Toward a More Perfect Union
A Letter by Robert E. Lee
From my lofty perch atop many pedestals, I have become a lightning rod. Some governing bodies are now enacting legislation to keep me standing. Others have spent millions of dollars for masked men to remove my compatriots and me—mostly in darkness and secrecy. Paraphrasing lyrics from a 1969 song, some say these removals have become your modern “night they drove old Dixie down….And there goes Robert E. Lee!”
Especially in the decades after that ungodly Civil War, people have projected onto my likeness all kinds of old wounds, dashed hopes, and lost causes. I am sometimes revered for battlefield tactics and for embodying some notion of Southern chivalry. I am loathed for fighting to preserve enslavement and for opposing giving freed slaves the right to vote. Regardless if my admirers hardly know me better than my critics, the bigger the myth, the harder we fall.
Your generation continues to engage in endless battles over what caused the deadliest war in American history, when 750,000 people died on both sides. Was it about slavery? Northern aggression? States’ rights? Economic exploitation? Whatever caused it, what matters most is that, in the end, not only was our union preserved, but slavery was also abolished.
In an 1856 letter to my wife, I wrote, “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution is a moral & political evil in any Country….How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise” God. While these words may sound far less enlightening to you now, they typified the prevailing opinion among my class, my religion, and my part of the country. We believed God would determine when slavery would end. Nevertheless, it is your modern age, rather than my own, that is advancing toward a more perfect union in trying to combat inequality. For this reason, I can appreciate why I do not represent who you are today and why some consider my image in places of prominence as inappropriate. I accept your iconoclastic efforts. In fact, I was never comfortable with my mythical elevation.
All the same, pardon my question—since I do not wish to knock anyone off their moral high horse—but to what myths does your generation subscribe on matters of race and equality? Given current disparities, are you becoming any less polarized than we were before the start of that Great Unpleasantness?
My dear Americans, whether you remove Confederate monuments or rename Confederate jasmine, how will your enlightened generation address the most divisive elements of American life?
General Robert E. Lee
Given current disparities, are you becoming any less polarized than we were before the start of that Great Unpleasantness?