Arlington, Bobby Lee, and the 'Peculiar Institution'

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by Andy Hall

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Library of Congress


It's taken as a matter of fact among many Southern apologists that Lee was adamantly opposed to the institution of slavery, or even that he had a strong abolitionist bent. (The phrase "Robert E. Lee was an abolitionist" pings several hundred hits on teh Google.) This position rests almost entirely on a single line plucked from a letter Lee wrote to his wife in December 1856,  reproduced in Douglas Southall Freeman's landmark, four-volume biography of Lee, published in the 1930s: "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." But it's a highly-selective, Breitbart-style quote that cuts against the context of the larger letter:

The views of the [outgoing] Pres [Filmore]: of the Systematic & progressive efforts of certain people of the North [abolitionists], 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. 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 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. The doctrines & miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years, to Convert but a small part of the human race, & even among Christian nations, what gross errors still exist! While we see the Course of the final abolition of human Slavery is onward, & we give it 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 influences; & with whom two thousand years are but as a Single day. 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 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 has no Concern, holds good for every kind of interference with our neighbors when we disapprove their Conduct; Still I fear he will persevere in his evil Course. 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?

That full passage, long and florid as it is, encapsulates Lee's view of slavery, "a greater evil to the white man than to the black race." He dislikes the institution, finds it harmful and would prefer that it did not exist, but also sees it as a circumstance entirely beyond his or any other mortal's control. "We must leave the progress as well as the result in [God's] hands who sees the end; who Chooses to work by slow influences; & with whom two thousand years are but as a Single day." By contrast, the abolitionist who "means well to the slave, he must not Create angry feelings in the Master." And until the predetermined and unknowable day of day of eventual and inevitable emancipation, "the painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things."

Shorter Lee: slavery sucks, sure, but it's God's will. It's good for you, too. You're welcome.

Freeman was an unabashed admirer of Lee—driving to his daytime job as a newspaper editor in Richmond, he routinely snapped a salute as he passed Lee's statue—and his 1935 biography is famous today as both a milestone of exhaustive research and for its hagiography of its subject. Freeman is virtually a Confederate hero in his own right, whose work added a solid, successful, Pulitzer Prize-winning endorsement of many of the central themes of the Lost Cause. In addressing Lee's view of slavery, Freeman argues that Lee had little familiarity with the institution as it was practiced outside of Virginia, on cotton and cane plantations in the Deep South. Apart from a posting to the Texas frontier in 1856-57, "all his reflective years had been passed in the North or in the border states. . . . Lee, in short, was only acquainted with slavery at its best and he judged it accordingly."

This is weak sauce indeed.

Fortunately, Elizabeth Brown Pryor helps round out the question of Lee and slaveholding in her tremendous biography, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters. (A C-SPAN presentation and Q-and-A with Pryor was highlighted by TNC back in April.) Pryor gives a far more detailed picture of Lee, his philosophical beliefs on slavery, and how he put those beliefs into practice; what emerges is a far more rounded, complex picture, but one that is far, far darker, as well.

Lee first came to slave ownership in 1829 when, newly out of West Point, he inherited several slaves from his mother's estate. Lee quickly discovered, Pryor writes, that for him slaveholding represented "an uncomfortable stewardship." He  found supervision of the their work to be distracting from his own career, and disliked the daily details of managing and providing for them. He found slaves to be, in Pryor's words, "more trouble than they were worth." To relieve himself of the day-to-day responsibility for them, and to provide additional cash for his household, Lee soon took to hiring out his bondsmen and -women. This practice, common among slaveholders in Lee's circle, makes it difficult to track his ownership of slaves in detail over the next three decades. Freeman believed that Lee had divested himself of slaves by 1847, based on Freeman's failure to find any relevant tax records, and Lee's own son, Robert Jr., claimed that his father had manumitted all his slaves "a long time before the war." Pryor counters that Lee definitely owned slaves as late as 1852, considered buying more shortly before the war began, and throughout the war itself used slaves as personal servants. Whether Lee directly and personally owned slaves at a given point before or during the war, Pryor would argue, is almost immaterial, for presence of slaves and the benefit of their labor was an intimate and familiar part of Lee's daily life until the end of the Civil War.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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