Leave the Washington and Jefferson Monuments Alone

We need to make a distinction between slave-owning Founders and slavery-exalting Confederates

In this clip from Tuesday’s remarkable press conference, Donald Trump offers a kind of reductio ad absurdum.

The reasoning might be reconstructed as follows.

1. If we seek the removal of Confederate monuments on the grounds that those memorialized fought to preserve slavery, the same logic should dictate that we remove monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom were slave-owners.

2. But of course we shouldn’t remove monuments to Washington and Jefferson. That would be absurd.

So,

3. We shouldn’t remove Confederate statues either.

Now, Trump offered nothing approximating this level of philosophical sophistication. But let’s assume this is an ideal reconstruction of the reasoning underlying Trump’s comments.

Here’s my verdict: I agree with premise 2, but I think premise 1 is false. So the argument fails.

Why do I agree with 2?

It is obvious to me that Washington and Jefferson are the sort of men we should memorialize in our public spaces. This is both because of their singular importance in founding this country and because of their secure status as intellectual (in the case of Jefferson) and moral (in the case of Washington) exemplars.

If I left it at that, it would be possible for me to still agree with Trump’s idealized argument. But of course I reject premise 1. Why?

Because Washington and Jefferson do not have the same complicity on this matter as do Confederate soldiers. In my judgment, this is a distinction worth making.

While it’s true that our first and third presidents were slave-owners, this is not central (or even relevant) to why they are memorialized. What’s more, they did not push for the permanent establishment of slavery.

On the other hand, a Confederate monument has an inextricable, and therefore enduring, connection to the aims of the Confederacy.

Here is how the historian Stephanie McCurry, in her book “Confederate Reckoning,” describes the central, animating concern of the Confederate States of America:

The short-lived CSA was a signal event in the history of the Western world. What secessionists set out to build was something entirely new in the history of nations: a modern proslavery and antidemocratic state dedicated to the proposition that all men were not created equal.

There is no meaningful way to pay tribute to the valor of Confederate soldiers, or to the vast assortment of perfectly benign traditions in the antebellum South, via Confederate monuments. The very act of prominently placing a Confederate monument within a city space is inherently celebratory. There is no way to do so without at the same time eulogizing the Confederate cause.

Notice what’s not being said. I’m not making the absurd claim that there is nothing redeemable about 19th-century Southern culture, or that there were no positive moral traits possessed by Confederate soldiers.

What I am saying is that there is no way to meaningfully extract the commendable aspects of Southern life and honor just those via the Confederate monument.

Since it is impossible for the Confederate battle flag or a monument to a Confederate soldier to extricate its connection to slavery in any meaningful way, and since the attempt to permanently establish the institution of slavery was the rationale for the Confederacy’s war with the United States, there is nothing to be gained, and quite a bit to be lost, by allowing any pocket of our country to officially herald its identity through these monuments.

The fact that Washington and Jefferson owned slaves is inexcusable, and should never be obscured from accounts of their lives. At the same time, we are right to extricate what Washington and Jefferson mean to the history of the United States and the advancement of political systems from the fact that both were slave owners.