16 January 2009

Robert E. Lee - Quintessential American Patriot

















"Patriotism is the love of a land and its people, nationalism is the love of a government." ~ Dr. Clyde Wilson

Reading some recent blog posts, editorials, and comments condemning Robert E. Lee as a traitor coming from those who consider themselves serious Civil War scholars, convinces me that these individuals have no fundamental understanding of federalism and how many 19th century Americans viewed their home states in regards to their state's relationships to Washington and the federal government. Condemning Lee as a "traitor" for resigning his army commission reveals a shallowness in interpretation. Those who hold to such views are, no doubt, suffering from "presentism" - superimposing their modern views of patriotism - love of, and loyalty to, a government - on to what was the common 19th century view: love of a land and its people. Let's examine Lee's decision in a little more detail and in light of this "less modern" view of patriotism.

In the first place, readers should carefully reflect on the fact that in 1861, Virginia had been a political entity for more than two hundred years and that Lee’s roots in Virginia could be traced to the year 1640. The United States had only been a reality for about 80 years. Furthermore, secession had been threatened before, most notably by Northern states. The Republic's viability was still somewhat tenuous in the eyes of many. Mobility and the common practice of relocating as we know it today was not possible, nor desirable, in the lives of most 19th century Americans, thus they were much more attached to their "sense of place" - their state and their immediate and extended families. This is where their most ardent loyalties lay. That sentiment was eloquently expressed in the words of Virginia historian, Philip Alexander Bruce:

It was this love of home, with its thronging recollections of the past both near and far . . . that nerved many a Southern soldier. . . . Love of the South was inextricably mixed up with this love of the family hearth. . . . Love of one particular spot, of one neighborhood, of one State, was the foundation stone of the love of the entire region which entered so deeply into the spirit of the Confederate soldier.

Thus Lee's decision to resign from the United States Army and ultimately take up his sword for the defense of his beloved Virginia is not surprising.

But Robert E. Lee had given his whole life to the Union for which his father, Henry Lee, the famous, "Lighthorse Harry Lee," had fought. Light Horse Harry Lee was a favorite of General Washington and was chosen by Congress to eulogize our first president. It was in his eulogy of Washington that Lee’s father first coined the phrase, "First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen." It is likely that these were not the only words of Lee’s father that came to his mind as he struggled with his dueling loyalties. During a debate in 1798 with James Madison, Henry Lee had stated, "Virginia is my country; her will I obey, however lamentable the fate to which it may subject me." Robert was born at the Lee ancestral mansion, Stratford Hall, and drew his first breath in the same room in which were born two signers of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee. He had married Mary Custis, the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, who was the adopted grandson of George Washington. Lee’s strong ties to the Union, and its founding, were both by blood and by choice. The depth of Lee’s love for, and loyalty to, the Union is something many students of Lee fail to give due consideration. It makes his decision all the more remarkable.

By the age of 54, Colonel Robert E. Lee had fought with honor and distinction in the Mexican War, served as Superintendent of West Point, quelled a domestic insurrection at Harper’s Ferry and was well respected as an army officer and engineer. Lee’s military prowess was well known. General Winfield Scott credited the United States’ victory over Mexico to the "skill, valor and undaunted energy of Robert E. Lee" and once referred to him as, "the greatest military genius in America." Lee and General Scott enjoyed mutual respect and admiration.

Lee's letter to General Scott declining Lincoln's offer to command federal forces to put down the rebellion was to the point:

Sir: – I have the honor to tender the resignation of my commission as colonel of the First Regiment of Cavalry. Very respectfully,

Your obedient servant,

R.E. Lee.

In the words of Douglas Southall Freeman, it was "the decision Lee was born to make." Lee would cast his lot with Virginia, in full measure – there was no other thing he could do. Though he opposed secession and had termed it "revolution," he also would state, "A union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets…has no charm for me." Lee knew full well the likely consequences of his decision. Yet, even after the war, as the South lay in ruin, Lee would affirm the rightness of his decision:

"I did only what my duty demanded. I could have taken no other course without dishonour. And if it all were to be done over again, I should act in precisely the same manner."

Lee's glorious victories against overwhelming odds have inspired volumes. Though the South ultimately lost, the Confederacy’s greatest general is as much recognizable as any in history, and more admired than any officer the North can claim. Robert E. Lee's sense of duty, his willingness to reject an offer for selfless reasons that would no doubt have taken him to the pinnacle of his military career, and for his love of his country - Virginia - makes him the quintessential American patriot.

Today is Lee-Jackson day in Virginia. Few will celebrate, few will remember. I'm proud to be one of the few.

Painting by John Paul Strain. The title is Never Against Virginia.


30 comments:

Jubilo said...

Dear Old Dom.,
Today is of course the birthday of General George Pickett .
The motives of Lee and Washington still intrigue me . Non-secessionist Federal army officers must have regarded Lee as a traitor just as Washington's British cohorts of the French and Indian wars must thought of him .
cordially,
David Corbett

Gil Gibson said...

Senator Ben Hill of Georgia said of Lee:

"He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile. He was a Caesar, without his ambition; Frederick, without his tyranny; Napoleon, without his selfishness, and Washington, without his reward."

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Gil. A classic tribute.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Kevin Levin says that this post "beautifully captures this narrative strand."

Thank you Kevin.

Kevin said...

Your quite welcome Richard. Please understand that I was not being sarcastic, even though I believe your narrative raises all kinds of questions and problems for understanding the complexity of decision that many made as well as the personal challenges these men from Virginia and other parts of the South faced.

Kevin at Civil War Memory

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thank you again Kevin. I assumed this was a "back-handed" compliment, rather than sarcasm. Perhaps I misjudged.

Of course it raises questions that weren't addressed in the post, as do most blog posts - including yours. Its the nature of the beast.

I agree with you that it was a very complex decision for all those who were forced to make it. And I believe that most of those who chose the Union over State also did so for patriotic reasons. My main point was that Lee should not be regarded as a traitor because he chose his family and his ancestral home over the federal government.

Michael Aubrecht said...

I would like to ask all of these people complaining, why can't you just let people have their day? The hypocrisy of these critics is mind-numbing at times.

It is as if they sit there waiting in the wings to spring forth on anything that does not fit into their own personal opinions and tastes.

There are plenty of days that I don't personally celebrate or agree with, but I don't try to step on other people's freedom to enjoy them.

Props to Gov. Kaine and shame on you to all the naysayers. You have your days and we'll have ours. That's America folks.

marcferguson said...

Hi Richard,
You are right that Lee should not be considered a traitor because he chose Virginia over the federal government. He should be considered a traitor because his actions fit the constitutional definition of treason: "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them." He most definitely levied war against the United States, and very effectively so, as his admirers like to point out.

;^)
Marc

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Marc:

Once Lee resigned his commission and Virginia seceded, he was no longer bound to the U.S. constitution as he was no longer a U.S. citizen, which is why his citizenship had to be restored posthumously by Gerald Ford in 1975.

If you're not a citizen, you cannot be guilty of treason.

Nice try.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael:

Meddling antagonists.

Michael Aubrecht said...

And might I add that if Robert E Lee was indeed a traitor then I'd side with the traitors any day.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Setting all the other issues aside, I don't know how I could possibly fight against my family, friends, and home. Regardless of one's political leanings at the time, it had to be a gut-wrenching decision for most.

SEChapman said...

Lee faced a great struggle that I hope any Southern male would share today, respectfully. My son was named for his father and I hope that he and I would choose Tennessee, or South Carolina over this present "Union".It is not that I distain the united states of America, but that I love my country more...for kith and kin..Very much enjoy your writing.

marcferguson said...

Richard,
Nonsense! So if I wanted to join Al Qaeda and take up arms against the U.S., I'm no traitor if I renounce my U.S. citizenship? What's the point of having written it into the Constitution if there is such an easy out? Pure sophistry.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

No, your comments are sophistry. First, Lee did not "renounce his citizenship." The feds voided it. Secondly, Virginia seceded and Lee was a citizen of Virginia. Virginia was invaded and Lee took up arms in a defensive posture. The legality of secession was never decided. One of the primary reasons Davis was never tried was for fear that the courts would declare that states had the right to secede, thereby nullifying the Union victory.

As I stated in the original post, you, like so many others, have no basic understanding of how federalism was viewed by many 19th century Americans.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

I love the United States, its history, rich culture, and the principles upon which it was founded. I hope I never have to make that decision.

Gil Gibson said...

Richard-

I think so many keep insisting that Lee was a traitor and the War was over nothing but slavery because to do otherwise, they'd have to acknowledge that the North fought an agressive war mainly to ensure continued Federal revenue. Which, of course, is what it actually did.

marcferguson said...

Richard,
because I do not accept your interpretation of the Constitution, which is selective, narrow, and ahistorical, it does not follow that I don't understand 19th century federalism. I understand it quite well. Lee did not lose his citizenship because Virginia attempted secession, he lost it because he committed treason by going to war against the United States. The question of secession's legality has most certainly been settled.

While I do not have a particularly positive view of Lee, he was a decent man who did what he thought was right. However, his actions certainly did meet the definition of treason.

best wishes even in disagreement,
Marc

brett said...

Not meddling antagonists but outside agitators

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Strict constructionist is the proper description of my view regarding the constitution. When was the legality of secession decided? I seemed to have missed that court case. The war did not decide the legality of the issue, only who had the most powerful army.

Excuse me, but a Nation does not "own" its citizens, at least not here. Taking up arms against one's nation AS a citizen of that Nation is one thing, but aligning yourself with another duly constituted nation and government is something altogether different. And Al Queda is not a state or nation. Not a good analogy.

In Lee's mind, as well as those other Southerners who made the same decision, the Nation founded in 1776 had ceased to exist. In Lee's mind, he didn't leave the Union. The Union left Lee. As you know, many 19th century Americans believed that the United States was a voluntary league of independent states. So it is historically incorrect to label Confederates "traitors" or their actions "treasonous."

When Thomas Jefferson wrote these words in the Declaration of Independence, was he just filling space, or did these words have meaning?

". . . whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

(And just because we're having this intellectual exercise, don't assume that I believe secession was the wisest course of action.)

I believe the war could have been avoided, had cooler heads (like Lee's) prevailed. Fire-eaters on both sides pushed the sections over the brink.

Best,
RGW

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Gil - certainly Lincoln's own words regarding his fear of losing revenue from the Southern states bolsters your argument.

Best,
RGW

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Brett:

For the most part, you are correct.

marcferguson said...

Jefferson was speaking of the natural right of revolution, which is not the same thing as a constitutional right of secession. Was Madison, the father of the Constitution, just filling space when he wrote to Hamilton, concerning the matter of the NY Convention considering the insertion of a condition into its ratification, that ratification must be without condition, that "The Constitution requires an adoption in toto and for ever."? He went on to say in that same letter: "This idea of reserving right to withdraw was started at Richmd. & considered as a conditional ratification which was itself considered as worse than a rejection." He also stated in this same letter that "compacts must be reciprocal," meaning that there was no unilateral right of any state to withdraw without consent of the the other members of the compact. The mechanism for such consent is imbedded in the Constitution itself.

Lee himself wrote to his son in January of 1861 that "Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labour, wisdom and forebearance in its formation and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the confederacy at will. It was intended for perpetual union, so expressed in the preamble, establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution or the consent of all the people in convention assembled." Looks like Lee agreed with Madison.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Marc:

You write:

"Jefferson was speaking of the natural right of revolution, which is not the same thing as a constitutional right of secession."

And then . . .

"Lee himself wrote to his son in January of 1861 that 'Secession is nothing but revolution.'"

It looks like Lee actually agreed with Jefferson and equated secession with revolution which is in agreement with the Declaration of Independence and, in your words, a "natural right."

Thanks for making my point.

Best,
RGW

Border Ruffian said...

Secession...Revolution...

Is there a dime's worth of difference between the two?

An expert on international law in the 19th century referred to the American Colonies' revolution as a secession.

Arthur B. Breedlove said...

Marc:

You write:

"Jefferson was speaking of the natural right of revolution, which is not the same thing as a constitutional right of secession."

In a correspondence with Daniel Webster in March of 1833, Madison, "The Father of the Constitution", clearly indicates that secession is indeed another name for revolution. He also states that it is without "theoretic controversy."
He again refers to the Constitution as a "compact" among the States no fewer than six times. He also states like in The Federalist No. 39, that the Federal Constitution does not form one aggregate people. Instead, the Union was to be a "Confederacy of sovereign states." This was the principle that distinguished a federal system from a national one.
http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch3s14.html

You write:

"He also stated in this same letter that "compacts must be reciprocal," meaning that there was no unilateral right of any state to withdraw without consent of the the other members of the compact."

I'm not sure we can draw the conclusion that secession was unlawful from, "compacts must be reciprocal." I think that a much more likely explanation would be from,(ironically)Daniel Webster who stated, "Should the Northern States continue willfully and deliberately to circumvent federal law, the South would no longer be bound to observe the {constitutional] compact. A bargain cannot be broken on one side and still bind the other side."

You wrote:

"The question of secession's legality has most certainly been settled."

I don't think that an issue of principle can ever truly be adjudicated by coercive force and eventual subjugation. Especially in a country that prides itself on adhering to ideas such as liberty and freedom. What if we were to apply that same logic to other areas of human life? Such as our legal system perhaps? Also, If secession be treasonous and unlawful, why does the United States find itself in the awkward position of supporting secession in far flung places overseas? I'm thinking of the former Soviet Union and Kosovo to name a few. In the case of Kosovo it was never even a sovereign state, but rather a part of Serbia.

You wrote:

"Lee himself wrote to his son in January of 1861 that "Secession is nothing but revolution."

It is true that Lee opposed secession at the outset of the war. But this is not to say he thought it was unlawful, but rather unwise. I don't think that Lee's views had evolved much at this stage of the war. He makes the mistake of referring to "perpetual union", which is not mentioned in the preamble of the Constitution. That phrase instead appears in the Articles of Confederation, which was of course a dead letter at this time. In a correspondence with Lord Acton in November of 1866, Lee echoed the sentiment of Jefferson when he stated "the consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it." Indeed he found no reason to argue when Lord Acton stated that "I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy." While it may be true to say that Lee did not favor secession (initially), it is also true that he didn't favor a Union maintained by bayonet point, either.

Best,
Bryan

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Bryan:

Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts. You make some excellent points and I would agree with your analysis. Moreover, reading about Jeff Davis's imprisonment, the drumbeat for his trial, and the eventual backing away from prosecution by government lawyers is quite enlightening as well. Chief Justice Salmon Chase believed that if Davis was brought to trial, secession would be proved to be constitutional and Davis would be found innocent of treason, laying the blame for the loss of 620,000 lives and a devastating war at the foot of the federal government. There was no way the feds were going to take that chance. Marc's suggestion that the issue had been settled legally reveals a lack of knowledge, as well as what my original post stated, a fundamental lack of understanding of federalism as viewed by many 19th century Americans.

I'm still waiting for him to cite the court case where the legal question was settled.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

BR:

Revolution generally carries with it a violent upheaval. Secession, in theory, can be carried out peacefully, but your point is well-taken and one I mentioned in an earlier comment. Thanks for your input.

Arthur B. Breedlove said...

Mr. Williams:

It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I generally don't partake in these discussions but felt I just had jump into the fray on this one. Your point regarding Secession being a milder form of Revolution is an excellent one and I would agree. I was trying to expose the semantics that are often employed to argue the case that secession was somehow treasonous.

Thanks

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Semantics indeed. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Please do so more often.

RGW