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Should Washington and Jefferson monuments come down?

President Donald Trump’s argument that the removal of Confederate statues is a slippery slope to changing history has recharged the perennial debate about America’s tormented racial legacy.

“So this week it’s Robert E Lee,” he said on Tuesday of the rebel general’s monument that was a flashpoint for last Saturday’s violent rally in Virginia.

“I wonder, is it George Washington next week?” he asked journalists at Trump Tower. “And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?”

Let’s put aside for a moment the irony that Lee may well have supported Charlottesville’s plans to remove his bronze likeness, given that he urged the country to “obliterate the marks of civil strife” and refrain from erecting such monuments.

As President Trump pointed out, George Washington was a slaveholder.

So might the stone obelisk dedicated to the father of the nation, looming over the heart of his eponymous capital city, be the next battleground in the US culture wars?

Or even Mount Rushmore?

Washington conceded the system of human bondage that underpinned the economy of 18th Century Virginia was a “wicked, cruel and unnatural trade”.

He was the only founding father and commander-in-chief to liberate his slaves – he owned more than 300 – when he died.

But as Ron Chernow’s magisterial biography Washington: A Life makes clear, while he lived, the nation’s first president extracted his pound of flesh from those whom he preferred to call his “servants”, or “family”.

Washington saw himself as a benevolent master, but he did not tolerate suspected shirkers on his farm, even when they were pregnant, elderly or crippled.

He once scolded a slave who pleaded that he could not work because his arm was in a sling.

As Chernow writes, Washington picked up a rake and demonstrated how to use it with one arm.

“If you use your hand to eat,” he said, “why can’t you use it to work?”

He was not averse to shipping refractory slaves to the West Indies, such as one man named Waggoner Jack, where the tropical climate and relentless toil in sugarcane brakes tended to abbreviate life expectancy.

“There are few Negroes who will work unless there be a constant eye on them,” Washington advised one overseer, warning of their “idleness and deceit” unless treated firmly.

Washington, Chernow notes, wholly approved in 1793 when one of his estate managers, Anthony Whitting, whipped a slave named Charlotte.

Martha, the president’s wife, had deemed her to be “indolent”.

“Your treatment of Charlotte was very proper,” Washington wrote, “and if she or any other of the servants will not do their duty by fair means, or are impertinent, correction (as the only alternative) must be administered.”

Washington badgered Whitting to keep another slave named Gunner hard at work to “continue throwing up brick earth”. Gunner was 83 years old.

With his Mount Vernon plantation creaking under financial pressure owing to his long absences serving the country, Washington would fire off angry letters to his overseers insisting on greater crop productivity.

Given these reprimands it is perhaps hardly surprising that another of his estate managers, Hiland Crow, was notorious for brutally flogging slaves.

In early 1788 the Potomac river froze over for five weeks, but even with nine inches of snow on the ground, Washington did not spare them from gruelling outdoor labour.

He sent the female slaves to dig up tree stumps from a frozen swamp.

During this Arctic snap, Washington ventured to ride out and inspect his farms, but noted in his diary that, “finding the cold disagreeable I returned”.

When some of his slaves absconded during the Revolutionary War to find protection – humiliatingly, for him – with the enemy, Washington did not let up in his efforts to reclaim what he saw as his property.

One internal British memo portrayed him after victory as demanding the runaways be returned “with all the grossness and ferocity of a captain of banditti”. The British refused.

Whenever George and Martha’s bondmen and women did flee, the first couple seemed to regard them as disloyal ingrates.

In one runaway notice Washington posted in a newspaper, he wrote that a slave named Caesar had escaped “without any cause whatever”.

That these enslaved human beings might thirst for freedom, or even the opportunity to learn to read and write, did not seem to occur to him.

Professor Joseph Ellis, author of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, says of the founding fathers: “They could imagine a nation-sized republic, which nobody else had ever done before.

“They could imagine the separation of church and state, which nobody else had ever done before.

“They could imagine a government based on checks and balances that prohibit any form of dictatorship at the presidential level. Nobody had ever done that before.

“They could imagine power flowing from the people upwards, rather than from God downward.

“All those unbelievable acts of imagination. The most creative political group in American history. We’ll never replicate that.

“But they could not imagine a biracial society.”

Jefferson, as every American schoolchild knows, is the nation’s third president, and a genius political theoretician who penned arguably the five most important words in modern history – “all men are created equal” – in the 1776 Declaration of Independence.

He also owned up to 140 slaves.

A bon vivant who lived in luxury at a palatial Virginia estate, Jefferson knew America’s original sin was a “depravity”, as he described it.

But his statements about black people are rarely taught in classrooms today.

Here are some Jefferson quotes that visitors will not find on his memorial, a Roman pantheon-style temple to liberty where the Sage of Monticello’s graven image keeps vigil over the Tidal Basin in Washington DC.

To his friend, French social reformer the Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, Jefferson confided that he envisaged eventual manumission to entail “exporting to a distance the whole black race”.

The duke wrote: “He [Jefferson] bases his opinion on the certain danger… of seeing blood mixed without means of preventing it”.

And yet Jefferson, historians say, fathered up to six children by one of his mixed-race slaves, Sally Hemings.

In his book Notes on the State of Virginia, he prophesied a race war in America and “convulsions which will probably never end but on the extermination of the one or the other race”.

Jefferson also opined in this work that black people’s “unfortunate difference of color” made them less beautiful than whites.

“They are more ardent after their female,” he continued, “but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.

“Their griefs are transient… in reason much inferior.”