ON AUGUST 15, 2017 AT 5:24 AM
The removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee was the flashpoint that brought white supremacists to Charlottesville, Virginia, and reignited a national debate over Confederate monuments. But what do most Americans know about the Confederate general?
Not enough, says George Rasley, editor of Conservative HQ — especially racists want to use Lee as a symbol of white supremacy and liberals want to see him erased from American history. In a Conservative HQ n op-ed titled “Misusing Robert E. Lee,” Rasley argues that both sides in the debate over Lee’s legacy miss that he opposed slavery and helped end the Civil War before it turned into a bloody guerrilla war.
Knowing Lee’s place in history is important, particularly as the left seeks to use him as a symbol of division. Progressives know that Lee has many defenders — and they also know that conservatives who stand up for Lee’s memory can be falsely painted as apologists for slavery and the old order of the Confederacy.
Yet, few involved in the debate actually know Lee’s complicated history.
Offered a position as the commander of the Union forces, Rasley points out, “Lee refused the command on the grounds that he was a Virginian and owed his first allegiance to the state he believed was a sovereign entity with the right to stay in or leave the Union as it saw fit. He would, he said, not make war on the Union, but he would defend the state of his birth.”
However, when Virginia seceded, the general felt his sympathies residing with his home state. “I shall never bear arms against the Union, but it may be necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty,” he said.
As for his feelings on slavery, Rasley notes that “(w)hile Lee espoused the paternalistic attitudes many Nineteenth Century Americans felt toward Africans, it certainly wasn’t because he believed slavery was just.” In fact, what Lee said about slavery may surprise a number of people who aren’t familiar with Lee’s views on the matter…
“There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil,” Lee wrote back in 1856, in a letter written in response to a speech given by then-President Franklin Pierce.
Lee’s views on race may not be ones we entertain today, but few if any Americans — even those that we rightly hail as heroes of the emancipation — held opinions we consider appropriate on the matter. As for why he fought for the South, Lee simply believed the United States was, as Rasley says, “an association of sovereign states that could, if they chose, leave it or dissolve it.” After all, as the Declaration of Independence notes, “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” Lee believed his state — and the rest of the South — was simply following the tenets of one of our founding documents.
However, Rasley argues that “it isn’t what Lee did before and during the Civil War that makes him such an important figure in American history — and one that should be honored — it is what he did after the Civil War that earned him the memorials erected to his memory and a place in history that should be honored by all.”
“When Lee surrendered at Appomattox he also signed a parole document swearing upon his honor not to bear arms against the United States or to ‘tender aid to its enemies.’ Lee’s surrender and his immediate parole were essential in preventing the Civil War from continuing as a destructive guerrilla war that would have continued to rend the country indefinitely.”
Lee spent his retirement as the president of Washington College in Virginia (which would be renamed as Washington & Lee) and would urge reconciliation between the North and the South. In his public letters, he urged “all should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war and to restore the blessings of peace.”
Does this sound like the kind of man who would urge belligerent white nationalists to violence over a statue of him? Does this sound like the kind of man who would tolerate those who would give succor to the enemies of the United States in the reprehensible, intimidatory way that the vomitous cretins who held aloft the flag of Nazi Germany in Charlottesville this past Saturday did? Does this sound like a man who would support domestic terrorism?