Just When You Thought You Were Getting To Know Someone: R.E. Lee’s Washington

I am steadily making my way through Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s new book about Robert E. Lee and am learning a great deal.  One of the early chapters deals with the supposed influence of Washington’s memory on Lee’s life.  Most of us take it for granted that Lee idolized the first president and even some historians have assumed a “mystical bond between the two men.”  Pryor argues that most of these stories surfaced following the Civil War as part of a broader push on the part of white Southerners to justify secession and connect the Confederate experience to the “untarnished greatness” of Washington.  Of course there is a great deal of history to work with in forging this connection given Lee’s marriage and his early years which were spent in large part at Arlington and in the shadow of Washington’s memory.  Pryor does not ignore any of this evidence, in fact she agrees that the memory of Washington did play a role in shaping Lee’s career and personal behavior.

Readers will appreciate Pryor’s attention to detail, especially in her grasp of the relevant secondary sources.  She does not attempt to build a strawman argument here, but cites directly those historians who have pushed this connection to the extreme.  The best place to start is with D.S. Freeman’s excellent biography of Lee:

His ideals had their embodiment, for unconsciously he was a hero-worshipper. He viewed his father not as “Light-Horse Harry” was in the tragic years of his speculation, but as he might have been if the promise of his Revolutionary record had been fulfilled. Above his father and every other man he had always placed Washington. The Father of his Country was no mere historical figure to him, great but impersonal and indistinct. Through Lee’s long years of association with Mr. Custis, who knew Washington better than did any man alive in 1850, Washington was as real to him as if the majestic Virginian had stepped down nightly from the canvas at Arlington and had talked reminiscently with the family about the birth of an earlier revolution. Daily, for almost thirty years, whenever Lee had been at home, his environment had been a constant suggestion of the same ideal. He had come to view duty as Washington did, to act as he thought Washington would, and even, perhaps, to emulate the grave, self-contained courtesy of the great American rebel. The modesty of his nature doubtless kept Lee now from drawing the very obvious analogy between his situation and that of Washington in 1775, but the influence and the ideal were deep in his soul. He would not have shaped such a question, even in his own mind, but those who knew him as the inheritor of the Mount Vernon tradition must have asked if he was destined to be the Washington of the South’s war for independence. [Interestingly Freeman does not cite any sources for this claim.]

More recently, Pryor references Richard McClaslin’s book-length study, Lee in the Shadow of Washington.  Most of the following commentary can be found in Pryor’s endnotes.  McClaslin’s evidence includes letters from Lee’s father on paternal guidance, but they do not mention Washington and there is no evidence that Lee ever read them.  In addition, McClaslin cites Henry Lee’s memoirs, but again there is no evidence that he actually read it until after the Civil War or if he did that it had any influence.  (fn60, p. 497)  Additional footnotes further challenge claims made by McClaslin in reference to the Mexican War and Lee’s decision to continue to improve Arlington for the purposes of displaying Washington relics.  In the case of the latter, Lee did indeed add a parlor room in 1855, but the room was filled with Lee family portraits and other items.

One of Pryor’s guiding interpretive assumptions is that our understanding of Lee’s personal side is based on little documentary evidence.  We have yet to collect all of his correspondence and while collections of wartime correspondence are available much of the rest of what we believe about Lee is based on fragmentary evidence – especially his early years.  In the case of Washington’s supposed influence on Lee, Pryor concludes with the following:

In ten thousand letter pages Robert Lee mentions Washington fewer than two dozen times.  He remarks on the publics interest in its leader; mentions that he looked over a popular biography was sent to him by a friend; notes that celebration of his birthday.  Most of these comments are quite casual.  In his most enthusiastic writing on the subject, Lee, like others of his day, points to Washington’s wisdom and integrity, and particularly praises his valedictory address to the American people, which, ironically, cautioned against growing sectionalism.  But even in his most fulsome expression, the remarks are general, steeped in the national pride of the day, rather than personal feelings.  Never does Lee say he idolizes Washington, or that he hopes to emulate him.  The closest Lee came to a conscious association was after the war, when he struggled to come to terms with his decision to join the Confederate cause, and cites Washington’s change from British to American allegiance as an example of an earlier crisis of loyalty.  But this was after the fact.  During those terrible days of 1861 he used Washington’s name quite differently–as justification for maintaining Union. (p. 52)

I think it is important to remind the reader once again that Pryor is not arguing that memory of Washington did not influence Lee, but that the extent of that influence suggested by historians and other commentators is not borne out in the currently available evidence.


It may be the “Year of Lee” but where are the Books?

[Cross-Posted at Progressive Historians]

Lee The number of books hitting the market in recognition of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown has been quite impressive.  Even more impressive is the steady stream of Lincoln studies that will no doubt continue through the bicentennial celebrations of his birth in 2009.  Such a trend stands in sharp contrast with the dearth of new material that has been released or will be released in 2007 in honor Robert E. Lee’s 200th birthday.  A quick search of Amazon confirms that there is little to be seen on the horizon.  The only study worth mentioning is Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (Viking, 2007) which I picked up and am working my way through.  Each chapter begins with family letters about Lee or letters written by Lee himself which serve as a launching point to explore a specific topic connected to his personal life.  I’ve read through the first two chapters and have to say that Pryor’s analysis seems even-handed.  She worries about any type of foray into the psychological that is not contingent on sufficient sources.  As an example Pryor refrains from drawing any firm conclusions regarding Lee’s own beliefs about his father or its influence on his later life.  The problem is that there is insufficient evidence on which to base much of anything. 

The book is quite long (500+ pages) and will no doubt attract a fairly wide readership.  As to how to explain the lack of scholarly attention on Lee this year I am at a loss.  On the one hand Lee’s military career has been explored in various battle studies and articles, but we have not seen a decent scholarly biography since Emory Thomas’s Robert E. Lee: A Biography(1995).  It is certainly an excellent place to start, but I found myself wanting much more upon completion.  We need a biography that does a much better job of integrating the military with the personal.  While I know that some people expressed concern that James I. Robertson’s biography of "Stonewall" Jackson betrayed a historian too close to his subject I think it serves as an excellent model of what is needed.  This is pure speculation, but I suspect that part of the reason that we have not seen more in the way of critical biographies of Lee has to do with our popular perceptions that there is simply nothing to explain.  Consider the famous final words about Lee that can be found in Douglas S. Freeman’s wonderful 4-volume biography:

That is all.  There is no mystery in the coffin there in front of the windows that look to the sunrise.

I am a huge fan of Freeman’s biography of Lee and still believe that it is the richest portrayal of the general, but it is clear that the author found the moral and psychological contours of a man that had already become well-ingrained in the culture.  This is not to suggest that Freeman’s conclusions would somehow not stand up to modern scholarship, but that there is room to understand better.  No doubt most people have not read Freeman (even if they say they have). 

There is an assumption of transparency that comes through in the Freeman passage above.  Lee was transparent to himself as well as others.  That’s a difficult assumption to defend regardless of the amount of time spent with a given subject.  One could perhaps make the case that if anyone was justified in making that conclusion it was Freeman, but the extent to which that assumption pervades our popular culture is simply disturbing and even quite humorous.  Consider the following comment which was left in response to a post by Brooks Simpson over at Civil Warriors:

I am a native Virginian. We worshipped God, Jesus and Robert E. Lee in that
order, and, as a Southerner, I’ll not apologize. As an historian, of course I
realize that Lee was human. But this is where his genius lies: I believe it was
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in writing about Jackie Kennedy that commented she
understood what she meant to people. That was Lee. He understood what he
represented and felt an obligation to that image
. It’s a tremendous insight to
comprehend your place so clearly. It takes many of us a lifetime, if ever, to
see our roles in relation to others. It is also an incredible burden. This seems
to be something Lee grasped at an early age and accepted

There is no hint of concern on the part of this individual that perhaps one’s conclusions ought to be tempered when entering the domain of psychology – and childhood psychology for that matter.  Once again, Lee’s motivations along with his deepest desires were transparent to himself, those around him, and can still be easily discerned generations later. 

It would be nice to have a few scholarly/critical studies of one of the most important figures in American history.  Failure to do so means that Lee will continue to be interpreted by people whose agenda includes little more than the concepts of hero worship as opposed to any real interest in historical analysis.


Thanks for a Wonderful Semester

Cimg0204Today was the last day with my Women’s History class.  Over the next two weeks students will be conducting oral interviews and using their transcripts to write a short essay that places the interview within a historical context.  I was hoping to come up with a final project that would bridge the gap between historical studies of women and the women in these student’s lives.  The original idea was to give the students an opportunity to spend time with their mothers or another close female member of the family.  I think it is important that we learn as much as possible about our parents while we have the opportunity.  My hope is that the readings in the course will fuel a lively interview and lead to even more communication between mother and daughter or whomever is interviewed.   

To say that I enjoyed the experience this semester would be an understatement.  I wanted to give myself a new teaching challenge and force myself to learn a new body of historical literature.  The material bridged both history and gender studies, and along the way the class worked on a number of interesting individual projects.   The most exciting part of the course was having the opportunity to talk with a mature and motivated group of young women.  They taught me as much, if not more, than the material we read together or anything that I taught them.  One class in particular stood out in which we discussed the concept of the "Beauty Myth" by Naomi Wolff and its continued presence and influence in society today.  Students’ level of maturity allowed the class to move easily through distant history as well as more controversial – and at times uncomfortable – issues relating to identity and sexuality.  As the only male in the room I appreciate their willingness to work through some of the more uncomfortable subject matter.

The success of the course and the level of student interest made it easy to decide to offer it again next spring.  I recently learned that at least three boys are already registered; this will surely add a much needed perspective to class discussions.

To my students: Thanks everyone for reminding me why I love to teach.  I wish all of you the best in your future endeavors.  Use the gift of a college education to reflect on the big questions and on those things that will serve to make your lives both joyful and rewarding.  I was reminded this semester of the enormous role that luck plays in how we live our lives.  Only a few decades ago most young women your age would be contemplating a very different future.  Take advantage of this and whatever you do make sure that you continue to push those walls that work to limit opportunity. 

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The Abolition of Slavery and Gay Marriage

The blogger over at Steamboats Are Ruining Everything has an interesting post up where he compares the order in which individual states abolished slavery and those states that have allowed gay civil marriages.  Is it just a coincidence? 

Advent of gay marriage or civil unions

1999 Vermont
2004 Massachusetts
2005 Connecticut
2006 New Jersey
2007 New Hampshire

Abolition of slavery

1777 Vermont
1780 Pennsylvania
1783 Massachusetts
1783 New Hampshire
1784 Rhode Island
1784 Connecticut
1799 New York
1802 Ohio
1804 New Jersey
1816 Indiana
1818 Illinois

Two hundred years from now people will look back on our homophobic attitudes in much the same way that we now think about the spectrum of beliefs that once shaped the racial assumptions of most Americans. 


What Is This Thing Called the “Lost Cause”?

Dimitri Rotov recently blogged about R.E. Lee Symposium and the reactions to it that I assume he found around the blogosphere.  His position is very clear:

I myself am a "Lost Cause" skeptic being underwhelmed by the quality of historians trying to play at historiography here. The idea that there is an identifiable "Lost Cause" school of thought among post-war history writers is a proposition that needs arguments and proofs, not a grab bag of self-serving snippets from selected writings.
It’s not clear whether the "historians" he has in question are those in the blogosphere or those who have spent considerable time publishing studies about the Lost Cause.  Dimitri suggests that the Lost Cause is really nothing more than a construct that has as much epistemological weight as any other set of ideas packed together and labeled:
Through a careful editing of materials we can as easily construct a "Lost Cause" mythology as we can a "Lincoln’s Virtues" mythology in which a school of history is assembled from Unionist writings that argue Lincoln’s virtues were decisive in winning the war for the North.
I assume that Dimitri is correct that we could indeed construct a "Lincoln’s Virtues" mythology and perhaps we have already done so, but this statement has nothing at all to do with the efficacy of claims concerning the so-called Lost Cause.  The problem as I see it with Dimitri’s characterization is with his referencing of a "school of thought."  It’s unclear what he means by this.  If Dimitri means something along the lines of what historiographers of American history have described as the Progressive, Whig, or Imperialist schools of thought than he simply does not understand or has not bothered to read the relevant literature on the Lost Cause.  No one has ever suggested that Lost Cause writers were formally trained or were given formal instructions.  In fact, there is a great deal of disagreement among historians about how to understand the Lost Cause.  Gaines Foster has argued persuasively that the Lost Cause can be found in a wide spectrum of civic events following the war while Charles R. Wilson has focused attention on religious ceremonies. 

Studies of the way in which Americans celebrated and recorded their memories and impression of the war have increased significantly over the past decade.  To suggest that they are inventing a "school of thought" is to completely miss the point of these studies.

I think the problem that many people have with historians who study the postwar scene is that they do not want to be reminded that history was up for grabs. In the introduction to his biography, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (Harvard University Press, 1974), Bernard Bailyn attempted to explain how distance from the historical event shapes the interpretation. According to Bailyn, early histories "that follow a great and controversial event are still a significant part of the event itself." For the historian, "the outcome [of the event] is still in question," according to Bailyn, and "emotions are still deeply engaged." This emotional attachment to the event by historians "especially those involved in the event in question" leaves wide open issues relating to how the event will be explained, what aspects of it will be remembered, and which participants will be included and why. Throughout this early stage of historical interpretation assumptions and conclusions remain in flux. Only later is the historian able to see clearly from a more detached perspective where "earlier assumptions of relevance, partisan in their nature, seem crude, and fall away." Bailyn’s characterization can easily be mapped onto Civil War historiography.

I don’t see the Lost Cause as a "school of thought" but I do read printed materials and interpret other events as an attempt to understand the past in light of the present.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that those sources have little or no value as critical histories, but that often they tell the historian as much about the authors or those taking part in ceremonies as they do about a past they purport to describe and understand.  What most historians mean when they reference the "Lost Cause" is a set of assumptions that emerged following the war in both the North and South and that could be seen in a wide range of political, social, religious, and cultural acts. 

There is nothing conspiratorial about this, in fact, each of us can appreciate the assumptions that drive historians of the Lost Cause and memory more generally.  Consider the following passage from the philosopher Daniel Dennett:

We, in contrast, are almost constantly engaged in presenting ourselves to others, and to ourselves, and hence representing ourselves–in language and gesture, external and internal.  The most obvious difference in our environment that would explain this difference in our behavior is the behaviour itself.  Our human environment contains not just food and shelter, enemies to fight or flee, and conspecifics with whom to mate, but words, words, words.  These words are potent elements of our environment that we readily incorporate, ingesting and extruding them, weaving them like spiderwebs into self-protective strings of narrative.  Indeed. . . when we let in these words, these meme-vehicles, they tend to take over, creating us out of the raw materials they find in our brains.  (Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained 1991)

As the passage above suggests, we distinguish ourselves from external objects by spinning a different kind of web involving words which are stringed together to construct stories.  And much of that self-narrative is historical.  We constantly revise our own story about ourselves.  This is one of the reasons I am so interested in how Americans remember their collective past.  It is reasonable to suggest that some of the same factors that shape our collective memories are responsible for the continual revision of our own pasts.  You can see this specifically in the context of those more traumatic moments in our lives that involve great sadness.  What we believe to be the case in the immediate aftermath of such events looks very different further down the road.  We gain perspective, forget certain facts, and even invent new ones.

Perhaps one way to think about the study of the Lost Cause is to understand it as reflective of the of the psychological process that each of us engages in as a matter of basic survival.  History opens up a window into those moments where this process is manifest writ large.