Monday, August 28, 2017

When Johnny Comes Marching Home

Since my last post, I’ve had some people take issue with my comment that Robert E. Lee was a great man. As is usually the case when people make such comments, they do so without any knowledge of history. The world is full of people who are quick to express their opinions regardless of whether they know what they are talking about. Unfortunately, we live in an era in which people absorb sound bites and headlines to form their opinions without delving further into the facts that are necessary on which to base their opinions. So let’s look at the facts, learn a little history, and answer the question Who was Robert E. Lee?

Robert E. Lee was the son of the revolutionary war hero "Light-Horse Harry" Lee. His father led raiders who captured food and medicine from the British enemy troops that helped Gen. George Washington and his troops survive the bitter winter at Valley Forge; he was elected to the Continental Congress and later as governor of Virginia. Harry Lee commanded the troops that ended the Whiskey Rebellion and was later elected to the U.S. Congress where he eulogized George Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” He died when Robert was 11.

The orphaned boy went on to graduate second in his class at the U.S. military academy at West Point. Lee, an engineer, helped construct the St. Louis waterfront and worked on coastal forts in Brunswick and Savannah, Georgia. He married into George Washington’s family. He distinguished himself in battle during the Mexican War. In 1859, Robert E. Lee led a company of U.S. Marines to quell abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the U.S. military at Harpers Ferry (Brown was executed for treason and murder).

Lee was recognized as a brilliant military tactician. It was because Lee was considered one of the finest officers in the U.S. Army that President Abraham Lincoln offered him the command of the federal forces in April 1861 following the secessions of seven southern states from the Union. But Lee was devoted to his native state of Virginia. As he wrote to a friend, “If Virginia stands by the old Union so will I. But if she secedes (though I do not believe in secession as a constitutional right, nor that there is sufficient cause for revolution), then I will follow my native State with my sword, and, if need be, with my life.”

The rest, as they say, is history. When Virginia also seceded, Lee resigned the commission he had held in the U.S. Army for 32 years and offered his services to Jefferson Davis, the newly-elected president of the Confederate States of America. After the Civil War ended, Lee accepted a position as president of Washington University, where he served until his death in 1870. The school was later renamed Washington and Lee.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower revered Robert E. Lee, stating he was “in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our nation. . . . selfless almost to a fault . . . noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history. From deep conviction I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities . . . we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.”

Yes, Lee owned slaves; but so did George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. In fact, the first six presidents of the United States were slave owners. However, in a letter he sent in 1856, before the Civil War, Lee wrote: “There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil. It is idle to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it is a greater evil to the white than to the colored race. While my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more deeply engaged for the former.” A year before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Lee, in accordance with his father-in-law’s will, freed the slaves at Arlington House.

Robert E. Lee was no saint but he was a great man both because of his personal accomplishments and those on behalf of the United States military during his 32 years of service, and because of the way his actions affected the course of history. He might come up short by today’s standards in some critics’ estimations but while the application of universal relativism may be appealing to the politically correct of the 21st century, men must be judged through the prism of the times in which they lived.

Robert E. Lee was an honorable man and his decision to place loyalty to his state above loyalty to the Union is understandable given the context of the times. The United States was a young country, less than a century old when the Civil War began. There were Americans older than the country itself. Today, we envision America as a monolithic entity but that wasn’t the case when the country was founded in the 18th century. Back then, it was called the United States for a reason: it was not so much one nation as it was a union of former colonies. The Founding Fathers and their constituents actually feared a strong central government. They wanted the 13 colonies to be 13 sovereign states but they recognized the need to form a union for two specific purposes: mutual trade and defense.

They realized a common currency would facilitate trade among the contiguous former colonies, and that no individual state could stand against an assault from larger nations such as England or France so it made sense to band together. They drafted the Constitution, explicitly giving the federal government the power to coin money, raise and support armies, and provide and maintain a navy but also adopted the 10th Amendment, which states “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Most 18th century Americans looked upon the American Union the way the European Union is viewed in the 21st century: as a union of sovereign states banding together to create a common currency to facilitate trade and to provide for mutual defense. As with any union (even the union of marriage) membership is voluntary so member states should be able to enter or leave such a union. No one expects the European Union to go to war against Britain because it has voted to leave the union. One could argue the foolhardiness of both Brexit and southern succession, which leaves both the exiting states and the remaining members in a less advantageous position, but while the wisdom of doing so is debatable, the right to do so appears straightforward. If one can enter into a marriage union, then one should also be able to file for divorce, and certainly not be compelled by force or violence to remain in the union.

Robert E. Lee was not, as many this week have labeled him, a traitor; he simply placed his loyalty to his native state above that to the Union of which it no longer wished to be a part. The real traitors, if you want to be technical, were George Washington and the Founding Fathers, who at the time of their rebellion against England did not represent sovereign states but rather colonies of the British empire. But history is written by the victors and they are now American heroes; had they lost, they would have been executed by the crown as traitors and vilified as such in all the history books.

Likewise, had the American South not been defeated in the Civil War, history would have regarded Gen. Robert E. Lee as a hero and founding father of the Confederacy. It’s important to remember that in any civil war half of the population is on the other side. In the American Civil War, 642,427 Americans died – and 483,026 of them were Southerners. Part of the process of healing and reunification requires us to respect the memory of those who fought, and of those who died, on both sides because they were all Americans.

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