On January 15–just four days before the commemoration of General Robert E. Lee’s birthday–The Daily Beast ran a story claiming Lee would have approved of the removal of Confederate battle flags from Washington and Lee University and that Lee wrote in a “self-serving” manner, post-Civil War, to cover his tracks on secession.
Regarding the Confederate battle flags, The Daily Beast took the questionable path of both trying undercut the historical significance of the the flags to begin with–“historically meaningless reproductions”–and to assure readers that Lee wanted nothing to do with them.
In other words, he was a man of history without a history.
In summation, The Daily Beast claims the fact that the Confederate General swore allegiance to the United States following the Civil War means he never wanted reminders of the Confederate cause or the fight for states rights reiterated or remembered.
Regarding secession, The Daily Beast describes the biography Lee wrote of his father as “especially self-serving” because the final draft of the work excluded a line showing Lee’s father had “zealously opposed” states rights’ “resolutions” that ended up as “important milestones on the road to secession.” They suggest this exclusion provides Lee cover for his own reluctance toward secession before the war versus his embrace of it once he took command of the Army of Northern Virginia.
According to The Daily Beast: “Lee took license to avoid topics that cast his own actions during the Civil War as contrary to the will of the Founding Fathers.”
The Daily Beast did not mention Thomas Jefferson’s The Kentucky Resolutions (1798)–an exemplary example of how one Founding Father responded to what he saw as government overreach via the Alien and Sedition Acts. In these, Jefferson explained that the relationship between the states and the “General government” was a “compact,” the tranquility of which rested on the government operating within its constitutional limits.
Nearly a year later, Jefferson reflected on the tensions that surrounded the Alien and Sedition Acts and provided insights into his thinking on the “compact” and the state’s alternative to a government that refused to stay in its bounds. It was August 23, 1799 when Jefferson wrote of having been “determined…to sever ourselves from that union which we so much value, rather than give up the rights of self-government which we have reserved, & in which alone we see liberty, safety, & happiness.”
Writing decades later–in December 1825–Jefferson watched the General government assume to itself “the exercise of a right to construct, roads, open canals, and effect other internal improvements within the territories and jurisdictions exclusively belonging to the the several States.” He stressed that the “federal branch” had taken unto itself that which had not been given it by “the constitutional compact.”
He made clear that while the Virginia General Assembly did not, at that time, seek to separate itself from the Union or its sister states, the option of so doing was not off the table.
“[Members of the General Assembly] would, indeed, consider such a rupture as among the greatest calamities which could befall them; but not the greatest. There is one greater, submission to a government of unlimited powers.”
It is interesting to note how reluctant Jefferson was regarding a departure from the Union. However, he did not in anyway denounce such a departure as against the spirit of the Constitution but as an avenue of recourse to a broken compact; an avenue he told Madison he had, at one point, been determined to take instead of giving up “the rights of self-government.”
Sounds like Robert E. Lee. Patient, even to the point of reluctance, but determined in the end.
Follow AWR Hawkins on Twitter @AWRHawkins Reach him directly at email@example.com.