The Proslavery Politics of Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

If you ask many Americans about the Confederacy, they will begin by expressing their admiration for Robert Edward Lee, the valiant, dignified, and grandfatherly commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Even if they have a fair idea of what the Confederacy sought to accomplish, they still love Lee. He embodied the concept of a southern gentleman so thoroughly that one suspects his ghost would only eschew Antarctica because he could not part with his beloved Virginia. Any he chose to haunt would compliment him on the act, happily agreeing that they had it coming and benefited immeasurably from the experience. Lee, as remembered in Civil War popular culture, toiled his whole life in relative obscurity. The son of a founder, he married the step-granddaughter of no less a founder than George Washington. If he did not die for our sins, as we might imagine Lincoln did, then Lee had his own long, dark night of the soul. At Gethsemane on the Potomac, he weighed his love of the Union with his love of Virginia. In the end, Lee went South. He could, like a rebel of older days dear to many Americans, do no other. His love of Virginia prevailed not just over his love of Union and scorn for disunion, but also his loathing of slavery.

Respectable historians agree. When someone asks me for a single book to read about the American Civil War, I point them to James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. McPherson introduces Lee as “perhaps the greatest asset that Virginia brought to the cause of southern independence,” an assessment with which few could argue:

General-in-Chief Winfield Scott considered Lee the best officer in the army. In April, Scott urged Lincoln to offer Lee field command of the newly levied Union army. As a fellow Virginian Scott hoped that Lee, like himself, would remain loyal to the service to which he he had devoted his life. Lee had made clear his dislike of slavery, which he described in 1856 as “a moral and political evil.”

Lee expressed the same idea when called to testify before Congress after the war, declaring himself in favor of gradual emancipation. One could almost mistake him for Lincoln.

Lee must have had a truly powerful devotion to Virginia to fight for it when the state nailed its colors to the mast of slavery, but that just makes him into a yet more tragic and noble figure. If Lincoln gave his life, albeit without his consultation in the matter, then Lee gave his love of Union and other dear principles. This Lee comes down to us as more a statue than a man, a platonic ideal cloaked in gray lest it blind us in all its glory. How could one not admire him? Anything less seems the height of perversity. To dissent simply shows proof of one’s own fallen nature.

I, Gentle Readers, have fallen and do not want to get up. Some of this comes down to personal taste and individual values. I don’t find myself much moved by the mode of gentlemanly conduct that Lee upheld. Nor does this pacifist feel a profound admiration for Lee’s more military virtues. But in approaching Lee’s position on slavery as a matter of history, those concerns do not hold the same relevance. We can never step outside ourselves and achieve perfect objectivity, but understanding the past does require us to do more than rehearse our biases. In that pursuit, I fell the same way that historian Gary Gallagher did, through the dark art of reading.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

McPherson derives his Lee quote from the man’s most celebrated biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman. Alan T. Nolan didn’t leave matters there, but went for the quote’s full context in his book Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee & Civil War History. Lee wrote the line to his wife while serving in Texas, just a month after James Buchanan defeated the first avowed antislavery candidate for the presidency who had a realistic chance of winning, John C. Frémont. The passage, as quoted in Nolan, deserves a close examination:

In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white 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.

Often when people claim that one quotes out of context, the context doesn’t really change things. Here it really does. Lee has written that however much slavery harmed black people, it also did them good. They benefited more from the whipping, raping, torture, and dismemberment of families than they would have from freedom in Africa. But doesn’t that make Lee just like David Wilmot with his breezy “no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject of slavery, no morbid sympathy for the slave”?

Had Lee stopped there, one could make that case. Wilmot and men like him literally did not want to share the continent with black Americans and Lee’s position so far would put him into the antislavery mainstream of Kansas, where many preferred no black Americans, but if they must have such neighbors then those neighbors must come enslaved. But Lee did not stop there.

How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. There emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy. … While we see the Course of the final abolition of human Slavery is onward, & we give it all the aid of our prayers & all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in his hands who sees the end; who Chooses to work by slow influence; & with whom two thousand years are but as a Single day.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Slavery must end, someday, but Lee ceded the decision on that to the Almighty alone. I don’t propose to argue that doing so made Lee insincere. Genuinely religious people do believe that their god or gods work in the world and order things in their own ways. Presumably if Lee’s god descended from Heaven and told him to free all the slaves, Lee would have done it. But all the same, one doesn’t hold one’s breath waiting for such things. Until that time, Lee here commits himself to an unqualified and indefinite preservation of slavery. Controversy clearly did not signal divine will to him, or he would have associated it with the influence of Christianity rather than contrasted the two.

Nolan goes further with Lee. The future general knew very well that another group of Americans, who also claimed the influence of Christianity for their politics, came down rather differently on slavery. Discussing a recent condemnation of antislavery politics by Franklin Pierce, Lee writes

the Systematic & progressive efforts of certain people of the North, to interfere with & change the domestic institutions of the South, are truthfully & faithfully expressed. The Consequences of their plans & purposes are also clearly set forth, & they must also be aware, that their object is both unlawful & entirely foreign to them & their duty; for which they are irresponsible & unaccountable; & Can only be accomplished by them through the agency of a Civil & Servile war.

Lee’s emphasis. Here he neatly cuts any but white Southerners out of the decision on slavery, so eliminating the section of the nation where antislavery beliefs might find airing without extreme danger to their exponents. Obviously, Lee’s god would not work through a Yankee.

Although the Abolitionist must know this, & must See that he has neither the right or power of operating except by moral means & suasion, & if he means well to the slave, he must not Create angry feelings in the Master; that although he may not approve the mode by which it pleases Providence to accomplish its purposes, the result will nevertheless be the same; that the reasons he gives for interference in what he had no Concern, holds good for every kind of interference without neighbors when we disapprove their Conduct. … Is it not strange that the descendants of those pilgrim fathers who Crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom of opinion, have always proved themselves intolerant of the Spiritual liberty of others?

The abolitionist could ask nicely and the enslaver would say no nicely. Only when they could politely convince southerners who built their fortunes on stolen lives, their own hands on the lash, could the abolitionist expect slavery to end. Never should the abolitionist anger the enslaver. Such angry feelings might, after all, provoke retaliation. Furthermore, the abolitionists should respect the religious liberty of Southern enslavers. They decided what the Bible said about their slavery and would change their minds when their god ordained, not one second earlier.

Here we have not an antislavery Lee, troubled by the system but a captive to it by his upbringing. Nor do we have a Lee bound to Virginia and thus to slavery as a consequence. Instead we have a Lee who prefers and advocates for the indefinite preservation of slavery. Gradual emancipation, in Lee’s own lifetime, meant not the preservation of slavery until all the scales fell from white eyes in a new revelation but rather a progressive advance ordained by law which would in a known period of time convert enslaved people into freedpeople. It might take decades, but it would likely happen within the lifetimes of people alive when the laws passed rather than in some vague and hoped-for millennium to come. Unless Lee had no interest at all in political matters, and his writing suggests otherwise, it beggars belief that he would have missed the distinction between the gradual emancipation actually practiced in eighteenth and nineteenth century America and the “gradual” emancipation he insisted after the war that he had always preferred.

The Lee who swore to tell the truth and then testified to Congress said “I have always been in favor of emancipation – gradual emancipation.” At the very least, Lee deliberately misled Congress. More likely the paragon of gentlemanly virtue consciously simply lied.

None of what I have shared today comes from newly uncovered sources. How does this myth live on? Not every scholar of the Civil War will take an interest in Lee’s personal life and politics, and McPherson’s book predates Nolan’s, but I’ve heard people make much the same claims about Lee and slavery as recently as a few weeks ago. Do people not read the sources? Some don’t, and ignorance will get one a long way, but I think a larger issue than that comes into play.

Confederate Battle FlagEven if one can’t deny or obscure the Confederacy’s avowed purpose, though people do try with remarkable industry, then in Lee they can have a proxy for the Confederacy. Whatever the official documents say, in Lee they have a man they claim did not care for slavery but fought for it all the same, at great hazards and against in some ways his own best judgment. By making Lee antislavery, they can excuse the Confederacy. He signed on, so it must have a good side.

Since Lee would never fight for it, except reluctantly and entirely due to Virginia’s choice, slavery vanishes from consideration. Its absence invites other explanations for the war. If the Confederacy fought not for slavery, despite the nigh-endless stream of documents arguing just that produced by the Confederacy’s leaders, then it did for states’ rights. It fought against an oppressive government. It fought to defend its way of life. Don’t ask just what rights, what form the oppression took, or what the way of life entailed. The politicians of the seceding South used fear of abolition to gin up a war over some arcane constitutional point, or a few cents on the tariff, but nothing more. Trust them. At any rate, their however many times great-grandfathers wouldn’t have fought for slavery. We all have only righteous ancestors who strangely chose just the right causes for us to admire, just as we all have above-average children. We would not choose ancestors who disregarded future standards and shamefully misbehaved, after all.

That this rehabilitation of the southern cause happens to involve the simultaneous rehabilitation of the people, doctrines, and symbols used by avowedly white supremacist groups to suppress the advancement and destroy the gains of black Americans toward equality more than once seems, to this random person on the internet, rather more coincidental than one would expect of a genuine coincidence. The ghost of Lee lives on, imagined perfection and real politics alike.

10 comments on “The Proslavery Politics of Robert E. Lee

  1. Andy Hall says:

    “I fell the same way that historian Gary Gallagher did, through the dark art of reading.”


    Al Mackey recently posted a video of a talk Gallagher gave, debunking various myths about Lee. In connection to something else people believe about Lee, Gallagher said, “you can only believe that if you don’t read anything.”

  2. Jon Kerr says:

    Well done. I just revisited Gettysburg and was also struck by what a free ride Lee has gotten for his monumental (and bloody) blunders there. Seeing the location of Picket’s Charge made me see how wronged Longstreet has often been in being reluctant to accept Lee’s orders.
    This is all different than your thrust here about Lee’s attitudes on slavery. But they come together in the mythology of Lee that has also too long helped provide cover for the “tragic nobility” of the Confederacy.

    • You’re right. It’s always “Grant the butcher” and “Grant the mindlessly offensive”. Never Lee. Military judgments always come with more than their fair share of hindsight bias. It’s a brilliant, daring gamble when it works. If not, then it’s a grandiose blunder. Unless the guy with the white beard did it. Then someone else had to take the blame.

  3. Well done! After decades of wrestling with historical analysis models that lead to unsatisfying conclusions, I’ve decided to make my own. It’s heartbreaking how history is used as a political football, when it could be approached from a more philosophical tack.
    My current position is that the breaks in our history can be restored insofar as we can identify with the humanity of both its antagonists and protagonists.
    You touched on an issue worthy of more mining; the bifurcated positions of the Church on just about every social issue in the history of the US! It is curious how little things change over the eons. For example, the disciples of Christ were Jews who were considered undesirable by other Jewish sects, and outright heretical to others.

  4. People do have this annoying habit of remaining people, whatever institutions they concern themselves with. Sometimes it gets very depressing, but not always. We have genuine humanitarians to go with all the imaginary ones.

  5. Greg Lyles says:

    You can say and write what you want, but it is a matter of history that Lee’s virtues far outweigh his character flaws. He freed all his slaves well before the Emancipation Proclamation. More than a few Union generals did not free their slaves until they were forced to do so by Constitutional Amendment.

  6. Greg Lyles says:

    “Robert E. Lee did not own slaves, but many Union generals did. When his father-in-law died, Lee took over the management of the plantation his wife had inherited and immediately began freeing the slaves. By the time Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, every slave in Lee’s charge had been freed. Notably, some Union generals didn’t free their slaves until the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.”-
    Gail Jarvis
    “I was raised by one of the greatest men in the world. There was never one born of a woman greater than Gen. Robert E. Lee, according to my judgment. All of his servants were set free ten years before the war, but all remained on the plantation until after the surrender.”
    William Mack Lee- (Robert E. Lee’s freedman servant)
    “While we see the course of the final abolition of human slavery is still onward, and give it the aid of our prayers, let us leave the progress as well as the results in the hands of Him who, chooses to work by slow influences, and with whom a thousand years are but as a single day.”-
    Robert Edward Lee
    “So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interest of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this that I would have cheerfully lost all that I have lost by the war, and have suffered all that I have suffered to have this object attained.” –
    Robert Edward Lee
    “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country.”-
    Robert Edward Lee

    • I must direct you to the post to which you replied for the full context and due consideration of Lee’s quotes damning slavery, particularly the one you quoted last and ceased quoting precisely at the point that it becomes fatal to your position. An unfortunate coincidence?

      This leaves us with absurdities: Jarvis would have us believe that Union generals (unnamed, oddly enough) held slaves until 1868 and the Fourteenth Amendment. Every slave in the Union was free in 1865, with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. For that matter, she also asks the reader to believe that Lee simultaneously owned no slaves and inherited slaves that he then freed. This is nonsense.

      Speaking of those slaves, which Lee freed ten years prior to his surrender, thus in 1855, and in advance of the Emancipation Proclamation, I say this: Lee freed his last slaves on December 29, 1862. The Emancipation Proclamation came into effect on January 1, 1863 and was announced on September 22, 1862. Incidentally, the will by which Lee inherited the slaves let him work them, if he wished to do so, for five years. When did the will go into effect? 1857. You can do the math.

      Should you think Lee has other virtues which outweigh his vices, that is your privilege. We all measure historical figures all the time. It behooves us when doing so, however, to employ the facts available rather than the facts we would prefer to have.

  7. Greg Lyles says:

    “Lee was the noblest American who had ever lived and one of the greatest commanders known to the annals of war.”-
    Winston Churchill on Robert E. Lee

    “His noble presence and gentle, kindly manner were sustained by religious faith and an exalted character.”-
    Winston Churchill on the character of Robert E. Lee

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