S. Grant. At a quick glance, it seems like this sculpture was considered a work of art, not a historical monument. In other words, the statue has little meaning beyond what we think of it now. The consensus seems to be that it means white nationalism.

In other words, there is no great iconoclasm here. Statues of Washington will be judged on the same terms.

The history of Confederacy is not being scrubbed out. The one Confederate in Boston can go because there are tons of placards that describe the events. It’s an important part of our history to remember that the Civil War involved the whole country and killed more Americans than died in WWI and WWII combined. But there’s a big difference between a monument or memorial—which are celebrations—and a placard or a textbook.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published / Required fields are marked *