President Donald Trump tweeted in support of Confederate statues Thursday — and offered a distorted version of history.
In drawing a false equivalence between leaders like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and Confederate generals like Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, the President demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the moral problem of the Confederacy: building monuments that lionize Confederate war heroes like Jackson and Lee celebrate the lives of men who sought to break the nation apart in the name of slavery.
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” Trump tweeted, doubling down on comments he made earlier in the week to reporters at Trump Tower.
“You can’t change history but you can learn from it. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced.”
The problem with Trump’s argument though, as the executive director of the American Historical Association told CNN’s John Berman on Wednesday, is that comparing Jackson and Lee to Washington and Jefferson is a “specious comparison” at best.
“Yes, these were all slaveholders and in that sense, Washington and Jefferson were deeply flawed individuals,” he said. “Lee and Jackson, however have been honored for one thing, which is the attempt to create and then defend a new nation that existed for one reason, which was to protect the rights of some individuals to own other individuals.”
Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, addressed this very distinction in an emotional speech earlier this year that capped two years of intense debate in his city over what the monuments said and what they mean.
The monuments, Landrieu said “are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history.”
“These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for,” he said.
The argument that removing Confederate monuments is “changing history” and “culture” as the President did this week also fails to recognize the historical context and tainted culture in which the monuments were erected.
Historians note that there are two peak periods of Confederate monument building in the United states: one between 1890 and 1920, as Jim Crow was being established and the power of the KKK was at its zenith, and again during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s.
As such, it is hard to see the very construction of the monuments themselves as less about honoring the individuals they represent, and more about a concrete display of white supremacy during periods of intimidation and subjugation.
The President is right on one count here: You can not change history, and by its very definition, no one can erase it. But new generations will undoubtedly see it differently as American culture evolves.