Columns

Alex Beam

If Lee goes, will Washington and Jefferson follow?

Workers removed the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson monument from Baltimore’s Wyman Park last week.
Denise Sanders/The Baltimore Sun/AP
Workers removed the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson monument from Baltimore’s Wyman Park last week.

Here is the dispiriting problem with President Trump’s disjointed rants that conflate fact and fiction, often in the same sentence: Sometimes he is right.

Last week, Trump suggested that if statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were to be taken down throughout the country, “are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? . . . Are we going to take down the statue? ’Cause he was a major slave owner. Are we going to take down his statue?”

That sounds nuts, you say. Lee not only owned slaves but commanded the Confederate forces in an unconstitutional rebellion against the United States. This is Crazy Trump, raving off-script on subjects he knows nothing about.

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In fact, he is more right than wrong. The legacy of Thomas Jefferson has been under siege for many years, and in many different quarters. Last year, 469 students and professors from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville asked president Teresa Sullivan to refrain from quoting Thomas Jefferson in campus-wide e-mails.

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In a post-presidential election e-mail, Sullivan had referenced Jefferson’s high opinion of UVA students (“They are exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country”) in urging her campus to come together after the contentious Trump victory. In response, the faculty and students wrote that “for many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these e-mails undermines the message of unity, equality and civility that you are attempting to convey.”

Psychology professor Noelle Hurd, who drafted the letter, explained to the university newspaper that “I think that Jefferson is often celebrated for his accomplishments with little or no acknowledgment of the atrocities he committed against hundreds of human beings.”

Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia and wrote the Declaration of Independence. Neither of which prevented the Democratic Party from throwing him overboard when leaders in several states decided to re-name their historic Jefferson-Jackson dinners, traditional fund-raising events on the presidential campaign calendar.

Like other states and counties, Louisiana just last month renamed the “J-J Dinner” the “True Blue Gala,” a move made “to reflect the progress of the party and the changing times,” according to state party leader Karen Peterson. In New Hampshire, it is now the “JFK-Clinton” dinner; in Missouri, the “Truman Dinner,” and so on.

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The legacy of George Washington, who also owned slaves, rests on somewhat firmer ground, for now. Still, last year, the head of San Francisco’s school board proposed rechristening George Washington High School as Maya Angelou High School, explaining that “Maya Angelou is a legendary San Franciscan, poet, and author, and her name would replace that of a slaveowner whose name is ubiquitous on schools, streets and buildings.”

Last week, James Dukes, pastor of Chicago’s Liberation Christian Center, asked Mayor Rahm Emanuel to take down an equestrian statue of George Washington in the city’s South Side and rename the park where it stands after Harold Washington, the city’s first African-American mayor. “In an African-American community, it’s a slap in the face and it’s a disgrace for them to honor someone who was a slave owner,” Dukes told the local CBS news affiliate.

If I were an African-American and my ancestors had been brought to this continent in chains, I’d be the first one in line to toss the slaveowners into the dustbin of history. I’m not that person. My white ancestors came here near the end of the nineteenth century from Germany and Scotland.

On the one hand, I consider these evolutions to be inevitable. On the other hand, I find them hard to swallow.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.