During a heated press conference Tuesday that saw President Donald Trump insist there were “very fine people on both sides” of a white supremacist rally that left 32-year-old Heather Heyer dead in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend, the president veered sharply off brand and accidentally had a good idea.
Answering a reporter’s question about whether he “[supports] white nationalists” — a query that’s proven remarkably salient over the past week — Trump fired back with some tough questions of his own.
“Well, George Washington was a slave owner,” Trump said. “Was George Washington a slave owner? So, will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down... Excuse me. Are we going to take down, are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him?”
It was a theme Trump had been toying with throughout the press conference. Earlier, he’d framed the tearing down of Confederate monuments — specifically the statue of General Robert E. Lee that sparked the Charlottesville rally — as the first step in a process that would eventually end with statues of Stonewall Jackson, Washington and Jefferson being removed as well.
Trump seemed to find the idea ridiculous. But is it really? In a country that has failed persistently to reckon with its slave-owning past, the moral lines dividing figures like Lee from Washington or Jefferson seem thinner by the day. This is a debate worth having.
The details of Washington’s life as a slave owner are generally horrific, but few anecdotes illustrate it so gruesomely as the alleged truth behind his teeth. The widely believed story is that Washington wore wooden dentures for much of his life. But documentary evidence suggests this is false — that in reality, the first president assembled his fake grill from a variety of materials, including the extracted teeth of black slaves.
According to the Papers of George Washington, a grant-funded research and preservation project housed at the University of Virginia, a pair of Washington’s dentures kept at Mount Vernon — the president’s plantation — contain real human teeth. Notes in the plantation’s ledger suggest that Washington’s purported dentist, Dr. Lemoire, had several teeth purchased from slaves at a dramatically reduced price compared to the going rate (people bought a lot of teeth back then, apparently; slaves seem to have been paid less for theirs).
The evidence is not conclusive, but that a practice like filling a president’s deteriorating mouth with slaves’ teeth might have existed illustrates the disturbing ins-and-outs of slavery, its daily manifestations and its inextricable ties to this nation’s beginnings. It dulls the sheen typically applied to the United States’ founding fathers, and complicates their legacy such that glowing tributes seem in poor taste, at best.
The same goes for Jefferson, whose decadeslong rape campaign against his slave Sally Hemings — a woman 30 years his junior — produced a line of multiracial descendants. When protests erupted in 2015 at the University of Missouri, one of the aims of racial justice activists was to have an on-campus statue of Jefferson removed. Stickers were attached daily to the monument, bearing words like “racist,” “rapist,” “slave owner” and “misogynist.”
“It’s a symbol of violence to many students,” student activist Reuben Faloughi told the Columbia Missourian at the time. “We talk about wanting to fix the culture of sexual violence and racism on campus, but that sits here. What really are the values of the University of Missouri?”
The statue is still there today. But the protests raised fair questions about the moral inconsistencies of the debate around figures from U.S. history who deserve lionization — and those who should be rebuked.
Jefferson and Washington both have the distinction of having played key roles in crafting the legal and philosophical foundation on which this country was founded. Lee’s greatest contribution, on the other hand, was fighting to preserve slavery in the process of cleaving that country in two. All three men owned slaves. And all three were engines of a system that made life a daily terror for black people.
Despite this, Trump’s suggestion that Washington and Jefferson’s statues would be the next to topple seemed intended to highlight the absurdity of the prospect. If Lee was unsafe, why not these figures so many Americans see as untouchable? Even the reporter who asked the president if he supported white nationalists was thrown off. When Trump retorted, “What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him?” the reported replied, as if automatically, “I do love Thomas Jefferson.”
Time has granted many Americans the clarity to cast a critical eye on figures like Lee. The result has been the removal of monuments to him and his fellow Confederates in many parts of the country. But tributes to his fellow slave owners — Washington and Jefferson — still dot parks in cities and towns across the U.S., including our nation’s capital, largely unchallenged. And in the course of his tacit defense of white supremacists, Trump may have accidentally posed the question Americans should have been asking all along.