Robert E. Lee, Virtue, and Popular Perception

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about Robert E. Lee as I have two presentations to get ready for in October and November.  I am going to focus on African-American perceptions of Robert E. Lee over time with an emphasis on recent years.  As I mentioned in a previous post I may begin with the Chapel incident which supposedly took place in Richmond in the summer of 1865 in which Lee takes communion next to an unknown black man.  The other possibility is to look at black newspaper coverage of the unveiling of the Lee statue in Richmond. 

Here is where I am in thinking about my topic, though please keep in mind that this is a work in progress.  We start off with the observations of so many past and present who claim that Lee is the embodiment of the Christian gentlemen or virtue in general.  Aristotle has some interesting observations in his Nicomachean Ethics in which he argues that instances of virtue ought to be recognizable by anyone trained to acknowledge the action or behavior which is a manifestation of that virtue.  If we start with these assumptions than it seems to me that what needs to be explained is why African Americans tend not to identify Lee in such a way.  The answer to this question, I believe, has little to do with a stand on the morality question one way or the other because I suspect that most black Americans simply don’t think Lee is relevant as a ethical/moral figure.  Now let me say that I have no interest whatsoever in arguing about whether Lee is or isn’t the embodiment of all things good or evil.  As a historian the question is almost entirely irrelevant and uninteresting.  My goal is to better understand how Lee is or isn’t perceived by a a section of our population.   

That said, I do believe that the lack of attention on the part of black Americans does render some of the more extreme claims of Lee’s perfect character suspect.  After all one’s race does not necessarily preclude the identification of virtuous behavior.  I think the answer can be found in the fact that our memory of Lee has been shaped in a way that has ignored his views on race and the fact that he was a slaveholder.  Again let me say that my goal is not to draw a conclusion about Lee’s moral character, which is completely outside the purview of this little project.  What I am suggesting is that our memory or understanding of Lee’s moral character hinges in large part on ignoring an aspect of his life that is relevant to our judgments and this is borne out by the lack of interest on the part of African Americans.  Just consider my earlier post on the presentation of slavery at Arlington.  How can anyone argue that slavery and race are irrelevant to understanding Lee’s life at Arlington?  The defensiveness by some is borne out in claims that people who question long-standing assumptions are revisionists or worse.  From a certain point of view, however, those claims can be seen as a defensive mechanism used by those who stand to lose a great deal.  The introduction of race to the debate about Lee’s moral character is vigorously attacked because it is the only way that his apologists can preserve their preferred conclusions.  What is lost as a result is a much more mature analysis and appreciation of a man whose life revolved around a great many challenges and tumult. 

Much of my thinking on this issue has centered on Elizabeth B. Pryor’s recent book, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (2007).  I recently finished it and have to say that I learned a great deal and thoroughly enjoyed it.  The book steers clear of the prosecutorial tone of Alan Nolan, the overly psychological approach by Michael Fellman, and is much more thought-provoking than Emory Thomas’s well-balanced biography.  David Blight recently reviewed the book in the Boston Globe:

Pryor pulls the protective curtain away from Lee’s views about slavery and race, revealing a conventional white supremacist and beleaguered slavemaster. The old creed in the Lost Cause catechism that Lee never fought for slavery crumbles in this book. And even Lee’s vaunted postwar reconciliationist spirit, quite real in public ways, was privately just the opposite. Pryor judiciously chips away at the marble encasements around the real Lee.

One can hardly count the number of cousins and other relatives Lee had in Virginia, and the author adroitly weaves these deep family ties into her story. Lee married into ownership of nearly 200 slaves. Pryor forthrightly confronts this side of Lee’s life; he disliked slavery and found it a burden, but he was no "good" master, communicating badly with his slaves and considering them naturally indolent and incapable of freedom. He confronted an "epidemic of runaways" in the late 1850s and oversaw the brutal beating of one returned fugitive. Modern-day Lee lovers will cringe at some of Pryor’s conclusions, rooted in strong evidence: Lee broke up families and "denied the slaves’ humanity."

While Blight is surely correct in his assessment of how Pryor’s book will be received in certain quarters, I believe it is important to qualify his claims by noting that white "Modern-day Lee Lovers will cringe" at Pryor’s conclusions.  In a sense our memory or understanding of Lee’s character is reflective of perceptions about the war as whole along racial lines.  White Americans can comfortably commemorate the Civil War or the purity of Lee’s moral character because both have been purged of the emotional and divisive questions of race and slavery.  The alternative is not to conclude that Lee was a moral monster, as this would constitute the same mistake in the opposite direction, but to consider the man as a whole and in a way which will ensure that our moral/ethical judgments are informed by all of the relevant facts.   

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3 thoughts on “Robert E. Lee, Virtue, and Popular Perception

  1. Michael

    Hey,

    ‘Just want to say I enjoyed reading this. I’m just now beginning to grapple with the race issue as a Lee admirer. I read his son’s Recollections and Letters of General Lee and must express my ineffable astonishment at Lee’s apparent purity of character and conduct. Having read the memoirs of Grant and others, I think Lee stands out as one of the most baffling and impregnable minds of his time. In making this comment, I wanted mostly to mention that, despite his character flaws, he remains one of my all time favorite role models. Also, I appreciate your editorial.

    Michael

    Reply

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