Washington and Lee University has announced that it will keep its name. In normal times that would seem unexceptional. Both Washington and Lee long have been honored as exceptional men.
But both the leading revolutionary general and first president and the Civil War’s finest general, like so many men of their respective generations, were slave owners. The latter also was the national government’s most difficult opponent during the country’s violent break-up; he did more even than Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s president, to keep the secessionist cause alive in its final days. Hence, a campaign, energized by moral fervor and sometimes dubious piety, to strip the historic names from the noted liberal arts school in Lexington, Virginia.
The city also is home to the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), which has been confronting its own Civil War ghosts. Under pressure from Virginia, the state school removed the statue of its onetime mathematics professor, Thomas J. Jackson, who became the famous Stonewall and aggressive corps commander under Lee. The statue ultimately will end up in a museum at the battle of New Market. There, VMI’s student corps famously fought — with 257 cadets organized into a battalion famously charging Union lines — thereby helping give the outnumbered Confederates a desperate victory in the war’s waning days.
If you are located in Virginia’s celebrated Shenandoah Valley, it is difficult to escape the Civil War.
The Washington and Lee controversy grew out of the police killing of George Floyd last year, which triggered protests, riots, and a national movement against virtually any remembrance of an imperfect past. The historical pain is real, though activist motivations differ. After I argued that even Lee likely would support removing his own statue, Scott McKay, columnist at The American Spectator and publisher of Louisiana’s Hayride, responded that my “argument assumes those people attempting to tear down Lee’s statue are acting in good faith. And they most certainly are not.”
Indeed, the Left has used ugly historical realities to tarnish entire peoples and periods. For instance, the list of figures reviled for real-life flaws and deemed worthy of cancellation in light of progressive perfection demanded today include Washington, author of the Declaration of Independence and president Thomas Jefferson, the Union’s greatest general and later president Ulysses S. Grant, “Star-Spangled Banner” author Francis Scott Key, and little-known Pennsylvania abolitionist Matthias Baldwin.
Far more than statues are at stake. Should Washington’s name be stripped from schools and institutions across America? Should it be removed from the nation’s capital? Should his image be stripped from America’s currency and coins? Should the once-revered figure become a national embarrassment, a nonperson, even though, compared to his contemporaries, heads of state and government of various kingdoms, empires, and other forms of often brutal autocracies, he looks perfectly liberal, even progressive?
The failure to acknowledge the inevitable imperfection of man makes it harder for the rest of us to rethink what is celebrated, and especially where and how. Yet what has always been should not always be. I believe that Lee would have agreed. Although he was turned into a symbol of the “Lost Cause” after his death, Lee refused to participate in any military commemorations, telling one group of veterans, “I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.” While he was a man of his times in his attitudes toward race, he likely would have been horrified at the use of his memory to keep racism and bigotry alive today.
In judging the past, we should beware expecting human beings to transcend their humanity. Those who look back in history expecting moral uplift will be sorely disappointed. National heroes, at least those so often credited with building nations and winning wars, were anything but the woke warriors imagined by the left-wing shock troops so busy attempting to cleanse historical memories. Look around the world.
Tiananmen Square is dominated by a massive mausoleum for Mao Zedong, the greatest mass murderer at least in modern history. In Red Square, it is Vladimir Ilyich Lenin who is celebrated, the person most responsible for the Bolshevik Revolution; a statue of him recently was raised in eastern Germany. Buried near the Kremlin or in the wall are other Soviet leaders, including Joseph Stalin, probably the second-greatest mass murderer (by numbers killed, Adolf Hitler is only No. 3, though he personified a special type of evil). In Paris, the peripatetic general and ruthless dictator Napoleon Bonaparte rates a beautiful sarcophagus surrounded by monuments to his many bloody military victories. The United Kingdom is filled with all things royal, which for centuries was anything but all things liberal.
Also falling short, if not quite so dramatically, are America’s traditional liberal heroes Woodrow Wilson (peerless racist, arrogant warmonger, and enemy of civil liberties), Franklin Delano Roosevelt (staged secret, illegal naval war against Germany, interned Japanese-Americans, naïvely trusted Joseph Stalin), Lyndon Johnson (stole Senate election, turned Vietnam into a U.S. military debacle, used his office to grow wealthy), and even Barack Obama (opposed gay marriage and otherwise failed to push hard-left agenda). Can big-spending President Joe Biden pass progressive scrutiny? During his early years he opposed busing, supported tough crime penalties, and backed the Hyde Amendment prohibiting federal funding of abortion. No statues for him!
Nevertheless, as communities change and values evolve, what is celebrated, especially in public spaces, should be reconsidered. State flags should not include symbols that divide. Context should be provided for important, honorable, and even heroic people made famous in ways we would not celebrate today. Names given as honorifics decades before, in different times for dubious reasons, should be reconsidered.
A sensible historical rethink, however, means making distinctions, accepting tradeoffs, recognizing complexity, honoring virtues, and respecting historical connections while detailing sins, all of which come into play with Washington and Lee University. The school was named after the first president. He was a slaveholder, as were most leading southerners. But even Northern revolutionaries accepted the terrible “peculiar institution,” backed the constitutional compromise that made slavery part of the new national order, and supported Washington as the only conceivable choice as first president.
Washington’s most important, even essential, service to the new nation was stepping away from power. That is necessary for any democracy. America probably would have been created without him. But the process would not have been as smooth, and its survival through the early years would have been less certain. Washington also aided the school. It was established in 1749 as a classical academy. As president, he made a major personal gift to what was then named Liberty Hall, after which it was renamed after him.
Even a greater lightning rod is Lee, derided as “an unrepentant white supremacist who was a traitor” by one graduate. Unlike Washington, however, Lee, though from an established Virginia family, did not own a plantation. Lee’s father, Revolutionary War hero “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, squandered the family’s assets and eventually fled America to avoid his creditors. Robert E. Lee lived an austere life while serving in the U.S. military after graduation from West Point. His major connection to slavery came from serving as executor to his improvident father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis (Martha Washington’s grandson and George Washington’s adopted son), a legal duty made unpleasant and difficult by the estate’s poor financial condition.
Lee deplored slavery at a time when some Southerners attempted to sell the institution as a positive good, but he was no activist, holding attitudes toward race widely shared in the North as well as the South. He accepted the system into which he was born, fatalistically assuming that the practice would be eliminated in God’s timing. In this, he was neither better nor worse than most of his countrymen. When forced to choose between independence and slavery during the Civil War, however, he picked the former, urging the government to arm the slaves, which, he wrote, meant emancipating them and their families.
Of course, it is his service in that conflict that causes the biggest problem for Lee’s critics. In their view, leading the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia made him a traitor. Some proposed returning the school’s name to Washington University. In their view, though Washington was far more deeply implicated in the practice of slavery, seeking to recover bondsmen and women who fled his control, at least he did not betray his country.
But he did. Washington grew up a loyal British subject, swore allegiance to the king, served in His Majesty’s military, and then led a revolt against everything he once supported. He differed from Lee only in serving on the winning side, the result of a victory procured with the assistance of Britain’s historic enemies France and Spain. Indeed, Washington’s service in the British army had included fighting French soldiers and allied Native Americans during the French and Indian War. Had the revolutionaries lost, he would have had to flee or face trial and execution. Surely, treason should not be excused because it is successful.
One reason Lee’s life is notable, and worthy of respect, is the way he dealt with the challenge of dual loyalties. In his time, the federal government was not presumed to be ubiquitous, omniscient, and omnipotent. Washington did not enjoy constant and supreme popular devotion. For many Americans, especially in the South, loyalties were determined far more by family and community roots than by nationalistic pretensions.
That Lee took these connections seriously is evident in what he sacrificed. He spent decades in thankless service in an army in which opportunities were limited and promotion was slow. In the Mexican–American War, he exhibited extraordinary bravery and initiative, which won superlatives from his commander, Gen. Winfield Scott, who became his friend and mentor. Lee then abandoned his military career at the very moment he was offered all that a soldier could desire — command of his nation’s army. He forfeited the Arlington estate, left to his wife and after her death, to his eldest son. Nor was his decision unexpected, but it was a perfidious shock nonetheless to Unionists who knew him. Scott responded, “Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life; but I feared it would be so.” Scott understood the depth of Lee’s devotion to the state of Virginia.
This was “treason” of a unique form, committed by millions of Americans. Lee did not quit the U.S. military to lead a revolt to vitiate the Constitution, overturn the national government, or seize national power. He went with his state, to which he felt a higher loyalty and which sought to leave the national compact. He hoped to leave the national government smaller but otherwise intact. And he hoped not to fight. He wrote Scott, “Save in the defense of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.”
He would not have had to do so had Lincoln not called out troops to suppress secession. Often missed is the fact that there were two breakaway waves. The seven deep Southern states, led by South Carolina, left shortly after Lincoln’s election to safeguard their “peculiar institution.” But the outer four — Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and, most importantly, Virginia — initially rejected secession. They left only after Lincoln indicated that he would wage war on those departing. Virginia Gov. John Letcher was a Unionist, like Lee, but, when faced with war, overwhelming state sentiment was to join the Confederacy. And Lee went with Virginia, drawing his sword to defend it, then the front line of conflict, from invasion.
As a result, the war was over secession and union, not slavery. Had the North won quickly it would have preserved the practice, while containing it, only ending its expansion into the territories, a key Republican Party plank. A presidential crusade for abolition would have made the Union’s cause much more attractive to us today, but Lincoln explicitly rejected that course. He famously wrote newspaper editor Horace Greeley, “My paramount object in the struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” In fact, he had no choice. Otherwise he would not have had an army, since Northerners believed in union far more than they disliked slavery.
This should leave one wondering whether the Union was worth the cost: the death of perhaps 750,000 people, the equivalent of eight million Americans today. Should countrymen and women be killed for seeking peacefully to leave the U.S. government? Especially when the constitutional question as to secession was not settled — only the Civil War did that, on the battlefield rather than in the courtroom? As the crisis developed, Lee wrote, “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union.… Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.” These sentiments were explicitly echoed by Greeley and felt by millions more Americans.
And the horrors of war caused others to rethink their earlier enthusiasm for plunging into the military abyss. During the 1864 Overland Campaign, noted for such bloody horrors as the Wilderness campaign and Spotsylvania Court House, when Army of the Potomac casualty lists filled Northern newspapers and Grant racked up twice the casualties of Lee’s army, Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts allowed, “If that scene could have been presented to me before the war, anxious as I was for the preservation of the Union, I should have said: ‘The cost is too great; erring sisters, go in peace.’” But it was too late, and thousands more would die before the conflict’s conclusion.
Today it is difficult to imagine that those arguing most fervently that the traitor Lee should be banished from historical memory would endorse invading, say, California, Texas, or New York — conquering their cities, ravaging their farms, and killing anyone seeking to protect his or her home — if those states announced their intention to secede. Indeed, the U.S. government, the one that suppressed the Confederate States of America, now tells other governments to work out such confrontations peacefully.
But most relevant to the name controversy is Lee’s behavior after the war. He was broke, but rejected numerous offers to profit from his name and fame. His reputation was established in battle, but he doffed his uniform forever, avoided military reunions, and counseled against war commemorations and memorials. In death, he was turned into the embodiment of the Lost Cause, but in life he urged Southerners to take the oath of allegiance to the federal government and reconcile with Northerners.
Most importantly, searching for purpose after the conflict, which ravaged community and family — his wife invalided from illness, daughter dead of disease, son wounded and captured, home confiscated — he chose to accept the unexpected offer to take over a small college that lacked students and money. He devoted the last five years of his life to educating young Southerners, some of whom he had led in battle. It was an honorable and admirable coda to a life well-lived. And, without his efforts, Washington College might not have survived those difficult years. Then there would be no Washington and Lee University today.
What does make sense in the name controversy is the school’s intention to reduce Lee’s centrality to the campus — the presence of the famed “Recumbent Lee” statue, for instance, in what is named Lee Chapel — and to eliminate uncritical vestiges of the Lost Cause. Indeed, the chapel displayed Confederate flags for years before they were removed. The board of trustees rightly “repudiated racial injustice in any form and expressed regret for the University’s past veneration of the Confederacy and the fact that the university itself owned human beings and benefited from their forced labor and sale.”
History hangs heavy, but it can only be accommodated, not eliminated. Should anyone in the past be admired? What monarch, general, philosopher, or trader did not hold terrible views, commit terrible acts, harbor terrible ambitions, and more? Should anything positive be said about a Julius Caesar, Aristotle, Henry VIII, Alexander the Great, Louis XIV, and Napoleon, as well as anyone who served them? Respected American statesmen and legislators of more recent vintage, such as George Kennan and J. William Fulbright, held retrograde social and racial views. Should their names be expunged, even from endeavors not associated with their failings?
Consider: The Audubon Society is now facing pressure to change its name. John James Audubon was a noted birder and painter but also a slaveholder who mocked abolitionists. Moreover, many bird names, some from those who fought for the Confederacy, honor those with similar attitudes. The group’s acting CEO, Elizabeth Gray, observed, “Although we have begun to address this part of our history, we have a lot more to unpack.”
The pain felt by some people is real, yet is there a point when the name can be separated from the person? Does Audubon’s hideous personal views, hardly unusual at the time — he lived from 1785 to 1851 — hopelessly poison his ornithological and artistic achievements?
Similarly, should Washington and Lee drop the names of those who helped keep the school alive and make it thrive? The trustees were right to conclude that Washington and Lee is “also associated with an exceptional liberal arts and legal education and common experiences and values that are independent of the personal histories of the two men.”
History matters, and its commemoration should change as our understandings and beliefs evolve. Some statues should be felled. Some names should be changed. But taking people out of their times and worlds does a notable disservice to us as well as them. Washington and Lee University would not be what it is today without both men’s contributions. Preserving their names reflects that historical reality.
Doug Bandow is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and author of several books, including The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology and The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington.