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Robert E. Lee and the Abuse of Principle

This was provided by guest blogger Jack Marshall, author of Ethics Alarms, one of my favorite blogs.

As both political parties and the President of the United States seem to be determined to subject the American people, economy and standing in the world to disaster in the defense of principles, it might be a good time to reflect on the fact that principles detached from reality have little value, and that rigidly adhering to principles to the detriment of the community and civilization is not a virtue.

In the current issue of Humanities, historian James Cobb makes these points vividly, if tangentially, while reflecting on the odd reverence with which Americans, and not just Southerners, regard Robert E. Lee. I am proud to say that the lionization of Lee never made sense to me, not even when I was a small boy. But he is the epitome of someone who is revered as a role model and hero for his supposed character and values rather than what he actually did with them.*

Cobb begins his essay with this anecdote:

“After President Dwight D. Eisenhower revealed on national television that one of the four “great Americans” whose pictures hung in his office was none other than Robert E. Lee, a thoroughly perplexed New York dentist reminded him that Lee had devoted “his best efforts to the destruction of the United States government” and confessed that since he could not see “how any American can include Robert E. Lee as a person to be emulated, why the President of the United States of America should do so is certainly beyond me.” Eisenhower replied personally and without hesitation, explaining that Lee was, “in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. … selfless almost to a fault … noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history. From deep conviction I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities … we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.”

Amazing. Not just a man “of Lee’s caliber,” but Robert E. Lee himself, was directly responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of men (between 600,000 and 700,000, to be more accurate), the maiming of many more and the devastation of a nation in defense of an institution, slavery, that is and was morally and ethically indefensible. What good were those “rare qualities” of character if they did not guide Lee away from the worst decision of his life, and one of the worst decisions of anyone’s life? No one is good “in theory.” Abstract goodness isn’t goodness at all, but only posturing. Principles are vital as constants to guide us through the chaos of life, but allowing them to send us, our community or our nation tumbling off a cliff or plunging into the sun is not ethical, intelligent, or forgivable.

Accepting that Robert E. Lee possessed fine ideals and a sterling character, we should use his sad life as a warning, not a model. It is easy for me to see that, as I frequently pass by (as well as visit, since both of my parents are buried there) Arlington National Cemetery, which is just a few miles from where I live. The cemetery was originally Robert E. Lee’s estate, and was converted into a burial ground by Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, the Union quartermaster during the Civil War, as an act of vengeance and contempt. Meigs held Lee personally responsible for the war and the fact that his son was one of its casualties, so he designated Lee’s property as a graveyard by the act of burying his son’s body almost literally at Lee’s doorstep. If an individual’s ideals and character lead to pain and death, if loyalty and integrity cause a person to embrace, as Ulysses S. Grant correctly termed Lee’s “cause,” “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse,” then that individual isn’t ethical, and certainly is no hero.

That person is a fool.


* There were many instances in Lee’s life when his character and values led to admirable conduct, of course. His immediate acceptance of responsibility for the failure of Pickett’s Charge was one, meeting his returning soldiers personally and exclaiming, “It was all my fault.” Another was his insistence that the Confederate army surrender rather than take to the hills in guerrilla resistance that might have extended the Civil War indefinitely. But noble conduct in the wake of a fiasco you created is never as admirable as avoiding the fiasco at the outset. It is just more obvious.


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  1. Having been a student of history, particularly, the history of warfare, I must point out one flaw in this message. It does not detract from the message by any means. But the American Civil War was not fought for the defense/end of slavery. Albeit, the end of the institution was/is a great and noble cause, it was a mere red herring propagated by the Union, which also had slaves up until the Emancipation Proclamation. The war was fought for rather similar to the Revolutionary War: taxes. However, I digress, The message of this post still has a great message that should be followed. Great Post and Keep up the good work.

  2. Although he had declared forthrightly in 1861 that slavery was the very “cornerstone” of the Confederacy, its former vice president, Alexander Stephens, was equally adamant by 1868 that the Civil War had not been fought over “that peculiar institution” but was “a strife between the principles of states’ rights and centralism.” James C. Cobb

    Stephens would agree with you, except perhaps the part about the end of slavery being a great and noble cause. However, even if you argue that protection of slavery was not why the southern states seceeded, it was underlying all of the reasons that led to the Civil War. The economic argument involved the South’s dependence on slave labor, the “states rights” argument was signficantly influenced by one particular right (slave ownership). The red herring would be to ignore slavery as a cause; the polarizing effect of the abolition movement on the country and then the election of an anti-slavery U.S. President all pushed us to war.

  3. Your analysis here is truly misguided.
    First, on purely ethical/moral grounds the kind of utilitarianism you seem to be advocating, of sacrificing principle to practicality, is simply never valid. The ends do not justify the means. Good intentions also do not justify faulty means, but the outcome never determines the moral value of a person’s actions.

    secondly, I’d suggest you learn more of the history and more of the man before you trash him. Lee was a patriot and a man who loved his country. He fought for his country before the civil war and was probably the most respected officer in the US army prior to the war.

    He had no desire to destroy the federal government, nor was he fighting to uphold slavery. He fought for the confederacy for one simple reason. His home was invaded and his people attacked.

    You are essentially trashing him because he didn’t stand by while the government pillaged his home and killed his friends and family.

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