Lee, Virginia, and the Union

The Hall of Fame recently dedicated at New York Uni­versity was conceived from the Ruhmes Halle in Bavaria. This structure on University Heights, on the Harlem river, in the borough of the Bronx, New York City, has, or is in­tended to have, a panel of bronze with other mementos for each of one hundred and fifty native-born Americans who have been deceased at least ten years, and who are of great character and fame in authorship, education, science, art, soldiery, statesmanship, philanthropy, or in any worthy un­dertaking. Fifty names were to have been chosen at once; but, on account of a slight change of plans, only twenty-nine have been chosen, and twenty-one more will be in 1902. The remaining one hundred names are to be chosen during the century, five at the end of each five years. The present judges of names to be honored are one hundred representa­tive American scholars in different callings. They are most­ly Northern men, although at least one judge represents each State.

High on the list of names elected on first ballot of the judges was the name of Robert E. Lee. What does this election of Lee mean? It means a unique personal tribute by formerly bitter enemies and opponents to one who was at least a partial cause of the making of a multitude of North­ern widows and orphans, perhaps thousands more of them than there would have been had he fought on the other side.

Lee’s fame was secure before his death. Had he never been more than a soldier, he would have needed no physical memento in North or South. As he was more, he needs one far less. But this on University Heights is a grand tribute. Yet it means far more than a tribute. Great as a personal tribute, grand as a tribute to the South from formerly hos­tile States in civil war, greatest of all have these Northern judges—by their sympathetic vision of all patriotism, their continent-broad love of country—honored not the South, but themselves and the North. It means the divine spirit of reconciliation. It means a transcendent change following close upon a civil war which, in magnitude, in treasure and blood sacrificed, in fierceness, bitterness, and length of event­ful years brewing and fought, was on the whole the greatest civil war in history. The civil War of the Roses lasted a generation instead of four years, but in no other respect was it more than three or four battles compared with that of 1861-65. Yet the latter has excelled also in rapidity of the healing of political wounds, although this healing has had much to retard it. It has excelled, likewise, in comparison with our civil war against the mother country more than a century ago.

Lee’s name was chosen high on this list of the Hall of Fame from among hundreds of eligible names before the judges. This means that scholars of the new North, who as youths were necessarily taught with bias against the Confederates, and scholars of the old North have alike come to see other­wise than as they once saw. Facts which for years after the war were viewed with anything but calmness they now view calmly. For example, during the war radical Union men, and others, said that the seceded States were not out of the Union. But soon after the war these same radicals, then having control in Congress, in order further to punish the South, quickly turned and said that the Southern States had been really out; and through aid of their newly found belief, which allowed for years harsh military and “carpetbag” governments, they satisfied their rankling war passions and their intoxication of triumph.

It is a great credit to the South that she has partly forgiven the wrongs inflicted by the “ carpetbags” and the radical-rid­den Congresses of the reconstruction period. There crosses that period, says Prof. Woodrow Wilson, “a great rift, which breaks, and must always break, the continuity and harmony of our constitutional development.” Few in the North have long contemplated the constitutional rift; but the North has long been ashamed of much that was in that period. She has tried and tries to forget, and has forgotten, some of it. Of several recent writings I have read touching the constitu­tional amendment that abolishes slavery “within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction,” all those read, save one, assign to the “any place subject to their ju­risdiction” either no meaning or some meaning not contem­plated in the sixties. One of the writers read happened to know the fact that Congress was thinking not so much of our numerous guano island possessions as of the seceded States, which were then being governed as Territories and not considered to be members of the Union of the United States.

It is now many years since noble women of Columbus, Miss., first strewed flowers alike on graves of the gray and the blue; and Northern men and women have been stirred by such deeds, besides being ashamed of much in the recon­struction period. The North should be forgiven, and should be allowed to forget the deeds that came with her rankling passions of war, although the lack of harmony in our consti­tutional development, as shown by the slowly solving race problem, cannot be forgotten. But the North now again holds the theory that the Southern States were continuously members of an indestructible Union of semi-sovereign States; and nobly has the South accepted the same doctrine as her own, although she was long after the war deprived of self­government and semi-sovereignty.[

We cannot easily overestimate the Northern tributes to Lee as a conscientious, worthy foe, but one who for years was exe­crated as an unmitigated “traitor,” however truly and greatly the tributes he merited. In 1870, when the great commander died, his late foemen praised him most highly. From Appo­mattox to his death, said the New York Herald, he “passed among men, noble in his quiet, simple dignity, displaying neither bitterness nor regret over the irrevocable past. He conquered us in misfortune by the grand manner in which he sustained himself, even as he dazzled us by his genius when the tramp of his soldiers resounded through the val­leys of Virginia.” But the North now prints “black in white” her forgiveness and his fame. It is always harder to forgive virtues and successes than faults. It has been very much for the North to forgive such military successes as Gen. Lee attained during three awful years. Yet she thinks,

Gone the tyrant of my youth, and mute beneath the chancel stones, All his virtues—I forgive them—black in white above his bones.

The North now sees that in reality the only thing for which she has blamed Lee during forty years was his sincere and logical belief in the doctrine of State sovereignty. All other blame grew out of that. He believed neither that slavery was a desirable institution nor that States should exercise the right to secede which he believed them to have. But with secession a fact, he saw and felt, as he had been taught, that his duty was to the State rather than to the Federation. Should he, or should he not, follow what he believed to be duty? The North, which never questioned the sincerity of Lee’s belief, now admits that such belief was logical, and at one time the only belief. Henry Cabot Lodge says: “When the Constitution was adopted . . . there was not a man in the whole country, from Washington and Hamilton, on the one side, to George Clinton and George Mason, on the other, who regarded the new system as anything but an experiment entered upon by the States, and from which each and every State had the right peaceably to withdraw.”

The once war-fired and war-rankling North now calmly ponders these things—reflecting that the Virginia doctrine of Commonwealth sovereignty was so old, so logically de­veloped, so consistently and persistently maintained, that the strong influence of her great sons, Randolph, Madison, and Washington, neither changed nor modified it; that the great­est American jurist, her son John Marshall^ could modify but slightly her belief. Little wonder, therefore, that Lee believed in abundant State rights; for the root of his family tree had been planted deep in old Virginia history, far back in the days of Charles I. And this Virginia doctrine started as far back as 1619, when the first House of Burgesses met at Jamestown, the first English colonial legislature on earth; indeed, it seems to have started with the immortal Edwin Sandys at almost the beginning of the first English colony in the world to endure.

This old colony had led all others in declaring her indi­vidual independence from Great Britain, in adopting a sov­ereign constitution for herself, and in urging the Continental Congress to make the famous combined Declaration for the thirteen colonies making common cause against their com­mon royal sovereign. That sovereign had later acknowl­edged such independence, jointly and severally, naming each of the thirteen colonies which were acknowledged independ­ent, as they had in the second of the Articles of Confedera­tion declared themselves to be sovereign, free, and inde­pendent.

Besides her full sovereignty, which only Great Britain had remonstrated with the Congress and prevented its touching any of the Northwest until she had on certain condi­tions, for the benefit of herself and other States, relinquished her claim. The remonstrance was stated to be made lest such assumption of power by the Congress “might hereafter subvert the sovereignty and government of any one or more of the United States,” or might lead them in time to a central government tyranny as bad as that which they with such dif­ficulty had just overthrown.

Virginia had objected to the proposed “more perfect union” on the ground that it might jeopardize her sover­eignty; had long withstood the pleas of her great son Mad­ison, and had long withstood the great Washington in his advocacy of closer union. Her sons whom she most heeded at that time had condemned the words “we, the people,” contending that the words should be “we, the States;” and she had made a reservation in her ratification of the Consti­tution, distinctly stating that “the powers granted according to the Constitution…can be resumed by it [Virginia] in case any abuse be made of them to do it any wrong.” Ten years later her Legislature had, in the famous “Virginia resolutions,” reasserted the same principles of State sover­eignty. Thus it was logical and natural for her to repeal her ratification of that Constitution when she strongly enough desired the result of such repeal, as she finally did in 1861. Even her western mountaineers admitted the logic of the doctrine, although desiring and struggling to remain in the Union.

Lee had not only read of Virginia’s sovereign acts per­formed during and since the Revolutionary War, when she had separately ratified the French treaty, but he had seen her legal forms which closed with “Done in the           year of Virginia independence,” and other evidences of sovereign­ty. Not only had he heard her called everywhere the Mother of Presidents, and felt the old Virginia esprit de corps at West Point, on the Texas frontier, in the farther-off Mexican capital, but he felt that in his own lifetime she had been in almost every respect the greatest of the States; and the bones of many generations of his ancestors were mingled with her soil. To draw his sword against her would be draw­ing it also against many of the living near and dear to him; and he knew that, did he not resign from the army, he would be ordered to do. other things which he could not conscien­tiously undertake.

He was offered flattering inducements to remain and fight for the Union. President Lincoln himself, through Gen. Francis P. Blair, had offered him a most important command, with the promise of rapid promotion. His admitted belief in maintaining the Union was appealed to. But belief in loyal­ty to Virginia was to him the stronger. His whole political education and feelings had been the opposite to those of his friend Gen. Winfield Scott, the old Whig and soldier, who urged Lee not to resign. Lee’s earliest and constant teaching had been that of loyal duty to Virginia. Yet he weighed all things.

For months Lee had meditated, deploring civil war, de­ploring secession, although believing in the right to secede. He was familiar with political history, as his letters abun­dantly prove. He knew that in 1804 New Englanders had threatened to secede and form another union of States, as again in 1809, and more seriously in 1814. He knew that the “Flag of Five Stripes” had been a slogan that was heard across the New York border, and that Connecticut’s Legis­lature, as well as Virginia’s, had formally declared the State to be free, sovereign, and independent, not in a national re­public, but in a mere confederation of republics. He knew that while Congress was debating the question of making Louisiana a State, in 1811, a Massachusetts member had claimed the right of secession for States, and that such right was there denied by none. He knew, moreover, that an anti­slavery convention at Worcester, Mass., had resolved, on January 15, 1857, “that the sooner the separation takes place the more peaceable it will be.”

I trust I have represented fairly the present conception of the vast majority of Northern men—including most of those who fought to preserve the Union—as to the controlling be­lief of Lee and others who felt their truer patriotism and duty to be to the individual States. The Union soldier, by design of Providence, was on the winning side. But he had for himself, like Lee, to decide what was his duty, especially if he lived in a border State in those “days that tried men’s souls.”

The great war was fought. The South was devastated, overwhelmed, defeated, exhausted. The great soldier, Robert E. Lee, escaped none of the tragedy. His fight was fought well indeed. Without advantages, except those created by his own genius, he performed exceptional feats. His driving out of Virginia, in 1862, an enemy of vastly su­perior numbers, having superior transports, superior equipments, and superior resources of all kinds, was indeed bril­liant. His whole defense of Virginia, save at the very last, was undeniably one of great successes against great odds. Said the London Standard: “Never was so much achieved against odds so terrible.”

Great was Lee’s generalship, greater his humane charac­ter during those awful years, but greatest was that devoted, unselfish, spotless character when Virginia was conquered and impoverished. Great in triumphs, he was greater in de­feat. As just before resigning from the Federal army a most tempting offer failed to hold him from his conceived duty to the Old Dominion, so now offers of lucrative situations, from near and far, failed to hold him from his conception of new duty. “I am deeply grateful,” he said with soldierly courte­sy to the offerers, “but I cannot desert my native State in the hour of her adversity.”

At first it was a humble situation that Lee took, although that of president of a famous old college. But his name’s magic, his energy, executive ability, distinguished personal­ity, and his great character so devoted to duty, turned an impoverished and mutilated college into one rapidly prosper­ing. At the same time, besides being college executive and a Christian guide to the youth, he was ever, as occasion came, the hearty admonisher to old comrades-in-arms against their retaining any bitterness toward their late foe. “The accusations against myself,” he wrote in 1866, “I have not thought proper to notice, even to correct misrepresentations of my words and acts. We shall have to be patient and suffer, for a while at least; and all controversy, I think, will serve only to prolong angry and bitter feelings and postpone the period when reason and charity may resume their sway.” That desirable period has at last come!

Thus, after the war, two great patriotic duties were per­formed by Gen. Lee, the one but the far-reaching and fit­ting accompaniment of the other. The education and re­stored material prosperity of Virginia, the reconciliation— these were his two aims, his sublime conceptions of duty to the old Commonwealth. “Duty,” he wrote, years before the war, “is the sublimest word in our language.” And since his inspiring example was most fruitful where most seen, therefore Virginia, notwithstanding her exceptional history, led all the South and all the North in rapid growth in the heaven-born spirit of reconciliation.

It was Robert E. Lee who, as a great educator in the South, was a great reconciliator of the Union. The Union has become a nation. It was Lee who led in making it a reconciled nation. He never so greatly wished to destroy any real unity of the States as he wished and latterly helped to make such genuine unity as we have at last. He belongs, therefore, not to Virginia and the South alone. He belongs to the whole United States, which, with almost a unanimity of thinking, feeling men in every State, now acknowledges his full-round greatness, and happily accords him generous rank in this New York Hall of Fame and in the admiration of the whole country and of the world.

“I doubt not through the ages one increasing purpose runs,

And the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns.”

This piece was originally published in the Sewanee Review in 1901.

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