The Magnificent Lee
by Wayne Carlson
Let me acknowledge from the outset that it is very common for us as human beings to place others whom we come to admire, for one reason or another, in the position of becoming personal role models or cultural icons. While this isnormal, I would suggest that the choices we make are often reflective of the values of the culture or society in which we happen to live. It is indicative of the kinds of people we ourselves would like to become, for ourselves, and perhaps for our children. If true, which I think it is, I suggest we reflect for a moment upon the choices that we, and especially our children, are making. It would appear that most of these "great" men and women occupy positions in the entertainment world. Musicians, actors/actresses, and sports figures would no doubt make up the bulk of society's icons. Personal "greatness" in our present society appears to be measured by such attributes as how well you can shoot, hit, throw, catch, or run with a particular ball. Physical attractiveness, decadent humor, and/or outrageous behavior can qualify you for membership among our vast array of "stars." A fawning media goes so far as to interview these cultural icons for their opinions on "issues" of our day for mass public consumption. That these people overwhelmingly regurgitate the biases of the media itself, from which their opinions were formed in the first place, doesn't seem to register with most people. That a great many people are influenced by these media personalities is beyond dispute. This should come as no surprise since those that are truly worthy of public veneration and emulation are rarely touted in the media. If mentioned at all, most are excoriated for some presumed flaw, or damned by the faint praise accorded them. Such is the case with our own Robert E. Lee.
There was a time when no true son or daughter of Dixie would let the birthday of Virginia's greatest son pass by unheralded. Yet, as we approach Lee-Jackson Day here in Virginia, once again, nary a word has been said in the press, the pulpit, or the halls of our capitol, expressing excitement or planned celebration of the state holiday. It is no wonder that few, if any of our school children, have the slightest clue as to who Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson were. They don't know, and they don't care. I believe the loss is all of ours.
While certainly a great admirer of General Jackson, it is Lee I wish to focus my attention on today. Born in 1807 of aristocratic lineage, Robert Edward Lee was the youngest son of "Light Horse Harry" Lee, whose military exploits gained him fame following the secession of the 13 English colonies from their union with Great Britain in 1776. Young Lee's father served as George Washington's chief of staff during the war and upon Washington's death in 1799 eulogized him as "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." The reader might find it interesting to know that two of Lee's relatives signed the Declaration of Independence and that his future wife, Mary Custis, was the great granddaughter of George Washington.
Those that best knew Lee in life were quick to say that you had to see him to believe that so fine a man could exist. Admired and beloved by all who were lucky enough to know him, perhaps the words of the Reverend J. William Jones, who came to know Lee well in the last five years of Lee's life, as he served as President of what was then Washington College, can help us understand the source of Lee's greatness in both war and peace. He summarized his life by saying, "He possessed every virtue of the great commanders, without their vices. He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor without reproach; and a Christian without hypocrisy. He was a Caesar without his ambition; a Frederich without his tyranny; a Napoleon without his selfishness; and a Washington without his reward. He was gentle as a woman in life; modest and pure as a virgin in thought; watchful as a Roman vestal in duty; submissive to law as Socrates; and grand in battle as Achilles."
As an evangelical Presbyterian,¹ Christian values and Paul's letter to theColossians were said to characterize his life. Perhaps this is one of the primary reasons why the government schools, even here in Virginia, increasingly ignore him. It would be very hard to study the man without coming to the conclusion that his religious faith was the source of his great character. That is a message that certain people in power do not want to encourage in our children. The importance of religion in the development, and eventual divergence of the two great regions of America, cannot be overstated, but is little understood because it is not taught.
With over 20 years experience teaching in Virginia schools, I have yet to witness a single instance where special acknowledgement of Robert E. Lee's life, importance, or character were highlighted in any of our schools. Though this Friday is a State holiday in his honor, I dare say that this fact will not be noted in the government schools. There will be no announcements made to students, much less a program planned to celebrate his life. I can think of few examples that better illustrate the general anti-Southern hostility, clearly manifest and universal, under the monopoly that is the public school system. It is high time that the general public acknowledge that the state's schools are neither religiously, culturally, or politically neutral. The parents of Virginia's school aged children must come to understand this fact. Only then can we hope to see a change.
Earlier generations were well aware of Lee's legacy, before the interjection of political correctness, and the subsequent indoctrination of the young destroyed any legitimate claims of parental or community control over what is taught to their children. They knew, as Lee biographer Douglas Southall Freeman would say, "that no man could study the character of Robert E. Lee without benefit to their manhood." Can the same be said of our current crop of "heroes?"
The Lee legacy that we are in such desperate need of today, epitomized those old Southern values too many of us have forgotten, or have cast aside. These values include reverence, courage, humility, self-sacrifice, forbearance, honesty, courtesy, gentility, and kinship. I like to believe that these old values can be recultivated among our people, but it begins with those of us that have not lost an appreciation for what really matters in life, and what truly constitutes a civilized Christian people. I can think of no better example than Lee, outside of our Lord and savior, to begin the rebuilding process. I believe among many Virginians and Southerners that have retained a sense of themselves, the statement "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of their countrymen" could as well apply to Robert E. Lee, as to George Washington. It was Washington that led the first effort to establish a limited federal Republic among sovereign States, and it was Lee who led in the South's effort to preserve that system of government. Both patriots fought for the same thing, the only difference is, one war was won, while the other was lost. This fact, however, makes no difference to those of us who marvel at the magnificent character and virtuous conduct that marked the grandeur that was Robert Edward Lee's life. I welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Lee was actually Episcopalian. This is abundantly clear from a reading of Recollections and Letters of Robert E. Lee written by his son. Consider the following quotations from that work:
Since his establishment in Lexington, General Lee had been a member of the vestry of Grace (Episcopal) church. At the council of 1868, which met at Lynchburg, he had been sent as a delegate, and spent three days there. This year the council was to meet in Fredericksburg, and he was again elected to represent his church.
Mr. George Peabody and Mr. W. W. Corcoran, the two great philanthropists, were among them and helped to enlarge the receipts of the concert for the benefit of the little Episcopal church in Lexington, of which General Lee was a member and a vestryman.
The building of the church here referenced to was the Episcopal church in Lexington, which it was proposed to take down and replace with a larger and better building. My father [R. E. Lee] was a vestryman, and also a member of the building committee.
... September 28, 1870, found General lee at the post of duty. In the morning he was fully occupied with the correspondence and other tasks incident to his office of president of Washington College, and he declined offers of assistance from members of the faculty, of whose services he sometimes availed himself. After dinner, at four o'clock, he attended a vestry-meeting of Grace (Episcopal) church.