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Robert E. Lee’s bad name
In the Arguable e-mail newsletter, columnist Jeff Jacoby offers his take on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day. Sign up here.
All of America observed the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday last week, but in two southern states, Alabama and Mississippi, the day was also commemorated as Robert E. Lee Day — a state holiday honoring the general who commanded the Army of Northern Virginia in the Civil War. It is hard to imagine a more grotesque juxtaposition: the man who symbolizes the struggle for black civil rights and racial equality given equal billing with the man who led the fight to keep black Americans chained in chattel slavery.
Lee is honored with a holiday in several other southern states, too: Florida and Arkansas each have an official Robert E. Lee Day, and Virginia commemorates Lee along with another Confederate general, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, as part of Lee-Jackson Day each January.
A petition on the Care2 website urges officials to repeal this annual veneration of Lee. It points out, accurately, that Lee was a traitor to his country and that he shared heavily in the responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans during the four-year Civil War. “It's time we stop trying to sugarcoat the truth — Robert E. Lee's legacy is a stain upon this country's history,” the petition declares. So far, more than 20,000 people have signed the petition.
This may all seem incomprehensible or fanatical to anyone who grew up being told that while Lee fought on the wrong side during the Civil War, he was nevertheless a good and gallant American who personally detested slavery and backed the Confederacy only out of loyalty to his home state of Virginia. To be sure, for decades that has been the received wisdom. Quite a few US presidents went out of their way to hail the defeated general’s supposedly noble qualities. Dwight Eisenhower extravagantly praised Lee as “selfless almost to a fault and unfailing in his faith in God . . . noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt lauded Lee as “one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.” Even Ronald Reagan applauded Lee, calling him a “Southerner who criticized secession and called slavery a great moral wrong,” and chose once the fighting had ended to “work to bind up the nation's wounds.”
This is an old legend — “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee,” as Adam Serwer titled it a couple of years ago in an essay for The Atlantic. But like most legends, it is more fiction than fact, sustained by the long propaganda campaign of Lost Cause ideologues, who for generations whitewashed the Confederate cause. All the presidential testimonials in the world can’t change the facts, however. And the facts, for anyone who pushes past the mythmaking, are clear: When it mattered most, Lee was not an American patriot, he was not an opponent of slavery, and he never acquiesced in the equality of freed slaves as American citizens under the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.
As the Lee legend was first being manufactured, northerners and abolitionists did their best to debunk it.
Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist who was born into slavery and became the foremost black leader of his age, despised the “bombastic laudation” of Lee. He wrote, shortly after the general’s death in 1870, “We can scarcely take up a paper that comes to us from the South that is not filled with nauseating flatteries of the late Robert E. Lee.” Upon reading accounts that Lee had been depressed about the condition of the nation at the time of his death, Douglass acidly commented: “From which we are to infer, that the liberation of four millions of slaves and their elevation to manhood and to the enjoyment of their civil and political rights was more than he could stand, and so he died!”
More cold water is thrown on the Lee myth in an excellent new book, The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee by John Reeves.
To begin with, Reeves demolishes the claim peddled by many of Lee’s admirers — following the line laid down by Lee himself — that the Virginian was a lifelong foe of slavery. As early as 1865, just weeks after his surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Lee told an interviewer that “the best men of the South” — a group in which he obviously included himself — “have long been anxious to do away with this institution [of slavery], and were quite willing today to see it abolished.” A few months later, he testified that he had “always been in favor of emancipation — gradual emancipation.”
In reality, as Reeves documents, the “best men of the South,” or at least their most prominent political luminaries, had engineered secession from the Union for the explicit purpose of upholding and defending slavery. Every state that joined the Confederacy, including Lee’s Virginia, cited the preservation of slavery as integral to its motivation. In March 1861, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens declared in a famous speech that Southerners rejected the idea that “all men are created equal.” The animating principle of the Confederacy was quite different:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea. Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Lee had little difficulty embracing that “truth.” For decades he had owned or controlled numerous slaves. At the start of the war, he held approximately 200 Africans as property. Lee once opined, in an 1856 letter to his wife, that “slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil” — a passage that Lee idolizers have frequently spotlighted. What they almost invariably omit is what Lee wrote immediately afterward:
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. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy. This influence though slow, is sure.
In short, while Lee considered slavery undesirable in the long run, he regarded it as “necessary” for black people’s welfare. And he firmly believed its demise should be left patiently in God’s hands, not hastened by abolitionists and their “fiery controversy.”
Nine years later, as the Confederacy was heading toward its ultimate defeat, Lee was still insisting that white supremacy was the only sensible basis for interracial engagement. So strongly did he favor the continuation of slavery that he opposed a plan to grant liberty even to slaves who would agree to join the Confederate army:
Considering the relations of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country, I would deprecate any sudden disturbances of that relation unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity to both.
He would not free slaves, in other words, even if doing so might help win the war for the South. And once the war had ended, Lee wanted nothing to do with the liberated blacks. “I think it would be better for Virginia if she could get rid of them,” he told a congressman.
Lee himself never balked at benefiting personally and financially from the ownership of human beings. His reputation was not that of a soft-hearted, unimposing master. Reeves reprints an account that appeared in Horace Greeley’s New York Daily Tribune in 1866. It is well worth reading, especially for anyone who has only encountered the mythology of the racially liberal Lee:
My name is Wesley Norris; I was born a slave on the plantation of George Parke Custis. After the death of Mr. Custis, Gen. Lee, who had been made executor of the estate, assumed control of the slaves, in number about 70. It was the general impression among the slaves of Mr. Custis that on his death they should be forever free; in fact this statement had been made to them by Mr. C. years before; [yet] at his death we were informed by Gen. Lee that by the conditions of the will we must remain slaves for five years.
I remained with Gen. Lee for about 17 months, when my sister Mary, a cousin of ours, and I determined to run away, which we did in the year 1859. We had already reached Westminster, in Maryland, on our way to the North, when we were apprehended and thrown into prison, and Gen. Lee notified of our arrest. We remained in prison 15 days, when we were sent back to Arlington; 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 50 lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but 20.
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.
After this my cousin and myself were sent to Hanover Court-House jail, my sister being sent to Richmond to an agent to be hired [i.e., rented out]. We remained in jail about a week, when we were sent to Nelson County, where we were hired out by Gen. Lee’s agent to work on the Orange and Alexander railroad; we remained thus employed for about seven months, and were then sent to Alabama, and put to work on what is known as the Northeastern railroad. In January 1863, we were sent to Richmond, from which place I finally made my escape through the rebel lines to freedom.
I have nothing further to say; what I have stated is true in every particular, and I can at any time bring at least a dozen witnesses, both white and black, to substantiate my statements: I am at present employed by the Government; and am at work in the National Cemetery on Arlington Heights, where I can be found by those who desire further particulars. My sister referred to is at present employed by the French Minister at Washington, and will confirm my statement.
Lee defenders have long tried to claim that Norris’s account is false. But when the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor scrutinized the narrative in detail, she concluded that Norris’s testimony was unassailable: “All of its facts are verifiable.”
No less ludicrous than the myth that Lee was a foe of slavery is the insistence that he should not be faulted for having sided with Virginia and the Confederacy instead of fighting for the Union. This claim has been repeated ad nauseam; even President Trump’s former chief of staff, retired Gen. John F. Kelly voiced it in 2017:
“I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” Kelly told TV talk host Laura Ingraham. “He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days.”
But it wasn’t, as even Lee originally acknowledged. In an 1861 letter to his son, he wrote:
Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never [would have] exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will.
Treason is the only crime defined in the Constitution, as Lee doubtless knew. That definition can be found in Article III, Section 3: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”
Lee spent the better part of four years “levying war against” the United States and “adhering to their enemies.” He was an American traitor, not an American hero. He was also a thoroughgoing racial supremacist who regarded slavery as “necessary” and treated his own slaves harshly.
History has been far kinder to Lee than he deserved. The time has come to reattach to his reputation the obloquy it always deserved. Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Arkansas can make a start by erasing “Robert E. Lee Day” from their calendars.
‘What the invention could do to my poor subjects’
Bad economic ideas are always bubbling up on the left, and one that has been steadily gaining traction is a Universal Basic Income. In a nutshell, the UBI idea is that the government should pay every citizen a fixed amount of money on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis. This, say UBI proponents, would be an effective way to eliminate poverty, reduce income inequality, and unleash entrepreneurship. The whole thing strikes me as a woefully misguided scheme for numerous reasons, the most obvious of which are that (1) guaranteed no-strings-attached handouts make people less, not more productive, and (2) it would impose massive new costs on a government that is already $21 trillion in debt. (Then again, even Milton Friedman once thought the idea deserved to be considered.)
But leave all that aside for now. What strikes me as particularly interesting about the current UBI chatter is how the idea of a government payment is being held out as the answer to automation — the solution to the problem of workers displaced by increased used of robots, computers, and Artificial Intelligence. Tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are among those who have endorsed the idea, at least in general terms. So has Richard Branson, the founder of the international Virgin conglomerate.
“With the acceleration of AI and other new technology . . . the world is changing fast,” Branson wrote in 2017. “A lot of exciting new innovations are going to be created, which will generate a lot of opportunities and a lot of wealth, but there is a real danger it could also reduce the amount of jobs. This will make experimenting with ideas like basic income even more important in the years to come.”
I expect to hear more talk along these lines in the new Congress, one chamber of which is now controlled by a party increasingly enamored of socialist schemes. A Gallup poll last February found that 48% of the public claims to support a universal basic income program if it would “help Americans who lose their jobs because of advances in artificial intelligence.” Breaking down the responses by party ID, Gallup reported that while only 28% of Republicans supported such a scheme, it was backed by 65% of Democrats. Pressure for a guaranteed minimum income isn’t going away anytime soon.
And yet laments that new technology will put people out of work and must therefore be restricted or somehow compensated for by government are not new. As Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist and the director of economic studies at the Cato Institute, notes in a recent blog post, panicky fears about the impact of new technology are one of the oldest phobias in human history. Miron rounds up some examples dating back to antiquity:
Emperor Vespasian: The Roman historian Suetonius writes, of the Emperor Vespasian (69-79 AD), that someone came to him with a new, cheaper technology for transporting heavy columns to Rome. The emperor rewarded the inventor but quashed the device on the grounds of displacing manual labor. Suetonius quotes Vespasian: “How will it be possible for me to feed the populace? You must allow my poor hauliers to earn their bread.”
The historian Arnold Toynbee writes of the Roman emperor to whom it had been reported, “as a piece of good news, that one of his subjects had invented a process for manufacturing unbreakable glass. The emperor gave orders that the inventor should be put to death and that the records of his invention should be destroyed. If the invention had been put on the market, the manufacturers of ordinary glass would have been put out of business; there would have been unemployment that would have caused political unrest, and perhaps revolution.”
William Lee/Queen Elizabeth I (1589): Invented the stocking frame knitting machine hoping that it would relieve workers of hand-knitting. Seeking patent protection for his invention, he travelled to London where he had rented a building for his machine to be viewed by Queen Elizabeth I. To his disappointment, the Queen was more concerned with the employment impact of his invention and refused to grant him a patent, claiming that: “Thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars.”
Thomas Mortimer 1772: Wrote that he wished never to see machines such as saw mills and stamps, as they would “exclude the labor of thousands of the human race, who are usefully employed …”
David Ricardo 1817: “I am convinced, that the substitution of machinery for human labour, is often very injurious to the interests of the class of laborers.”
Though centuries of experience have demonstrated over and over that advances in technology create far more jobs than they destroy, they still provoke the same frantic reactions.
Time reported in 1961 that “experts” feared the impact of automation. “The number of jobs lost to more efficient machines is only part of the problem,” the magazine told its readers. “What worries many job experts more is that automation may prevent the economy from creating enough new jobs.” It quoted one congressman’s fretful observation that the great problem with automation “is not the worker who is fired, but the worker who is not hired.”
A few years later, Robert Heilbroner bewailed in The Public Interest that “as machines continue to invade society, duplicating greater and greater numbers of social tasks, it is human labor itself . . . that is gradually rendered redundant.”
For the record, there were about 65 million working Americans in the early 1960s; today, the number of Americans holding jobs has topped 155 million. Human labor has not been “gradually rendered redundant.” It never will.
Alas, Luddism will also never go out of fashion, nor will the data disproving it ever command the attention it deserves. Zuckerberg, Musk, and Branson are smart guys, but they are prone to the same superstitions that have befuddled leaders since Roman times. Employment is not rendered obsolete by advances in technology and artificial intelligence. Work is not about to disappear, no matter how many robots take over tasks performed today by men and women. The great majority of American adults will continue to earn their daily bread, just as they always have — no government stipends required.
Site to see
Amid the internet’s vast ocean of drivel, some websites are alluring islands of knowledge and discovery. Each week, in “Site to See,” I call attention to one of these online treasures.
This week’s Site to See is The Charles Dickens Page . It is devoted to the man widely considered to be the greatest English novelist of the 19th century, and one of the greatest literary geniuses of all time. The site is the creation of David Perdue, a retired US government web developer who lives in Missouri.
This is a website for Dickens enthusiasts and novices alike. There is a lively summary of the author’s biography, a page describing each of his novels, entries for every significant character in Dickens’s fiction, and descriptions of his theatrical productions, his public readings, and his family and personal friends. Other pages recount the treatment of Dickens and his books in the movies, examine the weekly journals he published, and gather quite a bit of information on Dickens and Christmas. The site also pays attention to the illustrators with whom Dickens was connected over the course of his career.
Naturally, there is plenty of Dickens’s own writing on the website. Here is one example — an excerpt from his 1842 book American Notes, in which he rather unflatteringly described one of his journeys to America. In this passage, Dickens is aboard the steamboat Messengeras it travels down the Ohio river:
We are to be on board the Messenger three days: arriving at Cincinnati (barring accidents) on Monday morning. There are three meals a day. Breakfast at seven, dinner at half-past twelve, supper about six. At each, there are a great many small dishes and plates upon the table, with very little in them; so that although there is every appearance of a mighty ‘spread,’ there is seldom really more than a joint: except for those who fancy slices of beet-root, shreds of dried beef, complicated entanglements of yellow pickle; maize, Indian corn, apple-sauce, and pumpkin.
Some people fancy all these little dainties together (and sweet preserves beside), by way of relish to their roast pig. They are generally those dyspeptic ladies and gentlemen who eat unheard-of quantities of hot corn bread (almost as good for the digestion as a kneaded pin-cushion), for breakfast, and for supper. Those who do not observe this custom, and who help themselves several times instead, usually suck their knives and forks meditatively, until they have decided what to take next: then pull them out of their mouths: put them in the dish; help themselves; and fall to work again.
At dinner, there is nothing to drink upon the table, but great jugs full of cold water. Nobody says anything, at any meal, to anybody. All the passengers are very dismal, and seem to have tremendous secrets weighing on their minds. There is no conversation, no laughter, no cheerfulness, no sociality, except in spitting; and that is done in silent fellowship round the stove, when the meal is over. Every man sits down, dull and languid; swallows his fare as if breakfasts, dinners, and suppers, were necessities of nature never to be coupled with recreation or enjoyment; and having bolted his food in a gloomy silence, bolts himself, in the same state. But for these animal observances, you might suppose the whole male portion of the company to be the melancholy ghosts of departed book-keepers, who had fallen dead at the desk: such is their weary air of business and calculation. Undertakers on duty would be sprightly beside them; and a collation of funeral-baked meats, in comparison with these meals, would be a sparkling festivity.
The people are all alike, too. There is no diversity of character. They travel about on the same errands, say and do the same things in exactly the same manner, and follow in the same dull cheerless round. All down the long table, there is scarcely a man who is in anything different from his neighbour.
Among English writers, Dickens is dwarfed only by Shakespeare and the editors of the King James Bible in his impact on our language, and in the extraordinary array of characters he created. If you haven’t read any Dickens since you were in high school (or, heaven forfend, ever), it’s time to find out what you’ve been missing.
Recommend a website for this feature! Please send me the link and short description (email@example.com), and put “Site to See” in the subject line.
My Sunday column challenged the conventional wisdom that Donald Trump cannot abandon his demand for a border wall without losing most of his supporters. It is certainly true that “Build that wall! Build that wall!” has been a favorite chant at Trump rallies, but fervor for the wall is really a function of fervor for Trump. The president gained nothing politically from the recent standoff that kept the government partially shut for five weeks. I argued that if he now decides to let go of the wall issue and move on to something else, his base will stick with him.
I wrote last Wednesday about the link between religious adherence and charitable generosity in the United States. It is well known that Americans with religious ties are more likely to donate money and time to philanthropic work than Americans without religion in their lives. It is also well known that religious affiliation and practice have been declining in recent years. Sadly, as faith in America has been shrinking, charitable giving has been shrinking too.
The last line
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.