Robert E. Lee: An Interpretation
Woodrow Wilson

Note: The following is taken from the March 1924 issue of Social Forces (volume 2), pp. 322–28.


IN ONE SENSE, it is a superfluous thing to speak of General Lee,—he does not need the eulogy of any man. His fame is not enhanced, his memory is not lifted to any new place of distinction by any man’s words of praise, for he is secure of his place. It is not necessary to recount his achievements; they are in the memory not only of every soldier, but of every lover of high and gifted men who likes to see achievements which proceed from character, to see those things done which are not done with the selfish purpose of self-aggrandizement, but in order to serve a country, and prove worthy of a cause. These are the things which make the name of this great man prominent not only, but in some regards unapproachable in the history of our country.

I happened the other day to open a book not printed in this part of the country, the Century Cyclopaedia of Names, and to turn to the name of Lee, and I was very much interested, and I must say a little touched, by the simple characterization it gave of the man: “A celebrated American general in the Confederate service.” How perfectly that sums the thing up,—a celebrated American general, a national character who won his chief celebrity in the service of a section of the country, but who was not sectionalized by the service, is recognized now as a national hero; who was not rendered the less great because he bent his energies towards a purpose which many men conceived not to be national in its end.

I think this speaks something for the healing process of time. I think it says something for the age, that it should have taken so short a time for the whole nation to see the true measure of this man, and it takes me back to my own feeling about one’s necessary connection with the region in which he was born.

There is an interesting and homely story of Daniel Webster, how after one very tedious and laborious session of the Senate he returned to his home in Boston quite worn out and told his servant that he was going up stairs to lie down, and must not be disturbed on any account. He had hardly reached his room when some gentlemen from the little village in New Hampshire which had been his original boyhood home, called at the door and said they must see him,—that a man’s life was involved. They had come down as the neighbors of a lad in his old home, charged, as they believed falsely with murder. They believed in the lad but were confounded by circumstantial evidence; and they thought that there was only one man in the United States who could unravel the tangle of misleading indications; and they had come to see Mr. Webster. The servant was afraid to call him but yielded to their urgency, and he came down in no pleasant humor. To all their appeals he replied, “Gentlemen, it is impossible; I am worn out. I am not fit for the service, and cannot go.” Seeing at last that it was probably hopeless, the spokesman of the little company at last rose and said “Well, I don’t know what the neighbors will say.” “Oh! well,” said Webster, “if it is the neighbors, I will go!” There came to his mind the vision of some little groups of old men in that village where he had lived as a boy whose comments he could surmise, and that was the particular condemnation he could not face. So all great patriots have had a deep local rootage. You can love a country if you begin by loving a community, but you cannot love a country if you do not have the true rootages of intimate affection which are the real sources of all that is strongest in human life. So this “celebrated American general” had his necessary local rootage, and the sap of his manhood united him with the soil on which he was bred. It was there he won his celebrity and made secure his fame. I think one of the most interesting things to remember about Lee is that he was an ideal combination of what a man inherits and what he may make of himself.

General Lee came of a distinguished family. His father, Light Horse Harry Lee, was one of the finest breed of those gallant soldiers who made the country free; and the lad in his boyhood must have been bred to many memories of high deeds and to many fine conceptions of patriotic service at the hearth where his father sat.

I like to think, for my part, that Light Horse Harry Lee was bred under the teaching of Doctor John Witherspoon, the great Scotchman who at that day presided over the college at Princeton, and that there is some sort of Princetonian lineage in the man whom we honor now.

But these soldierly traditions, this impulse from a great father, were not what made Robert E. Lee. After all what makes and distinguishes a man is not that he is derived from any family or from any training, but that he has discovered for himself the true role of manhood in his own day. No man gains distinction who does not make some gift of his own individuality to the thing that he does,—to the generation which he serves.

This man was not great because he was born of a soldier and bred in a school of soldiers, but because, of whomsoever he may have been born, howsoever he was bred, he was a man who saw his duty, who conceived it in high terms, and who spent himself, not upon his own ambitions, but in the duty that lay before him. We like to remember all the splendid family traditions of the Lees, but we like most of all to remember that this man was greater than all the traditions of his family; that there was a culmination here that could not have been reached by the mere drift of what men remember, but must be reached by what men originate and conceive.

I am not going to try to outline the career of Lee, because I feel the compulsion of that last characteristic of General Lee. I do not want to live, and I do not wish to ask you to live, on the memory of what General Lee did. I want to remind you of how General Lee turned immediately from war, when it was past, to the future which was to come, and said, “I will do my part in trying to make the young men of this country ready for the things which are yet to be done.”

We are not at liberty to walk with our eyes over our shoulders, recalling the things which were done in the past; we are bound in conscience to march with our eyes forward, with the accents of such men in our ears saying, “We lived not as you must live. We lived for our generation; we tried to do its tasks. Turn your faces and your hands likewise to the tasks that you have to do.” We would not be honoring General Lee if we did not think of him only enough to remind ourselves of what we have to do to be like him. The true eulogy of General Lee is a life which is meant to be patterned after his standards of duty and of achievement. And so I am not going to ask you tonight to look back at General Lee, but, rather to answer the question—“What does General Lee mean to us?”

It is a notable thing that we see when we look back to men of this sort. The civil war is something which we cannot even yet uncover in memory without stirring embers which may spring into a blaze. There was deep color and the ardor of blood in that contest. The field is lurid with the light of passion, and yet in the midst of that crimson field stands this gentle figure,—a man whom you remember, not as a man who loved war, but as a man moved by all the high impulses of gentle kindness, a man whom men did not fear, but loved; a man in whom everybody who approached him marked singular gentleness, singular sweetness, singular modesty,—none of the pomp of the soldier, but all the simplicity of the gentleman. This man is in the center of that crimson field, is the central figure of a great tragedy. A singular tragedy it seems which centers in a gentleman who loved his fellow men and sought to serve them by the power of love, and who yet, in serving them with the power of love, won the imperishable fame of a great soldier! A singular contradiction!

It is true that we do not think entirely correctly of Lee in supposing that he was compact entirely of gentleness. No man whom you deeply care for or look to for leadership is made up altogether of gentle qualities. When you come into the presence of a leader of men you know you have come into the presence of fire,—that it is best not incautiously to touch that man,—that there is something that makes it dangerous to cross him, that if you grapple his mind you will find that you have grappled with flame and fire. You do not want sweetness merely and light in men who lead you; and there was just as much fire in Lee as there was in Washington. In Washington it was more upon the surface, but it was not more truly present. Every man who approached Washington had the singular impression that he was in the presence of a man of tremendous passions. He was always well in hand; but you knew that the man himself was aware that he was driving a mettlesome team, which he had to watch at every moment to avoid sudden runaway, when circumstances were exigent or exciting.

You did not get that impression when in the presence of Lee. I have only the delightful memory of standing, when a lad, for a moment by General Lee’s side and looking up into his face, so that I have nothing but a child’s memory of the man; but those who saw him when they were men and could judge say that you got no impression of constrained and governed passion such as men got from General Washington. But whenever General Lee was in the field no one dared cross him, no one dared neglect his orders, no one dared exercise a dangerous discretion in the carrying out of his commands. There would flare in the man a consuming fire of anger; those who were in his presence felt it was dangerous so much as to breathe naturally until it was past. There was something of the tiger in this man when his purpose was aroused and in action. It would immediatley recede; quiet gentleness would come again, that perfect poise, that delightful sense of ease as he moved from one purpose to another; but you would not forget that moment of exposed fire,—you would know that you had been in the presence of consuming force.

But what strikes me as most interesting in the example of General Lee is that this was not in one sense of the word personal force at all. Touch General Lee about himself and you never saw the flash of fire, but touch him about things he regarded as his duty, and you saw it instantly. So the force that presided in him was no other than that moral force which may be said to be a principle in action. There is a sense, I sometimes think, in which every one of us in whose life principle forms a part is merely holding up a light which he himself did not kindle, not his own principle, not something peculiar and individual to himself, but that light which must light all mankind, the love of truth, the love of duty, the love of those things which are not stated in the terms of personal interest. That is the force and that the fire that moulds men or else consumes them.

You need not be afraid of the fire that is in selfish passion, you can crush that; but you cannot crush the fire that is in unselfish passion. You know that there you are in the presence of the greatest force in the world, the only force that lifts men or nations to greatness, or purifies communities; and that is the consuming fire which we dare not touch. I apply this thought sometimes to existing circumstances. I grow tired often, as I tire of any futility, of hearing certain abuses condemned and not having the condemnation followed by a list of the names of the persons who are guilty of them; for there is not a group of men in this country who could stand the heat of the fire that would scorch those names. You cannot scorch the abuse, but you can consume men by merely exposing them to this moral fire, which they know is the fire of their death; and that is the sort of force that burned in General Lee. All his life through you are aware of a conscious self-subordination to principles which lay outside of his personal life.

I have sometimes noted with a great deal of interest how careless we are about most words in our language, and yet how careful we are about some others; for example, there is one word which we do not use carelessly and that is the word “noble.” We use the word “great” indiscriminately. A man is great because he has had great material success and has piled up a fortune; a man is great because he is a great writer, or a great orator; a man is great because he is a great hero. We notice in him some distinct quality that overtops like qualities in other men. But we reserve the word “noble” carefully for those whose greatness is not spent in their own interest. A man must have a margin of energy which he does not spend upon himself in order to win this title of nobility. He is noble in our popular conception only when he goes outside the narrow circle of self-interest, and begins to spend himself for the interest of mankind. Then, however humble his gifts, however undistinguished his intellectual force, we give him this title of nobility, and admit him into the high peerage of men who will not be forgotten.

Now that was the characteristic of General Lee’s life. It was not only moral force, but it was moral force conscientiously guided by interests which were not his own. You do not need to have me illustrate that. It was manifestly not to General Lee’s personal interest to take command of the armies of the South. He could have taken command of the armies of the North; and, in spite of the noble quality of the Southern struggle, every man now sees that the forces of the world were sure to crush the self-assertion of the South; and General Lee knew enough of the force of the world, had been schooled enough in national armies to know upon which side the probability of material power lay and therefore the probability of success in arms. He knew that the South would be weak in that it could not count on the support of the world, and the North could. A man seeking his own aggrandizement would not have chosen as General Lee did. But he did not choose with any, even momentary regard for his personal fortune. He sacrificed himself for the things that were nearest, the things I have illustrated in the homely anecdote about Webster. He thought of the neighbors; he knew that a man’s nearest attachments are his best attachments, and his nearest duties his imperative duties. He had been born in Virginia, he was Virginia’s. Virginia could do with him as she pleased. And wherever that spirit obtains, wherever men can be found in the State of North Carolina, or in any other State, who conscientiously live upon this principle, that they belong to North Carolina, that they belong to the people and to their state and must see to it that they yield themselves to the needs and commands of their people and do the things that are necessary to be done for their welfare, those are the men who, if they do not look merely to their own fame, will sometime be written upon the roll of honor of the local and national history of this country.

So that there is brought to the surface in General Lee, as it were, the consummate fire of a democratic nation, the perfect product of a common conscience and a common consciousness expressing itself in an instrument excellently suitable because of its own fine quality. You may use a clumsy instrument for the right purpose, but it is better to use a perfect instrument, and this man was like the finest steel adapting himself to the nicest strokes of precision and yet incapable of being snapped or broken by any impact. He was a perfect instrument for a thing which we too little think of.

I do not believe in a democratic form of government because I think it the best form of government. It is the clumsiest form of government in the world. If you wanted to make a merely effective government you would make it of fewer persons. If you wanted to invent a government that would act with speed and quick force, you would be doing a clumsy thing to make it democratic in structure. That is not purposed to be the best form, but to have the best sources.

Did you ever think how the world managed politically to get through the middle ages? It got through them without breakdown because it had the Roman Catholic Church to draw upon for native gifts, and by no other means that I can see. If you will look at the politics of the middle ages you will see that states depended for their guidance upon great ecclesiastics, and they depended upon them because the community itself was in strata, was in classes, and the Roman Catholic Church was a great democracy. Any peasant could become a priest, and any priest a chancellor. And this reservoir of democratic power and native ability was what brought the middle ages through their politics. If they had not had a democratic supply of capacity they could not have conducted a sterile aristocratic polity. An aristocratic polity goes to seed. The establishment of a democratic nation means that any man in it may, if he consecrate himself and use himself in the right way, come to be the recognized instrument of a whole nation. It is an incomparable resourceful arrangement, though it is not the best practical organization of government.

In a man like General Lee you see a common conscientiousness made manifest; and this singular thing revealed, that by a root which seems to be a root of failure a man may be lifted to be the model of a whole nation. For it is not an exaggeration to say that in all parts of this country the manhood and the self-forgetfulness and the achievements of General Lee are a conscious model to men who would be morally great. This man who chose the course which eventually led to practical failure is one of the models of the times. “A nation,” Browning says, “is but the attempt of many to rise to the completer life of one; and those who live as the models for the mass are singly of more value than they all.”

The moral force of a country like America lies in the fact that every man has it within his choice to express the nation in himself. I am interested in historical examples as a mere historian. I was guilty myself of the indiscretion of writing a history, but I will tell you frankly, if you will not let it go further, that I wrote it, not to instruct anybody else, but to instruct myself. I wrote the history of the United States in order to learn it. That may be an expensive process for other persons who bought the book, but I lived in the United States and my interest in learning their history was, not to remember what happened, but to find which way we were going.

I remmber a traveller telling me of being on a road in Scotland and asking a man breaking stone by the roadside if this was the road to so and so, the man said “where did you come from?”; he answered, “I don’t know whether it is any of your business where I came from.” “Weel,” said the man, “it’s as muckle as whaur ye’re ganging tae.” There is a great deal of philosophy in that question asked by the roadside. If I am near a cross road and ask if this is the road to so and so, it is a pertinent question to ask me where I came from.

We often speak of a man as having “lost himself,” in a desert for example. Did you never reflect that that is the only thing he has not lost,—himself? He is there. The danger of the situation is that he has lost all the rest of the world. He doesn’t know where the North is, or the South, or the East, or the West,—has lost every point of the compass. The only way by which he can start is to get some fixed and known point by which he can determine his direction. A nation that does not know its history and heed its history has lost itself. Unless you know where you came from you do not know where you are going to.

I am told by psychologists that if I did not remember who I was yesterday I would not know who I am today. Now the same is true of a nation. A nation which does not remember what it was yesterday does not know what it is today, or what it is trying to do. We are trying to do a futile thing if we do not know where we came from or what we have been about.

We have stumbled upon a confusing age; nothing is like it was fifteen years ago,—certainly in the field of economic endeavor, and we are casting about to discover a new world without any standards taken out of an older world by which we can make the comparison.

I was passing through the city of Omaha during the latter stages of the presidential campaign and I bought the morning paper, the “Omaha Bee” and found in it an interesting article by my friend Mr. Rosewater in which he made capital fun of a quotation about the tariff from Mr. Bryan. I thought there was something odd about the quotation, and it turned out the next morning that Mr. Rosewater, himself a member of the Republican National Committee, had been making fun, not of a quotation from Bryan, but of a quotation from the Republican platform. Now the point is, that unless you had an experienced nose in that campaign, if you picked up either of the platforms you had to look at the label to see which it was. The reason is that in recent years we have been looking about for expedients and policies and have not been looking about for principles.

If you want me to bid against you for a popular policy I will probably resort to the expedient of matching your bid if I think it is a good one; but if I happen to be restrained by certain knowledge of what happened once before, I may choose differently and by a longer measurement. I may say there are certain things going to happen in this; they are going to happen upon well known and ancient principles: having read history I would be a fool if I did not know it. I am going to hark back to those fundamental principles which hold good despite changes of policy. I am not going to hark back to old policies, but I shall try to find out whether there is not some new and suitable expression of those old principles in new policies. Although I may not assist my party to win at the next election by such a course, it is sure thereby to win at some election, at which it will give it such distinction that the country will thereafter for a whole generation recognize in it the only safe counsellor it has.

If you want to win at an election which occurs tomorrow probably you haven’t time to remind your fellow countryman of the abiding principles upon which they should act; but if you form the habit of basing your advice upon definite principles you will presently gain a permanent following such as you could not possibly have gained upon any bidding for popularity by mere expedients.

I want to say that the lesson of General Lee’s life to me is that it is not the immediate future that should be the basis of the statesman’s calculation. If you had been in Lee’s position, what would have been your calculation of expediency? Here was a great national power, material and spiritual, in the North. In the Northwest there had grown up by a slow process, as irresistible as the glacial movement, a great national feeling, a feeling in which was quite obliterated and lost the old idea of the separate sovereignty of states. In the South there had been a steadfast maintenance of the older conception of the union. What in such a case would you have said to your countrymen? “It will be most proper, as it will certainly be most expedient, for you to give in to the majority, and vote for the Northern conception?” Not at all. If you had been of Lee’s kind you would have known that men’s consciences, men’s habits of thought, lie deeper than that, and you would have said: “No; this is not a time to talk about majorities; this is a time to express convictions; and if her conviction is not expressed by the South in terms of blood she will lose her character. These are her convictions, and if she yield them out of expediency whe will have proved herself of the soft fibre of those who do not care to suffer for what they profess to love.” Even a man who saw the end from the beginning should, in my conception as a Southerner, have voted for spending his people’s blood and his own, rather than pursue the weak course of expdiency. There is here no mere device, no regard to the immediate future. What has been the result?—ask yourself that. It has been that the South has retained her best asset, her self-respect.

Let that great case served as an example. Are you going into political campaigns of a less fundamental character on the ground of expediency, or are you going in on the ground of your real opinions and ultimate self-respect?

For my part, if I did not, after saturating myself in the conceptions upon which this government was formed, express my knowledge of those principles and my belief in them by the way I voted, I would lose my self-respect; and I would not care to have anybody’s company in the poor practice. What this country needs now in the field of politics is principle; not measures of expediency, but principle,—principles expressed in terms of the present circumstances, but principles nevertheless. And principles do not spring up in a night; principles are not new, principles are ancient.

There is one lesson that the peoples of the world have learned so often that they ought to esteem themselves contemptible if they have to learn it again, and that is that if you concentrate the management of a people’s affairs in a single central government and carry that concentration beyond a certain point of oversight and regulation, you will certainly provoke agains those revolutionary processes by which individual liberty was asserted. We have had so little excess of government in this country that we have forgotten that excess of government is the very antithesis of liberty. So it seems to me that the principle by which we should be guided above all others is this, that we do not want to harness men like Lee in the service of a managing government; we want to see to it that, though there is control, it is control of law and not the discretionary control of executive officials. We want to see to it that while there is the restraint of abuses, it is persons who are restrained, and not unnamed bodies of persons. There is only, historically speaking, one possible successful punishment of abuses of law, and that is, that when a wrong thing is done you find the man who did it and punish him. You can fine all the corporations there are, and fine them out of existence, and all you will have done will be to have embarassed the commerce of the country. You will have left the men who did it free to repeat it in other combinations.

I am going to use an illustration which you can easily understand, but I am going to ask you not to misunderstand it. Suppose I could incorporate an association of burglars with the assurance that you would restrain their actions, not as individuals, but only as a corporation. Whenever a burglary occurred you would fine the corporation. They would be very much pleased with that arrangement, because it would leave them the service of their most accomplished burglars, who could fool you half the time and not be found out. Such a corporation would be willing to pay you a heavy fine for the privilege. Now I do not mean to draw a parallel between our great corporations and burglars,—that is where you are likely to misunderstand me, because I do not hold the general belief that the majority of the business men of this country are burglars; I believe, on the contrary, that the number of malicious men engaged in corporations in this country is very small. But that small number is singularly gifted, and until you have picked them out and distinguished them for punishment you have not touched the process by which they succeed in doing what they wish. You may say that this is a very difficult thing, that there is so much covert, so much undergrowth, the nation is so thickeset with organizations that you can not see them and run them to cover.

Perhaps you are right; but that does not make any difference to my argument; whether difficult, or not, it has got to be done. If you don’t know enough to do it, it is none the less necessary to find the way.

What have we been doing in the last fifteen years? Trying to remedy things which we have not stopped long enough to understand.

I was talking the other day to a body of men which included a good many persons belonging to the profession to which I used to belong. I used to be a lawyer. I said to these men: “I am sure there are a great many corporation lawyers in this audience and I have something to say to them. You know exactly what is being done that ought not to be done. You complain that the legislators of this country are playing havoc with the industry of the country by trying to remedy things in the wrong way. Now, if you really want to save the corporations, you will tell the legislators you complain of what ought to be done and how. If you do not, they will continue their experiments and destroy your corporations, but having said that to you I must add that I don’t expect you to have sense enough to do anything of the kind.”

There is a hopeless sort of fidelity in men who are employed as advisers that prevents their seeing the coming of the deluge; and yet it is they who are to blame if it comes. If you and I had this difficult task in hand of regulating the corporations, whom would we call into counsel? The men who had handled the business. And yet they are the very men who will not yield us any service in the matter at all. They are the very men who are neglecting this great example we are recalling tonight. They are acting upon lines of self-interest, closing in the lines of self-interest as about themselves, and about those whom they represent, and forgetting those greater interests which, if they forget, they oppose,—the interests of the nation and of our common life. And so hostility has sprung up where there should be coöperation, and blunders are committed because men who know how the thing ought to be done will not give public counsel. We must stop long enough to know what we are about and then go fearlessly forward and do it against the guilty individuals.

I think if I had an independent fortune, and could give up my present profession I could find a delightful occupation. I would take up my residence in the city of Washington and would industriously find out from the central bureaux of inquiry what was going on in the larger business world of the United States. Then I would prepare one or two addresses upon the knowledge which I had gained and would make a careful list of the names of the gentlemen who had been doing the things that ought not to be done. They could not do me any harm physically, and I would enjoy the opinion they would have of me. If I could once get their names I would not need the assistance of the criminal law; I would only have to publish the names and prove the facts to put them out of business. Because the moral judgments of this country are as sound as they ever were, and if you direct them in the right channels they are irresistibly effective. At present we are directing them into oratorical channels and not into legislative or judicial channels.

The channels of legislation, the humdrum daily administration of courts of justice are the effective channels of government, and I would rather have government carried succcessfully on by such means than hear all the fine speeches that have been uttered by the most gifted speakers. I am not depreciating speakers, becasue that is part of my own business, and I would not ask you to look with contempt upon the humble vocation which I attempt. But I would look with contempt upon myself if I supposed speaking to be a kind of action.

Now, gentlemen, what does it mean that General Lee is accepted as a national hero? It means simply this delightful thing, that there are no sections in this country any more; that we are a nation and are proud of all the great heroes whom the great processes of our national life have elevated into conspicuous places of fame. I believe that the future lies with all those men who devote themselves to national thinking, who eschew those narrow calculations of self-interest which affect only particular communities and try to conceive of communities as a part of a great national life which much be purified in order that it may be successful. For we may pile up wealth until it exceed all fables of riches in ancient fiction and the nation which possesses it may yet use it to malevolent ends. A poor nation such as the United States was in 1812, for example, if it is in the right, is more formidable to the world than the richest nation in the wrong. For the rich nation in the wrong destroys the fair work that God has permitted and man has wrought; whereas, the poor nation, with purified purpose, is the stronger. It looks into men’s hearts and sees the spirit there; finds some expression of that spirit in life; bears the fine aspect of hope and exhibits in all its purposes the irresistible quality of rectitude. These are the things which make a nation formidable. There is nothing so self destructive as selfishness, and there is nothing so permanent as the work of hands that are unselfish. You may pile up fortunes and dissolve them, but pile up ideals and they will never be dissolved. A quiet company of gentlemen sitting through a dull summer in the city of Philadelphia worked out for a poor and rural nation and immortal constitution, which has made statesmen all over the world feel confidence in the political future of the race. They knew that human liberty was a feasible basis of government.

There is always danger that certain men thinking only of the material prospects of their section, wishing to get the benefit of the tariff, it may be, or of this thing, or of that, when it comes to the distribution of favors, will write only the history which has been written again and again, whose reiteration has been repeated since the world began; from which no man will draw fresh inspiration, from which no ideal can spring, from which no strength can be drawn. Whereas the nation which denies itself material advantage and seeks those things which are of the spirit works not only for each generation, but for all generations, and works in the permanent and durable stuffs of humanity.

I spoke just now in disparagement of the vocation of the orator. I wish there were some great orator who could go about and make men drunk with this spirit of self-sacrifice. I wish there were some men whose tongue might every day carry abroad the golden accents of that creative age in which we were born a nation; accents which would ring like tones of reassurance around the whole circle of the globe, so that America might again have the distinction of showing men the way, the certain way, of acievement and of confident hope.