June 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 4
But it is easy to become very fuzzy-minded about American traditions. They deal with what the American people do when they are doing their best, and they can bring together a descendant of John Alden and an heir of Ellis Island to the benefit of everyone concerned, but they can also be unformulated until what one lone man has in his heart becomes expressed in action. The things that make democracy work are uncatalogued and various, and now and then they arise from the faith of the individual citizen.
There was the case of Robert E. Lee …
Only insolent ignorance would present Lee as an exemplar of the democratic tradition. Lee was an aristocrat who had very little use for democracy, and he devoted immense talents to the task of destroying the government that the democracy had established. In the end he failed, a great soldier brought down by forces that opposed everything he stood for; but finally, after the defeat, he rendered an immense service both to the people he had fought for and the people he had fought against, and became a great exemplar of one of the traditions without which democracy could not exist.
Lee’s military career has been studied in detail, by experts, most notably and recently by Dr. Douglas Southall Freeman and Dr. Clifford Dowdey, and nothing of any consequence that has not already been said remains to be presented about his achievements as a soldier. But what he did after the Civil War ended has a peculiar and often unrecognized importance, and this part of his career is presented now in Lee After the War by Marshall W. Fishwick.
In a foreword Mr. Fishwick remarks that “It is not the story of Lee, but the meaning of Lee, that I am writing about,” and the meaning of Lee goes beyond the warrior and the legendary hero and comes down to something basic.
Appomattox was a beginning rather than an ending. The two sections of a broken country had fought for four years, and they had fought hard, leaving dreadful scars; Appomattox had determined that they were going to be joined together again, but it had said nothing about how this was to be done, and an objective appraisal of the situation in the spring of 1865 would have concluded that the job ahead was going to be extremely difficult if not altogether impossible. As Mr. Fishwick says, “The spirit of rebellion would smolder for years to come. Violence would continue and spread. For every American as magnanimous as Lee or Lincoln, there would be ten filled with vengeance and hatred.”
Lee After the War , by Marshall W. Fishwick. Dodd, Mead & Co. 242 pp. $4.00.
The simple fact is that the problem could easily have become insoluble. The defeated South could have become another Ireland or another Poland, a permanently indigestible lump that could never be dissolved. The peoples who had made war so long had, to be sure, an underlying desire to get along together, to let the deep wounds heal and to work out a harmonious way of life; but they also had much suspicion, many war-born hatreds and angers, and deep desires for vengeance, and the big question was which set of sentiments would be most quickly and powerfully evoked. The thing could have gone either way. The Union could have broken up in fact, even after the war to break it up had failed.
Here General Lee made his great contribution, to his own section and to the nation as a whole.
As far as he was concerned, the war was over. He had done his best, and he had lost, and it was necessary to think about the future. He wrote once that it was above everything else necessary for a gentleman to cultivate “that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past .” A few days before Appomattox one of his generals urged him to take to the hills with what was left of his army and carry on guerrilla warfare, and Lee rejected the advice with the quiet statement: “We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.” He would let the past be the past, and work for the future. It was unquestionably the hardest part of his life, and in many ways it was the noblest part, because in a quiet, wholly unostentatious way he helped to make it possible for the country to become genuinely reunited.
In the fall of 1865 Lee became President of Washington College, in Lexington, Virginia. Washington College then had four teachers, forty students, and no prospects whatever. For one of the great captains of history to come down to this was something not called for in the script. In all the defeated, resentful, tragically unhappy Southland he was the one man to whom everybody would listen, and he found his pulpit in a broken-down college whose influence hardly reached beyond its own county. Because of its occupant, this pulpit commanded a great deal of attention.
It was not easy. Lee aged rapidly in the five years after the war ended. He never apologized for what he had done, or shuffled around with his hat in his hand to make his peace with the victors, but he set himself steadfastly to lead his people back into the country which had refused to consent to a partition, and in the end he succeeded. It cost him a great deal—one of his students wrote that “I never saw a sadder expression than General Lee carried during the entire time I was at Washington College”—but he stuck to it. When he undertook his task at the college he wrote simply, “I shall devote my remaining energies to training young men to do their duty in life,” and as he saw it the duty of young southerners in the hard postwar years was to help restore peace and harmony and orderly government.
As a matter of fact the essence of the democratic tradition grows out of this simple notion about the individual citizen’s duty. This duty is self-imposed. It means nothing except that the people involved in a democratic society owe something to the society of which they are a part. They owe a duty to the state they have created, not because the state is an overpowering, impersonal monstrosity with a life of its own, possessing undefined and limitless claims upon them, but just because it is the instrument through which they are able to work together for the common good. When they understand this duty and perform it well, they do not need to be afraid of their own creation.