Greetings Cosmic Americans!
A significant component of what can be best called the Lee myth is his attitude towards slavery. You hear it all the time at conferences, roundtables, in print, and on the battlefield - Robert E. Lee was opposed to slavery. Much of this part of the overall myth stems from a letter Lee wrote his wife in December 1856 while serving in the U. S. Cavalry in Texas.
December 27, 1856 - I was much pleased the with President's message. His views of the systematic and progressive efforts of certain people at the North to interfere with and change the domestic institutions of the South are truthfully and faithfully expressed. The consequences of their plans and purposes are also clearly set forth. These people must be aware that their object is both unlawful and foreign to them and to their duty, and that this institution, for which they are irresponsible and non-accountable, can only be changed by them through the agency of a civil and servile war. There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil. It is idle to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it is a greater evil to the white than to the colored race. While my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more deeply engaged for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things. How long their servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity than from the storm and tempest of fiery controversy. This influence, though slow, is sure. The doctrines and miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years to convert but a small portion of the human race, and even among Christian nations what gross errors still exist! While we see the course of the final abolition of human slavery is still onward, and give it the aid of our prayers, let us leave the progress as well as the results in the hands of Him who, chooses to work by slow influences, and with whom a thousand years are but as a single day. Although the abolitionist must know this, must know that he has neither the right not the power of operating, except by moral means; that to benefit the slave he must not excite angry feelings in the master; that, although he may not approve the mode by which Providence accomplishes its purpose, the results will be the same; and that the reason he gives for interference in matters he has no concern with, holds good for every kind of interference with our neighbor, -still, I fear he will persevere in his evil course. . . . Is it not strange that the descendants of those Pilgrim Fathers who crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom have always proved the most intolerant of the spiritual liberty of others?
Alan Nolan argued in his excellent book, Lee Considered, that Lee's words are too often taken as gospel. They are true because he said them. But when examined in context, one could begin to chip away at the myth that rests on this so-called Lee gospel. In regard to the letter. As an abstraction, it makes sense that Lee would find slavery troubling. He was an educated and enlightened individual - and was not alone among other educated and enlightened individuals when it came to moral questions concerning slavery.
But in reality, Lee was perfectly comfortable with the southern institution and felt that Providence would decide when the time was right for slavery to meet its end. Later, Lee even stated that slavery was "the best [relationship] that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country."
Lee belonged to an aristocratic slave-holding family in a society where slavery had long existed and was taken for granted. When northern agitation threatened his society both before and during the war, including threats to the institution of slavery, Lee let his dissatisfaction be known. Only after the war did he claim he was always in support of emancipation.
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