Not Unmindful of the Past: A Retrospective Examination of Robert E. Lee and Cecil Rhodes
By Tim Lindsay Cecil Rhodes, renowned for perhaps the world’s most prestigious scholarship, spent his life ambitiously trying to expand the British Empire into Africa, but recent events in Cape Town and throughout the world might cause Rhodes to turn over in his grave. The former Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and business magnate has been vilified by a group of activists appropriately inflamed by Rhodes’ subject moral character. While he did leave much of his fortune to a spectrum of public works and, of course, the scholarship fund, his reputation as a racist and colonialist have of late overshadowed these efforts. While innumerable instances of such moral fallibility exist, Jay Nordlinger of the National Review writes an appropriate summary, “Rhodes was a racist, certainly in this sense: He believed that he and his fellow British were the superior race. He wanted to bring the whole world under its aegis. His ambition did not exclude the ‘recovery’ of the United States, as he put it.” His current adversaries, then, have much to resent and have sought, notably, that the University of Cape Town’s statue of Cecil Rhodes fall and that Rhodes University be renamed. That said, the activists’ method of opposition has been deplorable, to say the least. It has included smearing defecation on the Rhodes Statue and petrol-bombing the University president’s house. Nonetheless, the removal of his statue at Cape Town portentously precedes the demise of Rhodes’ broader legacy.
In 2014, a committee of 12 Law Students demanded that Washington and Lee denounce Robert E. Lee’s participation in slavery. These demands offered a convenient corollary to demands that the legacy of Rhodes in South Africa and elsewhere eclipse his efforts elsewhere. And as many W&L students have perpetuated this view against Lee, the topic deserves revisiting. Detractors have leveled similar points of criticism against both men. Robert E. Lee has been denounced for being a secessionist and a proponent of slavery. The criticisms rest primarily on General Lee’s contribution to the Confederacy during the Civil War and his ownership of slaves. Cecil Rhodes, who emerged a generation after Lee, was a sure racist who advocated for British imperialism and believed in the inherent superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race. Critics have even referred to him as an “architect of apartheid.”
The two men also held remarkable virtues that cannot go unspoken if seeking to truly understand the kind of men they were. Concerning Robert E. Lee, Dick Cheney aptly remarked at the 2016 Mock Convention, “There’s a caliber of human being that stands out no matter what the rank commanding admiration, no matter how sorry the ends, no matter how the story ends.” If Robert E. Lee didn’t evince his fair share of merits, there wouldn’t be an argument and this institution would have ever sported his title. One notable display of philanthropy includes reconstructing a certain financially struggling institution by supervising the creations of the nation’s first school of journalism, the W&L law school, and of course, our honor code. To speed up reconciliation efforts and reestablish peace and harmony, Lee actively recruited students from the North and openly supported President Johnson’s plan of reconstruction and recent end of slavery. Likewise, it is hardly disputable that Lee, both respected and admired by soldiers from the South and the North, always displayed an honest and humble character defined by steady integrity and virtue. Similarly, Cecil Rhodes, for all his vices, contributed greatly to academia and society as a whole. Notably, he established the renowned Rhodes scholarship fund, contributed the land on which the University of Cape Town now rests, and also contributed immense amounts of personal wealth and effort to further South Africa’s development. Until his death, he fought fiercely for harmony and peace among nations, although his method to achieve it was questionable.
A central question arises from these two stories. How should society weigh men cultured by vastly different times and places? Mr. Nordlinger of the National Review remarks, “Every generation is appalled by the failings of previous generations. Every generation thinks, ‘How could they have?’ and pats itself on the back for being infinitely better. Someone once said, ‘Will people in the future say, ‘Can you believe that human beings once kept dogs on leashes and owned them as ‘pets’?’ That’s far-fetched, though useful as a thought experiment.” If an absolute standard of character were applied to all historical figures, then very few would escape incrimination. Woodrow Wilson, a figure distinguished for “progressive” views, held coarse views on race, to say the least. He encouraged segregation, promoted a portfolio of southerners in the executive with such views, and indiscriminately hampered progress for African-Americans. An absolute standard would thus crucify Wilson, an uncontestedly and deeply flawed individual. Further, this standard would equally condemn slaveholders like George Washington and James Madison, additionally condemning those with prejudiced but nuanced views for their day, not excluding Abraham Lincoln who once remarked on the campaign trail, “And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Such evident historical contradictions only demonstrate that very decent and very well-intended people have often, throughout time, held “tragically mistaken,” views as Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review correctly ascertains.
To weigh the merits of men such as Lee and Rhodes thus deserves relativistic and not objective judgment. These men should not find themselves subject to the politically correct culture that has today strangled the robust exchange of ideas. In the words of Dick Cheney, “About the character of Robert E. Lee, the man, there was never any division of opinion.” He was certainly a man, as the former Vice President noted, an appropriate reminder that he too possessed a litany of weaknesses, but as to other men of his time, Robert E. Lee evinced an unusual and relative show of honor and integrity that should not be slandered by his role in the Civil War. Lee’s views on slavery did not reflect the broader opinion of his peers in Virginia and throughout the South. He once remarked, “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.” The famed general evidently did not support slavery to the extent others defended it—not remotely. That said, Lee did claim that humans could not elect to simply end slavery, “How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence…Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity than from the storm and tempest of fiery [earlier mentioned as ‘civil and servile war’].” To this end, Lee recognized slavery’s inherent evil but when balanced against a civil war, it seemed, to him, a lesser of two. Perhaps, this view has its inherent deficiencies - but as views not backed by irrationality or wrongful intentions, they were immeasurably better than others among Lee’s sect, although still not infallible.
Robert E. Lee did not harbor many of the racist views that other well-respected men of the era did. As mentioned, two years before the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln opined that African Americans were inherently inferior to whites, a view that Lee did not expressly take. Neither did Lee engage in a war on the behalf of slavery, but in fact over the wrongful arrest of states rights. The Spectator’s Editor-in-Chief aptly remarked in a summer 2015 article, “Until the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, slavery was legal in both the South and the North…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.” Lee had his imperfections, but none which have deserved the ignorant claims of today’s empty rhetoric. In the same vein, neither has Lee deserved many of the individually directed denunciations that other historical figures have yet eluded.
The activists in South Africa and at Oxford should thus approach the Rhodes issue with prudence and clear minds. To judge individuals in vastly different time periods makes for no easy task. Rhodes’ vices should stand not only against his merits but the vices and merits of others in his time. Evaluation requires understanding of context. In his piece entitled “’Rhodes Must Fall,’” Mr. Nordlinger concludes “Not every college can be named for William Wilberforce, the great abolitionist from Britain, born in 1759, when slavery was a norm of human affairs (as it has been since human affairs began.” Those who have defecated on his statue and have elicited the police to use stun grenades should examine the situation with more caution. Whatever Rhodes’ faults might have been, his modern protesters should pay heed to both sides of the argument rather than imposing one opinion on others - in today’s world, an alarmingly increasing practice.