Trump really missed the boat in reacting to the march of Nazis and KKK members in Charlottesville.
His remarks were deeply offensive in drawing a moral equivalence between the racist, Anti-Semitic marchers and those who protested against them.
And, in a widely derided press conference, Trump commented on the effort to take down Confederate statues and wrongly conflated our great founders with Confederates:
“So, this week it’s Robert E. Lee,” Trump said. “I notice that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” [source]
In doing so, Trump missed that traitors Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are remembered for very different reasons than founders Washington and Jefferson.
Lee and Jackson are known for fighting for secession, leaving the U.S. to create a country that, according to its Constitution, would forever preserve slavery throughout the nation. Under slavery, slave women could be legally raped by their owners, slave children might sold away from their parents, and all enslaved people would have their lives completely controlled by others.
It is true that Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, but that is seen as a stain, and it is not why they are memorialized.
Washington is praised for his military and civilian leadership and his commitments to transitions of power.
Jefferson is valorized for being the main drafter of the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed that “all men are created equal.” Women’s rights advocates later built on this, saying in 1848 that “all men and women are created equal.” Abolitionists also used Jefferson’s words in arguing against slavery.
The Confederates would have been the first to tell Trump that Jefferson was not like Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson.
How can we know that? Just look at the basic principles of the Confederacy, as stated by Confederate leaders.
In a March 1861 oration known as the Cornerstone Speech, the Vice-President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, said the theoretical underpinnings of the U.S. system “rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error.”
To the contrary, said Stephens, and so the Confederacy explicitly rejected racial equality
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Stephens again argued for white supremacy in a speech the next month. After saying “the white man” was “the superior race,” he stated:
As a race, the African is inferior to the white man. Subordination to the white man is his normal condition. He is not his equal by nature, and cannot be made so by human laws or human institutions. Our system, therefore, so far as regards this inferior race, rests upon this great immutable law of nature. . . The great truth, I repeat, upon which our system rests, is the inferiority of the African.
Stephens and other Confederates clearly opposed the notion of shared equality.
Oh, and notice he didn’t mention states’ rights. Instead, the basic principle of the Confederacy was that all were not created equal.
In rebuking Trump, both Presidents Bush invoked Jefferson’s great words in the Declaration of Independence.
They did so with these words:
America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms. As we pray for Charlottesville, we are reminded of the fundamental truths recorded by that city’s most prominent citizen in the Declaration of Independence: we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights. We know these truths to be everlasting because we have seen the decency and greatness of our country. [source]
Thomas Jefferson, of course, is Charlottesville “most prominent citizen” and the Declaration said “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
And so for Trump to argue that taking down Confederate statues would mean taking down monuments to Jefferson makes no sense.