After the Confederate statues, are Washington and Jefferson next?

Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore (Photo by kidsnetsoft0 /

By Clifford S. Fishman

Special to WJW

The Second Commandment forbids us to “make … a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below…. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” There is disagreement as to whether we should read this as an absolute ban, or only a ban on creating such “images” for the purpose of bowing to them and serving them. Perhaps if the United States had followed the absolutist approach, there would be less contention and strife among us today.

Even the best societies — including ancient Israel and modern America — have their shameful episodes as well as their noble ones. And this is also true of the men and women we honor and venerate. Our Tanach portrays our biblical heroes — the patriarchs and matriarchs, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Miriam and King David —as human beings with flaws and sins as well as virtues. Anyone who studies Torah or attends services knows that.

But I don’t think America has done as good a job in evaluating our national heroes — until recently. That process began several years ago with statues venerating leaders of the Confederacy.

I believe those statues and monuments should come down. But how they come down is also important.

Removing them as a result of the political process — as a result of legislation or lawful action by a governor or mayor — should be applauded. Doing so by mob violence should be condemned and prosecuted, regardless of how much we disdain the person or the cause the statue

Those who oppose the removal of monuments to so-called Confederate heroes have asked a question that strikes at the heart of how our country was founded, and what our country is and should be. They ask: Why stop at Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis? What about Washington and Jefferson? They enslaved Blacks, too.

They have a point. And Washington and Jefferson didn’t “merely” enslave. Jefferson sexually exploited at least one enslaved woman. Evidence of George Washington’s use and abuse of the Black men and women he enslaved — evidence long known to historians, yet withheld from the general public — is appalling. Should we tear down their statutes, too? Should we blast their faces off Mount Rushmore?

I do not think so, because there are at least two major differences between honoring Washington and Jefferson on one hand and Lee, Jackson and Davis on the other.

First: consider why these men are honored. We honor and celebrate Washington and Jefferson because they risked their lives to create this country, and to advance the cause of human freedom. Not for all humans, sadly, but is the world better for what they accomplished? Is the cause to which they dedicated their lives noble and worthy?

Yes. And that is why we name things after them and build statues and monuments to honor them.

Compare them to Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson. What was their cause? Treason against their country and the preservation of slavery. Worse still, why were their statues erected? They were put up early in the 20th century as part of a campaign to humiliate and intimidate the descendants of slaves. To send a message that the promise of freedom and equality in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments was an empty promise. As a warning to Blacks: You’d better know your place, and stay there, or else.

We don’t reject our biblical heroes, because we recognize that, despite their significant human flaws and their sins, what they stood for, what they dedicated their lives to, what they achieved and the legacy they left us, are worthy and noble. Similarly, with regard to Washington and Jefferson and other American icons. We should continue to honor them and celebrate their accomplishments, but we also acknowledge their sins and their flaws, their mistakes and weaknesses and moral blindness. We must engage in difficult, nuanced, painful discussions about them and the origins of our country.

Doing so also acknowledges the victims of our heroes’ conduct, and reminds us that we need to redress resultant evils that still pollute our country today.

Clifford S. Fishman, a longtime member of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville, is a professor emeritus of law at Catholic University.

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


  1. Prof. Fishman has pushed every button.

    As long as we’re advocating for destroying monuments to American history, why not take down the prominent statue of Queen Isabella within sight of the White House, in front of the OAS building? Guess she is not a target at the moment despite initiating the Spanish Inquisition and later expulsion of Jews and still later of Muslims. Perhaps if she were a Southerner.

    The 2nd Commandment against idols does not pertain to these monuments, which no one worships as a god. That is an absurd assertion.

    American histories have persistently told pro’s and con’s of leaders’ lives, at least after the era of Parson Weems. What has changed, first among radical leftists in the 1970’s, and more generally over the past two decades is applying post-1960’s values to people who lived 100, 200, 300 years ago. That is an abuse of the study of history. What will people in 2120 or 2220 or 2350 think of popular values of the early 21st century? Legal abortion for economic or convenience reasons; federal debt; national defense preparedness; equal rights; use of fossil fuels; automation replacing human labor; and on and on. We cannot know.

    Accusing Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or even early 20th century Woodrow Wilson of not living up to today’s values is just as absurd. The great 17th century English philosopher John Locke, who wrote the radically liberal for its day Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina provided for religious tolerance for all but then dangerous Catholics, which is a significant reason Charleston was the largest Jewish settlement in English North America during the colonial and Federalist eras. Yet he could not foresee 1-1/2 centuries hence to the time that slavery would be considered immoral. He provided for greater land holdings and rights for slave owners to encourage quick settlement and expansion to block Spanish Florida. That was liberal in 1669.

    Slavery was not condemned in Halacha, in the Christian Church, or in Islam. The Torah does place limits on treatment of slaves, which were not practiced by many Christian slaveholders in the South. But not abolition. Yes, northern European intellectuals started questioning the morality of slavery in the 17th century.

    But the abolition movement and view that slavery is immoral gained popular support in late 18th century England and those parts of English North America too far north to profit from the institution. England peacefully abolished slavery in its Caribbean sugar colonies in the 1830’s by reimbursing owners.

    Jefferson believed slavery was immoral and wrote that in his only published book. Washington did not speak out publicly about such a hot button issue for which he had no constructive solution, but he did write a private letter making clear he considered it wrong — many of his slaves were in their 50s (old for 18th century) and could not survive economically if suddenly emancipated. They and other plantation owners could not think of a practical solution. A summary of Jefferson’s views is one of the 4 panels of the Jefferson Memorial.

    There were several problems with general emancipation from a late 18th/early 19th century perspective: A slave was worth roughly the equivalent of an automobile today. So how to emancipate w/o bankrupting civic and political leaders? There had been slave rebellions in Virginia and SC, and a successful one in Haiti. In each case, the intent and in Haiti the practice was to murder all white people. Refugees from Haiti, including a prominent Jewish family, fled to South Carolina. There was a fear that emancipation might lead to race war. Jefferson wrote of that concern. We all know that did not happen. We know a lot that people of the 18th to early 20th centuries did not know about racial issues. It is arrogant to demonize them for lack of information that is common knowledge today.

    “Jefferson sexually exploited at least one enslaved woman.”
    We don’t know Jefferson’s or Sally Hemings’ motives. That sentence is a possibility at one extreme. At the other extreme is that their relationship was consensual. Or perhaps the murky in-between. Hemmings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s beloved wife, Martha, who died when Thomas was age 39. Despite being the most eligible bachelor of his generation he never remarried. Sally Hemmings was Martha’s half-sister. Sally’s mother was half-white, so Sally was 3/4 white. Limited accounts are that she resembled Martha, and portrait based on contemporary descriptions show her as almost white. It is plausible that there was a true love relationship. Mixed race marriage was illegal in Virginia until 1967. And would have been socially unacceptable in upper class society for another 3 decades. Sally had ample opportunity to walk off during two years in Paris. Terms like “exploited” are excessive. We don’t know.

    Mixing the motives of political leaders such as Jeff Davis with career military leaders indicates a lack of knowledge of the U.S. military and its ethical values. I have no qualm with holding 1860’s Southern political leaders to task for advocating for the institution of slavery. That was one of the principal stated reasons for secession of Deep South states. But to hold career military leaders to that standard is outrageous and ahistorical.

    It is false that Lee fought “for slavery” or “for secession.” Lincoln never accused him or other Confederate career military officers of doing any such thing. I remember the Centennial of 1960-65 in national publications, and never heard any such assertions until the past decade. Latin American officers and officers of dictatorships must show partisan support for the government of the day. That is abhorrent to most U.S. military officers.

    Most American career military officers since the Revolution have stayed far from partisan politics. That ethic is embedded in the U.S. Constitution. As used to be taught in 8th grade Civics classes, the Constitution permits authorization of the U.S. Army for no more than two years, unlike any other part of the U.S. government (Art 1, Sect 8). Even the Navy can be authorized in perpetuity.

    In keeping with the intent of that concern, the active duty U.S. Army did not vote in the first 3/4-century of the Republic. That tradition was broken in the 1864 election, when it appeared that Mr. Lincoln was losing. The Union army voted en masse for his re-election over Gen. George Meade, who promised to sue for peace.

    Career officers remain reluctant to appear partisan. As a college senior ROTC cadet in the last election similar to this year, in 1968, we were warned to avoid partisan events.

    Gen George Marshall, Gen. Eisenhower, Gen Westmoreland, Gen. H. R. McMaster, Gen. Kelly never registered or voted before retirement from the Army. Gen. Mattis never registered by political party, so never voted in a partisan primary election. McMaster, Mattis, and Kelly avoid participating in the current election by openly criticizing President Trump, despite the president’s slurs.

    Almost surely Gen. Lee never voted. He made no statements in support of the partisan issues of the day, such as secession or slavery. His only public political statement was non-partisan: that he would defend “my country, Virginia.” Had Virginia remained in the Union, Robert E Lee would have commanded the Union Army in putting down the rebellion. He submitted his letter of resignation from the U.S. Army the night Virginia voted by referendum to secede, knowing that would entail the loss of his wife’s beloved Arlington plantation.

    In 1861, there was no law, regulation, or precedent to guide career Southern officers whether to remain loyal to their state or to the U.S. The vast majority chose their state. The Democratic Party and nearly all Southerners in 1861 believed we are citizens of our state, and only through our state’s membership in the federal government in the U.S. Southern Senators, Representatives, Justice, Governors, some of whom were legal experts, supported that view. The 1850’s Vice President and 1860 Democratic candidate served as a political general in the Confederate Army. The new Republican Party took the opposite view. It was only in 1868, seven years after decision time, that the 14th Amendment clarified the issue in law – we are citizens of both our state AND the U.S. upon birth.

    How could Gen Lee or other career military officers know about the 14th Amendment seven years before it was enacted? How was Gen Lee’s defending Virginia from invasion any different from his father’s and grandfather’s siding with the Patriot cause in the Revolutionary War? It is simply not an objective view of the situation in 1861.

    Why would Robert E. Lee make a statement such as defending “my country, Virginia”?

    Lee’s father, Henry Lee III, was a Lt Col in the colonial Virginia militia when Virginia seceded from England, to join the Continental Army. Washington knew him. When the English army shifted south to SC and GA, Washington sent Light Horse Harry Lee with a cavalry legion of Continental soldiers to counter them.

    After the war, he represented Virginia in the Confederation Congress. Then a member of the Virginia ratification convention for the Constitution where Patrick Henry led a nearly successful effort to oppose ratification. Lee supported ratification with the group led by Madison. He was elected governor. As his term ended, the Whiskey Rebellion arose, Washington called him up to command almost 13,000 U.S. troops to quash the rebellion. Jefferson promoted him to Major General. He was elected to the 1st U.S. Congress, and gave the eulogy at Washington’s funeral, whence his famous quote, “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

    Lee’s grandfather, Henry Lee II, was a Colonel in the Virginia militia, long-time member of House of Burgesses and state senate. When Virginia seceded from England, he served in the revolutionary “convention,” or legislature. He was county executive during the Revolutionary War.

    Lee’s great-grandfather, Henry Lee, served as a Captain in the Virginia militia. He was a local politician. His brother was colonial governor of Virginia.

    Great-great-grandfather, Richard Lee II, served as Colonel commanding cavalry unit from three Virginia counties. Elected to House of Burgesses and served on King’s Council, the colonial privy council for Virginia, for almost a quarter century.

    Great-great-great-grandfather, Richard Lee, settled in Virginia in 1639 at age 22. Within 4 years, he was appointed Attorney General of Virginia, Colonial Secretary of State, and member of the King’s Council (= privy council). He also served as Colonel in the Virginia militia and High Sheriff. He was also direct ancestor of President Zachary Taylor.

    Six generations of Lees of Virginia served as officers of the Virginia militia continuously over two centuries before the 1860s. Robert was the first of his family born in the U.S. In 1861, his family had served the state for 222 years.

    I am NOT defending the Confederacy. What I am opposing is judging historical figures who did not experience the late 20th century by today’s values. Or advocating for destroying American and Southern history instead of adding to that history through African-American history on highway signs, museums, monuments, textbooks, plantation and historic house tours. That has already been happening in a major way over past 15 years, and is a more constructive approach. It is just not being reported in the Washington area.

    The Confederate Constitution is readily available on the web — the only objective evidence of its purpose. 90% of it is identical to the U.S. Constitution of 1860 with its 12 Amendments, only updated to modern English so easy to read. The new 10% is poor policy — absolute defense of slavery. But also a focus on States Rights, with a reversion to many aspects of the failed Articles of Confederation. Impediments to passing tax laws or conscription. Line item veto that would have impeded legislating. Its only improvement was a single 6-year term for presidents.

    The Confederate States might have won the war, which was the most likely outcome at several points – had either of Lee’s two invasions of Pennsylvania succeeded; or had the Union Army stuck with tradition so George McClellan would have won in 1864. It would have been an ungovernable pariah state. European nations would have had minimal business relations. The 20th century would have been enormously different without a unified United States — no Spanish-American War so the U.S. would have remained a regional power, probably w/o participation in WWI or WWII. History has proved Mr. Lincoln to be right.

  2. I congratulate Les Bergen on his erudite dissertation on why it is totally inappropriate to apply today’s ephemeral “social justice standards” to the actions of historical figures who lived centuries ago. I apologize for not commenting sooner (unfortunately, I am afraid very few people will see my comment at this late date), however I believe Mr. Bergen’s views deserve affirmation and further elaboration: With regard to slavery in America, I believe it is worth noting that the issue of slavery was very controversial at the time the U.S. Constitution was being drafted. As noted by Mr. Bergen, many of the drafters, even some of those representing the southern colonies/states, to their credit had serious doubts about the morality of slavery. Nevertheless, because the highest priority at that time was to form a Union of all the states, only a feeble attempt was made to address the issue of slavery in the Constitution. The Federalist Papers (No. 54) explains: “the compromising expedient” was adopted (the 3/5 Compromise) to regard slaves “in some respects as persons, and in other respects as property.” While this compromise makes little moral sense by today’s standards, at the time it was considered a major compromise to allow the southern states to join the Union; unfortunately, not preventing the continued practice of slavery. This provision originally appeared in Art. I, sec. 2, of the constitution. Of more significance is the fact that during and after the Revolutionary War and the adoption of the Constitution, many of the original colonies/states, one by one, gradually abolished the practice of slavery. In other words, many decades before the Civil War, many white Americans not only recognized that slavery was an abomination, but also took legal action to abolish it. Thus, to blame white Americans and the government institutions of our constitutional Republic today as being “systemically racist,” and then to indoctrinate public school and college students to believe in this nonsense, is an abomination as well. I hope that Mr. Bergen will read my comment, and I hope he will present his views, along with my supplemental comment, to WJW as a potential “Voices” article. At this critical time, it is more important than ever for the public to have all the facts to be able to properly confront the anarchists and radical left extremists who are undermining our traditional American values. MLC


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here