Did Robert E. Lee Oppose Slavery? The Lie That Won’t Die

Due to the recent controversy over Confederate General Robert E. Lee sharing a holiday with Martin Luther King, Jr. in some jurisdictions, I thought that now would be a good time for this post. Despite being a white guy from Georgia, I have never at any point in my life retrospectively sided with the Confederacy. I learned in school that the South seceded to support slavery. Knowing that textbooks get stuff wrong sometimes–there have been some great books written about it–I did independent research to determine whether the South really did secede to support slavery. I looked at documents by secessionists themselves, and it turned out that, yes, they did. But for most of my childhood, I believed that the Robert E. Lee opposed slavery. This was stated in the same encyclopedias, textbooks, and documentaries that identified slavery as the cause of Southern secession. However, I found out in my late teens that this was not true either. Despite my hatred of the Confederacy, it took me a little while to digest this, because the myth of an antislavery Lee is so widely considered a historical truth. Claims that Lee opposed slavery tend to center on two “facts” that I am going to engage one at a time. The first “fact” is the following quote Lee wrote in an 1856 letter to his wife: “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.” This certainly looks like an antislavery quote taken out of context, but it is crucial to examine the context. What comes right after this quote? “It is useless,” Lee writes, “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. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy. This influence though slow, is sure. The doctrines & miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years, to Convert but a small part of the human race, & even among Christian nations, what gross errors still exist! While we see the Course of the final abolition of human Slavery is onward, & we give it the aid of our prayers & all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in his hands who sees the end; who Chooses to work by slow influences; & with whom two thousand years are but as a Single day. 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?” (The full letter can be found here: http://fair-use.org/robert-e-lee/letter-to-his-wife-on-slavery) In other words, he sees slavery as a necessary evil ordained by God that benefits black people while harming white people the most, thinks that humans shouldn’t do anything to speed up the process of ending it, and disdains abolitionists for interfering with the “spiritual liberty” of slave masters. As the Atlantic magazine sums it up, “slavery sucks, sure, but it’s God’s will. It’s good for you, too. You’re welcome.” The thrust of this letter sets Lee apart not only from abolitionists but also from more moderate Americans like Abraham Lincoln who wanted to ban slavery in new states.

The second “fact” that must be examined is that Lee freed the slaves he inherited from his father in law. Background is essential here. Lee was the son in law of George Custis, a debt ridden landowner whose step grandfather had been George “Fugitive Slave Act of 1793” Washington. When Custis died, he stipulated in his will that all of his slaves must be freed within five years. Lee proceeded to force the slaves to work for the next five years, then freed them because it would have been illegal not to. He wished for an overseer, “who while he will be considerate & kind to the Negroes, will be firm & make them do their duty.” According to Lee’s own account, when some of these slaves rebelled, he resorted to, “capturing them, tying them and lodging them in jail. They resisted until overpowered.” There were allegations that he had runaway slaves whipped. While we will probably never know for sure whether this is true, his initial private response to his son when the rumor was printed in the New York Herald Tribune makes one hesitant to write the rumor off as false. “The N. Y. Tribune has attacked me for my treatment of your grandfather’s slaves,” Lee griped, “but I shall not reply. He has left me an unpleasant legacy.” Lee’s comment is not a smoking gun, but it hardly sounds like a denial. Lee, in essence, looks a lot like conservative Christians who talk about how much they love gay people while steadfastly opposing just about any advances in gay rights.

I should close by pointing out the fact that if we wish to have a holiday for a nineteenth century white Southerner, there are some to choose from whose views on slavery and race were light years ahead Lee’s. There are Sarah and Angelina Grimke, the women from a South Carolina planter family who rebelled against their upbringing and became abolitionists. There is John G. Fee, the Kentucky abolitionist who founded Berea College as an attempt to break down racial barriers. And from Virginia, there is Moncure Conway, the theologically liberal minister who, like the Grimke sisters and Fee, promoted abolitionism and equality for African Americans. It is not primarily the fault of Northerners that these figures are not very well known. The biggest reason for their marginalization is that for all too long, all too many white Southerners have passed them over in favor of honoring proslavery figures like Lee.

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2 responses to “Did Robert E. Lee Oppose Slavery? The Lie That Won’t Die

  1. Brian

    I think a little context is also needed here. The fact that he looked down upon blacks at the time doesn’t contradict his sentiment against slavery. In fact, everyone looked down at blacks at the time. If you look at encyclopedias, even until 1900, the scientific establishment thought that blacks were genetically inferior in intelligence. To wash aside Lee’s words because he was a racist is essentially a modern day PC whitewashing of history.

    • First of all, not everyone, even in that era, believed in white supremacy. But the bigger issue here is that, viewed in proper context, Lee’s letter to his wife was a defense of slavery. Plenty of people, including Abe Lincoln, were racially bigoted while opposing slavery. Lee was not one of those people. He was both bigoted and proslavery, as his letter calling slavery a necessary evil and opposing human efforts to end it makes clear. What I am doing is far from washing aside Lee’s words. Instead, I am putting them in their proper context to assess their actual meaning, a meaning that has been long misunderstood by sympathetic biographers.

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