George F. Will, of all people, takes advantage of a new biography to tramp the dirt down:
Today, the nation is wiser and better than when President Franklin D. Roosevelt dispensed rhetorical treacle about Lee having been “one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.” Or when President Dwight D. Eisenhower hung Lee’s portrait in the Oval Office as one of the four greatest Americans, with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin.
Lee was unambiguously a traitor, guilty of, in the Constitution’s language about treason, “levying war against” the United States. He also was a bore. His life coincided with extraordinarily complex controversies — about the nation’s nature, civic duty, the meaning of patriotism and the demands of honor. Remarkably, there is no record of his expressing a thought (here is a Lee sample: “Never exceed your means”) more interesting than Polonius’s bromides (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”).
Eisenhower citing Lee as one of the four greatest Americans ever reminds me of the old Bill James routine about how of course Joe Jackson should be inducted into Cooperstown, just as long as everyone in baseball hasn’t participated in fixing a World Series gets inducted first. Here are some related thoughts from ol’ Ike:
Indeed, while Brown was under consideration, Warren was seated at a White House dinner near John Davis, the 1924 Democratic candidate for president and lead counsel for the South, Eisenhower told Warren at length what a great man Davis was and that southerners were not bad people, just concerned lest their “sweet little girls be seated alongside some big black bucks.”
It’s amazing how much cred Eisenhower still gets for sending the Screaming Eagles into Little Rock, when this intervention resulted in eight (8) Black students going to high school for one (1) year, and represented the total sum of his efforts to enforce Brown (verbal support for the Court’s decision included.)
Anyway, back to Will:
Lee, Guelzo writes, “raised his hand” against the nation that, as an Army officer, he had sworn to defend. He did so for an agenda that a much greater man, Ulysses S. Grant, called one of “the worst for which a people ever fought.” Lee thought slavery was a “greater evil” to White people than to Black people. He enveloped himself in what Guelzo calls a “cloud of pious wishes” and decided, as Guelzo tartly says, “it was up to the whites to decide when enough was enough.” Guelzo writes that to Lee, slavery’s victims were “invisible, despite their presence all around.” His indifference was “cruelty in self-disguised velvet.” Not well disguised, when he presided at the whipping of three recaptured runaways, ordering a constable to “lay it on well.”
For all Lee’s maunderings about his loyalty to Virginia, he worried intensely about his family’s property if he ignored Virginia’s summons. Lee’s wife later portrayed him as enacting what Guelzo calls “a kind of Gethsemane.” She might, Guelzo says dryly, “have been a little too eager to cast her husband’s decision as a rehearsal of Christian agony.” At least 10 Southern U.S. Army officers chose not to assist treason.
Robert E. Lee deserves public memorials about as much as Hermann Göring does.