The Lee County, Florida chapter of the NAACP has decided to wage a crusade against a Robert E. Lee portrait that hangs in the commission chambers. Lee County NAACP president James Muwakkil said the portrait of the Confederate general is “a symbol of racism and division,” and that the NAACP will picket Lee County.
However, the charge of racism and division is extremely misguided when one critically examines Lee’s life and record in the mid-nineteenth century.
It must be noted that Lee was no wild-eyed secessionist, had no desire to break up the Union, and shuddered at the thought of fighting fellow Americans. In a letter to his sister on April 20, 1861 explaining why he resigned from his army commission, Lee wrote:
With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword. I know you will blame me; but you must think as kindly of me as you can, and believe that I have endeavored to do what I thought right.
Lee refused to see Union soldiers as the enemy during the war and simply referred to the Union army as “those people.” Lee was an honorable man put an impossible situation, either fighting for his country against his family and his native state, or the other way around.
Americans have recognized Lee’s desire to keep the Union together and rebuild it after the war. He was reinstated as an American citizen by President Gerald Ford in 1976.
Lee was not a symbol of “division” at all, but one of unity and healing at the end of the hostilities. When Confederate president Jefferson Davis suggested breaking up the armies and waging an insurrectionist guerilla war, Lee rejected it completely. Lee said to the president, “A partisan war may be continued and hostilities protracted causing individual suffering and the devastation of the country, but I see no prospect by that means of achieving a separate independence.”
It would also be a mistake to label Lee with the worst excesses of the slavery as a “positive good” school of thought popularized by South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun in the 1820s and 1830s that ramped up in the 1850s.
In the midst of this pro-slavery revolution that developed side-by-side with many communist and socialist revolutions in central Europe, which were entirely opposed to America’s founding values of individual liberty, Lee said of slavery in 1856, “There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.”
Lee was neither radical, nor progressive, but a throwback to an earlier age, upholding the enlightenment values of the American Revolution once held by his hero, family member, and fellow Southerner, George Washington. Washington believed that slavery was a holdover from a more barbarous age, and that timeless values of Christianity and human liberty would eventually sweep it away. Washington freed his own slaves upon his death.
Lee had been “accused” in his own time for putting pressure on his father-in-law, George Parke Custis, to free his slaves, which were a part of Lee’s inheritance. The intellectual champions of “progress” in Lee’s era no longer believed in the old-fashioned values that men were all created equal and free, that slavery was opposed to nature and nature’s God, so Lee seemed like an anachronism for carrying on the American founding tradition.
The NAACP president also said, “General Lee did not believe blacks should hold any positions in government.”
This statement is only partially correct in that Lee was not a politician and held no role in government, so had no power either way to determine if blacks could participate in the political process. He was simply a soldier. However, Lee advocated that black slaves not only be allowed to serve in the Confederate army, but be given their freedom along with their whole families as a general policy of emancipation.
The Confederate government had toyed with allowing black men to serve in the military as the Southern cause became desperate, and President Davis believed that slaves be given freedom after their term of service. Lee agreed, but argued that slaves made poor soldiers and that blacks should fight as free men. Lee said in a letter to Confederate Congressman Ethelbert Barksdale that black former slaves would make “efficient” soldiers and that “They furnish a more promising material than many armies of which we read of in history, which owed their efficiency to discipline alone. I think those who are employed should be freed.”
“It would be neither just, nor wise, to have them serve as slaves,” Lee said.
Lee then said, “In my opinion the best means of securing the efficiency and fidelity of this auxiliary force would be to accompany the measure with a well-digested plan of gradual and general emancipation.”
The plan to free slaves and use them in battle was, again, a throwback to an earlier age. John Laurens, a South Carolinian who fought and died in the American Revolution, and a good friend of Alexander Hamilton, petitioned Congress to emancipate and use former slaves in battle against the British.
Hamilton, who had charged Yorktown redoubts with a Rhode Island regiment that was about 75 percent black, agreed with his friend Laurens that America should give freedom to slaves, “with their muskets.”
Contrast this policy with early Progressive Woodrow Wilson, who not only removed blacks from government, but re-segregated the military in the early twentieth century.
Wilson once accepted a black Civil Rights leader, Monroe Totter, to the White House and explained to him that segregation was necessary and good for the races because it decreased tension between them.
Trotter fired back and said:
The indisputable facts of the situation will not permit of the claim that the segregation is due to the friction. It is untenable, in view of the established facts, to maintain that the segregation is simply to avoid race friction, for the simple reason that for fifty years white and colored clerks have been working together in peace and harmony and friendliness, doing so even through two [President Grover Cleveland] Democratic administrations. Soon after your inauguration began, segregation was drastically introduced in the Treasury and Postal departments by your appointees.
Though it is petty to remove portraits of any prominent American leaders from government buildings, if the NAACP wishes to remove the symbols of “racism and division,” perhaps they should start with Woodrow Wilson instead of General Robert E. Lee.