Despite referring to himself as a student of history, President Donald Trump seemed to overlook significant historical context in his praise of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, as The Daily Beast details. Trump’s remarks came as part of his continued defense of his own response to the racially-charged march in Charlottesville, Virginia, where chants of “blood and soil” and “we will not be replaced” preceded the death of one protester and the injuries of others.
At the time, Trump indicated that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the controversy. Critics then, and since, have called out the president for what many interpret as his defense of white racists participating in the rally. The issue made headlines again this week as Trump further clarified his position by characterizing those at the march as simply opposing the removal of a Confederate statue of Lee, not participating in what otherwise appeared to be a white nationalist rally with all accompanying undertones.
“People were protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E. Lee,” Trump said. “Everybody knows that.”
The president then went on to say that Lee was a favorite of a number of the generals he worked with at the White House. Yet even taking Trump at his word in his characterization of Charlottesville as a gathering mostly of historically-minded locals protesting the removal of a statue, many have called into question the appropriateness of praising Lee in the first place.
Robert E. Lee was a traitor who owned and abused slaves and enslaved free blacks that he captured in war. Tell a friend.https://t.co/zyFLLITyF2— David M. Perry (@Lollardfish) April 26, 2019
As The Atlantic reports, while there indeed is a pervasive cult of personality that endures around Lee, much of that admiration is rooted more in mythology than in historical fact. Additionally, Lee’s own words frequently betrayed his sensibilities toward slavery, openly contradicting a puzzling and enduring misconception that the general was somehow an early abolitionist.
“The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically,” Lee wrote in a letter. “The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.”
Lee goes on to suggest that slavery would come to and end by “Merciful Providence” due to the influence of Christianity, a position that could be interpreted as his own desire to see the end of slavery if not accompanied by the fact that he was also willing to go to war in its defense. In addition, Lee was a slaveowner himself who had a reputation for substantial brutality toward his slaves.
Whether Trump, as a student of history, will continue to invoke the general’s name in such ways remains to be seen.