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Southern Heritage <br>News and Views: Frankly Speaking

Monday, January 08, 2007

Frankly Speaking

Frank Gillispie

April 19 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee. Lee is, in my opinion, richly deserving of our admiration and appreciation for many reasons.

It is true that Lee took an inferior force and won victory after victory during the War for Southern Independence, surrendering only when his position finally became hopeless. He developed strategies that are still studied in military history classes today. But that is not the primary reason we should honor his memory.

It is true that after the war, Lee accepted the presidency of a struggling little college in Northern Virginia and led it to a high academic and social reputation. His influence on the college was so strong that, after his death, his name was added to it, becoming Washington and Lee University. But his success as an educator is not the primary reason we should honor his memory.

Lee deserves our honor because he was the prototype of a Southern Gentleman, another of the fine traditions of the South that is fading from view. Let me quote a description of a Southern Gentleman given by a legislator from Massachusetts.

Sen. Hoar spoke of the South on the floor of the U. S. Senate on the 23rd of February, 1889. Sen. Hoar did not understand the South and its problems before, during and after Reconstruction, nor was he unbiased toward the South, but he sure did have a good understanding of Southern men.

"They have some qualities which I cannot even presume to claim in an equal degree for the people among whom I, myself, dwell. They have an aptness for command which makes the Southern gentleman, wherever he goes, not a peer only, but a prince. They have a love for home; they have, the best of them, and the most of them, inherited from the great race from which they come, the sense of duty and the instinct of honor as no other people on the face of the earth. They are lovers of home. They have not the mean traits which grow up somewhere in places where money-making is the chief end of life. They have, above all, and giving value to all, that supreme and superb constancy which, without regard to personal ambition and without yielding to the temptation of wealth, without getting tired and without getting diverted, can pursue a great public object, in and out, year after year and generation after generation."

President Dwight D. Eisenhower had this to say about Lee in a letter to a critic who questioned why a portrait of Robert E Lee was among the four great Americans on his office wall:

“General Robert E. Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. He believed unswervingly in the Constitutional validity of his cause which until 1865 was still an arguable question in America; he was thoughtful yet demanding of his officers and men, forbearing with captured enemies but ingenious, unrelenting and personally courageous in battle, and never disheartened by a reverse or obstacle. Through all his many trials, he remained selfless almost to a fault and unfailing in his belief in God. Taken altogether, he was 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, including his devotion to this land as revealed in his painstaking efforts to help heal the nation’s wounds once the bitter struggle was over, we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained. Such are the reasons that I proudly display the picture of this great American on my office wall.”

When he signed legislation restoring citizenship to General Lee President Gerald Ford said: "General Lee's character has been an example to succeeding generations, making the restoration of his citizenship an event in which every American can take pride.”

Robert E. Lee was the prototype of a Southern Gentleman. Any of you young men who might wish to rise to that standard could do no better than emulate this great man. And all Americans should honor him on his 200th birthday on January 19th.


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