American Presidents on Robert E. Lee

Last night at a political rally in Ohio President Donald Trump veered off into another one of his confusing tangents in American history, specifically the Civil War. The man could easily do an episode of Drunk History on the history of the American Civil War without consuming a single drink. Included in his commentary was praise of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. His choice of words hearkened back to his comments about Lee following the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017.

We would do well to remember that Trump is not the first president to reference and even praise Robert E. Lee in a public address. In fact, a quick swing through the twentieth century shows that American presidents – regardless of political affiliation – have heaped praise on the man.

Those of you teaching the Civil War and/or Civil War memory might find it helpful to place Trump’s comments about Robert E. Lee alongside other presidents in the modern era.

  • Franklin Roosevelt at the unveiling of the Robert E. Lee Memorial, Dallas, Texas, June 12, 1936.
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower, remarks at Stratford Hall, May 4, 1958.
  • John F. Kennedy, remarks at Raleigh North Carolina, September 17, 1960.
  • Lyndon B. Johnson, remarks at fundraising dinner, New Orleans, October 9, 1964.
  • Gerald R. Ford, remarks upon signing of a bill restoring rights of citizenship to Lee, August 5, 1975.
  • Jimmy Carter, remarks upon the signing of a bill restoring rights of citizenship to Jefferson Davis, October 17, 1978.
  • Ronald Reagan, remarks at the annual convention of the Texas State Bar Association, July 6, 1984.
  • Barack Obama, remarks at the Alfalfa Dinner, 2009.

Trump is in good company alongside presidents who have long embraced Lee and the memory of the Confederacy for political purposes.

26 comments… add one
  • London John Oct 19, 2018 @ 1:27

    I’m a little surprised at your choice of link for the original story. You do know what the “Daily Mail” is?

    • Kevin Levin Oct 19, 2018 @ 10:43

      Is there a specific problem with this story that you can highlight. Thanks.

      • London John Oct 22, 2018 @ 12:43

        Not so far as I know. I can’t think of a reason why the Mail would want to lie on this particular story. But if you quote them as a source it gives cred to stories where they do lie.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Oct 17, 2018 @ 6:50

    I see people every day who cannot comment on Grant without commenting on Lee. I often wonder what they are trying to articulate. I think for some people, Trump included, the two are almost co-existent which is sad because Grant had done plenty before he went East. 🙂

    • Tom Pitcher Oct 19, 2018 @ 9:53

      I agree. I think a big part of how people learn Grant is through a contrast of Lee. Nobody talks about Meade’s penchant for holding war councils, trusting his subordinates in a way that beat Lee at Gettysburg. Nobody really discusses the fact that Hooker made some boneheaded decisions that gave Lee his “perfect battle” at Chancellorsville. I’ve always wondered if the beginning of the “Grant-Lee” contrast, as we understand it today, began during his first Presidential campaign when Democrats slammed him on the drinking, ie “Rads (Radicals) bottled up” slogan.

      I’ve read a handful of reunion speeches from the 1880’s (granted they were from Union Veterans) and the contrasts between Lee & Grant seem to fall on purely strategic lines, void of much commentary on personality differences. Those crude retrospections can only come after years and years of averaging down secondary sources. I’ve always believed Grant was more interesting than Lee. Despite continually falling off the wagon, he still managed to evolve (or at least project change). We know he continued to distance himself from Sherman on African Americans but he also carried the Jewish vote in ’68 only six years after the Order No 11 debacle.

      If anything, what gets contrasted most with Grant and perhaps the Union cause… is this notion of “reluctance”. Lee was “reluctant” to secede from the Union, “reluctant” to give up 4m slaves (if he owned them)… not because of economic ruin but because he couldn’t “draw a sword against Virginia”. You saw a similar theme, for example, with Gwynne’s portrayal of Jackson in “Rebell Yell”. Jackson was “reluctant” at the thought of war given his piety, and like Dr. Bruce Banner, when pushed , transforms himself into an aggressive military humanoid (do I dare say an “NPC”?) He goes from somehow despising war to immediately understanding the necessity for a “blag flag” one. Did it really happen like that? A character dilemma such as this, existing 150+ years ago, cannot begin with the presupposition of Jackson as a “reluctant” pacifist-turned-Attila-the-Hun; when the whole of modern psychology would posit something completely different given the apathy-empathy spectrum the man bounced back and forth on…

      And while I’m not saying there wasn’t “reluctance” on behalf of high ranking Confederates to leave the Union, it’s a theme that gets too much exposure in light of the material benefits to be gained from secession. And so to bring my long ramble to a close (which I’m sure if anyone is reading, will probably disagree), Lee is a static contrast to a fluid Grant… probably not so much in real terms as they existed at the event horizon, but how they’ve been remembered. In interpreting the past, it’s much easier to grab compromised history if it’s standing still, than it is to search through instances and individuals as they change.

  • Nathan Towne Oct 16, 2018 @ 5:48

    Well, the transcript clearly shows that the President was primarily trying to praise Lincoln and Grant in his speech and his positive comments regarding Lee were generally directed towards him as a solider. Obviously, the history in his speech was not especially good, by any means, but that he is being criticized over the basic thrust of his comments on the grounds that he was pandering to some sort of neo-confederate narrative is really profoundly silly. He quite obviously wasn’t.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 16, 2018 @ 10:29

      I find it fascinating that Trump wasn’t able to stick to Grant without commenting on Lee. We apparently have a different view of what he was trying to accomplish with the speech. Thanks for the comment.

  • Tom Pitcher Oct 15, 2018 @ 10:18

    Kevin: In a recent speech, a certain Maine senator said “when passions are so inflamed, fairness is most in jeopardy”. I guess you could make a similar statement about history or in your case , historical memory. Maybe it goes something like “when passions are so inflamed, context is irrelevant” . Trump was not praising Lee as a man, only narrating him as a formidable antagonist to Grant. He was praising Grant, in Grant’s home state. If Lee was a horrible General, it would do injustice to Grant’s memory… it would also be a boring narrative.

    In my opinion, you accurately depicted Trump on a “confusing tangent” similar to what you might see on Drunk History. But when pressed about your misrepresentation of Trump’s comments (in the replies section), chalked it up as him “knowing exactly what he’s doing” and using Lee as a “dog whistle” (to what types of Ohio citizens, I have no idea other than to say Ohio has swung left and right politically multiple times since 2000 ). So he’s either a confused buffoon or a nefarious, calculated politician correctly identifying people with racist biases…. while simultaneously threading the needle by appeasing to the few Ohio citizens who actually know Grant was born in Ohio.

    I think what’s concerning to me isn’t your misrepresentation of Trump praising Lee – as that could’ve been misconstrued by simply reading the news reports (and not the speech). What’s troubling is the back-fill that happens afterwards; and at the expense of even more significant “context”. While I agree that it makes sense for “those of [us] teaching the Civil War to place Trump’s comments alongside other presidents in the modern era”… it also makes sense to be clear on whether or not these Presidents were, in fact, praising Lee & for what means. While you do give yourself an out (“to reference and even praise”) , the suggestion is solidified in your most forceful conclusion that American Presidents in the 20th century have “heaped praise on the man”. Doesn’t it make sense to categorize their words on Lee in their context … such as (i) outright supporting their memory like in the case of Roosevelt in 1936, Carter in 1978; (ii) their memory as a flawed mechanism to heal the division of the country like Kennedy in 1960 or LBJ in 1964… or (iii) their memory in a negative light as in the case of Obama in 2009 at the Alfalfa dinner. You used all the those examples digitally, to a make a crystal clear point, but by avoiding the analog of everyday, the shades, nuances of how people, processes and ideas change, forfeited context. I’m assuming there are more examples but I’m left wondering if there is a truer lesson in looking at the progression of Presidential views and actions on Confederates over the past 100 years?


    — Roosevelt in 1936 at a monument dedication for Lee “ We recognize Robert E. Lee as one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.”

    Kennedy’s 1960 speech mention of Lee was in the context of the South’s failure: “Robert E. Lee who, after gallant failure, urged those who had followed him in bravery to reunite America in purpose and courage.”

    — – LBJ’s comments in 1964 were similar: “If we are to heal our history and make this Nation whole, prosperity must know no Mason-Dixon line and opportunity must know no color line. Robert E. Lee, a great son of the South, a great leader of the South–and I assume no modern day leader would question him or challenge him–Robert E. Lee counseled us well when he told us to cast off our animosities, and raise our sons to be Americans.”

    — President Obama’s remarks on Lee at the Alfalfa dinner “I am seriously glad to be here tonight at the annual Alfalfa dinner. I know that many you are aware that this dinner began almost one hundred years ago as a way to celebrate the birthday of General Robert E. Lee. If he were here with us tonight, the General would be 202 years old. And very confused.”

    • Kevin Levin Oct 15, 2018 @ 10:27

      Hi Tom,

      Thanks for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment. I do think that we need to interpret what Trump said about Lee in Ohio with his previous statements made in the aftermath of Charlottesville. You are absolutely justified in calling me out on the sloppy writing. It would indeed be a mistake to casually lump together say Roosevelt’s comments about Lee at a dedication ceremony with Gerald Ford’s comments in the 1970s.

      I guess the only point I was trying to make regarding these references is that Lee continues to serve a purpose, which I suspect is in large part a reflection of the continued influence of the Lost Cause on Civil War memory. Thanks again and I will try to do better in the future.

      • Tom Pitcher Oct 16, 2018 @ 5:02

        Kevin, Thank you for your comments. You will forget more Civil War History than I will ever learn.

        I think your work is vital & I look forward to your next book. Between your research and books you’ve recommended (i.e, “These Honored Dead” by Desjardin), you’ve pioneered an area of research that provides a much needed “check” on the very mechanism of how we consume history. It encourages a move back to primary sources while simultaneously proving the importance of studying how & why we remember the past . While I’ve disagreed with a handful of your articles/blogs in the past, I appreciate you posting my comments as civil discourse and argument is paramount.


        • Kevin Levin Oct 16, 2018 @ 10:31

          Thanks for that, Tom. I am perfectly willing to admit that this is a sloppy post and that if I had it to over again I would not have hit the Publish button. Trump clearly intended to focus on Grant, but failed to do so without referencing Lee. As you know this is not the first time that he has done so. The reference prompted me to think about other presidents through the 20th century who have done so as well. I should have provided more of the kind of context that you noted in your previous comment. Thanks again for adding your voice to this discussion.

  • hankc9174 Oct 14, 2018 @ 15:50

    The president’s historical view, and most others, are current all the way up to 1975.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Oct 14, 2018 @ 4:11

    So weird to think that the most patriotic, noble, proud thing a man can do for his country is to lead an army in a rebellion against that country. Some of Trump’s followers are descended from soldiers who were killed or wounded by Lee’s soldiers.

    I understand Lee did some things after the war to help reunite the country but I wish he would have taken it a step further by making the effort to reunite the Black people that were captured by his army in 1862 and 1863. These people were separated from their families and communities. It would have been nice if some attempt had been made to find them and make amends for what happened.

    • Andy Hall Oct 14, 2018 @ 18:28

      But Lee’s views on Black people didn’t change after the war. In February 1866, less than a year after the surrender at Appomattox, he testified before Congress that “it would be better for Virginia if she could get rid of [emancipated Blacks]. He went on to say that “it would be for the benefit of Virginia” if they relocated farther south, providing an opening for white laborers to replace them.

      It would be nice if he did something to make up for the harm he had caused to African Americans in Virginia and the Confederacy, but he would be just as likely to sprout wings and fly around the room. It was never going to happen.

      • Kevin Levin Oct 15, 2018 @ 1:16

        Lee stayed quiet in public, but we know that privately he resented Confederate defeat. As you note he made his views on emancipation clear after the war.

      • Lyle Patrick Smith Oct 28, 2018 @ 7:00

        So Lee’s thinking wasn’t far off from Lincoln’s who apparently up until the end was still tinkering with the idea of sending blacks to Africa because he wasn’t sure they could make it in America thanks to his own perception of the differences between the races.

        • Andy Hall Oct 28, 2018 @ 9:17

          Lincoln also pushed hard for the 13th Amendment to end chattel bondage in the United States, while Lee explicitly said it was God’s will that Africans were enslaved, and that it was a good and beneficial thing for them.

          It was also Lincoln that publicly called for suffrage for some African Americans after the war, just before he was assassinated.

          So no, Lee and Lincoln really didn’t think much alike at all.

  • Matthew Tenney Oct 14, 2018 @ 2:44

    We can easily dismiss all statements by all Presidents by merely saying they said them for “political purposes”. We could just as easily dismiss all statements by some current historians by saying they made those statements for “book selling purposes”.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 14, 2018 @ 3:15

      Since when does interpreting statements by presidents imply that they ought to be ‘dismissed’? I certainly wasn’t suggesting this.

  • Crandall Shifflett Oct 13, 2018 @ 9:07

    Trump could have gotten his history from historian James I. Robertson who in his writings and lectures treated Lee as a southern saint.

  • Brad Oct 13, 2018 @ 6:16

    Looks like Trump learned his history from watching Mr. Peabody and Sherman when he was a kid.

  • Ken Noe Oct 13, 2018 @ 4:15

    My reading of the entire passage is that ultimately he was praising Lincoln for ignoring the experts and the West Pointers, and sticking with his choice of Grant, even though it came out that Grant was a “drunk.” No historical presenting there, I’m sure.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 13, 2018 @ 4:28

      I completely agree, though it is interesting that he couldn’t go ahead and make that point without commenting on Lee. Of course, in that crowd Lee functions as a dog whistle. Trump knew exactly what he was doing.

      • Lyle Smith Oct 13, 2018 @ 18:51

        Yes, Trump was dog whistling you.

      • Marcus Oct 15, 2018 @ 15:39

        Sorry, but you look pathetic for retreating into a bizarre claim of “dog whistling.” You were either too lazy to look further than the notoriously sensationalist Mail’s headline or just mendacious.

        • Kevin Levin Oct 15, 2018 @ 17:06

          Sorry to be such a disappointment. I will try to do better in the future.

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