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Robert E. Lee was on the wrong side of the Civil War. Yet his defenestration is a great loss for all Americans.
The reason can be captured in three words: Duty, authority, and Providence. These are three concepts that were once in the bloodstream of all Americans, but their late disappearance is part of the reason our politics is so fragmented, dysfunctional and uncivil. Lee is a superlative example of a life lived by all three concepts and rather than tossing him on the ash heap, we desperately need to learn from him.
We might describe the reigning moral philosophy of our culture as radical individual autonomy: The self is answerable to nothing but itself; as such, there is no greater institution that has an intrinsic moral claim on it. This does not mean there is no morality or moral evaluation involved in radical individual autonomy. It only means that moral evaluation cannot be made in terms of any greater reality which might have a claim on the individual. Instead it is made in terms of the content of the choice itself. Thus we tend to think of Lee as a “bad guy” because he chose the wrong side in the Civil War.
The old notion of duty, by contrast, thought of morality in terms of claims on the individual. Lee, for example, saw his life as consisting of rings of responsibility to which he was duty bound. First was God, second was his family, third was his state, and fourth was his country. When Lee made his personal decision with respect to the Civil War, he did not ask himself the historical question of which side was right. Instead he thought about it in terms of duty: What authority had the most immediate claim on him? Lee was opposed to secession, but when Virginia seceded, he felt duty bound to resign is commission in the United States Army and follow her.
Closely associated with the notions of duty and authority is that of Providence. It is through duty and authority that the individual is related to Providence. Lee did not think that he had the key to history or had a perfect understanding of what was happening in the Civil War. He thought of himself as a small player in a much larger drama of which God was the author and director. His job was to perform his duty as best as possible and let God worry about the course of history. Thus, when the war ended in the defeat of the South, he viewed defeat as God’s judgment on the South (and slavery) and it was therefore the duty of all Southerners to humbly accept the verdict of Providence and become once again good citizens of the United States.
Many Northerners shared a similar moral understanding, which is why men like Lincoln, Grant and Sherman could be magnanimous in victory. They understood that Lee, like them, was only doing his duty as he saw it. Lee might have been wrong about where his duty truly ultimately lay: Perhaps his duty to the nation should have taken precedence over his duty to state. But that is a lot different than the way we think now – that Lee is just a bad guy because he was on the wrong side.
Men like Lincoln and Lee had a great respect for the mysteries of Providence. Such a respect is not necessarily explicitly religious in form. It might manifest in a sense that there are things greater and more meaningful than the self, and that my story is not the only or most important story. In another context, Gandalf expressed a Providential understanding when Frodo suggested they simply kill Gollum because he is a bad guy. Gandalf rebukes him; neither of them is the author of life or history, and neither understands what role Gollum might have to play in the unfolding of events. Of course, Gollum eventually plays a crucial role when Frodo is unable to destroy the One Ring at Mount Doom.
Like Gandalf, Lincoln, Grant and Sherman did not think victory in the Civil War granted them carte blanche to deal with Southerners as simply a defeated enemy who were all bad for being on the wrong side. What might Providence have in store for men like Lee? In my opinion, the most crucial role Lee played was not in the war itself, but shortly after it, when he used the moral authority he had earned as the personification of the Southern Cause to insist that Southerners accept the verdict of the war. Yes, Southerners created the KKK and later Jim Crow. But I think we overlook the nearly miraculous fact the United States was able to persist at all after such a vicious and brutal war. The United States Army could destroy the Confederate armies, and perhaps persist as an occupying army indefinitely, but occupation is not the same as a united nation. What was required was broad moral acceptance of reunion, which could only come from Southerners themselves, and Lee was the critical personality in making that happen. Lincoln or Grant couldn’t make it happen; only a Southerner could, a Southerner with the moral authority earned through outstanding devotion to the cause. I think Providence used Lee for just this purpose, and he was the perfect man for the job. It is that humility, the humility to accept Providence even when it contradicts you, that made Lee a great man. We ended up with a united country after the war only because Lincoln, Grant and Lee all thought in terms of duty, authority and Providence. They all deserve monuments.
That way of looking at things is largely gone today. Instead, in a world of radically autonomous individuals, people are not – indeed cannot be – judged by their devotion to duty or their humility in accepting authority or Providence, but simply by whether they have chosen to be on the right side or the wrong side. Grant and Lee could understand each other across the tide of war as fellow soldiers, each following his duty as a soldier should. No such understanding is possible between today’s Trump supporter and a social justice warrior, for there is no greater common reality (God, for instance) in light of which they might meet. (I am writing in general terms here. I know very well that some Trump supporters believe in both God and Providence. But they are not the center of the culture). Both being radically autonomous individuals, they can only see the other as simple bad guys for being on the wrong side.
It’s the reason both of our political sides now accept dishonorable behavior. Neither Lee nor Grant would behave dishonorably, whether or not they might gain advantage from it – honor being one of the forms which link men to Providence. But if all that matters is what side you are on, it doesn’t matter how grossly Trump acts or how vicious Hillary Clinton is. All that matter is that he or she is “our guy.”
Thus our political culture degenerates. It will continue to generate until we view men like Robert E. Lee as someone from whom we might learn, rather than merely as an icon of someone who picked the wrong side.