Thinking About Robert E. Lee

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The National Landmark front campus at W&L above Lee Chapel

In 1980 I enrolled at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Robert E. Lee was a big deal in the same sense Abraham Lincoln remains a big deal nationally.

You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both.

But that was Lincoln not Robert E. Lee talking in the summer of 1862 before Lincoln went on to advocate free blacks return to Africa as colonists.

Lincoln is of course revered because his story did not end in the disastrous year of 1862.  He went on to expand his thinking, free slaves, win the war, give a great speech or two, and die tragically before the promise of an enlightened reconstruction. What did Robert E. Lee do after the Union rightly branded him a traitor then defeated him?

He came to Lexington, Virginia to the little college named first after President George Washington.  Lee found in Lexington a devastated campus with dead students in a town under military occupation.  He set about restoring what we today call a liberal arts education dabbling in journalism and business school education well ahead of his time.

Lee’s greatest legacy on campus was his insistence on a simple gentlemen’s code – to act as a gentlemen at all times.  Now we say after the successful and enriching co-educational conversion in the 1980s, a gentlewomen’s and gentlemen’s code.  If a jury of our peers found us guilty of that admonition, particularly but not exclusively lying, cheating, or stealing, our classmates expelled us.  As the student body expanded over the next 140 years after Lee’s death in 1870, people of all races, genders, and origins adopted the code.

Lee was cited to me in class and on campus routinely.  I do not remember any classes on Gettysburg being the wrong result or Lee being on the right side of history.  Forty percent of the school was from outside the South in my years.  It was the code.

Having said that during my four years I would describe the small number of African-American students on campus as integrated into school life, but not into off campus life. If I was a black parent in 1980, W&L would not be on my list for my child.

There has been considerable progress on campus and the latest challenge from a group of law students at W&L is progress:

1. We demand that the University fully recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on the undergraduate campus.
2. We demand that the University stop allowing neo-confederates to march on campus with confederate flags on Lee-Jackson Day.
3. We demand that the University immediately remove all confederate flags from its property and premises, including those flags located within Lee Chapel.
4. We demand that the University issue an official apology for the University’s participation in chattel slavery, including a denunciation of General Robert E. Lee’s participation in slavery.

The use of the word “demand” is not particularly smart and the language verbose.    But on the substance, none of these topics for investigation are out of line on a university campus.  If not on campus at Washington & Lee, where else?  And if not from young law students, who else?

I am sure the University will work through this publicly and deliberately to a just result.  A history of African-Americans at Washington & Lee and in the Shenandoah would be immensely valuable. But it is an uncomfortable vortex to enter.

For example, why stop at Lee?  President Washington was a famous slave owner at Mount Vernon.  Should the University return his legacy that over two hundred years later is still financing the school?

And as to the Confederate battle flag reproductions in Lee Chapel and reenactors I understand the concern.  They are there on the iconic front campus no matter how understated.  But the University is not going to change its name or remove Robert E. Lee’s recumbent statue above his family crypt.  It is not going to dig him up and drag him and his family through the streets as Charles II did to Oliver Cromwell.

I hope the law students will consider whether it is better to have a sanitized Lee on display or one showing the flaws of his choice to support an unjust cause.  And perhaps a bit of magnanimity reminiscent of President Ford’s eloquence in restoring Lee’s citizenship in 1975 is worth remembering. Otherwise the University we all love might fail in its walk through a divisive mindfield Lee warned the war had settled once and for all.

In writing this piece I speak only for myself and specifically not the University, any other alumnus or group of alumni, or the Williams School where I am privileged to sit on the advisory board.

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