What Would Robert E. Lee Do?

As the deadly debate continues over the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from Charlottesville, a question comes to mind. If Lee were alive today, what would he do?

The answer may surprise individuals on both sides of the issue. Based on his own writings and actions, he undoubtedly would have recommended the immediate removal of his statue.

After Lee’s surrender to Union General U.S. Grant to end the Civil War, he remained a distinguished public figure as the President of Washington College, now known as Washington and Lee University. He repeatedly stated that public statues of Confederate leaders would “keep open the sores of war …”

Lee’s opinion of slavery may also be surprising. Well before the start of the Civil War, he declared that “in this enlightened age … slavery as an institution … is a moral and political evil in any Country.”

And after the war, when many supporters of the defeated Confederacy supported the continuation of violent resistance, Lee urged reconciliation:

It should be the object of all to avoid controversy, to allay passion, give full scope to reason and to every kindly feeling. By doing this and encouraging our citizens to engage in the duties of life with all their heart and mind, with a determination not to be turned aside by thoughts of the past and fears of the future, our country will not only be restored in material prosperity, but will be advanced in science, in virtue and in religion.

So what should we make of Robert E. Lee? One might argue that he was a traitor to the United States who engaged in armed rebellion against his own nation, and whom Charlottesville never should have honored with a military statue in the first place.

And yet one can’t argue a simple fact of history. Based on his own words, Lee would have been the first person to pull his statue down.