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A Lesson from Robert E. Lee

We can't find a reason to honor the Civil War general because we've forgotten why we needed him in the first place.
Controversy Surrounding Robert E. Lee Statue In Richmond Continues

There once was a general who fought a war to protect slavery. That’s not how he would have described it. He would have said he was fighting to protect his way of life from a foreign invader. Whatever construction he put on it, his so-called way of life rested on the sweat wrung from forced labor on plantations and gold earned from buying and selling black flesh.

That general was Samori Touré. The West African chieftain is honored today by black nationalists for resisting French imperialism in the Mandingo Wars of the late nineteenth century, but thousands of Africans were enslaved by Samori’s raiders in the course of building up his empire. After his final defeat in 1898, for more than a decade, columns of refugees tramped into French Guinea to return to their home villages as they escaped or were liberated from Banamba or Bamako or wherever Samori’s men had sold them. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates named his son Samori, after the great resister. That means that Between the World and Me, the best-selling anti-racist tract of the current century, which takes the form of letters from Coates to his son, is addressed to someone named after a prolific enslaver of black Africans.

History is complicated, isn’t it?

America is currently in the middle of one of its periodic orgies of tearing down memorials to the past. The iconoclasts always have an advantage in these fights, because their opponents have different breaking points. Some Americans were happy to conciliate the protestors until a mob in Portland defaced a statue of George Washington. Others reserved their indignation for when a mob in Golden Gate Park toppled Junípero Serra, Francis Scott Key, and (of all people) Ulysses S. Grant in one night. In New York, the city council is proposing to trash the city’s statue of Thomas Jefferson, which will at least be accomplished by an orderly vote rather than a howling crowd. Some people have persuaded themselves that that makes it all right. 

For me, a line was crossed this week when the faculty at Washington & Lee University voted to demand the school drop the second half of its name to erase its affiliation with Robert E. Lee. The moderate conservative’s justification for why it’s good to tear down Confederate statues but not those of the Founding Fathers is that Confederates are honored for defending slavery whereas the Founding Fathers are honored for other things despite their slave-owning. Whatever the general validity of that maneuver, it is obviously wrong here. Lee was president of the university; he gave it its distinctive character. His service as its leader was one of the great public-spirited acts of his late career, the most enduring of his many postwar gestures of patriotism and reconciliation.

Lee may not be someone you care to defend, even in his most defensible context. The point is that the current crop of fanatics are going to tear down every name and statue — Lee, Grant, Washington, Jefferson, any American hero to the right of Harvey Milk — unless we think of a way that we can all stand together, whatever the differences in our personal lines in the sand.

I have a proposal for a way. It will not require you to change your mind about Robert E. Lee. But before you throw him permanently into the junkbin of history, the general may have a final lesson to teach us.


According to Gore Vidal, Norman Podhoretz once confessed to him that “the Civil War is as remote and irrelevant to me as the War of the Roses.” One cannot always take Vidal’s anecdotes as gospel truth, especially about the former editor of Commentary, whom he detested, but certainly there are many people in America today who would say the same thing.

Visitorship at Civil War battlefields has dwindled to record lows in recent years, possibly as a natural consequence of increasing diversity. Personally I think every American citizen should be able to walk the fields of Gettysburg and feel that the history there belongs to them, no matter when their family arrived here. But maybe it’s understandable that someone whose parents immigrated many decades after the war ended, as Podhoretz’s did, should have trouble seeing the Civil War as something that is still, for many people, terribly present.

If you see the Civil War as an intellectual subject in which one might take an interest or not, like Tudor history, then there is no big dilemma in how to deal with it. You can simply choose to identify with the good guys. But if the war has come down to you as part of your inheritance, then the question of how to deal with it is a problem in need of a solution. 

Robert E. Lee has always been part of that solution, because no Confederate has been judged more deserving of being honored as a national hero. President Dwight Eisenhower kept a photo of Lee in his office, and when a constituent wrote him a letter saying, “I do not understand how any American can include Robert E. Lee as a person to be emulated,” the general responded eloquently. “Through all his many trials, he remained selfless almost to a fault and unfailing in his faith in God. Taken altogether, he was noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history.”

The reason we have forgotten why Lee is worth honoring is the same reason we have forgotten why we needed him in the first place: we have lost our appreciation for old-fashioned virtues like duty and filial piety. I saw a pundit on Twitter, otherwise a pretty conservative guy, say recently: “Robert E. Lee literally had the privilege of choosing which army he wanted to lead in the Civil War. He chose wrong.” It’s true that Lee was offered command of Union forces in April 1861, but it is a modern anachronism to assume from this that he had a choice. 

Duty is the virtue most associated with Lee, and it really was the guiding light of his life. When his old commander Winfield Scott asked him why he turned down the Union’s offer, despite personally opposing secession, Lee replied, “I am compelled to. I cannot consult my own feelings in this matter.” His loyalty was to Virginia, and he had to follow his state. Later, at Appomattox, Grant wanted Lee to sign surrender terms not just for the Army of Northern Virginia but for the whole Confederacy. Lee believed that was for President Davis alone to decide. Grant did not waste time telling Lee all the reasons it would be better for both sides to have a general surrender signed quickly. As he put it, “I knew there was no use to urge him to do anything against his ideas of what was right.”

Virtue shines best by contrast, so consider Lee next to someone who was his opposite in every way: Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner. Even his defenders must admit that Sumner was a man of deep principle but absolutely no honor. He would break any promise, betray any confidence, reverse any position to serve his liberal causes. He once won a Senate vote by persuading a Republican nay, who had paired with a Democratic yea who was deathly ill, to break his vow to abstain. He used the Constitution as a cudgel against his Southern opponents while feeling himself at perfect liberty to ignore any provision he disagreed with, on the grounds that nothing “against the Divine Law,” as he liberally interpreted it, could be binding.

Sumner’s greatest flip-flop was on pacifism. Peace had been his signature cause even before anti-slavery, going back to a notorious speech in 1845 where he called all wars “organized murder” and denigrated West Point as “a seminary of idleness and vice” that did nothing but train young men in “farcical and humiliating exercises.” When war came, Sumner could easily have sided with the Garrisonians willing to let the South depart in peace, confident that slavery would soon collapse under its own weight and in the meantime glad to have it off their consciences. But Sumner saw that martial law would give Lincoln a constitutional loophole to abolish slavery in every state. So he reversed himself on his oldest moral crusade and became one of the war’s most vindictive cheerleaders.

No one blamed the abolitionists for abandoning their long-held pacificism; the war was the opportunity of a lifetime. But that is the point. Duty means doing the right thing even when no one would blame you for doing otherwise. That’s what made Lee, whatever else you want to say about him, utterly dependable. He was a rock. He could be counted on. The only thing you could count on Sumner to do was to betray all of his allies eventually, even fellow Radicals like Thaddeus Stevens, the minute he convinced himself that they stood in the way of his political goals. 


Here we arrive at the question at the heart of the statue debate: Are people constrained by any duties, any external obligations at all, or is everything always up for negotiation? Are we free to choose which heroes we want to celebrate and then equally free to choose again differently tomorrow?

Heredity is one source of unchosen obligations. It was very much in mind when Americans were debating how to handle reconciliation after the Civil War. How could we possibly strike a balance between asking Southerners to swear allegiance to the Union, which was vitally necessary, and forcing them to spit on the graves of their fathers and brothers, which was morally unthinkable to ask from any but an abjectly conquered foe? Amazingly, America succeeded in bringing the South into the country again, but only because we did exactly that: struck a balance.

History is another source of unchosen obligations, one more powerful in many ways than heredity. To be loyal to the United States means being loyal to its history. You can’t treat America like a conquered province, the way the crowds defacing Winston Churchill are treating London. Lee and Sumner were both very stubborn men, which made them superficially similar, but the difference was that for Lee the ultimate arbiter of his conduct was external whereas Sumner recognized no higher judge than himself. Acknowledging unchosen obligations means accepting that some things about America, like its history, aren’t yours to change at will — which is good, because stable and unchanging things are what Americans can unite behind.

The left has a counteroffer to this. We can heal all our divisions, they say, if you will only join with us in rallying behind our revised list of heroes. But that would mean consenting to make your position on your country’s history infinitely changeable, and infinitely changeable at the whim of someone other than yourself. Because, of course, the right side of history we’re all uniting under will be different again tomorrow, and you won’t be on the committee that decides what it is. Nothing is fixed; no principles stand firm. You will be like Sumner, a man in whom nothing can be relied upon except his sense of his own self-righteousness.

To live like that, you must either have an unshakeable sense of yourself, as the egotist Sumner did, or else no sense of yourself at all. There are some political systems that prefer their citizens to be infinitely malleable with no bedrock sense of self, but they are not democratic ones.


I used to side with the people who wanted to tear down all Confederate monuments. If Southern gentility means anything, I thought, it means not causing gratuitous offense. It means being willing to accept that a statue might mean one thing to us but something different to our fellow citizens, to whom we have an obligation to be considerate. I took people at their word when they said, we don’t hate the South, we just want you to celebrate what’s best about it, not what’s worst.

That gave them too much credit. In truth, they don’t want to celebrate anything about the South, or America, or the past. Everything falls short of their Year Zero standards. Considering the absolutism of their ideology, perhaps I should have seen this coming. Others did. Either way, Confederates are in the rear-view mirror now and Washington and Jefferson are the ones up for condemnation.

The left argues that name changes and statue topplings are a way for people and institutions to demonstrate their commitment to real change. But at this point, it is not ordinary Americans who need to demonstrate their good faith to the left. It is the statue-topplers who need to convince us that they are genuinely committed to pluralism and not, as their actions would suggest, just sparing some statues temporarily while they bide their time to wait and see what they can get away with tomorrow.

So choose one. That is my proposal. The monument-destroying left should pick a statue they genuinely hate and say: leave it up.

Maybe it’s the Robert E. Lee equestrian statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond. That memorial was conceived in 1870 and not, as many other Confederate statues were, during the reassertion of white rule at the turn of the century. It really was intended to stand for reconciliation, not Southern intransigence. It’s also galling that Ralph Northam is the one who decided to get rid of it. The last person who has any business lecturing the rest of us in racial sensitivity is Governor Blackface.

But it doesn’t have to be Lee. It can be someone else. The point is for the left to demonstrate that they are capable of sharing a country with people they disagree with. If you can’t name a single statue you hate that you would leave standing, then you are a fanatic, and fanatics, even when their zeal is for a good cause, are impossible for the rest of us to coexist with.

Sometimes I wonder what Lee would think if he could see his Richmond statue now, covered in graffiti that the state won’t allow anyone to clean off, not even the obscenities. It would not touch his dignity. Lee had extensive experience with adolescent misbehavior, as a college president and before that as superintendent of West Point. He knew the virtue that young people most need to be taught, because it does not come naturally to them, is self-discipline. “You cannot be a true man until you learn to obey” was one of his favorite maxims. It would sadden him to see protesters who have apparently reached the age of thirty without ever acquiring sufficient self-mastery to wait for Governor Northam’s decision to take effect, or to express themselves without saying “Fuck.” But it would not wound him.

Self-discipline is precisely what we all need to rediscover right now. We need to relearn how to put our own emotions aside and live in peace with other people, even those whose deeply held beliefs offend us. If we don’t, the entire country will be in for a long, multi-year, possibly endless adolescent tantrum, and there won’t be a single remnant of our past left standing at the end of it.



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