“Teach him he must deny himself,” said Lee. That was the general’s advice to a young mother who brought her infant to him after the War Between the States to receive his blessing. In his classic four-volume biography R. E. Lee, Douglas Southall Freeman chose that as the single incident that best exemplifies Robert E. Lee’s message for the young men and women of the South in the reunited nation. Lee himself, through four years of war, followed by surrender and subjugation, was the very model of Christian self-denial. Though written in the early twentieth century, Freeman’s biography of Lee contains a vital message for the young men and women of today. Lee, especially as presented by Freeman, provides an excellent model for young people to emulate. Freeman’s Lee shows us how to live. He shows us how to face both triumph and adversity with courage, humility, and grace.
Freeman’s biography of Lee is regarded as a classic, having been awarded the Pulitzer prize for biography in 1935, and with good reason. He wrote it at a time when skilled amateurs could still have their books appreciated by academic historians, though that was rapidly changing. Some of the finest histories and biographies of the first half of the twentieth century were written by amateur historians. Freeman, like Claude Bowers and Frederick Lewis Allen, was a journalist who knew how to write for an educated public. When, in 1948, academic historians were asked to rank the greatest dead American historians, the list was dominated by amateurs like Francis Parkman, George Bancroft, and Henry Adams. However, this was already starting to change as academic historians became enamored with the latest theories and came to value pedantry over elegant narrative.
This is no dry social history in which people are mindlessly swept along by the currents of impersonal forces. No, Freeman was a consummate literary stylist who wrote history in the same tradition as Francis Parkman, William H. Prescott, William Gilmore Simms and, later, Shelby Foote. He also, unlike most of the Progressive historians who dominated academic history writing at the time, appreciated the importance of individuals in shaping history. Whereas Progressive historians tended to view men and women as faceless members of classes whose actions were determined by materialist factors, Freeman wrote about men who stood above the crowd and whose actions were determined by their character and faith. This biography is a good antidote for much of the nonsense written about the South and the War by modern academics who despise the South, local autonomy, traditional Christianity, and the whole idea of honor. According to Freeman, Lee early developed the character and manners that would later distinguish him, learning self-control from his mother. By the eve of the War Between the States he was pious, virtuous, self-controlled and self-sacrificing, displaying devotion to God, family, and home. Intellectually, he had a natural talent for mathematics, was well-grounded in the classical languages as well as Spanish and French, and was a careful student of American and military history.
“His manners reflected his spiritual life. His was a simple soul, humble, transparent, and believing.” Lee devoted time each day to reading his Bible and his prayer book and spent much time on his knees in prayer to his Lord. His faith was the foundation of his character, teaching him selflessness, equanimity, and submission to the Divine will. “He believed in a God who, in His wisdom, sent blessings beyond man’s deserts, and visited him, on occasion, with hardships and disaster for the chastening of the rebellious heart of the ungrateful and the forgetful. In every disaster, he was to stand firm in the faith that it was sent by God for reasons that man could not see.” His religion also instilled in him a strong sense of duty. “There is,” Lee wrote, “a true glory and a true honor: the glory of duty done—the honor of the integrity of principle.” Thus equipped, Lee was better prepared than most to bear the trials of a war in which he would never meet the enemy on even terms.
When, finally, Lee was forced to surrender the remnants of his gallant but ragged army to the overwhelming number of troops General Grant was able to bring against him, he faced the situation with dignity and fortitude. For Lee the question had become “is it right to surrender this army.” With great reluctance he decided it was right and that he had, to the best of his ability, discharged his duty. “Feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen,” Lee explained to his men.
After the War, Lee assumed the presidency of Washington College. He believed the proper education of Southern youth “one of the most important objects now to be attained.” As president he instituted the college’s honor code: “We have but one rule here, and it is that every student must be a gentleman.”
Lee’s own model of a gentleman was the man for whom Washington College was named. Freeman also chronicled Washington’s life in seven thick volumes that won the Pulitzer prize in 1958. Because Washington was successful in leading his country in its struggle for independence, this biography lacks the sense of tragedy that one sees in Lee’s life. Nevertheless, it is easy to see Washington in Lee, and, like Lee, we can also benefit from a study of Washington’s character.
According to Freeman, early in his life Washington “acquired a positive love of the right and developed the will to do the right.” Washington was reverent, self-controlled, and committed to God, family, and home. Like Lee, Washington was not simply the product of his environment. His character was the result of his own conscious decisions. He willed himself to become the man he wished to be. “What he was, he made himself by will, effort, discipline, ambition and perseverance,” wrote Freeman.
These two biographies provide us with excellent models of gentlemen, men of humility, integrity, honor, and faith. They also give us a good picture of Southern history from the mid-eighteenth century until Lee’s death in 1870. And the story they tell is more compelling than what one finds in most modern histories of the Old South. Many of the histories published today are dull affairs, full of theory and jargon. Many are written in the belief that all of our actions are determined by materialist factors over which we have little or no control, or that we are inevitably being swept along towards a more Progressive future whether we like it or not. Freeman, however, wrote in the belief that individuals matter, that their character, their actions, and their ideas have consequences. He shows us how Washington and Lee, while recognizing the role of Providence in their lives, to a great extent shaped their own destinies. They were gentlemen because they chose to be. Some other good biographies that give us insight into Southern history and the character of their subjects are Albert Jay Nock’s biography of Thomas Jefferson, the biographies of John C. Calhoun by Margaret Coit and Charles Wiltse, Clyde Wilson’s life of James Johnston Pettigrew, and for younger readers, The Boys’ Life of Robert E. Lee by Stanley F. Horn. Lee, Washington, Jefferson, Calhoun, and Pettigrew are worthy companions for any reader.
Sean R. Busick is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and Associate Professor of History at Athens State University, and he is the author of A Sober Desire for History: William Gilmore Simms as Historian and other books.