Historians say iconic general who opposed slavery is too complex to be defined by modern politics
Robert E. Lee is undoubtedly spinning in his grave. The long-departed former Confederate general has found himself at the center of a controversy surrounding Confederate imagery in America.
Monuments to the great general have become flashpoints for some of the most tense — and at times violent — scenes of political and social vision in America today, as the Left seeks to eradicate what it sees as monuments to racism, while the Right seeks to defend against what it sees as attacks on American history and heritage.
This anti-Lee/anti-Confederate hysteria has grown so great that on Wednesday a 100-year-old plaque outside St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where Robert E. Lee had planted a tree in the 1840s, was removed.
The progressive argument is simple: The Confederacy symbolizes support for slavery, Robert E. Lee was in command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, ergo Lee symbolizes that support for slavery.
The reality is far more complex.
"Because the nuances of Lee's position regarding slavery are complex, for intellectually lazy and/or incompetent people emotion is the default take on it," wrote Dr. Marshall DeRosa, a political science professor at Florida Atlantic University and expert on the Confederacy, in a forthcoming essay shown to LifeZette. "But there is much more to it than that."
Another historian notes Lee came from a tradition in which military leaders avoided making public political statements.
"Lee is best understood as a professional soldier of the older tradition, trained in the classics, possessing great personal and professional self-restraint," Dr. Lee Cheek, dean of Social Sciences at East Georgia State College and a senior fellow of the Alexander Hamilton Institute in New York, told LifeZette.
"He rarely made political statements or engaged in political disputes, which were deemed inappropriate for a leading military figure. In fact, his political views are most readily available in his personal letters and remembrances," said Cheek.
In those letters and remembrances, there is ample evidence that Lee detested the institution of slavery.
"I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished," Lee said after the war. "I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained."
Certainly Lee lost much in the war. The Confederate general lost dear friends, seeing some of his closest die before his eyes. He watched countless droves of men he ordered into battle die. He lost his family home, a significant portion of his wealth, and his right to vote.
Moreover, Cheek noted, despite his consistent advocacy for reconciliation and loyalty to the United States following the war, "General Lee was vilified by the highly partisan press that had emerged in the wake of the destruction."
A man willing to endure all this to see slavery ended hardly seems like a man supportive of the institution.
Furthermore, while historians can debate whether the cause of the Civil War was slavery or states' rights, the general was explicit that his was a fight for the Southern states' right to self-rule. "Lee, a serious student of the Constitution and political thought, abhorred the centralization of all governmental power and control," explained Cheek.
"As the nephew of Richard Henry Lee, the great Founder, and the son of Light Horse Harry Lee, one of the great military heroes of the American Revolution, he possessed a deep love for the republic and his native Virginia," Cheek continued. "But [he thought that] if the Constitution and the will of the people were undermined, the right to revolution or resistance existed as a protective measure."
"Perhaps the most revealing of such correspondence was his exchange of letters with the eminent British historian Lord Acton after the American Civil War," noted Cheek. "In a letter to Acton, dated 15 December 1866, Lee affirmed the South's view of diffused democratic government, but such defenses had now been made 'unprofitable because the judgment of reason has been displaced by the arbitrament of war.'"
In Lee's mind, explained Cheek, "the violence and destruction of war had not made the defense of state authority any less constitutionally accurate or less politically viable as a solution to the nation's problems."
Perhaps the ultimate irony in the controversy surrounding Lee's place in the fight over Confederate monuments is that he himself may have opposed their construction in the first place.
"My engagements will not permit me to be present," he wrote of a dedication ceremony to a war monument. "And I believe if there I could not add anything material to the information existing on the subject. I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered."
Lee not only appeared to oppose slavery — he also dreaded the secession of the Southern states.
"I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union," Lee wrote in an 1861 letter to his son. "Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me."
"Patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and the motive which impels them — the desire to do right — is precisely the same," he wrote in a letter to General P.G.T. Beauregard shortly after the war.
Ultimately, said Cheek, "Lee was not the product of an age of ideology that politicizes all human activity, and obscures the deeper historical and political realities as these events emerge."