After the tragic events in the US following proposals to remove the statues of General Robert E Lee, the commander of the Confederate Army in the Civil War, Donald Trump claimed that as George Washington was also a slave-owner, the two can be equated.
There is a figure of Southern gentleman popular even in “progressive” literature. Recall Horace from Lillian Hellmann’s Little Foxes, a benevolent patriarch with a weak heart who is horrified by his wife’s plans for the brutal capitalist exploitation of their property. Look at Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird who, as it is revealed in the sequel, also had a racist streak. Confederacy was not about slavery but about protecting a local “way of life” from the brutal capitalist onslaught. These left-liberal iconic figures of conservative bucolic-patriarchal anti-capitalism sincerely help Southern black people when they are oppressed and falsely accused, but their sympathy stops when people of colour begin not only to fight but also to question the actual freedom provided by the Northern liberal establishment.
But Robert E Lee was not even such a gentleman. There are no reports that he had any inner qualms about slavery. Furthermore, even among slave owners, there was a division between those who, when they were re-selling their slaves, took care that families with children remained together, and those who didn’t bother, happy to separate families – Lee was among this second much harsher group. He may well have appeared to be a gentleman with good manners, but he nonetheless dealt brutally with slaves – as difficult as it may be to accept, the two can go together.
[Abstract. Appeared in the Independent on September 5th 2017.]