George Washington and Robert Lee: Some Thoughts

George Washington and William Lee, whom he enslaved

Gentle Readers, here we go again. The President employs a lawyer, as most officeholders do, to see to his affairs. This president requires one more than most. He has chosen John Dowd. I know nothing about Dowd except for his most famous client and what this New York Times story reports. Many lawyers study history as undergraduates and the skills one picks up in law school have substantial overlap with those of historians. That doesn’t make lawyers into historians, but one would hope they help to some degree. Dowd got an email which purported to vindicate Trump’s late claims about the removal of Confederate statues and forwarded it among his circle of journalists, officials, and friends. The email claims

LEE IS NO DIFFERENT THAN WASHINGTON

Both owned slaves.

Both rebelled against the ruling government.

Both men’s battle tactics are still taught at West point.

Both saved America.

Both were great men, great Americans, and great commanders.

Neither man is any different than Napolean [sic], Shaka Zulu, Alexander the Great, Ramses II, etc.

You cannot be against General Lee and be for General Washington, there is literally no difference between the two men.

Where to start? I will pass over Lee’s and Washington’s military virtues as irrelevant. Good generalship accrues to causes infamous and praiseworthy just as easily and so says nothing about the overall worth of the people and causes involved.

Both men rebelled against the ruling government. I don’t feel a great urge to defend the American Revolution, which had at best mixed blessings for anyone who had the wrong skin color, but Washington and the rest fought for more than the simple, bloody-minded desire to preserve slavery against all hazards. Lee can claim no such thing. Nor should we endorse anyone who rebels against a ruling government, unless we endorse Lee, Washington, Lenin, Gandhi, and Hitler as essentially the same. People rebel for causes good and bad, against governments good and bad, with such regularity that smiling on the lot of them requires staggering ignorance or staggering recklessness.

The notion that Lee, who fought for four years to destroy the United States, somehow saved it barely deserves an answer. He fought against everything Washington fought for. He Lee won, the nation Washington helped build would have ended at the point of Lee’s bayonets. If fighting to destroy the United States in the name of slavery makes you a great American, only white supremacists could cheerfully claim the title and the rest of us owe it to ourselves and their victims to be the worst of Americans.

Robert E. Lee

Lee and Washington both owned people, fair enough. Neither treated those people they enslaved well, though both might flatter themselves by thinking so. Both zealously pursued runaways and ordered violent punishments for those who defied them. Both sundered families, though Washington eventually stopped. He also freed those who he enslaved of his own free will, albeit only in his last will and testament. Lee kept the slaves he had as part of his father-in-law’s estate until the last possible minute, and went to court to get that time extended. Washington, for all his numerous faults, kept more slaves at Mount Vernon than he could profitably use in order to preserve families. Lee spent his time as executor of the estate hiring slaves out in Richmond and elsewhere, so shattering family bonds, specifically to increase his profits. None of this makes Washington a good man, despite owning people. He far more than Lee ever did and did so for longer, but it surely counts as a difference.

In myth, LeeĀ refused to bear arms against Virginia and so almost accidentally fell into the Confederacy. In reality, he chose to fight on behalf of slavery and expressed his support for the institution regardless of Virginia’s other political circumstances. Washington thought this about the Union:

To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliance, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute; they must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a constitution of government better calculated than your former for an intimate union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.

Neither Virginia nor any other Southern state sought a constitutional amendment, or even ordinary legislation, to part from the United states. By Washington’s logic they had a duty to obey the government, whoever the president and whatever the policy toward slavery. The first president lived up to that principle through his public career. All the way back to the Revolutionary War, he complained about petty state jealousies and national impotence which left his army short of funds and supplies.

One might argue that Washington did not face the question as Lee did, poised between Virginia and Slavery on one side and the United States on the other. We can’t argue that he actually did, as no secession crisis took place in Washington’s lifetime. However, Washington Edmund Randolph that he had thought about the issue and came to a decision. Randolph later told Thomas Jefferson, who noted the fact in his papers:

the P. speaking with R. on the hypothesis of a separation of the Union into Northern and Southern said he had made up his mind to remove and be of the Northern

Washington might have chosen differently when the occasion came. Few of us demur from bold talk when not expected to deliver at once. But we have the evidence we have and what Washington said to Randolph matches the consistent tenor of his public life and other declared principles.

John Dowd might not know of the Randolph conversation. It took me more than the usual amount of effort to chase the quote down to a source, so I can’t fault him for that. But given the other howlers in his forward, facts clearly don’t enter into it. Like many of us, Donald Trump likes to surround himself with people he finds easy to relate to.

 

Advertisements

Your input is welcome

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.