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.