At present, the public mind is not prepared to receive the truth.Robert E. Lee, 1866
Why quote a Confederate general as we watch the country dividing into hostile camps? Because Robert E. Lee tried to calm people’s emotions after the Civil War, and there is evidence he lamented the war at its inception. From the point of view of the vanquished, he saw the limitations of violence. He saw that force can destroy and oppress, but it cannot persuade those who inwardly and steadfastly disagree.
Lee’s letter to Jubal Early (quoted above) is an acknowledgment that the public mind cannot absorb certain truths in real time. People may have romantic notions of what is possible, including notions that are unrealistic to the point of absurdity. According to Richard Weaver, Lee’s statement “denies the principle that the voice of the people is at all times the voice of God. It declares rather that the mind of a people, like that of an individual, may become so deranged with anger that it is simply not receptive to the realities.”
There is a distraught mentality that “cannot interpret objectively” and “does not want to hear reason and may be offended by a proposal in proportion as it is reasonable.” People, he added, “must be in a state of grace to listen to the truth.” According to Weaver, Lee understood the momentary popular passion of the defeated South. He knew that the “syllogisms offered by victor or vanquished served only to increase the prevailing rancor.” Lee’s policy was “to say nothing until reason had a chance to resume sway on both sides.”
It happens that Lee was not an enthusiastic secessionist in 1860-61. In a letter to his son, dated December, 14, 1860, Lee wrote of General Scruggs’s opinion that the Union “will be dissolved in six weeks….” Of this Lee wrote, “I hope, however, the wisdom and patriotism of the country will devise some way of saving it, and that a kind Providence has not yet turned the current of His blessings from us.”
Lee touched on “the aggressions of the North”; yet he offered serious criticisms of the South as well: “I am not pleased with the course of the ‘Cotton States’… In addition to their selfish, dictatorial bearing, the threats they throw out against ‘Border States’ … if they will not join them, argues little for the benefit or peace of [Virginia]….” Further down in the letter he made an even more striking criticism: “One of their plans seems to be the renewal of the slave trade. That I am opposed to on every ground.”
These are striking words from the man who would become the Confederacy’s most famous general. Even more striking was his letter of 23 January 1861, in which his true feelings were eloquently spelled out. Lee had just then received a copy of Everett’s Life of Washington, and wrote: “How his spirit would be grieved could he see the wreck of his might labors!” Lee added: “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union.” Some lines further he said, “Secession is nothing but revolution.”
The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It was intended for ‘perpetual union,’ so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution, or the consent of all the people in convention assembled. It is idle to talk of secession. Anarchy would have been established, and not a government, by Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and the other patriots of the Revolution…. Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me.
Some may quibble with Lee’s assertions about the preamble of the Constitution. Yet the purpose of the Constitution, as stated in the Preamble, is “to form a more perfect union.” The principle of Union is embedded in the country’s very name. At the same time, we can all understand Lee’s statement that a Union maintained by bayonets has “no charm for me.”
Richard Weaver, in his essay titled “Lee the Philosopher,” says that Lee did not relish his role in the Civil War. When called upon to write his memoirs, or to help others with theirs, he found himself unready to remember the war years. He regretted his military education. His oft-quoted statement that “duty” is the most sublime word in the English language turns, at the end of Lee’s life, toward an altogether non-military sense of things.
Lee’s antique greatness, said Weaver, is found in his humility. “He believed that there is an order of things,” wrote Weaver. “That order is providential in the sense that mortal wisdom is not to be compared to infinite wisdom. This truth, however, conveys nothing of fatalism or determinism; the individual is not exempt from exerting his will in the world … according to his light.”
No man’s education is complete, said Lee, until his death. One should, therefore, accept defeat and failure as part of life’s educational plan. Is this pessimistic? The hysterical optimists of our day might say so. The real pessimists, in truth, are those who load everything onto this worldly existence of ours; as if anyone gets out of here alive.
In terms of national reconciliation, Lee knew that we must place our hopes on our sense of justice; that reconciliation is “impeded by protest and controversy.” Lee’s opinion of war as an instrument of national policy is therefore not far to find. Some say that war can settle everything. On the other side, some say war settles nothing. Weaver tells us that Robert E. Lee, toward the close of his life, “began to face frankly the limitations of soldiering as a profession.”
The following testament of faith was found among Lee’s papers in 1887 by Colonel Charles Marshall:
My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them, nor indisposed me to serve them; nor, in spite of failures, which I lament, of errors, which I now see and acknowledge, or of the present state of affairs, do I despair of the future. The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient, the work of progress is so immense, and our means of aiding it so feeble, the life of humanity is so long, and that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave, and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.
Many Americans, on seeing the present turn of affairs, could take solace from these words. The rage of the moment, and the fear of the moment, does not put men in a philosophic frame of mind. The division of the country today is terrifyingly real. A New Religion has appeared in our midst, secular in its hatred of our traditions and our ancestors. The polarization of the country has reached a fever pitch, where political oppression is openly contemplated by the side that is now coming to power. We do not know what the future holds. We know that the New Religion is kin to the ruling philosophy of Marxist-Leninist China. We know that the Chinese are aiming nuclear weapons at us: that China’s military is poised for war.
There is an interesting set of photographs from a Ukrainian website (linked below), which ought to give us pause. We see a pro-Russian operative, Sergei Dubinin, posing with the QAnon Shaman at the Capitol building last Wednesday. Here is a disgraceful image: The ridiculous American clown and the foreign operative, arm in arm. Think carefully, if you can, what is wrong with this picture. Who benefits if America is divided? Think to yourself what is at stake if our national unity is lost. What happens to us if we fail to uphold freedom, patriotism and a strong military position in the world? I admonish the left, especially, as they tilt toward Bolshevism. We are Americans. We respect freedom of speech. We respect the principles of the Constitution. The Devil take those who would use last week’s events to establish a tyranny. Such a policy would divide us, once and for all time, to the benefit of a deadly foreign enemy.
Links and Notes
(1) Хто “штурмував” Капітолій? – Myrotvorets News
— Source: myrotvorets.news/kapitolii-shturmuvaly-boiovyky-ldnr/
According to a Ukrainian Website, Pro-Russian LDNR militant Sergei Dubinin is wanted by the Ukrainian Interior Ministry since April 2017 for his activities in Eastern Ukraine (Donbas). He was allegedly in Washington, D.C. last week.
(2) Richard M. Weaver, The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, edited by George M Curtis, III and James J. Thompson, Jr., pp. 171-180.
(3) Rev. J. William Jones, D.D., Life and Letters of Robert Edward Lee, Soldier and Man.