Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Man Who Would Not be Washington by Jonathan Horn

Horn begins his book on Robert E. Lee, The Man Who Would Not be Washington, with a strong assertion, “The connections between Washington and Lee are neither mystic nor manufactured. Lee was not the second coming of Washington, but he might have been had he chosen differently. As Washington was the man who would not be king, Lee was the man who would not be Washington. The story that emerges when viewed in this light is more complicated, more tragic, and more illuminating.” (p.6) Lee was perfectly positioned to be the heir of Washington. Yet he chose a different path. On the famous Mall in D.C., there is a straight line between the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol. Lee’s house in Arlington sits across the river, symbolically and literally removed from the path of liberty. He chose a different path. And that path shapes our nation to this day. 



The Lee and Washington families had intertwined for generations. Harry Lee, Robert’s father, was a revered revolutionary leader. But he eventually sunk into debt and ignominy. He had gotten involved in speculative land deals with Washington, but when the deals failed, Lee ended up deeply in debt to Washington. After various stints in jail, he lived out his days in a self-imposed exile in the Caribbean.

Harry suffered from a lack of self-control. “Harry succumbed to his worst impulses: speculating, swindling, and self-pitying.” (p. 29) His son would not make that mistake. “Robert learned to put others’ emotions before his own.” (p. 31) He developed a devotion to duty so lacking in his father. When he moved, with his struggling mother to Arlington from Alexandria, he got to know the Custis family. George Washington had adopted Martha Custis’ children. When her son proved unable to parent his children, George Washington adopted them as well. But his adopted son/grandson proved no match to Washington. So Washington left him the family heirlooms but Mount Vernon went to a cousin. However, George Washington Parke Custis had a daughter, Mary, who caught Robert’s eye. But Robert needed to make a living first. He applied to West Point. 

Lee had a naturally melancholy personality. His decision to subjugate his life to be the antithesis of his father drove him to a place of deep resignation. “Often Lee described himself as playing a role in a script beyond his control.” (p. 43) His religious awakening added to his sense of suffering in order to do the “right thing.” Eventually Robert and Mary married. Robert saw firsthand the deficiencies Washington had discovered in her father. It wasn’t long before Robert was basically running the estate from afar. He spoke to his father-in-law as one speaks to a child. Soon Mary had a son. Despite Robert’s preferences, the boy was named George Washington Custis Lee. Once again, Lee’s sense of duty would prevail over his desires. 

Lee fought in the Mexican-American War, earning for himself glory and a majestic stature. But when Mary’s father died and Robert inherited Arlington, he once again had to choose between duty and desire. He was a good and respected soldier, but the managing of Arlington called. In addition, he inherited Custis’ slaves. Some of them had roots going back to Washington. They were the descendants of the slaves Martha had brought into the marriage with her. Both Washington and Custis had wanted to free their slaves, but the logistics made it impossible. Now Custis had decided to set them free in his will with a complicated maneuver that threatened to bankrupt Lee. While personally opposed to slavery, he found himself fighting to keep his inherited slaves enslaved. Once again he found himself in a place where he felt forced to do what he didn’t want to do. 

When abolitionist John Brown stole George Washington’s sword from the great-nephew who had inherited it in order to attack Harper’s Ferry, Lee was once again sucked into the fray. Although he wanted to see slavery’s demise, “a soldier schooled to deny himself could not admire a fanatic egotistic enough to conflate he own wishes with God’s will.” Lee’s faith resigned him to accept things the way they were, assuming that was God’s way. He found it arrogant to question God’s timing saying, “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…” Lee was no revolutionary like his son’s namesake.

As tensions between the North and South escalated, Lee did not seem particularly invested. But when the time came, Lee knew the “right” thing to do was to stick with his beloved state, right or wrong. This surprised his fellow officers because, having married into George Washington’s family the assumption was that he would follow Washington’s lead, valuing the union above all. While the South tried to claim the mantle of Washington, “[he] was one of us — a slaveholder and a planter. We have studied his history, and find nothing in it to justify submission to wrong…” (Calhoun p. 100), Lee knew Washington always intended a perpetual union. He would never have acceded to succession. It was clear to Lee that the Framers knew a union that could be dissolved at will by a member state was anarchy. He knew Virginia was wrong to leave the union, but he wanted no part of a union that had to be held together with the sword. And he would never draw his sword on his native state. Once again, his fatalism led him to do what he felt was his duty, defend his state. Although he opposed the decision, he felt events had made the decision for him. He would stand with Virginia. 

Immediately after making his stand, Lee abandoned Arlington. As it was so close to Washington D.C. he knew that it provided too tempting a target. When the first battle of the war took place at Manassas, Lee was there to lead the charge. Although he didn’t ever want to be in this position, once circumstances dictated his duty, he knew he must serve to the best of his ability. 

Soon after the war began, Lee was assigned Augustine Washington, the heir of Mount Vernon. Like Lee, he felt serving the South was his duty. How ironic that the first Lee had served Washington fighting for the United States. Now a Washington served Lee fighting for disunion. Unfortunately the hapless soldier died in a minor skirmish with the North. The forces of Washington had killed the heir of Washington while the man most positioned to take up Washington’s mantle led the charge. 

As the war raged, “Lee viewed the South’s problems as fatalistically as he viewed his own. God wanted to teach his countrymen the self-denial his mother had taught him. The times, he wrote, ‘look hard at present, & it is plain we have not suffered enough, labored enough, repented enough, to deserve success.’” (p. 148) He began to notice the complaints of his soldiers as they grumbled about the work required. Raised with slaves doing the hard labor, they felt it beneath them. Lee had no patience for this kind of prejudice. Yet as he defended Richmond, his fortunes began to turn. In fighting McClellan, the original home of George and Martha Washington, long dubbed the original White House, was accidentally burned to the ground by Union forces. This strategically and symbolically gave the South a boost as people reacted to these events. 

Lee decided his best chance was to go north and take the fight into Maryland. It was ironic that Lee had joined up with the Confederacy to defend his state and now took the offensive position. Yet he felt trapped by circumstances beyond his control. Ironically when he lost and had to cross back over the Potomac, Abraham Lincoln used that victory as an opportunity to free the Southern slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation. In another irony, Lee had just made the decision on his own to free his slaves after battling them for years over his father-in-law’s will. 

When Washington fought the Revolutionary War, he knew his best chance at victory was to preserve his army and wear down Britain’s will to fight such a distant war. Lee had no such option. He knew the longer the war dragged out, the better the odds of a Northern victory. Lee could see his forces being depleted, and as the Union broke through at Vicksburg, Lee urged his superiors to focus the fight in the East. But the war was beginning to take its toll on Lee. He suffered a devastating loss at Gettysburg and his health began to fail. The loss rattled him to his core. Was this God’s will? It wasn’t Lee’s will. He tried to resign his commission, taking responsibility for the failure. His fatalism began to be shaken as he saw some events were under his control. Yet his resignation was refused. To the South he had become what Harry Lee called Washington during the War of Independence, indispensable. 

Meanwhile, the United States government had passed a special tax on properties used for the insurrection. As Arlington was one of the first properties occupied by the Union forces, Lee had no ability to pay the tax. Even if he did, Congress required that he pay in person, nothing less than a surrender would result. He lost his beloved home, which was being used as a cemetery and hospital during the war. It would eventually be bought outright after a lawsuit by Lee’s family. As it became clear that the South was losing the war, Richmond’s most respected newspaper called for Lee to step up as a dictator. They compared him to Washington, calling Lee “the greatest of living captains.” (p. 218) Finally the war came to a close as Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. The author sums up with, “Lee had lost his family’s home. He had lost his wife’s inheritance… Despite all that Lee had done differently — despite all the discipline he had demonstrated from his childhood in Alexandria through his career ending at Appomattox — he had repeated his father’s fate. He was not a Washington. He was a Lee.” (p. 222) 

Lee was never really able to reconcile his support for the Union and Washington’s ideal with his support for the Confederacy. The closest he comes is saying, “True patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another, and that the motive which impulse them — the desire to do right — is precisely the same.” He had struggled his whole life to “do the right thing” even while acknowledging it to be the wrong thing in the eyes of some. He struggled with the ambivalence his whole life. He never exactly said he regretted his decision, but he did say he felt he had no choice. The Founders had left the country unresolved on the issue of slavery, and his state had made the decision to succeed. He was just doing his duty in light of overwhelming circumstances out of his control. 

Hoping to boost their own fortunes, little Washington College in Virginia asked Lee to become their president. Such was his humility that rather than worry the small, dilapidated school was beneath him, he worried if he was worthy of it. Lee largely stayed out of politics and threw himself into revitalizing the college. Eventually the college was renamed Washington and Lee, perfectly encapsulating the intertwined lives of the two men. 

When it came time to begin construction of memorials on the Mall in D.C., Lee’s name was floated. The great-grandson of John Adams called him “brave, chivalrous, self-sacrificing, sincere, and patriotic,” saying if Lee was a traitor then Washington was one also. (p. 248) In what the author sees as perfect symbolism, the Lincoln Memorial stands where Lee’s would have. Lee inhabits the building across the Potomac at Arlington Cemetery. He stands on the wrong side. Had he followed his beliefs instead of his perceived duty, it could very well have been him staring at the Washington Memorial and the Capitol beyond, forever joined to his progenitor. Rather, he became, the man who would not be Washington. 

This author makes some fascinating assertions about history and humanity. He seems to believe that there is always a choice. Although Lee felt compelled by forces beyond his control, Horn definitely asserts that Lee always had a choice. He believes that humans are complicated and affected by myriad considerations, but at the end, we can choose our path. He presents Lee as a complicated, yet very real person. He is not the enemy, and he is not a hero. He is a man deeply conflicted, a natural leader, a gifted military strategist, yet unable to take control of his own destiny. He was offered the mantle of the greatest American. He willfully turned it down. I believe this author is using Lee’s life and choices to point out how often major events of history turn on a single individual. Nothing had to happen the way it did. Humans make their choices and history proceeds apace.