Robert F. Hawes Jr.
The British historian Lord Acton once said, "Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority." As a student of history myself, I am compelled to agree with that observation. Unfortunately, the majority of names that occur to me when I think of history's most notable figures are, to some degree or another, associated with tyranny and oppression.
Nor has American history escaped this disturbing trend. Abraham Lincoln is most often named when Americans are asked to identify the best or greatest president of the United States; yet Lincoln overthrew the principles of the American Revolution, deliberately provoked a war when he might have negotiated a peace, figuratively tore the Constitution to shreds, ruthlessly silenced his opposition, and went to his grave with the blood of hundreds of thousands -- and, in a sense, the lifeblood of the Republic itself -- on his hands. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, in the words of former Supreme Court Justice William Rhenquist, "ranks foremost among the runners up" to Lincoln, imprisoned 110,000 Americans in internment camps, confiscated private property by fiat, stacked the highest court in the land with judges that would rubber-stamp his edicts, and firmly wove socialism into our political fabric with his New Deal. Of Roosevelt, H.L. Mencken once wrote: "I am advocating making him king in order that we may behead him in case he goes too far beyond the limits of the endurable." To this day, the shadows of Lincoln and Roosevelt still loom vast and dark over our public institutions and mindset, virtually eclipsing the world that preceded them. Usurpers and authoritarians all of political stripes routinely invoke their words and deeds like talismans against those who dare to challenge the power of the almighty State.
Fortunately, however, not all 'great' names need be found on display in history's rogues gallery. There are some noteworthy exceptions to Lord Acton's dictum, and one of them has a significant birthday this week.
Born January 19, 1807, General Robert E. Lee is perhaps even more towering a figure in death than he was in life, and he is nothing if not an enigma to most Americans. His military exploits are legendary. His character was such that even many of those who denigrate the Southern cause in the War of Secession cannot help but admire the man who nearly put the Confederacy on a paying basis. Physically, he was an imposing figure, yet battle-hardened men rallied to him like a standard and wept like children in his presence. He insisted upon strict disciplinary standards, and took to the field of war with the wrathfulness of an Old Testament prophet; but he is equally famous for his humility and gentleness. A statue in his honor stands in the rotunda of the Capitol building in Washington D.C., the seat of power against which he once labored with all his energies. Having fought against the United States, he is still venerated as one of the greatest Americans.
As enigmatic as these qualities make Lee appear on the surface, he actually strikes me as one of the most easily understood personalities in our history. You see, General Lee lived by a code; and while many people profess to live by various creeds, Lee stands out as one of the few people who demonstrably kept to the course he had set for himself. Having studied the general and his life in detail over the years, I say with some assurance that his outlook on life can be summed up in the following quote:
“Duty is the most sublime word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.”
This simple ideology is key to dispelling the mystery that surrounds Robert E. Lee, and for commending him to future generations as an example of both a great and good man. If he seems mysterious, or larger than life, or perhaps too good to be true, I feel it is largely because we are unaccustomed to such men in this age of denial, complacency and moral relativism. Lee's celebrated biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, writing in his four-volume R.E. Lee, stated: "Lee was one of the small company of great men in whom there is no inconsistency to be explained, no enigma to be solved. What he seemed, he was -- a wholly human gentleman, the essential elements of whose positive character were two and only two, simplicity and spirituality".
No, we are not accustomed to this kind of man at all in our day. For that matter, neither were many who lived in his own day. Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the United States army in 1861, scolded him for making the biggest mistake of his life when he turned down Lincoln's offer to command United States troops against the Confederacy, but Lee's sense of duty would not permit him to take that command. "I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home," said Lee. And so saying he set himself on the hard road, one that led to Appomattox and ultimate defeat. In the end, however, it was also Lee's sense of duty that led him to end the fighting. "There is nothing left for me but to go and see General Grant," Lee remarked to his men during the those dark days following the Army of Northern Virginia's retreat from Confederate Richmond, "and I would rather die a thousand deaths...but it is our duty to live. What will become of the women and children of the South if we are not here to protect them?" When some of his men suggested that, instead of surrendering Lee might disband his army and let the men continue to fight as guerrillas, Lee replied:
"If I took your advice, the men would be without rations and under no control of officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. They would become mere bands of marauders, and the enemy's cavalry would pursue them and overrun many sections they may never have occasion to visit. We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from."
In the few years remaining to him after the war, Lee would have preferred to retreat altogether from public life and become a farmer; but once again, his sense of duty compelled him to do otherwise. He accepted the presidency of Washington College (now Washington and Lee) in Lexington, Virginia, firmly believing that the South's best hope for the future lay in raising up a generation of learned, self-disciplined men. "The thorough education of all classes of the people is the most efficacious means, in my opinion, of promoting the prosperity of the South," said Lee. "We must look to the rising generation for the restoration of the country." Lee continued in this new post, leading by example, until his death in October, 1870.
And while Lee was gracious in defeat, and is generally recognized as having done more to restore relations between North and South than any other single individual following the war, he never repented his participation in the Confederacy and never recanted her cause. "I could have taken no other course without dishonor," he wrote, "and if all were to be done over again, I should act in precisely the same manner."
"I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization," Lord Acton wrote to Lee on November 4, 1866, "and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo." In reply, Lee wrote that the South had fought for "the supremacy of the constitution, and the just administration of the laws made in pursuance to it":
"I can only say that while I have considered the preservation of the constitutional power of the General Government to be the foundation of our peace and safety at home and abroad, I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people, not only essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continuance of a free government. I consider it as the chief source of stability to our political system, whereas 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."
"Aggressive abroad and despotic at home." The United States of America, consolidated under a supreme federal system as per the wishes of men like Lincoln and Roosevelt, has largely fulfilled this dire prediction made by Lee. He had all of the assurances of history before him in making that prediction, and yet, as surely as he saw the inevitable consequences of our Jeffersonian Republic's overthrow, he also saw a reason to hope:
"My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them nor indisposed me to serve them; nor, in spite of failures which I lament, of errors which I now see and acknowledge, or of the present aspect of affairs, do I despair of the future. The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow and our desires so impatient; the work of progress so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope."
We live in troubled, uncertain times, and many are tempted to despair of the future. But to those who feel the darkness closing in around them as freedom's light dims and western civilization falters, I urge you to bear Lee's words in mind. History provides us with innumerable examples of tyrants and usurpers, but it also provides us with men like Lee, and how many more such men we see in the future will depend upon how much emphasis we place on his example, and the examples of men like him, upon re-affirming the concepts of duty, honor and responsibility for oneself. Like those of Lee's day, we must look to the rising generation for the restoration of our hopes, and we can start by celebrating the life of this extraordinary man on the 200th anniversary of his birth. Join me in paying tribute to General Robert E. Lee, a great and good man, and a hero not only for the American South but for all people and for all time.