How Gen. Robert E. Lee Really Viewed Slavery

robert e lee

I really enjoy reading history as well as biographies of historical figures, especially those of American history. I know, nerdy. Maybe, but there it is. I’ve also always had an especial interest in listening to others when they speak of it in support of some view they hold dear in relation to current events and societal opinions. It’s interesting, and more often than not, sad, to hear how so many have been influenced by revisionist writing of history, and how they have swallowed the poison pill of a perverted public education that their parents regrettably allowed them to be subject to.

Oh well, yesterday’s gone, and we cannot get it back.

Regardless, in addition to listening to others, I also look for opportunity to correct, ever so gently, a lack of knowledge regarding American history whenever possible. Sometimes, it is well received, at other times, not so much. In some way, I’d like to think there is someone out there who reads this blog and appreciates the occasional effort to present history as it was and not as the liberal kooks of public academia would have you believe. This post is such an opportunity. If by chance, you are one who has insisted for whatever reason that Southern men fought the civil war in order to defend slavery, this post is for you. Please do not dismiss it.

Southern gentleman and military leader, General Robert E. Lee, has often been described in public education (and by many ignorant souls) as a traitor, divider and a defender of slavery. That damning portrayal has persisted through 150 years of history books. It is also a patent lie. Like you’ve always heard, the victor writes the history. That’s true.

It’s also true that sometimes stupid shows up, and you lose all control.

– JT

As both a Federal army officer with a strong sense of duty and a Virginian with a deep respect for states’ rights, [Robert E.] Lee had watched with concern as the states’ rights/slavery argument rose and fell and rose again. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the follow-up Compromise of 1850 had somewhat defused the issue of slavery on a national level and softened the war of words and occasional violence that marked the debate. Then, in 1854 a new law, known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, nullified the Missouri Compromise by allowing territories in the West to decide on their own whether to permit slavery. When Kansas Territory applied for admission to the Union as a slave state, the House of Representatives rejected it. If the federal government could keep a state out of the Union for allowing slavery, could it reject other states that were already in for the same reason? Could Congress trump a state constitution, especially in South Carolina, Virginia, and other places where the institution of slavery predated the United States? This, it seemed, was another dangerous step toward splitting the country in two.

On December 27, 1856, Colonel Lee wrote to his wife again from Fort Brown. It was the clearest and most complete expression of his views on slavery ever recorded. Any question over whether Lee left the army years later over slavery or states’ rights is unequivocally answered here. Lee thought that slavery was wrong and that it should be abolished. He never would have fought to defend slavery because he was unalterably opposed to it. On the other hand, he considered states’ rights essential and inviolable:

In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge that slavery as an institution, is a moral and 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, and 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, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race, and I hope will prepare and lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise, merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influence of Christianity, than the storms and tempests of fiery Controversy. This influence, though slow, is sure. The doctrines and miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years to convert but a small part of the human race, and even among Christian nations, what gross errors still exist! While we see the course of the final abolition of human slavery is still onward, and we give it the aid of our prayers and all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the results in His hands who sees the end; who chooses to work by slow influences, and with whom a thousand years are but as a single day. Although the abolitionist must know this, and must see that he has neither the right or power of operating except by moral means and suasion, and if he means well to the slave, he must not create angry feelings in the Master; that, although he may not approve the mode by which it pleases Providence to accomplish its purposes, the result will nevertheless be the same; that the reason 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?

– John Perry, Lee: A Life of Virtue, pp 107-109