As both political parties and the President of the United States seem to be determined to subject the American people, economy and standing in the world to disaster in the defense of principles, it might be a good time to reflect on the fact that principles detached from reality have little value, and that rigidly adhering to principles to the detriment of the community and civilization is not a virtue.
In the current issue of Humanities, historian James Cobb makes these points vividly, if tangentially, while reflecting on the odd reverence with which Americans, and not just Southerners, regard Robert E. Lee. I am proud to say that the lionization of Lee never made sense to me, not even when I was a small boy. But he is the epitome of someone who is revered as a role model and hero for his supposed character and values rather than what he actually did with them.*
Cobb begins his essay with this anecdote:
“After President Dwight D. Eisenhower revealed on national television that one of the four “great Americans” whose pictures hung in his office was none other than Robert E. Lee, a thoroughly perplexed New York dentist reminded him that Lee had devoted “his best efforts to the destruction of the United States government” and confessed that since he could not see “how any American can include Robert E. Lee as a person to be emulated, why the President of the United States of America should do so is certainly beyond me.” Eisenhower replied personally and without hesitation, explaining that Lee was, “in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. … selfless almost to a fault … noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history. From deep conviction I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities … we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.”
Amazing. Not just a man “of Lee’s caliber,” but Robert E. Lee himself, was significantly* responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of men (between 600,000 and 700,000, to be more accurate), the maiming of many more and the devastation of a nation in defense of an institution, slavery, that is and was morally and ethically indefensible. What good were those “rare qualities” of character if they did not guide Lee away from the worst decision of his life, and one of the worst decisions of anyone’s life? No one is good “in theory.” Abstract goodness isn’t goodness at all, but only posturing. Principles are vital as constants to guide us through the chaos of life, but allowing them to send us, our community or our nation tumbling off a cliff or plunging into the sun is not ethical, intelligent, or forgivable.
Accepting that Robert E. Lee possessed fine ideals and a sterling character, we should use his sad life as a warning, not a model. It is easy for me to see that, as I frequently pass by (as well as visit, since both of my parents are buried there) Arlington National Cemetery, which is just a few miles from where I live. The cemetery was originally Robert E. Lee’s estate, and was converted into a burial ground by Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, the Union quartermaster during the Civil War, as an act of vengeance and contempt. Meigs held Lee personally responsible for the war and the fact that his son was one of its casualties, so he designated Lee’s property as a graveyard by the act of burying his son’s body almost literally at Lee’s doorstep. If an individual’s ideals and character lead to pain and death, if loyalty and integrity cause a person to embrace, as Ulysses S. Grant correctly termed Lee’s “cause,” “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse,” then that individual isn’t ethical, and certainly is no hero.
That person is a fool.
*The original version of this post read “directly” here. That was unfortunate hyperbole, and factually wrong, as well as unfair to Lee. I have changed it.
* There were many instances in Lee’s life when his character and and values led to admirable conduct, of course. His immediate acceptance of responsibility for the failure of Pickett’s Charge was one, meeting his returning soldiers personally and exclaiming, “It was all my fault.” Another was his insistence that the Confederate army surrender rather than take to the hills in guerrilla resistance that might have extended the Civil War indefinitely. But noble conduct in the wake of a fiasco you helped create is never as admirable as avoiding the fiasco at the outset. It is just more obvious.