Trump misunderstands history’s arc

Comparing Washington and Lee is a false equivalence

A LITTLE KNOWLEDGE is a dangerous thing.”  It’s an old saying that perhaps resonated more clearly than ever before when one heard the person holding the office of president of the United States equating the secessionist leader Robert E. Lee with the nation’s first and third presidents.  Painting with a broad brush dipped in a profound misunderstanding of the facts, Trump exposed himself as a man without any understanding of the arc and movement of American history, without any appreciation of the changing beliefs of changing eras that ought to inform an accurate understanding of our past.

The American story is not a simple story; our history does not follow in a neat pattern, or in a linear manner that always makes sense. Nor is it a consistently heroic story.  Our greatest leaders were, like us, mere mortals, and therefore by definition flawed human beings because there is no perfect person. “He was a man. Take him for all in all.” Shakespeare’s eulogy to Hamlet makes the point as well as it can be made: we have to take our historical figures “all in all,” blemishes and all. Fairness and accuracy requires that we consider each person in the context of their times, and in the totality of their public record.  That does not mean absolving current or prior leaders of their moral failings; rather it means having the kind of perspective that informs a thoughtful approach to understanding the past, so we can use that knowledge to influence and improve today and tomorrow.

It seems important at a time like this to remind people – or inform them for the first time – of the details of our long and often tortured history. Equating Robert E. Lee with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they each owned slaves misses critical facts about their times and their lives. This is not to justify in any manner the foul practice of slaveholding.  That stain on our national history is as indelible as the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands; it is a permanent and shameful mark that must be acknowledged candidly.  That commonality among Lee, Washington, and Jefferson is part of the story of our history but not the whole part.  Washington and Jefferson were not secessionists.  In his later years, Jefferson wrote that slavery was like a man having “the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”  He understood the inherent threat posed by the continuance of slavery – ending it would bring justice to an oppressed people, but it would also threaten the preservation of the Union.

A generation of leaders – Henry Clay and Daniel Webster foremost among them – gave up their political careers to find ways to compromise and delay the inevitable rupture that would be required to settle the question. But the great compromises of 1820 and 1850 could only forestall the inevitable for so long.  Despite all efforts to prevent it, in Lincoln’s words: “Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”

Abraham Lincoln believed that the founders wrote the Constitution in such a way as to facilitate the ultimate extinction of slavery.  But he was progressive and enlightened in the context of his time, not our time.  Unlike his contemporaries William Seward and Salmon Chase, Lincoln was no rabid abolitionist.  He was above all a practical man intent on a single objective: saving the Union. Lincoln made clear that he had “no purpose, either directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States wherein it exists.  I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”  He also made clear, debating Stephen Douglas in 1858, that he had “no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races.”  But Lincoln, who reflected the essential racism of his times, was not a slave owner and he found the practice of slavery morally repugnant. He understood that the American idea embodied in the Declaration of Independence meant that:

“there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated n the Declaration of Independence – the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man  . . . in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas and the equal of every living man.”

Lee did not share those views.  Lee was a slave owner who was prepared to – and in fact did – lead an insurrection against his nation to preserve the practice of slavery. Unlike Washington and Jefferson, Lee was not a nation builder.  He was committed to dividing the nation in order to preserve a culture and economy that depended upon the enslavement of human beings, and he helped spill much American blood in the process.  You have to judge these men within the realities of their times, and in a fair and proper historical context.  While no person is perfect, certainly not Jefferson, not Lincoln, there are material factual differences that distinguish those presidents from Robert E. Lee.

Part of the process of healing the nation after the Civil War was a deliberate process of mythmaking.  Lee was taught in the history books as a man of “principle” who loved his native Virginia more than anything, who reluctantly took up arms against the Union.  This myth was a balm designed to help heal a great wound.  That healing process began with Ulysses S. Grant’s generosity of spirit at Appomattox and continued for decades as Americans accepted discrimination as a proxy for enslavement, embracing for too long the notion of “separate but equal.”  The great movement toward civil rights that began with Brown vs Board of Education and had its zenith in the great legislative enactments of 1964 and 1965 has provided a legal template for equality that a half-century later finds resistance in the hearts and minds of too many Americans.  Those in 2017 who are offended at the sight of 19th and 20th Century memorials to Confederate leaders may understand how long the road to equality in this country has been, how incomplete it remains, and feel frustrated that in the 21st Century we cannot candidly admit that symbols matter, and that memorials to men who adhered to discredited and failed causes, ideologies, and beliefs do not help advance the promise of the Declaration of Independence but instead silently undermine it.

Donald Trump’s attempt to lump Washington, Jefferson, and Lee together is historically flawed and faulty to a point that it must be called out. Lee was Lincoln’s contemporary, not Washington’s or Jefferson’s.  In the context of his times, Lee held views, and took action based on those views, that while not unique were neither honorable nor defensible. Trump’s equating Jefferson and Lee ignores the arc of history.  It reflects a lazy understanding of that history, leading to the false equivalence that attempts, ultimately, to place today’s white nationalist supremacists and their opponents on the same moral platform.

Meet the Author

Those who aspire to national leadership have a responsibility to know the history of the nation they seek to lead.  You cannot take a nation and its people forward into the future without understanding its past – not a superficial, cartoonish, or sentimental understanding of that past, but an honest appraisal of it.  Because the president is either unwilling or unable to do so, it becomes our own responsibility to read, learn, and understand how this nation was formed, how it has changed over time, and how its leaders acted when called upon to serve.

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group, and a member of the board of TransitMatters.