Robert E. Lee – Tell the Truth

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In the last few weeks the greater Washington & Lee University community has reviewed the Report of the Commission on Institutional History and Community.  It is a very long and complex document with multiple appendices. President Dudley has published it and the Board of Trustees is no doubt weighing its recommendations thoughtfully.

I do not envy them that task. But I am sure as W&L women and men, they will take their task seriously. All of us alums have the benefit of drawing on the mix of civility and critical thinking taught over the last three centuries at W&L.

There is a vibrant debate roiling the community, which is of course healthy. Reasonable people can disagree about the recommendations. My favorites were the intensified research and memorials for African-Americans, including our shameful slaveholding past and the largely unknown pioneers of integration efforts. My least favorite was the treatment of Lee Chapel. Turning it over to a provost whose views on Lee are 180 degrees from the  formerly accepted historical record is needlessly divisive. More work is needed on the Lee Chapel piece.

But again, those at a higher pay grade than this former class agent and Williams School Board Member will struggle with dozens of recommendations. I am sure I will reconcile myself to any considered outcome.

What I cannot reconcile myself to is the new historical record of Lee on campus. It is presented at its most abstract as Robert E. Lee was really not that important at Washington & Lee. And a remarkable new history is presented not as an important additive or challenging contribution, but rather the replacement of history. The old history is now a “myth”. For a fuller historical perspective please see the rigorously sourced response from my classmate and published historian Markham Shaw Pyle.

Markham’s view is broader than my own narrow focus. In 1984 W&L granted me a degree in US and Latin American History. And what I learned from Dr. Futch, Dr. Sanders, Dr. Parker, Dr. McAhren, and others was how to write, to argue, to think critically. I saw the classical liberal side of arguments and the Marxist/Leninist side, which at the time was the principal opposing view of history. I have Dr. White in Sociology to thank for a thoughtful approach to Marxism.

You cannot simply replace the accumulated history of 150 years with a new novel one. And worse if you do not invite or tolerate dissent, but instead speak of counter-revolutionaries then you see history as a tool for social change not as a record of the past. That is Marxist-Leninist historical methodology.

Why is that wrong? It is not because I care about R.E. Lee’s statues. Take them all down, but tell the truth. It is not because I think Lee Chapel will somehow save the Lost Cause. Level it to the ground and rebury Lee up the street with Stonewall Jackson, but tell the truth.

And the truth is that Robert E. Lee saved Washington & Lee. I have been lucky enough to tour our rare collections and see the evidence first hand. The union army looted the school. There were no students. There were no professors. There was no furniture.

I have seen in rare collections a note from a Kansas pig farmer returning a book he looted in 1865 from the library. There were few books. There was no money.

Lee changed all that. He went North, raised money, and recruited students. He went to the White House to sit with President Grant and be photographed. Whatever honor code existed before the Civil War, Lee reestablished and reinvigorated it as he did every other dead part of the university.

When I was at W&L for four years conservatives and liberals, indeed Marxists, cited his personal discipline and comportment to me in meetings, classes, formal events, and as at the heart of the honor code. You simply cannot erase those facts. Listen to Senator Warner, ironically, receiving the Washington award from W&L in Lee Chapel.

Really, Robert E. Lee and his character are not inextricably wrapped up in the core of the University’s history?

But more vitally, why is it important to tell the truth about Lee?

It is important for the reason that history is always important. How could an extraordinarily admired man before the war and a man who exhibited those same traits after the war, join such a monstrous evil? A war at its core about slavery and genocide.

How does evil infect good men and women? How does it seep into the banality of everyday existence? How is it accepted as normal in a republic founded on freedom? Why do citizens give their lives freely and otherwise heroically for such a cause? What does that mean for today’s students as they confront tomorrow’s evil?

That is the core aspect of critical thinking about Lee. To tell the truth and go into all the dark and uncomfortable corners of history. And you can only draw the correct lessons from the truth. And to suddenly replace without debate, without engaging the opposing arguments that are in fact the fruits of 150 years of scholarly work, is to violate everything W&L taught me.

Whatever choices we make, we need to confront the University’s whole story not sanitize it. Otherwise, we threaten that which makes W&L special – a particularly civil approach to the uncivil aspects of the truth.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I very much appreciated this article. It reminded me of the perspectives that Jordan Peterson is sharing about his experience with liberal academia and the potential threat to society that such extreme distortions can have. Thanks for your thoughtful, moderate views. Refreshing!

  2. If those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, than what of those who choose to sanitize it? They will doubtless become complicit enablers of all the missteps and misdeeds that will shape and define our future.

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