Don’t glorify either war “hero”

August 21, 2017

Donald Trump is falsely equating Washington and Lee for his own purposes, but that doesn't mean we should defend the "father of our country," writes Steve Leigh.

IN THE aftermath of the Nazi attack on anti-racists in Charlottesville, Donald Trump tried to equate the anti-fascist left with the fascists, saying there was violence on "many sides," and then later explicitly singling out "left-wing activists" as responsible for violence.

Trump's disgusting implication that there is no difference between marching for genocide against people of color and Jews and organizing to prevent genocide was denounced across the political spectrum, even by Republicans.

But Trump dug himself into a deeper hole when he said that there were "good people" on both sides, that the Confederate statues the far right was rallying to defend were "beautiful," and that the racists were just trying to protect their "heritage." He might have been right about this last point--only it's the "heritage" of slavery that they wants to celebrate.

Finally, Trump tried to equate taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee, the military leader of the slave-owning Confederacy, with taking down memorials to George Washington, the first president and leader of Continental Army in the War of 1776. "What's next?" Trump asked. "Taking down George Washington's statues?"

Left to right: George Washington, Donald Trump and Robert E. Lee
Left to right: George Washington, Donald Trump and Robert E. Lee

Trump's equation of Washington and Lee was a blatant attempt to make the movement to take down Confederate statues seem absurd. Anti-racists obviously need to reject Trump's attempt to deflate our movement with his false equivalences, whether between the left and right or Washington and Lee.

Still, in response to Trump, mainstream commentators, political leaders and comedians leapt to the defense of George Washington with a whitewashed version of who he was. Their main line of defense was American patriotism: Washington helped found the United States, but Lee rebelled against it.

We can reject Trump's cynical attempt to exonerate Robert E. Lee and the racists who still worship him by comparing Lee to Washington without accepting a false, rose-colored picture of "the father of our country."


WASHINGTON WAS, as many people know, a slave owner--at the time of his death, there were 317 slaves living at his Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia.

Before leading the military struggle against British rule, he was known as an "Indian fighter." One of the main issues of the American War of Independence was the white colonists' desire to go past the Appalachian Mountains and steal more Native land--something the British, for their own reasons, were against.

The main leaders of the war were slave owners like Washington from the South and merchants in the North. The goal was not just independence, but the desire of the new ruling class to expand its conquest of North America.

After the war, Washington supported various governmental arrangements that were intended to concentrate power in the hands of the elite. The new Constitution that paved the way for Washington to become the first president included property qualifications for voting--and, of course, women, Blacks and Native Americans were excluded altogether.

Washington supported military force being used against citizens of the new nation who rose up against ">the heavy debt burden on poor farmers in Shay's Rebellion of 1787 and against heavy taxation and other grievances in the Whiskey Rebellion of the early 1790s.

Though the War for Independence defeated British rule, its long-term result was the total dispossession and genocide of Native peoples--and in the short run, it allowed the slave system to expand from the east coast of the Southern colonies throughout the rest of the Southeast.

So in telling the truth about Robert E. Lee and cheering as Confederate statues are pulled down--either officially by local governments or by direct action--we shouldn't glorify the record of the American republic or its co-founder George Washington.

Right now, the main issue is the continuing glorification of Robert E. Lee's Confederacy. Trump's references to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as slaveholders is an attempt to keep the Confederate statues up, where they will remain a rallying cry for the right.

But a successful effort to get the Confederate statues taken down can help lay the basis for the bigger struggles against the American Empire as a whole.

Take down the Confederate statues now! We'll deal with Washington's later.

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