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August 21, 2017


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Wow. What a load.

There is so much to take issue with that time doesn't permit a full exposition.

Let's start with this whopper "First and foremost, of course, is the fact that George Washington was a patriot and Robert E. Lee was a traitor."

No, George Washington led a revolutionary army against his King and was, in the eyes of the English King and the law of the time a "traitor" ... just as Lee led a "revolution" to separate from the US. The difference of course is the fact that the Confederacy had an argument that because the formation of the Union was a voluntary association, withdrawal was permitted. No such argument could be made for British subjects in open rebellion against their King.

Next, “Lee, in contrast, had virtually no achievements other than the military defense of slavery, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.”

Again, for an average person, perhaps, a mistake. For a historian, this appears to be an intentional misrepresentation. There is something called "Google." Search for Lee and take 10 seconds to skim the article.

How about this one to top off the whoppers and twisted facts that one has time to address here:

“During his entire life, Washington was never exposed to the idea that slavery could be entirely abolished. Although it is painful to recognize today, slavery was regarded as normal — or at worst, a necessary evil — among the intellectual elite of the late 18th century.”

Actually, once again, just amazingly, completely and utterly wrong. “The slave trade had been banned in England in 1102. In a 1569 court case involving Cartwright, who had bought a slave from Russia, the court ruled that English law could not recognise slavery, as it was never established officially. This ruling was overshadowed by later developments. It was upheld in 1700 by Lord Chief Justice Sir John Holt when he ruled that "As soon as a man sets foot on English ground he is free". "In May 1772, Lord Mansfield's judgement in the Somersett's Case emancipated a slave in England, which helped launch the movement to abolish slavery. ... By 1783, an anti-slavery movement to abolish the slave trade throughout the Empire had begun among the British public."

It was in the colonies that Washington and Jefferson and the rest indulged in chattel slavery. History is rich with the truth about the abolishment movement in Washington’s time.

Why do you allow your shamelessly biased hatred of republicans incite you to publish such pure bunk? You owe the readers of that op ed an apology. You should withdraw it immediately.

And by the way, the fact that you obviously think a murderer of innocent women and children was a hero is sort of disturbing and tends to suggest that you could and would encourage such violent acts in modern times. Very very troubling, sir.


Well said, especially about Nat Turner. Brophy has shown himself on numerous occasions to be a disgrace to the ranks of his fellow "academics.". He is a walking, talking argument against tenure.

Alfred Brophy

Another reminder, as if any is needed, that as soon as we start talking about race people get angry.

The upshot of Steve and my piece is that Washington's era was one where slavery was accepted (though obviously and blessedly there were rumblings of antislavery thought and action). I've written some about the anti-slavery advocacy stretching back to the beginning of the seventeenth century. See, e.g.,

As anon rightly and smartly points out, there was some anti-slavery action in Great Britain (and some efforts at freeing enslaved people during the Revolution, he might have added). The central tendency in Great Britain was still support of slavery -- and as many have written, the promise and hope of Somerset v. Stewart was not followed up for many decades. No one thinks that the anti-slavery movement was as robust in Washington's time as in the 1850s. We're not making excuses for Washington; he could and should have done more against slavery. Same for Jefferson. Especially Jefferson. But there's a big difference between Washington and Jefferson and Lee. I strangely feel this is a repeat of those debates where some supporter of the display of Confederate flags says, but the US supported slavery, too, so its flag is a symbol of slavery. Do people really believe that nonsense? And I might add that I'm a supporter, by and large, of keeping Confederate monuments. See, e.g.,

By the time Robert E. Lee was on the scene, there was a robust anti-slavery movement and many other people knew better than to support slavery. There are so many distinctions between Washington and Lee. I am sort of surprised that the op-ed has been getting so much attention; it seemed obvious to me. Not controversial, obvious.


I see you're not defending the Nat Turner reference. I hit you hard on this, because it is an issue of safety. Your frequent references to Turner suggest, regardless of your protestations to the contrary, that you approve of his slaughter and hope someone else executes a copycat attack.


Prof Brophy

Thank you for your response. As you took some time to prepare it, I think it is fair to say that you cannot defend the statement that Washington and Lee differed because the former was a "patriot" and the latter a traitor" (that statement is quite obviously historically false) and you cannot credibly contend that "Lee, in contrast, had virtually no achievements other than the military defense of slavery, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans" (see, e.g., the desire of the Union for Lee's appointment to the Union forces and his rationale for taking on Virginia's cause).

Your response is only to attempt to defend this statement: “During his entire life, Washington was never exposed to the idea that slavery could be entirely abolished.” I know from prior experience that you are rarely if ever willing to admit error.

Will you concede that the statement - "During his entire life, Washington was never exposed to the idea that slavery could be entirely abolished" is purely and utterly and entirely false?

In the name of intellectual honesty, withdraw it.

Alfred Brophy

Nat Turner reference? This is an anniversary of an important event, an event that is revealing of many things (the violence of slavery, the violence engendered by slavery, and the violence used to restore order after the rebellion, and the role of "law" in all of this). I think Turner's violence was counter-productive, as violence often is. Just as the South's secession was incredibly counter-productive for its cause. Who did the most to end slavery? Right up there are people like Thomas Cobb, who was a proslavery zealot (and lawyer) who urged Georgia to secede.

As to the rest of your hyperbole. A copycat attack? Really, what the heck are you talking about?

In case anyone cares what I have to say about this, here's a link to my longest piece on Nat Turner:


Professor Brophy

I am not the person who posted the comment to which you respond above, but I did mention your frequent references to Nat Turner as suggesting a bit of glorification and honor bestowed on this ruthless killer of persons who had not harmed him and could not free him.

"Because the rebels did not want to alert anyone to their presence as they carried out their attacks, they initially used knives, hatchets, axes, and blunt instruments instead of firearms. The rebellion did not discriminate by age or sex, and members killed white men, women, and children. Nat Turner confessed to killing only one person, Margaret Whitehead, whom he killed with a blow from a fence post. Before a white militia could organize and respond, the rebels killed 60 men, women, and children. ... Turner later said that he wanted to spread "terror and alarm" among whites."

One can compare a murder in the Warsaw Ghetto of a Nazi soldier, and say, of course, comparing the violence of that murder to what was being done to the Jews there is ridiculous.

But, you seem to revere and honor a man who led an effort to murder babies in their beds, albeit, in response to a monstrous institution of slavery.

One wonders: do you glorify killing babies for other good causes? If not, what is the difference here? Do you actually believe that the Turner terror led to the abolition of slavery?


I'm not going to go digging out the literature, but there is considerable evidence that Washington, Jefferson and other prominent slaveholders like for example Mason were deeply conflicted about slavery. Nonetheless, Washington did propose to manage his personal slaves upon the death of his widow, and Jefferson seems to have manumitted that he was related to the Hemmings, Mason freed none at all. Indeed there is evidence that quite a few prominent antebellum slaveholders recognised that slavery was wrong in principle, but they didn't do anything about in practice.

Indeed it is fair to say that most of them seem to have decided to "kick the can down the road." Jefferson in particular, who wrote the words "all men are created equal" in practice doesn't seem to believe it.

Inter alia, it's worth noting that chattel slavery where not only on the slave, but the slaves' offspring (as with cattle) were owned was a distinctly North American development. Slavery under the Romans, and earlier did not apply to children of slaves; it was a form of punishment on individuals being on the losing side of a war, crime or antagonising the state.

In the event, Washington, Jefferson and many of the other founding father were wrong, and yes they did commit treason, as implicitly recognised by Franklin when he said: "We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."


I dictated that - Washington did propose to manumit his slaves on Martha Curtis-Washington's death.


I'd also add that since the British has offered slaves who took their side their freedom, one could suggest that Washington was in a way fighting against that freedom.

Frankly, the best argument is the reason for the monuments. Washington and Jefferson were not memorialised in an effort to justify the 'lost cause' or to intimidate African Americans during Jim Crow, but to celebrate independence and the freedoms it eventually led to, as well as the constitution.

Alfred Brophy

anon, responding to your 3:44 comment, I didn't respond to every point because I have other work to do today. As to the context of antislavery thought in Washington's time -- while there were, to be sure, some visionaries who hoped for a day where slavery was abolished (and one might add that Washington's life overlapped with the Revolution in Haiti where the enslaved were freeing themselves -- but if I mention that I guess I support killing babies or some other absurdity), that wasn't a politically tenable position in Washington's day.

As to Nat Turner, the quotation isn't from my work.

Violence is counter-productive often and was in Turner's case. I think his violence was a response to the system of extraordinary brutality that surrounded him. The death of innocent people, particularly women and children, is a tragedy and set back his cause, I think. I made that point earlier. These kinds of questions, such as how to judge the actions of enslaved people who killed their owners and the family members of their owners and others, is worth a lot of discussion and I allude to some of the question of the role of slaves' violence in the cause of abolition in a review of Sarah Roth's Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture in the Texas Law Review a few years back. It's available here:

One other thing -- I'm going to be CSPAN tomorrow morning at 8:30-9 eastern time. Hope you'll tune in; I'm talking about Confederate monuments and they take phone calls!


Prof Brophy

I appreciate your response and don't wish to discourage it. However, in the time you've expended, you could have made a case for the other misstatements in the op ed, if you'd wished to.

I asked you to concede that this statemet 0 “During his entire life, Washington was never exposed to the idea that slavery could be entirely abolished” was false. Unfortunately, you really do seem incapable of admitting error.

We both know that statement was false. Why not just concede?

As to this: "if I mention [the true facts then] that I guess I support killing babies or some other absurdity" is sort of an emotional and off kilter response that underscores the error of the statement about "never exposed to the idea."

The claim "that wasn't a politically tenable position in Washington's day" is also false. As a historian, you know that the claim that "slavery was regarded as normal — or at worst, a necessary evil — among the intellectual elite of the late 18th century" is simply not true. Remember, until the Revolution was won, Washington and the rest were British subjects (disproving another whopper of a false claim in the op ed: that Washington was a "patriot" and Lee was a "traitor.")

You are correct, I did not cite your work on Nat Turner, and frankly, given your idealization of his actions, I would find it too perplexing to give serious consideration to your rationalizations.

If you do not know "how to judge the actions of enslaved people who [mercilessly murdered infants in their cribs]" and if you think that this is an issue that "is worth a lot of discussion," then you have allowed your moral relativism to overtake your common sense. If you instruct others to think likewise about this issue, and glorify Nat Turner (as you frequently do) then you are inviting others to engage in the same sort of moral calculus and likewise consider murdering infants in the name of their "just cause." This is frightening and an extreme view that defies what I understand to be reason.

And, by the way, if you can only bring yourself to condemn the actions of Nat Turner because those actions were "counter productive" then I truly shudder at the message.

It is no wonder then that you have claimed:

"First and foremost, of course, is the fact that George Washington was a patriot and Robert E. Lee was a traitor." and

“Lee, in contrast, had virtually no achievements other than the military defense of slavery, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.”

“During his entire life, Washington was never exposed to the idea that slavery could be entirely abolished. Although it is painful to recognize today, slavery was regarded as normal — or at worst, a necessary evil — among the intellectual elite of the late 18th century.”


" I allude [in a positive manner] to some of the question of the role of slaves' violence in the cause of abolition"

An educator must sometimes admit error, Professor. Can you admit no error in any of the statements above?


There are records of Washington expressing views favouring the abolition of slavery, although they were to persons such as Lafayette, whose good opinion Washington valued and who were known to be opposed to the institution. It's late, but Wikipedia contains several quotes:

"After the war, Washington often privately expressed a dislike of the institution of slavery. In 1786, he wrote to a friend that "I never mean ... to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this Country may be abolished by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees." To another friend he wrote that "there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see some plan adopted for the abolition" of slavery. He expressed moral support for plans by his friend the Marquis de Lafayette to emancipate slaves and resettle them elsewhere, but he did not assist him in the effort"

I don't think this necessarily reflects Washington's actual views, being inconsistent with his actions, but it does suggest that he'd been exposed to strong anti- slavery views.


Prof Brophy

It is not a sin to admit error. It is wisdom.

YOu and Lubet have peddled a version of history that simply isn't true, in several cited respects. It is possible that your political purity prevents you from ever conceding the falsity of a hyperbolic, untrue assertion designed to undermine the targets of your hatreds.

But, in your heart (and I'm sure that you have a deep feeling for your fellows) please hear a plea to step back, rethink some of these statements, and at least modify them. Otherwise, one might think that you believe that, in a morally relativistic sense, it is perfectly ok to mislead others (a soft way of putting it) in the pursuit of what YOU believe to be a "just cause."

Alfred Brophy

anon, we didn't make misstatements. Washington lived in a time when abolition wasn't seriously on the table -- he wasn't able to act on such ideas, even if he could have conceived of them. Lee lived in a world filled with abolitionist ideas and he took up arms to stop them. If anyone else cares, please read my 7:36 statement.

As to the nonsense that I support baby killing -- this is the internet after all -- again if anyone cares, please read my article on the Nat Turner trials.

That is a study of the fifty or so trials in Southampton County that quantifies the charges and witnesses and links those together with the limited data on evidence presented at the trials to show how the court sorted the culpability of the slaves on trial. Some were freed, some were convicted of charges like conspiracy, and others were convicted of insurrection or murder. Some were sentenced to be sold outside the state, others to execution. Though there have been a shelfful of books and articles over the years, including several that are absolutely outstanding, looking for the vantage of law + putting that data into a spreadsheet yielded some new data on the rebellion and I'd say more importantly the function of the local court in restoring order. I also used the petitions for compensation filed by owners for slaves killed during the rebellion to set a lower bound on the number of slaves killed, a question of perpetual interest, and also to tease out some sense of the arguments about property and community culpability that no one had studied or really even thought about before. The article also identifies for the first time some trials in surrounding counties (the Sussex County trials were well-studied by Scott French's outstanding book -- but there were some trials that appear related to the rebellion in Greensville County). Oddly but maybe significantly these involved people owned by one of the Southampton prosecutors. I dealt with the limited evidence of the NC prosecutions (that turned into violence and resulted in the death of the accused before they could be tried). Then I looked at the lawyers (and to a lesser extent the judges) and built out a story about who they were and their motives -- one wrote a novel that portrayed Native Americans sympathetically. It's a work of legal history whose core is data on the trials and related primary sources.

I carry the story forward in the first chapter of University, Court, and Slave to the debates about the gradual termination of slavery that took place in the legislature in the wake of the rebellion. Many others have written very well about this, including Eva Shepard Wolf -- but my focus is more on the ideas of property in those debates and then how the debates are used by Thomas Dew, a professor at William and Mary.

As to anonymous' interpretation of this -- there's no discussion of the serious research that went into this, the new data I culled from multiple archives or from a close reading of sources that had been overlooked. Advocating for baby killing. That's what my work on Nat Turner is about. Got it.


I'm not sure how important it is that in Washington's day complete abolition wasn't politically viable: isn't the relevant concern that Washington himself was a slaveholder and was undoubtedly aware of the view that slaveholding was wrong? There were certainly contemporaries of his who chose on ethical grounds not to own slaves, even if they accepted that there was no immediate way to compel the rest of society to make the same choice.

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