From the 24 March 1907 issue of The New York Times.

WASHINGTON, JEFFERSON, LEE.


Order of Placement by Prof. McCorvey of the University of Alabama.

To the Editor of The New York Times:

I do not think that it is entirely the bias of Southern ancestry, birth, and rearing that turned my thoughts at once, when asked to name the three greatest figures in American history, to Washington, the founder of the Republic; to Jefferson, the politial philosopher and practical statesman, and to Robert E. Lee, the peerless soldier and faultless gentleman.

There will probably be no question as to Washington’s place at the head of the American pantheon, for the immortal words of Henry Lee on the death of his great chieftain, “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” are as true now as when they were uttered in December, 1799.

But there will be no such universal assent to the place which is here assigned to Jefferson. As the great leader of the popular party of his day, he bitterly antagonized the opposing aristocratic party, and the animosity of the Federalists was handed down to their later-day successors, the Whigs and the Republicans. Few, however, will attemp to deny that it was Jefferson’s influence which made possible the future characterization of our Government, by another great American, as one “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Aside from his influence in democratizing the government, his greatest service probably to his country and to mankind was in checking the baleful influence of priestcraft in politics. As the author of the statute of Virginia for religious freedom, he struck a deathblow to the union of Church and State, for that act was the historical forerunner of the provision embodied in the first amendment to the Constitution that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” He himself recognized the importance of this work when he put it in his epitaph along with the authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia—in which institution his ideas of freedom were made vital even in academic life. But there were great services of Jefferson in the field of practical statesmanship that probably he himself did not fully appreciate. The amount of litigation and bloodshed which he averted by the system of land surveys devised for the wild lands of the West cannot be overestimated. Again, the time and labor which he saved for all future generations of his countrymen by the proposal of our decimal system of coinage is beyond computation. But to catalogue all of Jefferson’s great benefactions to his country would carry this “opinion” far beyond its allotted space.

The spontaneous outburst of appreciative utterances that marked the recent centenary of Lee’s birth—coming from all sections of the country, as freely almost from the North as from the South—afforded abundant proof of the high place which his memory now holds in the esteem of his countrymen of all creeds and parties, and is a prophecy of the still greater pride which all future Americans will feel in his achievements and character. As the passions of men are cooled by time, his former enemies can see, as his friends have always seen, his marvelous genius for war and the loftiness of his soul in defeat. The American people, as a whole, are beginning to recognize, what a distinguished Englishman saw more than four decades ago, that Lee was made of finer clay than any of his contemporaries. If he was great in the field when beating back, with his thin, gaunt lines, the overwhelming numbers of his foes, he was greater still in the dignity and majesty with which he bore himself when the inevitable came. No other character in American history will command stronger admiration in the ages to come, not su much for what he achieved as for what he was—for the world has ever done homage to true greatness, whether crowned with victory or palled by defeat. Lee’s figure will loom grander and grander on the background of our country’s past the further we get away from the fratricidal strife in which he bore the greatest but the losing part.

T. C. McCORVEY.
University of Alabama.