Donald Trump and many of his supporters claim that taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee sets up the eventual knocking down and desecration of other monuments dedicated to American heroes such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Essentially, he and those who share this view are equating Robert E. Lee to such men. But is this correct? In light of current events, historians are taking a look at whether or not President Trump’s argument holds up. Are Robert E. Lee and George Washington the same? The Time magazine article (click the image below) makes an interesting case to their differences, especially a major one.
Similarities between Lee and Washington
With regard to similarities, the articles author Oliva B Waxman writes:
“It’s true that both men were Virginians, slaveowners and military generals. They were even sort-of related: Lee was the son of Washington’s most famous eulogist, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, who fought during the American Revolution and famously characterized Washington as “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Robert E. Lee also married Mary Custis Lee, the daughter of Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis.
But historians say the similarities end there. One biographer even argues that Lee missed his chance at greatness, since he sided with residents of his state over the union that Washington fought so hard to create.“ 1
One point that I thought was really interesting is with regard to both men’s thoughts about slavery. Though an owner of slaves, Washington was not a fan of the practice and felt that (more of economic reasons), slavery would eventually die out. However, due to the immediate economic and social upheaval that banning slavery would cause, he didn’t think that the time to put an end to it had come. According to Harvard Professor of History John Stauffer, “Washington recognized slavery was so deeply rooted in the U.S. that to end it immediately would cause another war, and that’s not what he wanted because he just finished fighting an eight-year war” 2 Thus, our nation’s first President thought that slavery would end gradually.
Surprisingly, Robert E. Lee was of a similar opinion, though the period in which he lived was a bit different. Unlike the northern “free states,” those in the south relied heavily on slavery, probably even more so than in Washington’s day. This was because of the worldwide demand for cotton, which the South grew in ample supply.
None of these arguments makes slavery anymore legitimate. It always was and is still an abomination created by man for his selfish interests. I just wanted to point out how these two men viewed it.
Washington and Lee’s Great Difference
Not to spoil the article, but Washington and Lee differed in one key aspect: the Union. After the American War of Independence, Washington fought great political battles in order to keep the states unified. He fought to create the United States of America, not have each state go its own separate way. Though he greatly admired George Washington, by siding with the rebellious Confederate Sates of America, Robert E. Lee in fact did the opposite; by rebelling against the Union, Lee fought against Washington’s legacy and the dream of a unified republic.
The article ends with the following quote by Stauffer which I love: “A democracy depends upon the losers accepting the will of the majority…. Confederates didn’t do that. They lost the election and they left.” 3
It is interesting to note that due to what many perceive to be a flaw in the Electoral College, today the majority is accepting the will of the minority. After all, Donald Trump lost the popular vote but won the election because he won the required Electoral College votes. Despite this, you don’t see New York, California, Massachusetts, Hawaii or other “blue” states seceding from the Union. They have accepted the results of the election and are moving on. That’s not what the southern states that formed the Confederacy did. That is also why their actions are un-American.
Read the article. I think you’ll find it not only quite interesting. It also gives some good talking points to help you to educate those who may not know what all of the current fuss is about.
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