A review of Robert E. Lee: A Life (Random House, 2021) by Allen Guelzo
“How do you write the biography of someone who commits treason?” asks historian Allen C. Guelzo in his new book Robert E. Lee: A Life. It’s a bit of an odd question for a historian to ask. Sure, treason is a terrible crime. But so are lots of things: spreading violent revolution, engaging in unprovoked wars with other nations, or having one’s wife (or wives) killed. And yet biographies of Marx, Napoleon, and Henry VIII abound. Presumably the authors of these books did not feel the need to anguish in their introductions over their subject matter.
We’re also a bit oversaturated with discussions of Lee, not only given retired U.S. Army Brigadier General and professor emeritus at West Point General Ty Seidule earlier this year published Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause, but the countless op-eds and articles written about him in the last couple years. There’s also John Reeves’ The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee: The Forgotten Case against an American Icon from 2018. Indeed, there are scores of books, including many biographies, about Lee.
Then again, this seems to be the era of America’s great reckoning with our past, specifically the Confederate past, evinced by the ever-expanding list of removed statues, renamed schools, and recontextualized historical markers. Not long ago I received a card in the mail from the government bureaucrats in my native Fairfax County, asking if I supported renaming Lee Highway (Rt. 29) and Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway (Rt. 50). So sure, Professor Guelzo, add your voice to the rising chorus! Though, I would argue, this historical reckoning really isn’t about the Confederacy, or even treason.
The ongoing historical revisionist project is much broader than efforts to dismantle everything that honors or eulogizes the Confederacy and its leaders. That was made clear during the 2020 riots, when memorials not only to Confederates and segregationists were defaced or toppled, but those to abolitionists and founding fathers. In Northern Virginia, elementary schools that bore the names of Thomas Jefferson and George Mason were rechristened. A Washington, D.C. committee last year recommended renaming government buildings, parks, and schools named after members of the founding generation. San Francisco’s school board last year voted to rename 44 public schools — including ones named after George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — because such figures had “diminished the opportunities of those amongst us.”
These events signify what progressives hope to ultimately achieve: a complete remaking of America’s self-identity. Historical persons who in any way perpetuated the patriarchy, racism, colonialism, or even cisgender norms will eventually be evaluated and, if the most radical among the Left get their way, placed on the chopping block. Women, “persons of color” (whatever that means), and those with alternative sexual and gender identities, will be elevated.
We shouldn’t be surprised by this. As men and women much smarter than I have observed, there is no limiting principle to any of this. The technocratic elites who dominate academia, the media, and corporate America have embraced what Scott Yenor calls a “rolling revolution” guided by ever-more-extreme ideological premises regarding race, gender, and sex. The heroes of yesteryear, according to these ideologues, are the enemies of today. And the heroes of today, we are increasingly finding, are the enemies of the not-too-distant future. It is a form of cultural and political suicide, driven preeminently by the celebration and worship of the self.
And that is why historical figures, whatever their merits or demerits, are so easily maligned by the woke Left. The dead are men and women of a different time, with different historical contexts and often different morals. And though gone, their actions or words can still communicate things that undermine or contradict our own inflated sense of self. But we cannot let the past get in the way of our narcissistic, self-indulgent present! Thus what started with Lee moves on to Washington and Jefferson, and on and on we go.
Speaking of the Framers, they too were traitors, no? They were all subjects of King George III, and many of them were actually involved in the administration of colonial governance and its security. Washington, for example, served as senior Colonial aide to British General Edward Braddock and later as “Colonel of the Virginia Regiment and Commander in Chief of all forces now raised in the defense of His Majesty’s Colony.” Yet these men spurned their allegiance to the crown, believing themselves justified as both British citizens and men with natural rights to govern themselves. And though they did not declare their independence for the purpose of slavey, many of them certainly expected to continue owning slaves in their new regime.
Treason, like history, is often a bit trickier than we’d like. Not every act of treason is as easily identifiable as that of Ephialtes of Trachis (who betrayed Sparta at Thermopylae) or Robert Hanssen (the FBI officer who gave classified U.S. documents to the Soviets). So it is with Lee.
Guelzo takes issue with the common perception that Lee’s allegiance was first to the Commonwealth of Virginia, rather than the United States, arguing that “he [Lee] had deep family ties to Virginia, and it is consistently family and not politics that enters into his explanations” regarding his decision to side with Virginia. Moreover, claims Guelzo, property was another primary motivator, as Lee was concerned that if he sided with the Union, Virginia (Confederate) forces would commandeer his estate at Arlington. “On the other hand, if he cooperated with a Virginia secession movement, he would certainly save Arlington and the other Custis properties from Virginia confiscation for his children.”
This is straining at gnats. Like Lee, I have deep roots in Virginia, over several generations, and with family (and real estate) in many parts of the Commonwealth. So in that sense I am more deeply bound to Virginia than other places in America (something I take pride in). But my allegiance to Virginia cannot be separated from my family and my property. If all my family departed the Commonwealth, and all our property was sold, my love of the Old Dominion would undoubtedly wane. I’m not sure that communicates anything other than that our duties to a place or government are indelibly wrapped up in our commitments to family, land, and culture.
Guelzo says Lee “publicly turned his back on his service, his flag, and ultimately, his country. All of this was done for the sake of a political regime whose acknowledged purpose was the preservation of a system of chattel slavery that he knew to be an evil and for which he felt little affection and whose constitutional basis he dismissed as fiction.” What would we have done, placed in a similar situation, given not only politics, but family and finances. For Christians, our first commitment is to God, followed by our families, and then our patria, both as we understand it and as the law dictates. And yet, as the example of the founding generation demonstrates, sometimes what counts as our true patria is a thorny question indeed. To his credit, Lee didn’t betray his God or his family — indeed he viewed his loyalty to Virginia through the prism of both.
Guelzo assesses Lee unequivocally fits the definition of a traitor against the United States, conforming, as it were, to the “constitutional definition of treason against the United States — ‘levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.’” Perhaps, though many historians have argued that the exact nature of such constitutional issues, including the legality of secession, had not been resolved at the time of the Civil War. Moreover, as the Founders argued, sometimes “treason” is justified.
In closing his book, Guelzo calls for mercy for Lee, much as Walt Whitman did, who noted with praise that the Republic’s refusal to try Confederates was something that “has been paralleled nowhere in the world.” Guelzo ends: “Mercy — or at least a nolle prosequi — may, perhaps, be the most appropriate conclusion to the crime — and the glory — of Robert E. Lee after all.” I suppose, to his credit, this at least puts Guelzo in a different category than the chronological snobbish woke activists whose vanity has convinced them of their own moral superiority. Guelzo elsewhere notes: “No one who met Robert Edward Lee — no matter what the circumstances of the meeting — ever seemed to fail to be impressed by the man. His dignity, his manners, his composure, all seemed to create a peculiar sense of awe in the minds of observers.”
If that characterization of Lee is accurate, which even Guelzo readily acknowledges, then the ill treatment Lee’s memory has received these last few years is disgraceful, whether or not one believes him guilty of treason against the United States. Mocking the dead often says more about those who do the mocking than the alleged deceased offenders. Moreover, as so many other recent events demonstrate, the defaming of Lee is a canary in the coalmine for what awaits our anti-historical America. And a nation unable to honor or simply respect its ancestors, however flawed they may have been, is one on its way to being no nation at all.