Remembering Robert E. Lee on his 194th birthday

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 17, 2001

Editor's Note: The following sketch of one of America's foremost patriots/saints is on file at the national Commonwealth Foundation.

Last Monday was the 194th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee in Westmoreland County, Virginia.

Not many years ago, in Washington and throughout the country the date was observed with solemn but joyful ceremony.

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Senators in morning coats came to Statuary Hall to lay wreaths before Lee's statue. Schoolchildren recited in unison the General's moving "Farewell Address" to his army.

Many thousands of ordinary citizens gathered in the cold at one of the hundreds of Confederate monuments dotting the South to participate in pious services of patriotic and religious remembrance.

Now, the day passes largely without public notice. Lee was once a common hero of all Americans, along with other Virginians like Washington and Jefferson.

A few years ago I read that Lee still regularly turns up on the list of the ten persons most admired by American high school students. This is astounding, given the deliberate mis-education that many schools offer teenagers today.

At best, Lee has suffered from mere neglect at the hands of those who dictate or current social and cultural standards. Indeed as Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment of the Humanities, has pointed out, the proposed standards for the high school American history curriculum do not even mention his name.

Lee is the model of strict, but modest, virtue that is the goal of every Christian saint, and before them, of every "virtuous pagan" like Cicero and Cato. Despite the efforts of the debunkers to distort the record, Lee remains a paragon of all the personal virtues. Many Americans, if they know anything of Lee at all, regard him as a silent reproach to them and their debauched way of living.

I think the General would be extremely disconcerted to know that his character or career could ever be the subject of public comments or a political argument. He was not driven by ambition, by impelled by a sense of duty.

Indeed, in one of his most famous sayings, he observed that "duty" was the most sublime word in the language.

After the war, when Lee was a figure of veneration, babies were often brought to be presented to him, as if to receive the blessing of a saint.

After brushing the hair and touching the cheek of one such child, Lee looked to the mother and said, "Teach him he must deny himself."

Duty. Self-denial. Honor. Purity. These terms when they are understood at all have an almost comic connotation today. For ours is an age of many celebrities, but few heroes; many politicians, but few statesmen, much moralizing, but little morality; much wealth, but little worth. Yet if America is to survive as a civilization, we must recover the lost personal virtues exemplified Robert E. Lee. And if we are to survive as a free people, we must recover those principals of the founding for which he was the foremost military champion.

Perhaps the most succinct epitaph for Lee was offered by Senator Benjamin J. Hill of Georgia.

"He was a foe without hate and a friend without treachery, a soldier without cruelty and a victim without vices, a private citizen without wrong, a neighbor without reproach, a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile.

"He was Caesar without his ambition, Frederick without his tyranny, Napoleon without his selfishness, and Washington without his reward."