Word is that President Donald Trump and his strategist Stephen Bannon are especially pleased with the president’s question post-Charlottesville: Where does it stop? After the statues of Robert E. Lee are gone from places of public honor, does slave owner George Washington go next? Then Thomas Jefferson?

Actually, it’s easy to draw the line. George Washington risked his life and fortune to create the United States. By contrast, Robert E. Lee commanded an army through years of slaughter and destruction in an effort to dismantle the nation that Washington built. As Trump might put it: big, big difference. Huge.

As for Jefferson, though he failed to live up to his own ideals, he nevertheless gave the United States a vision to aim toward: “that all men are created equal.” By contrast, Lee served a rebel government dedicated to a very different proposition. As the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, explained in 1861, Jefferson was all wrong about equality. “Our new government is founded . . . its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not the equal of the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this physical, philosophical and moral truth,” Stephens declared.

The leader of the United States ought to have enough confidence in the American people to trust that we can distinguish between two men who, however imperfect, gave us our nation and framed its ideals — and a man who, however conflicted, chose to lead an army to break up that nation and build instead a country founded on diametrically opposed principles.

It’s a shame that he doesn’t.

David Von Drehle is a Washington Post columnist.

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