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Honor, Honesty, and Robert E. Lee

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Honor, Honesty, and Robert E. Lee

Chris Schneck

I loved my time at Washington and Lee University and I wouldn’t trade my four years in Lexington for anything. That doesn’t mean that I have to defend Robert E. Lee.

I enrolled with Lee; I didn’t enlist with him. Four years later, I graduated with a diploma, not a flag.

As an alumnus, I wish The Spectator would write with more mindfulness and with a greater appreciation for context than it did in this instance, especially when considering the questions that surround slavery, racism, and systematic inequality.  

Robert E. Lee instilled a system of honor at Washington College, but it is hardly honorable to accuse social activists of “lynching” Lee’s memory, especially as racism swirls throughout the South in the wake of Dylan Roof’s terrorism, South Carolina’s continued Confederate flag flying, and the burning of black churches in North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, and Tennessee.

And, let's be honest: It’s natural to doubt Lee - in part because he doubted himself.

He didn’t accept the offer from Washington College right away. He waited three weeks to write a letter back. And, even then, Lee only conditionally agreed to be their next president.

He stressed to the Board of Trustees that he had not received a pardon, and might never receive one. He went on to warn that if he became president of Washington College, it "might draw upon the College a feeling of hostility." 

Well, it turns out that Lee was correct.

150 years later “a feeling of hostility” is approaching the Washington and Lee campus. As Spectator author Benjamin Gee observes, any institution associated with the Confederate battle flag must engage its modern appropriation by racists, terrorists, and hate groups. 

The Washington and Lee community cannot avoid this conversation, but must decide whether it wants to speak mindfully to the present or shout incoherently at the past. 

Robert E. Lee did amazing things for the college, and perhaps he had a more nuanced view of slavery than some of his contemporaries, but let's stop remembering him in a vacuum. A few sentences after Lee called slavery a "moral & political evil," he continued:  

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.
— Robert E. Lee, on slavery

I won’t reprint Lee’s personal letters, but I urge you to read Ta-Nahisi Coates on the Ghost of Bobby Lee and on Robert E. Lee and the ‘Peculiar Institution.’ 

Seriously, go take a few minutes and read Mr. Coates.

He provides some illuminating history about the slaves Lee inherited, the slaves that served Lee during the Civil War, and the runaway slaves that he whipped in Arlington. The Spectator pulls a sentence that Lee wrote in a letter; Coates considers that letter and its broader context. 

All colleges seek to inspire greatness and illuminate ignorance. Let's not be a college that hides from the truth behind a man and a flag. 

Once he arrived in Lexington, Lee instituted an Honor System governed by one rule: "...That every student be a gentleman." So, let's be gentlemen and gentlewomen. Let's honor the lives lost at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Let's talk about Robert E. Lee with humility and deference and context. 

I am not suggesting that we remove his name from the name of the University, but what is the harm in talking about it? Lee is buried in a crypt on campus and he isn't rolling over anytime soon. 

Robert E. Lee never asked for our unapologetic allegiance, so why do we insist on offering it?