09 February 2014

Should Americans Hate Robert E. Lee Or Crown Him The Greatest American?

I've seen a couple of blog posts lately by progressive historians which come off as rather
"defensive." To use Shakespeare's familiar phrase from Hamlet, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." With that in mind, I recently came across an interesting essay about Robert E. Lee and the author's observation that Lee is "under attack in modern America." I've discussed the same topic here before.

Certainly no "neo-Confederate", the author is an academic with advanced degrees in history. Here are a few interesting excerpts from the article by Dr. Stephen Klugewicz:
Once a symbol of national unity and reconciliation, Robert E. Lee, whose birthday is January 19, is under attack in modern America. In the last few decades, his name and that of other Confederate generals have been removed from schools across the South. Even in his native Arlington, Virginia, there was recently a proposal by a school board member to expunge his name from Washington-Lee High School. Perhaps more significantly, the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania is considering removing his portrait and that of his most trusted lieutenant, Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, from one of its hallowed halls. Like the Confederate flag itself, Lee has become in the eyes of many an emblem of racism and, increasingly and interestingly in our jingoistic age, treason.
And . . . 
Long the embodiment of the South’s “Lost Cause,” Lee’s place in the pantheon of America’s secular religion has always been problematic. The Nationalist interpretation of American history holds that the internecine conflict of 1861-1865 was at its heart a conflict over slavery and that the Southern states, by engaging in secession and the use of armed force against the federal government, had essentially committed treason. The clear implication of this interpretation is that those who fought for the Southern cause were traitors and, at least by association, racists. Americans have generally agreed with Ulysses S. Grant that the Confederate cause was “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
And . . .
The charge of traitor against Lee—and indeed against all who took up arms in the name of the Confederacy— rings quite hollow. There is not the space here to go into a full-blown analysis of the Constitutional, political, and philosophical issues involved in secession. Suffice it to say that the charge of treason can just as easily be leveled at those in the North who made war upon the Southern states (Article III, Section 3 of the United States Constitution states, in part, “treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them.”) Southerners did not choose war and wished only for a peaceful separation and independence. Certainly, in the particular case of Lee, it would be churlish to condemn him for either course of action that he might have chosen. Conservatives should praise him deeming that his ultimate duty was to his family and state and that he could not raise his sword against his family.
And . . . 
As his name and image, and those of his fellow Confederate officers, are removed from shops, schools, and museums across the country, it is ever more important, especially for conservatives, to speak up for Robert E. Lee. A man of military genius and personal honor, a defender of civilians and civilization, a champion of duty and truth, a model of humility and prudence, Lee was perhaps the last defender of the ideals of the Old Republic, whose greying glory was ground under the wheels of the New Order of the centralized, industrialized state that triumphed in 1865. Though he wore the racial blinders of his class and time, Robert E. Lee was a man of exemplary character and remains an excellent role model for all Americans and is indeed a worthy contender for the title of “Greatest American.”
As biographer and former Washington and Lee University professor, Marshall Fishwick noted in his wonderful little biography about Lee:

Lee’s genius was essentially military; but his greatness was essentially religious. He cannot be understood against a background of politics, philosophy or polemics. All efforts to find Lee’s “secret” have failed because they have followed the wrong leads.
And they follow the wrong leads because they always look in one direction. When the only item in your toolbox is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail; thus explains part of the problem with modern historians and their perspectives and obsessions. 

You can read the essay by Dr.  Klugewicz here. Though overall complimentary of Lee, the author does not shy away from Lee's faults and blind spots.


Jubilo said...

Dear Old Dom.,
Greatest American was Virginian George Washington. Greatest soldier was Virginian Winfield Scott. Any religious element cannot be qualified. Looks like the Old Dominion ain't doing too badly in the "great department."

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

What's happenin' Jub? Yes, I'd have to agree with you on GW, though I think Lee would be a close 2nd. Winfield Scott? Hmmm . . . GW might take the military title as well with Lee or Jackson coming nippin' at his heels. Thanks for the comment.

13thBama said...

So how will this impact Arlington? If Robert E. Lee is so bad, what will they turn Arlington into? Will they now say it is a "war trophy" taken from a very bad man?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

We've come to the point that nothing would surprise me anymore.