Friday, January 19, 2007

Robert E. Lee's 200th Birthday

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of America's greatest heroes, Robert Edward Lee of Virginia. Gail Jarvis has written a a most informative article about why Lee is still remembered. Lee's Birthday remains a state holiday to this day in many Southern states, and General Lee will be memorialized this weekend (as well as throughout the course of the year) around the country.

Unfortunately, most Americans are woefully ignorant of their own history - much of which has been politicized by leftist academics and intimidation-based advocacy groups. General Lee's command in the Confederate States Army, combined with misguided notions concerning the causes and aims of the War for Southern Independence, has put many state legislatures in the hot seat, subjecting them to bullying to downplay, if not outright repeal the Lee holiday (or Lee-Jackson Day as it is known in some areas due to the proximity of Stonewall Jackson's birthday, January 21) in lieu of a Martin Luther King holiday.

This skirmish symbolizes much of our cultural malaise in America, as the difference between these two men could not be more stark.

Robert E. Lee, who never sought accolades and fame, put his nose to the grindstone at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating second in his class without a single demerit (a feat apparently unequaled to this day). He proved himself a gifted engineer and a courageous combat officer, serving the U.S. Army in the Mexican War.

During the secession crisis of 1860-61, Lee was a unionist. But when the people of his own state of Virginia elected to leave the Union, Lee loyally followed his state - even turning down the ultimate promotion - command of all U.S. military forces. Instead, he cast his lot with his countrymen and kinsmen in his home state. He accepted Confederate command of the Army of Northern Virginia, and quickly turned that outfit into a fearsome instrument of war. Lee was a brilliant and aggressive warrior whose strategies are still studied by officers and cadets of our military academies to this day.

Even in the heat of battle, Lee remained the Christian gentleman. In his army's invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee would not tolerate looting, burning, and pillaging that would come to typify the tactics of his opponents. Lee's standing orders were that soldiers who molested civilians or their property would be summarily executed. Lee never lost his humanity amid the insanities of war, and was as much known as a soft-spoken Christian of great compassion as he was for his military brilliance. His men loved him, and his enemies respected him.

He was an opponent of slavery and a member of an antislavery society before the war. He was in the process of manumitting his wife's inherited slaves upon the death of his father in law at the time of the John Brown raid (it was under Lee's command of a detachment of U.S. Marines that the terrorist Brown was captured). Before, during, and after the War for Southern Independence, Lee defended the rights of blacks (as did his greatest lieutenant, Gen. Stonewall Jackson).

However, it was in defeat that the greatness of Lee shone brightest - even in his most painful hour of surrendering his beloved army. Lee urged Southerners not to join guerilla bands, but rather to once again be good citizens of the re-United States - even in the midst of the brutal repressions of Reconstruction. Lee urged Southerners to bear this cross patiently.

Although rendered penniless by the war, Lee declined a lucrative contract to be a board member of a corporation (and thus do little more than allow his highly-respected name to be used). He opted instead eschew fame and fortune, accepting an academic post as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia). Lee felt education and the training of the future leaders of the South to be Christian gentleman of utmost importance to Virginia, to the South, and to the United States. Even Lee's enemies admired him and considered him a great American and example of manhood for American youth.

Robert E. Lee's life of service, greatness, humility, and devotion to God and country is quite a contrast over and against the life of Martin Luther King, whose birthday has eclipssed, if not erased, the Lee Holiday in many Southern states.

By contrast, the King myth is just that - a myth. Martin Luther King was not even his real name (which was Michael). He cheated and plagiarized his way through college and graduate school (which makes the fact that nearly every American school honors his birthday especially vulgar). Even his famous "I Have a Dream" speech was plagiarized. His own friends and associates have pointed out his moral turpitude.

And yet, all of this is swept under the rug, and King is held up as a hero to young people. Ironically, while Lee did not make flashy speeches, his advocacy for the rights of blacks, as well as the example he set in his own deeds regarding race relations, should qualify him to be remembered as a civil rights icon. Instead, he has become a target, his holiday under attack, his monuments vandalized, and his good name slandered.

In today's culture, young people are supplied with various "role models" - mostly from the entertainment and/or sports world. What qualifies people for such an elevation is not the "content of their character" nor their courage, virtue, sacrifice, integrity, or service, but is typically measured in gold jewelry, arrogance, or the amount of skin they show in public. Immorality and plagiarism are certainly no impediments to canonization - and in the case of musicians, they are deemed virtues. The choice of King over Lee is a given among today's mainstream society - liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat.

However frustrating this situation may be, we must keep in mind that history can only be manipulated and "cleansed" for so long. And although it may be increasingly necessary from time to time in public life to restrain the impulse to roll our eyes as men of lesser integrity and questionable morality are trotted out as heroes, rewarded with holidays, and given monuments in Washington, we can continue to teach the truth, uphold honor and integrity, and bear the cross of "cultural reconstruction" being placed on us today. We can teach our children that in their hearts, they are under no obligation to accept the lie of the cultural elites.

We can continue to honor men of virtue, courage, integrity, and moral conviction even if, for the safety of our families (given the current climate of intolerance and violence), it must be in the privacy of our own homes. We can continue to teach our children the true history of their country, even as men of the caliber of Robert E. Lee are publicly ignored, marginalized, or even slandered.

Truth is truth, and it cannot remain in captivity forever. Perhaps the tricentennial of Lee's Birthday will see Americans of every race and creed honor men and women who are truly great, while understanding 20th century memorials to Martin Luther King for what they really are: monuments to political correctness and concessions to coercion and threats.

Meanwhile, until that time, let those who know their history, who value virtue, and who respect greatness take a moment to honor Robert Edward Lee.


Christopher said...

Father Hollywood,

I yield to no man in my admiration for Robert E. Lee; and your points about the less-than-inspiring character of Martin Luther King Jr are well-taken.

But we do not honor Dr King on account of his character, but as a way of paying homage to the cause of racial equality for which he struggled and of which he is the symbol. Whatever his faults may have been (and they were many), he called his country to repentance for her sins against simple justice. Even if his eloquence was plagiarized, the cause in which he employed it was just.

When we honor Dr King, we are not saying that he was a great man; we are saying that he was profoundly right about this one cause. It is an annual act of national repentance, and as such it is not unfitting.

The case is quite otherwise with Robert E. Lee. We honor and admire General Lee because he was truly a great man, a man of great character, whether or not we support (or would then have supported) the cause for which he fought. We honor the man in himself, not as a symbol for a wider cause.

When I was a schoolboy, I was taught the usual model about the Civil War: that slavery was the only casus belli; that the South had no right to secede; that Lincoln was our greatest President, who had a duty to "save the Union". Over the decades my views on the War have changed substantially, to the point where I suspect that you and I would view the historical facts and moral issues of the War similarly. But my respect and admiration for Robert E. Lee has never changed, no matter how my understanding of the War has changed. That is because his greatness is his own, not simply a proxy for support of the Southern cause.

Chris Jones

Father Hollywood said...


First of all, calling the man "Dr." King is a slap in the face to people who truly earned doctorates. Boston University should have revoked his degree, that is, if he were really to be "judged by the content of his character" and not by the "color of his skin."

If we really believe in equality, why not treat King the way we would treat any other person who had done the same thing? This is not equality, but political pandering.

We have gone from one extreme of white entitlement to the other extreme of black entitlement - and we call it "equality." Like King's "doctorate," it is a lie.

The problem is that the national holiday is not "Civil Rights Day" nor a "National Day of Repentence" - it is "Martin Luther King Day." Certainly, there are more worthy men or women from the civil rights era who could have been honored, who should have been honored - but King has been jammed down our throats.

And to utter a critical word about his lack of standing as a proper "role model" will no doubt bring about charges of "racism."

The entire dialogue is rooted in dishonesty and manipulation, and is driven by intimidation. Slavery and segregation have been abolished. There is no need to repent of sins that were committed by previous generations. However, there are sins in the present that need to be repented from - and I believe the way the dialogue on race is carried out is one of them. It needs to be done with honesty, integrity, and candor instead of with bullying and mendacity.

poor miserable sinner said...

I agree with Father Hollywood. If we are indeed paying homage to the cause of racial equality, why not celebrate that in a day that celebrates that. Perhaps we could even talk about the contributions of black individuals to our country and the cause of racial equality. Why don't we celebrate George Washington Carver (whose day is January 5) or Booker T. Washington or Langston Hughes. Why celebrate a cause without a positive symbol around which to rally.

solarblogger said...

Having holidays prescribed by the state in the first place is the original error, here. If they were not prescribed, we would find different people honoring those whom they found worthy. And we might be exposed to more contenders. Which would be all to the good.

In our soundbite culture, I do fear that Father Hollywood's problems with King will be misunderstood. But again, the problem is with the soundbite culture, not anything that was said.