Friday, June 26, 2015


I'll spoil the ending of the latest column by David Brooks: While he agrees with the removal of Confederate flags from public spaces, he's pained by the question of what to do with monuments to heroes of the Confederacy, particularly Robert E. Lee. Ultimately, Brooks splits the baby:
My own view is that we should preserve most Confederate memorials out of respect for the common soldiers. We should keep Lee’s name on institutions that reflect postwar service, like Washington and Lee University, where he was president. But we should remove Lee’s name from most schools, roads and other institutions, where the name could be seen as acceptance of what he did and stood for during the war.
But even proposing this half-measure pains Brooks, because Lee was such a fine man:
The case for Lee begins with his personal character. It is almost impossible to imagine a finer and more considerate gentleman.

As a general and public figure, he was a man of impeccable honesty, integrity and kindness. As a soldier, he displayed courage from the beginning of his career straight through to the end. Despite his blunders at Gettysburg and elsewhere he was by many accounts the most effective general in the Civil War and maybe in American history. One biographer, Michael Korda, writes, “His generosity of spirit, undiminished by ideological or political differences, and even by the divisive, bloody Civil War, shines through in every letter he writes, and in every conversation of his that was reported or remembered.”
In theory, he opposed slavery, once calling it “a moral and political evil in any country.”
Well, yes -- but as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in 2010, that quote, from a letter Lee wrote to his wife in 1856, is the only evidence of Lee's opposition to slavery. What's more, as Coates writes, this is "a highly-selective, Breitbart-style quote that cuts against the context of the larger letter." In the letter, Lee goes on to say of slavery:
I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.
Or, in Coates's paraphrase:
Shorter Lee: slavery sucks, sure, but it's God's will. It's good for you, too. You're welcome.
And as for Lee the "considerate gentleman," the man of "kindness" and "generosity of spirit," well, there's the little matter of his treatment of escaped slaves.

Citing Elizabeth Brown Pryor's book Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, Coates reminds us that Lee inherited his father-in-law's slaves -- slaves who'd been reasonably well treated. Some of these slaves went on to escape. When they were captured and returned, Lee oversaw brutal whippings, according to firsthand accounts. Lee's admirers dispute these reports -- but Pryor found seven of them and believes they're accurate. One letter, published in an anti-slavery newspaper in 1866, is from one of the whipped slaves. It reads in part:
... we were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to "lay it on well," an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.
(Emphasis added.)

Oh, but it's "almost impossible to imagine a finer and more considerate gentleman" than Lee, according to Brooks. Plus, he liked having his feet tickled!
As a family man, he was surprisingly relaxed and affectionate. We think of him as a man of marble, but he loved having his kids jump into bed with him and tickle his feet. With his wife’s loving cooperation, he could write witty and even saucy letters to other women. He was devout in his faith, a gifted watercolorist, a lover of animals and a charming conversationalist.
So pay no attention to the whippings or the brine.

(Coates link via Alicublog.)


petrilli said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Victor said...

General Robert E. Lee:
As fine and noble a slave-master, slave-beater, and treasonous traitor as ever walked the Earth!

I kind of prefer the sound of 'Washington and Grant' University,' myself.

But, I'm kind of funny that way.
I prefer to honor the winners in the war over slavery, instead of the treasonous traitors who fought for slavery and lost, and caused more deaths in the US than anything else - outside, of course, of the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans over the centuries.

Our two great sins as a nation:
And our treatment (read slaughter - through diseases and battles) of Native Americans.

But, the latter is for a conversation another day.

Right now, I celebrate the growing awareness of the evils of the Confederate flag, and its demise as a symbol of bigotry and hate.

But don't worry, they'll find something else.
My guess is that the bigoted conservative loons will probably now rally 'round the Gadsden Flag.

Professor Chaos said...

I think that if you go to war against the United States for ghe purpose of preserving the institution of slavery, you forfeit the right to be honored for your "post-war work."

Peter VE said...

I believe that Lincoln made a great mistake in not hanging the leadership of the rebellion, especially the oath-breakers. The men who rose in rebellion in 1774 against the British Crown knew they were pledging their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Those who rose in rebellion in 1861 should have been held to the same standard. Thus began 150 years of appeasement.

Philo Vaihinger said...

Now, if Lee had sponsored an officers' plot to assassinate Jefferson Davis and end the war by surrender to the Union forces, it would be fine, though some might think it perhaps a bit over the top, to memorialize and honor him.

Otherwise, as for their supposed private opinions on slavery or anything else, it does not matter what these allegedly honorable and decent men said or thought.

It matters what they actually did, when push came to shove.

A Reconstruction variant of the Nuremberg trials would not have been out of place or unduly harsh, not for war crimes per se but for crimes against humanity related to secession and war for the defense and advancement of slavery, itself a crime against humanity, though the concept would have had to be invented nearly a century earlier than it actually was.

Anyway, the present issue fissures into at least two parts.

One is the question what to do about public honoring of the Confederacy and those who fought for it, and the answer is that the relevant public authorities need to stop all that, take down the flags and monuments and rename the schools and streets, etc.

And the other is the question what to do about private honoring of those thing and people, and the answer is to resist with public obloquy but not coercion.

But as to that last, on this matter as on others I think the First Amendment needs to be enforced as a suitably qualified guarantee of the freedom of employees against employer retaliation, as well as a suitably qualified guarantee against government coercion or retaliation.

Here I realize I am more on the side of individual freedom of opinion, speech, and association than liberals generally are, and that my preference is directly opposed to the activities of our contemporary Red Guards of PC.

Dark Avenger said...

Yeah, we can't handle a diversity of opinion like the way the conservatives at Red State allow dissension from RW thought.

Loyal Son said...

Lee, arm in arm with Jefferson Davis, is an arch-traitor to the United States. He violated his sworn oath to uphold the Constitution. He was not a gentleman, but a vicious secessionist responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers.

Unknown said...

The soldiers were paroled as a consequence of the agreement reached at Appomattox. There was no way to hang Lee.

Davis and Stephenson should have been convicted of treason and then pardoned, like Nixon, in the interest of reconciliation. That at least would have kept their names off highways and holidays.

Lee was responsible for enough military disasters that no one should consider him a great general, but he did share one very important distinction with Washington, that of keeping a ragtag army in the field despite all odds. That this was Washington's concern at the beginning and Lee's at the end is a crucial distinction.

Philo Vaihinger said...

The Reconstruction authorities of the North would not necessarily have considered themselves bound to honor Lee's parole, which they could have shrugged off as a ruse of war and no better than the rebels deserved, or anyway beyond the authority of the Union military to grant.

Dark Avenger said...

Given the circumstances of granting the said parole, that would have been politically impossible, in an era when Northerners took the concept of honor and fairness as seriously as their Southern counterparts:

On a spring day 140 years ago, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee met face to face in the parlor of Wilmer McLean's house in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. On that historic occasion, April 9, 1865, the two generals formalized the surrender of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, thus bringing an end to four years of fighting between North and South.

After agreeing upon terms of the surrender, the generals each selected three officers to oversee the surrender and parole of Lee's army. Later that day, Lee and six of his staff signed a document granting their parole.

Procopius said...

I don't mind if they want to claim that marriage was defined by God, but I think they ought to be willing to cite a reference. Where is this definition written down? When? New Testament? I remember Paul (aka Saul of Tarsus) said something about, "Let them marry rather than burn," but he didn't get married himself (I wonder if he was in the closet). I recall the Old Testament was very emphatic that if your brother died you had a duty to not only marry his widow but do your best to "get her with child." I'm pretty sure that applied even if you already had a couple of wives and maybe a concubine (slave woman). Was it in the writings of the Church Fathers? Which ones? Augustine, Bishop of Hippo? Athanasius? Theodosius -- oh, wait, he was an Emperor, not a bishop. None of them want to give a reference.