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Reëxamining the Legacy of Race and Robert E. Lee

In his new book, “Robert E. Lee: A Life,” the historian Allen C. Guelzo analyzes the career of the Confederate general, and attempts to understand the reasons behind his decision to fight against the Union. Guelzo is a longtime scholar of the Civil War and has written numerous books about Abraham Lincoln. In his telling, Lee was a complex person, with a keen intelligence about military matters, who used his powers in support of a cause that Guelzo calls a “crime.” Guelzo doesn’t shy away from criticizing Lee’s racial attitudes, but nevertheless seeks to understand his actions. He concludes that “mercy” might be “the most appropriate conclusion to the crime—and the glory—of Robert E. Lee after all.”

Guelzo also writes about recent controversies surrounding the ways in which we remember Lee, including the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, in 2017, which sought to prevent the removal of a Lee statue. Elsewhere, Guelzo has spoken extensively about how the legacy of racism has and has not left an imprint on our current age. In 2020, he appeared at a panel put on by the Trump Administration that sought, in part, to provide an alternative view to the Times’s 1619 Project, and has begun speaking out frequently against critical race theory, which he argues may open the door to dictatorship and genocide.

I recently spoke by phone with Guelzo, who is Senior Research Scholar in the Humanities Council at Princeton University. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why Lee chose to betray his country, the debate over historical forgiveness, and whether Kant is to blame for critical race theory.

What in Lee’s life did you think had not been examined enough but was important for understanding him and his motivations?

One was the long-term habit Lee biographers had had of painting a halo around the man’s head, and, in doing that, portraying Lee as a very simple, straightforward, uncomplicated character who simply did his duty. I thought that did not ring true to anything that I had encountered about Robert E. Lee, so I wanted to explore this. The book, in that respect, is really an exploration of the man’s character, because most people who had written about Lee really had not penetrated that very deeply.

What I found was that Lee was a very complicated character and that people who met him at first came away with one impression of it. But, behind this impression of this man of marble dignity, there were a number of very complex currents, all of which would intersect in the decision that he made, in 1861, to commit treason. And I use the word “treason” very carefully, because I don’t want people thinking I’m just tossing it around as something nasty I can say about a historical figure. I’m looking at the constitutional and legal definition of what we call treason, and I don’t have a better explanation or description for what it was that Robert E. Lee did.

You focus a lot on Lee’s father. Why did you think he was important to Lee?

Something began to bother me the more I read Lee’s letters. He must have written something like eight thousand personal letters in his life. What I kept noticing was what you might call “the dog that didn’t bark.” In all these letters, only one of them before 1861 ever made any mention of his father. And that was his application letter to West Point. So, of course, he’s going to use his father’s fame and reputation as a Revolutionary War hero that way. Robert E. Lee suffered a real subtraction in his life when “Light-Horse Harry” Lee took off for the West Indies and Robert never saw him again. Robert was six years old. Robert, instead, became a kind of replacement for his father. Robert took over the management of the household. He stepped into his father’s shoes and, in some respects, never stepped out of them for another thirty-odd years.

That shows up in his perfectionism. He was extremely demanding of other people. I don’t mean in necessarily a difficult or irascible sense, although he did have a temper. He was very demanding in what he expected of himself and of other people. And what I see in that is Robert Lee attempting a kind of redemptive perfectionism for the failures of his father, and, in fact, not only his father. He had an older half-brother, who, if anything, made even worse of a botch of his life and a botch of the Lee name publicly, to the point where he became known as “Black-Horse Harry” Lee. Robert Lee seems to have the burden of cleansing the Lee name from the taints that have become associated with it.

How did these currents manifest themselves in the ultimate decision to commit what you call treason?

Part of that is a sense of his responsibility to his family. And that centers on what had become the family home, which was Arlington. People look today at Arlington House and its name, the Robert E. Lee Home, and people think of that as Robert E. Lee’s property. Well, actually, it wasn’t. He marries into the family that owns that property. Then, when his father-in-law dies in 1857, Robert is named the executor of the will, but the will cuts him out. Arlington House instead goes to Robert E. Lee’s oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee. It’s a scandal. And it’s to protect Arlington—and to protect his family’s title to it and the other Custis properties—that I think he really makes that decision to turn down the offer that is made to him to command Union armies in the field, to resign his commission in the U.S. Army. He then goes off to Richmond to talk to people who are making offers to him from this new secessionist government in Richmond. What is he doing? He’s trying to protect Arlington. Why does he do it? Because this is what is demanded of him in being the perfect man. He is so perfect that he is going to rise above the wrongs and the shortcomings that had been inflicted on him by others, like his father-in-law.

You write in the book that “Lee’s attitudes and ideas on race were clearly on the side of white hierarchy, and cannot even be massaged into mere acquiescence with the post-Civil War Southern order. There were certainly many Southern whites in those years who recognized the evils of both slavery and race and who bravely linked themselves with the freedmen’s cause—and Lee was not one of them.” Can you talk about what role that may have played in his taking the side of the slaveholders?

On the one hand, you can catch Robert E. Lee, writing in the eighteen-fifties to his wife, saying, “Slavery is a moral and political evil in any country.” You look at that and you say, “All right. Yes, thank you. Good.” Then you see what he says next: that the real burden of the evil is the evil that it imposes on white people. Slavery is actually a school of manners almost, of civilization for the slaves themselves. At that point, you’re thinking, I wonder if he asked the slaves about that.

His father-in-law made provision in his will for the emancipation of the Custis slaves within five years. But, to do that, Lee has to make Arlington profitable, and old man Custis had really let the place run down to the point where the books were just a mess. So Robert E. Lee, Mr. Engineer, says, “All right, well, first thing we’re going to do is we’re going to make Arlington profitable again. Then we’re going to emancipate everybody.” And the Arlington slaves look at this and say, “Wait a minute. We actually believe that his will emancipated us on the spot at his death, not ‘Wait for five years.’ ” This sets up resistance, which Lee treats very harshly. Then, when three of the Arlington slaves run away and are apprehended in Maryland and brought back to Arlington, Lee just loses it completely. He tells the Arlington overseer, “Take the whip and lay it on.” The Arlington overseer refuses. And so he turns to the constable who brought the slaves back to Arlington. He says, “All right, you do it.” Which the constable does, but, at least in one account, it is said that Lee took a whip in his own hand and laid it on. Afterward, Lee does not want to talk about this. It gets into the newspapers. He is deeply mortified by it. And when he finally has to write to Custis Lee, he says, “Your grandfather has left me a very unpleasant legacy.” And, again, what I’m looking at here is the façade of this man. The perfect façade. It cracks at that point. And something really elemental comes out of that crack, which he at once stuffs right back in.



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