Robert E. Lee, a Man of Honor Then and Now
By Benjamin Gee '18 Washington and Lee University is widely known for being named after two individuals: George Washington and Robert Edward Lee. The University website identifies them as “two of the most influential men in American History,” and Robert E. Lee specifically receives recognition as a man “whose presidency and innovative leadership brought the University into the national limelight.” In his own way, each man saved the faltering school from bankruptcy, and then empowered it towards the renowned center of learning it is today. Both were men of steadfast virtue and honor, and the University remembers them accordingly.
However, not all support W&L’s appreciation for its noble namesakes. In the spring of 2014, a group of disgruntled W&L law students issued a brash list of public demands against the University. With their efforts trained on obtaining racial reparations from the school, they demanded, among other things, that W&L issue an official apology for honoring Robert E. Lee. The University acceded to several of the students’ demands over the next year, but thankfully refused to publically denounce former President Lee.
Today, a controversy over Robert E. Lee’s legacy returns to W&L, although from the outside rather than within. This week, our country mourns with South Carolina and Charleston after its tragedy, a product of deranged and irrational hatred unworthy of further elaboration. Heartbreakingly, political opportunists have sought to take advantage of their loss by inciting a witch-hunt against anything even vaguely connected to the Confederacy. South Carolina’s prudent removal of the Confederate flag from its State Capital, a public setting, became the starting point for a far greater eradicatory effort in the private domain. The specter of the Confederacy, these social justice McCarthyites argue, was directly responsible for the South Carolina tragedy and thus should be expunged in all its forms throughout the United States. And so began the latest national crusade against the past, a mass censorship of grim proportions.
Just three days following South Carolina’s decision, Apple had a knee-jerk (and thankfully temporary) reaction banning all apps that included or featured the Confederate flag. The National Cathedral immediately promised to tear down its stained glass panels containing references to the flag, and Wal-Mart started refusing to make Confederate-flag cakes even while still allowing ISIS-themed cakes to be sold. The epitome of the vacuous nature of the purge is seen in the refusal to permit Dukes of Hazard reruns for the mere instance of a Confederate flag on a car hood. Gone With the Wind, an iconic cultural benchmark, has come under attack in the New York Times and elsewhere for its allegedly romantic views on slavery and the Confederate cause in the Civil War. Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton proposed to dig up the remains of Confederate generals, apparently desirous of exacting revenge on dead piles of bones. Possibly the most ludicrous accusations of all are directed towards the Jefferson Memorial, calling for its dismantlement because it dares to honor a man who, for all his invaluable contributions to the world’s preeminent system of democracy, owned slaves himself. As a symbol and object, the Confederate flag served as the progressive inquisition’s first target of persecution – and now, anything even remotely tied to it is characterized as anathema and sentenced to disregard, banishment, and eternal contempt. That list includes Robert E. Lee.
Detractors level two main accusations at Lee: That he was a secessionist, and that he supported slavery. Both accusations lack historical nuance or balanced perspective, being fueled by simple-minded political narratives that, evoking echoes of Machiavelli, are more concerned with obtaining a desired outcome than ensuring the integrity of their means. The deep complexity of history, and of the Civil War in particular, renders almost any blanket statement on its events incorrect or oversimplified, and such is the case with Robert E. Lee’s participation in the conflict.
At face value, Lee joined the Confederacy and therefore, say his critics, he must have agreed with slavery and secession, hated the Union by committing treason, and a host of other failings. However, Presentism blinds them to the realities of an America torn by internal conflict and slowly, inexorably drifting towards civil war. The Constitution was less than a century old when war broke out, and the sanctity of the Union had not entirely surpassed the loyalties individual citizens felt towards their home states. In the wake of the Nullification crisis in 1831, perhaps John C. Calhoun best expressed this conflict when he responded in challenge to President Jackson, “The Union, next to our [State] liberty, most dear.” This stubborn American resistance to accepting the primacy of the Union over its individual states was shared by both North and South. Only fifteen years before Calhoun and Jackson sparred over States’ Rights, Federalists from New England gathered at the notorious 1815 Hartford Convention to debate secession over opposition to President James Madison. The country was young, and the states were much older – and so, like many Americans, Robert E. Lee devoted his loyalties to Virginia when faced with a fateful choice between his country and his state.
Virginia voted democratically to sever itself from the Union on May 23, 1861 by referendum, confirming for Lee his need to stand by the popular will of his state in what was nonetheless a very difficult decision for him to make. However, Lee was a reluctant Confederate at best and certainly no advocate of secession. Leading up to Virginia’s separation, Lee had opposed secession as a betrayal of the work of the Founding Fathers, writing: “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union." Lee criticized the Confederacy’s revolutionary bent, but he saw it as his duty to serve his state even when he disagreed, the model of a true statesman. Robert E. Lee was not disloyal to his country, instead, was simply a loyal Virginian.
The second major accusation against Lee, that of supporting slavery, lacks foundation when confronted with Lee’s own words on the subject. Yes, Lee’s family was one of the oldest in Virginia, and historically owned slaves; however, Lee’s own views were a major exception in slavery-loving Virginia. Much like the Founding Fathers, Lee found himself entrapped by the realities of a culture intensely clinging to slavery, but he held strong personal reservations. In 1856, a full five years before the outbreak of hostilities for the Civil War, Lee wrote: “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.”
Lee’s decision to fight for the Confederacy did not constitute an endorsement of slavery, either. Until the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, slavery was legal in both the South and the North. The Union did not outlaw slavery during the war out of fear that the Border States of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia would secede. In a sense, the perpetuation of slavery became the bribe with which the Union obtained the border states’ continued obedience, making the Civil War a conflict that only involved the end of slavery near its own resolution, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
However, contrary to popular belief, the Proclamation did not free a single person, North or South – it only specified slaves in the South as freed (to join the northern forces), leaving slaves in the North to wait two more years for their freedom. The Union still needed the cooperation of the Border States, so slavery remained legal in the North. If Lee’s many military successes had not driven Lincoln and the Union out of mounting desperation to take great measures towards ensuring a swift end to the war, the Union may never had taken that critical first step towards full abolition and the end of slavery. Ironically then, Robert E. Lee played a profound indirect role in the creation of the Emancipation Proclamation and subsequent passage of the 13th Amendment.
So if Robert E. Lee was not a racist or an advocate for secession, what then remains for those seeking his posthumous figurative lynching? The answer is clear – pure, empty rhetoric. As leader of the Confederate forces, Lee conducted a war that was honorable, hard-fought against incredible odds, and punctuated by heroic effort. In every respect, Lee is a figure deserving of admiration – quite the paradox, for the human symbol of a slave-endorsing group of rebels who split the country apart two centuries ago. To destroy the legacy of the Confederacy, for better or for worse, requires the toppling of its most revered leader, the man who represents everything for which thousands of young men who fought for the Confederacy endured and suffered. For this reason, the relentless tribunals of historical revisionism hold it politically expedient to condemn Robert E. Lee using standards that mislead, fabricate, and hypocritically dismiss historical figures of far greater blame than Lee.
On the issue of hypocrisy, the progressive darling Woodrow Wilson provides an obvious example. Wilson’s case typifies the cartoonish selectivity exhibited by revisionist inquisitors when pursuing their targets, using flexible criteria that overlooks individuals of similar ideologies to their own. Their current target, Lee, opposed slavery and believed in the inherent dignity and equal standing of all races; Wilson, contrastingly, was an unapologetic segregationist who actively turned away black applicants to Princeton during his tenure as President, endorsed the infamous KKK–lauding documentary Birth of A Nation, and removed black appointees from official positions in the Government. When once confronted by accusations of racism, Wilson unapologetically answered, “If the colored people made a mistake in voting for me, they ought to correct it.” No question exists of Wilson’s racial animus, or his proven record in attempting to stifle improvement in the lives of African Americans at any point in his life, academic and political.
In spite of Wilson’s glaringly obvious racism, which dwarfs anything Robert E. Lee ever said or did, the former President remains enshrined in the hearts, minds, and halls of progressives throughout the country. Princeton University lionizes Wilson, and finds no issue asking potential applicants how to achieve racial accord juxtaposed (without a hint of irony) below a request to elaborate on Wilson’s ideas for world peace through mutual cooperation. Wilson was all about cooperation, the failed League of Nations demonstrates this for sure - but only for the ‘racially superior.’ Robert E. Lee never did or said anything to warrant the disproportionate hatred directed against him by the same people who uphold figures like Wilson as standards of political excellence. That Woodrow Wilson escapes scrutiny, while innocent men like Lee are demonized, says a lot about the sorry state of American affairs today.
Washington and Lee University, for its part, remembers Robert E. Lee as a transformative President who humbly dedicated the remainder of his life after the civil war to service, below his qualifications and prominence, to a tiny and struggling Virginia school then named Washington College. The school’s Board of Trustees approached him in a final desperate attempt to save the school from bankruptcy; the Trustees knew it was a long shot that the former commander of all Confederate forces would assent to stewardship over a mere few hundred students, but to their delight he accepted their offer and became the school’s President. Lee wanted to retire from public view to avoid inciting post-war hostility, and help America’s healing process as the country recovered from a devastating internal conflict. He said at the time, "I think it the duty of every citizen in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony."
While President of Washington College, Lee had a dramatic and lasting impact that forever changed the school in ways still felt today. He initiated journalism, science, and business programs, constructed a Chapel to house the school’s central offices, and instituted an honor system defined by a single, powerful rule: “…That every student be a gentleman." That honor system Lee founded persists at W&L to this day, a lasting testament to Lee’s faith in student self-governance and the sanctity of honorable conduct that makes W&L unique as an institution of higher learning. In remembering Robert E. Lee, Washington and Lee honors its creation, its rebirth and its continuing ties to the man who made the school into a true beacon of learning.
Robert E. Lee is under attack, and his assailants will not rest until every trace of Lee’s influence, memory, and legacy disappears along with his fellow oppressors in the Confederacy, and all they stood for. With this resurgent attempt on eliminating appreciation of individuals like Lee and Jefferson from American history, we are taking a dangerous step towards building Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, the omnipotent editor of the past for those in power. As 1984’s doomed protagonist Winston Smith ultimately succumbs to despair, his interrogator O’Brien reminds him, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” Our revisionist editing of history is accomplishing just that, and Robert E. Lee is only the latest in a long line of dedicated character assassinations by progressive political activists. Lee was in no way responsible for the tragedy in Charleston, and placing him on trial for the evil actions of a lunatic two centuries after his death achieves nothing more than further anger and division. The real legacy of Robert E. Lee is found in the reconciliation and in the unity flowing to Charleston this week from all over the country, advancing his hope for a nation free from slavery and disunion.
In selecting Robert E. Lee as their next target, the inquisition went one step too far in its zeal for rewriting historical narratives to suit their present agenda. They targeted a man who does not conform to their neat constructions of racism, secessionism, and bigotry, a man whose own life defies the attempt to malign him for lacking the very virtues he epitomized. A fine line has been crossed, and Washington and Lee University may soon feel national pressure to abandon its second namesake, the man whose revolutionary leadership transformed the University into a remarkable center of learning. If the University holds true to its identity, heritage, and principles, it will remain true to Robert E. Lee. For after all, he was always true to us.
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