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Did George Washington Own Slaves? Trump Invokes First President to Justify Charlottesville Response

Julia Glum
Did George Washington Own Slaves? Trump Invokes First President to Justify Charlottesville Response

As Donald Trump defended Tuesday the resistance to pulling down statues of Confederate figures like Robert E. Lee, he brought up the nation's first president.

"George Washington was a slave owner. 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? What about Thomas Jefferson?" Trump said. "You know what? It's fine. You're changing history, you're changing culture."

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Trump was referring to a weekend protest that broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white nationalists fought the removal of a statue of Lee and sparked a rash of counter-protests and violence that left three people dead. He'd been previously criticized for not specifically calling out the white nationalists present in Charlottesville, and on Tuesday he argued that the group of people trying to preserve the Lee statue was not entirely in the wrong—leftist protesters weren't behaving well, either. He appeared to suggest that maybe they were going too far, because Washington had metaphorical skeletons in his closet, as well.

It's true: Washington did, indeed, own slaves starting at age 11, according to MountVernon.org, the website for the president's home. His dad gave him 10 slaves in his will, and Washington acquired even more slaves when he wed his wife.

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How he treated them is unclear. Though there are legends he was more fair to his slaves than some men, Smithsonian magazine recently reported that the president once used a loophole to keep his slaves when he moved to Philadelphia.

In Washington's will, he wrote that all his slaves should be freed after his wife's death. Martha Washington died in 1802. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed six decades later, during the Civil War in which Lee fought for the Confederacy, the group of states that seceded from the Union over slavery.

Trump said Tuesday that the people in Charlottesville were not all neo-Nazis or white supremacists—some were simply there to stop the removal of the Lee statue.

"This week it's Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson's coming down," Trump said, referencing efforts to take down likenesses of another Confederate general. "I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You really have to ask yourself: Where does it stop?"

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