Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden waded Tuesday into the debate over monuments that protesters are tearing down, arguing there is “a distinction” between those of Confederate leaders and those of America’s founding fathers.
“It’s fundamentally different” for protesters to take down a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, than it is to take down one to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, Biden told reporters in Wilmington, Delaware.
While Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, they were not “in rebellion committing treason, running, trying to take down a union to keep slavery” as Lee and Davis were, he said. “I think there’s a distinction there.”
“The elected officials where those statues are have a responsibility to move, put them in museums, get them down,” he said. But if they fail to do so, “don’t be surprised if someone pulls down the statue of Jefferson Davis.”
Biden said he empathized with those who want to see monuments to Confederate leaders removed.
“I can understand the anger and anguish that people feel for years and years by being under the statute of Robert E. Lee if you’re an African American,” he said.
Biden also said he believes the government has a responsibility to protect monuments to leaders like Washington, Jefferson, and Christopher Columbus.
“I think there’s an obligation that the government protect those monuments because they’re different than — that’s a remembrance. It is not a dealing with, you know, revering somebody who had that view. They had much broader views. They may have had things that were now, and then, distasteful,” he said.
“Toppling Christopher Columbus’s statue or George Washington’s statue or et cetera, that is something that is the government has an opportunity and a responsibility to protect from happening,” he added.
Still, Biden stressed monuments should not be pulled down through violent mob action.
“It’s better that they do not. . . . It’s always better to do it peacefully,” the former vice president said.
Biden said elected officials in places where such statues exist have a “responsibility” to move them to a more suitable place, like a museum, where people can learn their history.
Biden’s opponent in the Nov. 3 election, Republican President Donald Trump, has blasted efforts by demonstrators to topple monuments celebrating historical figures they view as racist. Biden has accused Trump of stoking racial tensions in response to protests that have swept the country following the death of George Floyd, the Black man who died in Minneapolis in May under the knee of a white police officer.
Mississippi lawmakers voted on Sunday to remove a Confederate emblem from their flag, an approach that Biden called “the better way to do it” than a forceful removal.
“But I can understand the anger and anguish that people feel,” Biden said, over “systemic racism.”
Trump has said the memorials represent the country’s history and that toppling some statues could lead to a slippery slope where even more of the country’s historical tributes are removed. Last week, Trump on Twitter promised prison time for people who destroy statues owned by the federal government, and signed an executive order aimed at protecting federal monuments and statues.
Biden was asked by a reporter about Princeton University removing former President Woodrow Wilson’s name from one of its buildings because of his racist views, Biden said, “I think there are three categories on that.”
“Any institution that chose a name and wants to now jettison that name, that’s the decision for them to make for whatever reason they make, so I’m assuming the board of trustees at Princeton University made the judgment about the Woodrow Wilson school,” Biden said.
“As the former mayor of New Orleans said, there’s a difference between reminders and remembrances of history and recovering from history. So the idea of comparing whether or not George Washington owned slaves, or Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and somebody who was in rebellion and committing treason, running, trying to take down a union to keep slavery, I think there’s a distinction there.”
Bloomberg News and Reuters contributed to this report.
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