SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
At President Trump's freewheeling appearance on Tuesday, he raised a common question - if communities remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, do they then have to remove all signs of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves? In a series of tweets, the president said you can't change history, but you can learn from it. Well, let's try to learn from the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed. She's also a MacArthur Genius and teaches at Harvard Law School. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.
ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Glad to be here.
SIMON: Are there differences between the founders who owned slaves and the people who ran the Confederacy?
GORDON-REED: Yes, I think there are differences. Obviously, their owning slaves, you know, is not something that we can admire - something we abhor. But the problem with the leaders of the Confederacy is not just that they own slaves. It's that they rebelled against the United States of America and did so in service of maintaining the system of slavery. The founding generation - and we can fault them for the hypocrisy - many of them were of the mind that slavery was an evil that would in fact be destroyed or should end. They didn't do very much to further that along, but at least they professed that. By the time we get to the Confederacy, many of the people - certainly, the founding documents of the Confederacy - proclaimed that African slavery was natural. So we're dealing with two separate types of people. And the magnitude of and acting treason against the United States of America and supporting slavery puts them in a different category, I believe.
SIMON: I think a lot of us have learned over the past couple of years that most of these Confederate monuments were not put up in the years following the Civil War.
GORDON-REED: That's right. I mean, well, first off, they didn't really have the money. But it's true that these things really get going around the time that Jim Crow is being re-imposed and then in later years when there are movements for equality for blacks. They were put up as sort of a reminder of who was in charge. They were meant to send a message. So I'm not doubting that these people admired Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee and people like that. But the main purpose - the timing suggests that this was to send a message to the black people in their midst that whites were in control.
SIMON: Let me take up the question that the president posed, though, about the - you know, if you please, the slippery-slope question. What about a figure like Columbus? I understand he can be - he is offensive to many Native Americans and many Americans. He also has been important to many Italian-Americans and Americans.
GORDON-REED: There is an argument about Columbus, whether or not we should honor him in the same way. He's a candidate for a figure who we could contextualize and use the story of Columbus to talk about the problems of Indian genocide, the problems of imperialism and so forth. But I do think that, in some ways, these comparisons sort of get us away from the centrality of the Civil War. I mean, this was a war that broke apart the American Union. Eye on the ball, eyes on the prize at this moment is to try to come to some reckoning the way people have in Germany. I think one of the things that people compare us to many - one of the other countries - is looking at the Holocaust, understanding German complicity in that, educating people about it and taking it very, very seriously.
SIMON: I've also been impressed by what Germany has done to address their history. And I notice in some spots in Germany, you will have plaques that remember the lives and the death of individual German soldiers. Is there room for that?
GORDON-REED: There's a room for a commemorating individual soldiers. There's a room for, I think, monument on battlefields. I mean, Gettysburg - people have asked me, what about Gettysburg? Well, you know, people fought and died there. So, yes, I think to the extent that these things are done in places that are not meant to send a message of domination, sure that's appropriate.
SIMON: If it were up to you, what should be done with a lot of Confederate statues?
GORDON-REED: I think the Confederate statues should be removed. The notion that removing them means we're getting rid of history or changing history is not true. We will always write about Robert E. Lee, Grant, the war, but that's - doesn't have to be commemorated, I think, in statues.
SIMON: Annette Gordon-Reed at Harvard Law School, thanks very much for being with us.
GORDON-REED: Happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.