Martin Luther King and Robert E. Lee, side by side on my piano keyboard

Today I learned, much to my dismay, that there are states that, not being able to opt out of the federal Martin Luther King holiday, have chosen to celebrate the birthday of slaveholding Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the same time.

And before any of you write in to tell me that, in spite of the fact that he led an army in defense of slavery, Lee was an enlightened individual who sought, in his own way, to end the barbaric institution, I offer the following clip from Rad Geek.

I’ve spent some time ragging on neo-Confederate mythistory here before; today I’d like to take a bit of time to talk about another of the idiot notions popular with the Stars-and-Bars crowd: the idea that Robert E. Lee opposed slavery, or that he didn’t own any slaves. No he didn’t, and yes he did. Robert E. Lee defended the institution of slavery and personally owned slaves.

Lee cheerleaders love to point out that Lee wrote to his wife, in 1856, that “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil He did write that, but the use of the quotation is dishonest.” The quote is cherry-picked from a letter that Lee wrote to his wife on December 27, 1856; the passage from which it was taken actually reads:

“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. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. 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. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.” —Robert E. Lee, letter to his wife on slavery (December 27, 1856)

Lee, in other words, regarded slavery as an evil—but a necessary evil ordained by God as the white man’s burden. Far from expressing opposition to the institution of slavery, the purpose of his letter was actually to condemn abolitionists; the letter was an approving note on a speech by then-President Franklin Pierce, which praised Pierce’s opposition to interference with Southern slavery, and declared that the time of slavery’s demise must not be sped by political agitation, but rather left to God, with whom two thousand years are but as a Single day. After that reassuring note, Lee goes on to offer an impassioned plea for toleration of the Spiritual liberty to enslave an entire race:

“Although the Abolitionist must know this, & must See that he has neither the right or power of operating except by moral means & suasion, & if he means well to the slave, he must not Create angry feelings in the Master; that although he may not approve the mode which it pleases Providence to accomplish its purposes, the result will nevertheless be the same; that the reasons he gives for interference in what he has no Concern, holds good for every kind of interference with our neighbors when we disapprove their Conduct; Still I fear he will persevere in his evil Course. Is it not strange that the descendants of those pilgrim fathers who Crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom of opinion, have always proved themselves intolerant of the Spiritual liberty of others?

And what did the “painful discipline… necessary for their instruction” mean? One of the sixty-three slaves that Lee inherited from his father-in-law explains:

My name is Wesley Norris; I was born a slave on the plantation of George Parke Custis; after the death of Mr. Custis, Gen. Lee, who had been made executor of the estate, assumed control of the slaves, in number about seventy; it was the general impression among the slaves of Mr. Custis that on his death they should be forever free; in fact this statement had been made to them by Mr. C. years before; at his death we were informed by Gen. Lee that by the conditions of the will we must remain slaves for five years; I remained with Gen. Lee for about seventeen months, when my sister Mary, a cousin of ours, and I determined to run away, which we did in the year 1859; we had already reached Westminster, in Maryland, on our way to the North, when we were apprehended and thrown into prison, and Gen. Lee notified of our arrest; we remained in prison fifteen days, when we were sent back to Arlington; we were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to lay it on well, an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done”…

If only this man had sufficient mental capacity to realize how much harder slavery was on his master than it was on him…

And, yes, the title of this post refers to the song Ebony and Ivory. I just can’t help but think that, somewhere in heaven, King and Lee are sitting on a piano bench together, looking down on the earth while singing happily about how, when it really comes right down to it, we’re really all the same.

This entry was posted in Civil Liberties, History, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Posted January 11, 2012 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    I lived in Richmond, Virginia from 1988 to about 1993. I moved there about a month after finishing my undergraduate degree, and, naive young person that I was who was also much more ignorant about the Civil War (not that I know a ton more now), I didn’t even realize I was moving to the Capitol of the Confederacy. Go figure. Among the many things memorializing the “War Between the States” in Richmond is “Monument Avenue.” I lived very near here. It is a beautiful boulevard of enormous houses and churches and the like, and which also has some very large statues to Richmond heroes, mostly war ones– Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, and Jefferson Davis.

    Anyway, back in 1988, when the whole MLK thing was still relatively new, I found out that in Virginia, they celebrated something called “Lee Jackson King” day. “I know who King was,” I thought, “so I guess this Lee Jackson guy mut have been some sort of Virginia civil rights leader. Then I was out walking around that morning, on Monument Avenue, and I saw there were “reenactors” dressed in Confederate garb marching around and “guarding” the statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. That was a pretty startling moment for me, I guess one that demonstrates my own ignorance and and the complex ways in which Civil War nostalgia and racism are mixed.

    Oh, and according to wikipedia, Virginia wised up and moved “Lee-Jackson” day so it no longer corresponds with the federal Martin Luther King day holiday in 2000. Better later than never, I suppose.

  2. Edward
    Posted January 11, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Let’s kill two birds with one stone and also celebrate Hitler’s birthday while we’re celebrating Veterans Day.

  3. Posted January 11, 2012 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    “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. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”

    This could have been written yesterday. In fact, a Ron Paul supporter I know said basically the exact same thing.

    In Mississippi, they tried to celebrate REL day, but failed miserably, at least at my school.

  4. Posted January 11, 2012 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Oh, and Mark, I would appreciate it if you would refer to Robert E. Lee by his full name, Robert Edward Lee, lest he be confused with all the other Robert E. Lee’s out there.

  5. mk
    Posted January 11, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Slavery is alive and well as I type this, look at all the people of Detroit who are inslaved by welfare and noone seems to care one bit. Generation after generation of detroiters with no hope. They might not be forced to work on plantations, but they have no hope for a future. The worst part is that it’s by their own people.

  6. Posted January 11, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    I should call him Robert Edward Lee? Are you fucking kidding me? You rat hit piece of crap, Lee is torturing girls, selling them to whore houses, and you are upset that I call him Robert E Lee, like millions of others do?

    You dog shit eating moron, fuck you

  7. Posted January 11, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    By the way, take a gook look at Jeff Davis, you probably think that fucker is like he is portrayed by South. FUCK no. Your two heroes of the South were both scum sucking pigs.

  8. Posted January 11, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Wait, who is Robert E. Lee? I’ve never heard of him.

  9. Mr. X
    Posted January 11, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I love that you have a sense of humor about yourself, Peter. I was worried, when you took all the heat over your NDAA comments, that you might not be back. I’m glad to see that’s not the case.

    Or, now that I think about it, maybe this is just someone else posting under your name. Hmmmm.

  10. Mr. X
    Posted January 11, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for that story, Sitedad. I appreciate the first person perspective.

    And, Peter, just be thankful that Mark didn’t refer to his as “General Lee.” Everyone would have though that he was talking about the car driven by the Dukes of Hazard.

  11. Posted January 11, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    We all know, that people are the same wherever you go.

    There is good and bad in everyone. When we learn to live, we learn to give each other what we need to survive, together alive.

  12. Eel
    Posted January 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    I like your vision of heaven. Maybe Hitler is there too, bouncing Anne Frank on his knee.

  13. LisaD
    Posted January 11, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Wow, this is an ‘entertaining’ thread. And to think that all I wanted to chime in that it makes me shake my head that we’ve turned MLK day into a day of service. That is SOOOOO NOT what MLK stood for.

    The nonprofit I work is doing a day of service that day, cleaning, doing crafts with kids, and painting murals. It’s all I can to resist the urge to run around adding radical MLK quotes to the murals. This one would be fun: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” or “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization.”

  14. Posted January 11, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    You have a piano?

  15. Posted January 11, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Yes, would you like to come to Ypsi and perform in my living room?

    Clementine could waitress. I bet we’d make ten or twenty dollars.

  16. Posted January 11, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    No thank you. You’ll have to find some other way to make that twenty. I’ll await your rendition of “Ebony and Ivory.”

  17. Heidi
    Posted January 11, 2012 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    Ahh the south, where in Georgia they can have math questions about slaves picking oranges and people getting beatings..–abc-news.html

  18. Eel
    Posted January 12, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I prefer the cover of “Say Say Say” performed by Joseph Mengele and Gary Coleman.

  19. Charles Cunningham
    Posted January 15, 2012 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    Lee’s words about providence and slavery sound almost exactly like those of Thomas “all men are created equal” Jefferson in his _Notes on the State of Virginia_ (1787). He, too, acknowledges the wrong of slavery before going on to defend it – on the grounds of African inferiority. To paraphrase his contemporary, Phillis Wheatley, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the hypocrisy.

  20. Posted January 29, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    The United States is clearly a divided country in terms of racial relations. Robert E. Lee’s theology is clearly heritical and distorted from the truth that Jesus Christ is the way, truth, the life. Freedom of religion does not give the right to enslave blacks.

  21. Posted June 23, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    The readers should understand that just because “Wesley Norris” claimed that Robert E. Lee had him (and his sister and cousin whipped), and just because his abolitionist buddies printed his story after the war does not make it true. Yes, it is easy to corrobrate that: Norris ranaway (with the other two); he and the others were captured; he and the others were sent away to work elsewhere. However, to prove Lee had them whipped, etc. is a totally different matter; and as far as I know has never been done through the year 2012.

    I have never seen anything which proves the Lee had these people whipped. If you have such corroboration, please send it to me and I’ll be glad, time permitting, to discuss it with you.
    Tom Forehand, Jr.

  22. Knox
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    You have a point. The slaves did a bad job of documenting their torture. They should have taken photos, filed police reports, written books.

  23. Posted June 23, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    Who gives a fuck? Robert E. Lee willingly owned, bought and sold human beings.

    That disgusting enough.

  24. Posted June 24, 2012 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    I realized the other day that for the last 2 years and for the next 2 years we should be celebrating the crushing of the slave owning plutocrat rebellion. For all the hoopla we had for the bicentennial of the declaration of independence, there has been hardly a mention of this great event in our history. We over threw one group of plutocrats who arrogantly believed they were superior to others. I guess our new pluto’s don’t want us to remember. Citizens United is the Dread Scott decision of our times. The Dread Scott decision convinced masses of working folks that the plutocrats in the south were truly evil, and in response we elected the Great Emancipator- and transformed our country.

  25. Tom Forehand, Jr.
    Posted March 28, 2015 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Update–Wesley Norris Several slaves from Arlington (estate) ran away before the War Between the States. The slaves were quickly recaptured and returned to the estate. Soon, “anonymous claims” were published alleging that Robert E. Lee had had these slaves whipped.
    After the war, one of these runaway slaves publicly accused Lee of this alleged slave whipping.
    The accuser’s name was Wesley Norris. Yet, did Norris have a motive to exaggerate his runaway-slave story and thus publicly blame Lee for a slave whipping?
    Wesley’s father did have a motive for his son (Wesley) to exaggerate this story!
    At the time Wesley Norris’ public allegation, about Lee, was being published, Wesley’s father was doing something in Washington, DC. His father was asking Congress to give him 10 acres of land. That 10 acres of land was to come from the Arlington estate where Robert E. Lee had lived before the war. (After the war, the estate was in control of the federal government. It should also be noted, that several other former Arlington slaves, at this same time, were asking Congress for land from Arlington.)
    I’ve never seen any proof that Robert E. Lee ever had anyone “whipped” at Arlington or elsewhere. And, now that it has come to light that Wesley’s father (and other former Arlington slaves) had a motive for Wesley’s exaggerating this runaway slave story and blaming Lee, the Wesley Norris allegation must be greatly questioned for its accuracy.
    Tom Forehand, Jr.

  26. Dave B
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    The General never purchased any slaves, his were all inherited and he FREED them prior to the start of the war. For those who claim the war was fought over slavery, I have 4 questions:
    1) How many black slaves were in the Northern states BEFORE THE WAR?
    2) How many black slaves were in the Northern States AFTER the war started?
    3) How many black slaves were in the Northern states AFTER The Emancipation Proclamation?
    4. How many black slaves were in the Northern states AFTER the war was over?
    ANSWER: In ALL 4 instances the correct answer is OVER 1 MILLION BLACK SLAVES… Black slaves in the north were not “freed” until SIX MONTHS after the war was over… The Emancipation Proclamation freed ONLY Southern slaves, which it really did not do, since the North had no jurisdiction in the South at the time… It had as much effect as if President Lincoln were to write an order freeing all prisoners in jails in France…

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] those of you not heading south on Monday to celebrate Robert E. Lee Day, it looks like there might be something interesting going on here in Michigan. From what I hear, it […]

  2. […] panel on mental health and incarceration, which features our friend Natalie Holbrook.Oh, and happy Robert E. Lee Day to all the racists in the audience. This entry was posted in Civil Liberties, Uncategorized and […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


BUY LOCAL... or shop at Amazon through this link Banner Initiative No One Cares