Lee, a Study in Contradictions

By Bill O’Keefe

Yesterday’s edition of The New York Times contains an opinion piece — “How Do I Tell the Story of Robert E. Lee,” by Allen Guelzo a professor at Princeton University. It came to me from a colleague of his whom I casually know but respect. Guezlo is about to publish “Robert E. Lee: A Life,” and the opinion piece is about his struggle to do so fairly. His book represents seven years of effort and, as he himself states, “Lee is a study in contradictions.” Dealing with those contradictions fairly would explain a seven-year undertaking.

Guelzo makes his challenge clear with this statement: “There are some biographies that are almost impossible to write, but write them we must. Biography demands a close encounter with a subject, an entrance into motive, perception and explanation. The intimacy of that encounter carries with it the danger of dulling the edge of the historian’s moral judgment — and that kind of judgment is what makes historical inquiry worthwhile, something more than a mere jumble of events and dates.”

Guezlo brings out the point, often overlooked, that Lee believed that slavery was “a moral and political evil in any country,” but that he also believed, as did others, that blacks were better off as slaves than living in Africa. Perhaps that is how many slave owners soothed their consciences.

He makes the interesting point that Lee statues were a way of asserting dignity even in defeat and as proof that “failure was not worthlessness.” Guelzo rejects the argument of some like me that Lee’s life should be viewed in context by asserting that “context making is itself a slippery task.”

His opinion piece ends with a recognition that difficult biographies, while challenging, can’t be avoided because that “would lose the sharpness of vision that tell us the difference between the path to human flourishing and the off-ramp to disaster.”

Given his reputation, my guess is that his book will add to our understanding of Lee but in a way that does not satisfy either those who consider him evil or those who consider him a honorable man who chose wrongly to follow his state.

The one part of his opinion piece that I disagree with and find surprising is Guezlo’s assertion that Lee was guilty of treason. I recognize that I represent a minority and will be judged as a Lost Cause apologist. Nonetheless, I believe that my view has a strong and plausible foundation — the Resumption Clause. Guezlo surely must have discovered in his research that In ratifying the Constitution, four states did so conditionally — New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Virginia. All but Massachusetts included a Resumption Clause that reserved the right, “as sovereign states, to resume all the powers they had delegated in the Constitution.” The fact that the other states during the ratification process did not object implies acceptance of that condition. And Thomas Jefferson wrote that, “if it ever happened that some one of the original states wished to leave, they should be allowed to do so,” since the premise of the Constitution was a voluntary union.

Maybe Guezlo felt the need to go along with the traitor label to buy his peaceful life on a woke campus. If the woke philosophy didn’t infect his writing, his book may give some new insights into Robert E. Lee.

William O’Keefe, a Midlothian resident, is founder of Solutions Consulting and former EVP of the American Petroleum Institute.

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58 responses to “Lee, a Study in Contradictions”

  1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    I suppose you think that Presidential signing statements have the force of law as well then….

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Depends on who.

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I do not see how the Resumption Claus is relevant. Lee took an oath as a U.S. Army officer to defend the U.S. Constitution. That’s why he was a traitor.

    1. 20 Apr 1861

      Lt. Genl Winfield Scott
      Commd U.S. Army

      Since my interview with you on the 18th Inst: I have felt that I ought not longer to retain any Commission in the Army. I therefore tender my resignation which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once but for the struggle it has Cost me to separate myself from a Service to which I have divoted all the best years of my life, & all the ability I possessed. During the whole of that time, more than a quarter of a century, I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors & the most Cordial friendships from any Comrades. To no one Genl have I been as much indebted as to yourself for kindness & Consideration & it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation. I shall carry with me, to the grave the most grateful recollections
      of your kind Consideration, & your name & fame will always be dear to me. Save in the defense of my native state shall I ever again draw my sword. Be pleased to accept any more [illegible] wishes for “the Continuance of your happiness & prosperity & believe me

      Most truly yours
      R E Lee

    2. Treason is the only crime specifically defined in the U.S. Constitution. See Article III, Section 3. Specifically: “Treason against the United States , shall consist only in levying War against them, or adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” The word “only” is plain English for limiting the definition of treason. Violating the oath of office is not covered by the constitutional definition of treason. (Incidentally, the history of the British monarchy’s abuse of the meaning of treason by modifying it to target political opponents — real and imagined —is the reason why Americans wanted to limit the definition of treason.)

      Although Congress is given authority to declare the punishment for treason (Article III, Section 3, Clause 2), it is not given the authority to modify the constitutional definition of treason.

      1. ahhhhh. it’s a crime. Was RE Lee, or any other person who fought the North, charged under that law? If not, then the label cannot apply.

        1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
          Dick Hall-Sizemore

          Jefferson Davis was charged with treason. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/jefferson-daviss-imprisonment/

          1. that’s one, and he wasn’t a soldier

          2. Stephen Haner Avatar
            Stephen Haner

            There’s a major understatement….

    3. William O'Keefe Avatar
      William O’Keefe

      He resigned his commission before accepting a position with the confederacy. President Eisenhower did not consider him a traitor, by the way.

    4. If that had been his oath, he could have argued that he was defending his view of the Constitution. But his oath was to bear allegiance to and to defend the United States:

      “I do solemnly swear that I will bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States and the officers over me according to the rules and articles for the Armies of the United States.”

      The oath was not made conditional on his having a commission in the army, and so I don’t think by resigning his commission he was able to rescind his oath of allegiance to the United States.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Some of the conflicts we have – have to do with the fidelity of the history – that is what actually happened versus conflicts in some accounts.

    And I say this from all perspectives. We do seem to struggle to get to the truth and facts on history sometimes, and especially so when it conflicts with our own recollections and beliefs.

    I see this: ” Lee had privately ridiculed the Confederacy in letters in early 1861, denouncing secession as “revolution” and a betrayal of the efforts of the nation’s founders. Lee wrote, in a letter to his son William Fitzhugh Lee, “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than dissolution of the Union.”


    I see other accounts that also say Lee did not support secession.

    If that’s true – then how would one reconcile that with resigning his commission and taking arms against the Union – i.e. treason?

    1. Because, at that time in history many people, and not just southerners, considered loyalty to one’s home State to be just as important, if not more important, than loyalty to the United States. It was not an unusual philosophy at all.

      In 1861, this country was still the United States of Americas. It took that war, and its subsequent fallout, to make us the single entity known as the United States of America.

      1. Which is why the vast majority of units on BOTH SIDES were State regiments, not CS or US regiments. That changed after the war, the Americans finally viewed themselves as Americans, not Virginians or New Yorkers — read THEIR letters.

      2. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        These United States vs. The United States. Still, doesn’t change the correct aspects of Larry’s comments.
        1) Newspapers, 2) Resumes, 3) Private Letters, 4) Legends… the story of history.

    2. tmtfairfax Avatar

      As a descendant of two Union soldiers, I have no respect for the Confederate cause. But prior to the Civil War, the common usage was the United States are. The concept was sovereignty was at the state level. The states had only consented to the union as the United States and, as such, were free to revoke that consent at any point in time.

      And the South was not alone in believing secession was needed. Consider the New England Federalists and the Hartford Convention and the push for secession by northern abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison.

      The War proved that, once given, consent was irrevocable. And our usage changed to The United States is. No discussion of the issue is sound unless it is conducted with this understanding of American history and law. And my mother pounded into my head – what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        What does this have to do with Lee and his reasons for what he did?

        And unclear on the goose/gander thing….

        One thing I would note on Lee and History.

        As far as I know not a single book has been altered or removed from a library not have historic road signs or battlefield kiosks been altered for “woke” purposes.

        We HAVE renamed schools and roads and removed some mouments that were put up by the UDC in furtherance of Jim Crow/Lost Cause.

        No written history of Lee has been re-written to conform to “woke”. It’s still there for any/all to reference.

        1. tmtfairfax Avatar

          Larry, it’s very simple. Like many people in the mid-19th Century, Robert E. Lee viewed the nature of the United States government as a compact between sovereign states that were free to revoke their consent. Under those conditions, one can understand why he did what he did. Do we know whether any other military officers resigned their commissions because the U.S. government supported slavery? The difference between 1861 and earlier attempts at secession was the the former was carried out and the earlier ones never got traction.

  4. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Explain Lee and slavery the same way you explain the GOP leadership and Trump — a complete lack of courage of conviction — in short, craven.

  5. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    This now qualifies as an obsession. Tired of it, very tired of it.

    1. At least this article is tied to a new book.

      1. Stephen Haner Avatar
        Stephen Haner

        Like number, what, 385 on the subject? He clearly was a fine tactician, and an inspirational leader who kept the rebellion alive until the Union let Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Thomas and others of equal competence and drive take the top commands. But hell yeah he was killing his fellow Americans to preserve slavery and hell yeah he broke his oath to the US Constitution. This worship we still see was something he discouraged in his lifetime.

        1. Like number, what, 385 on the subject?

          A writer’s gotta make a living…

        2. Matt Adams Avatar

          “hell yeah he broke his oath to the US Constitution.”

          Lee resigned his Commission as a Colonel in 1861. His oath of office was no longer valid upon that resignation.

          1. there you go again with facts, such a white, male, Euro-centric approach

          2. Matt Adams Avatar

            I don’t know about any of that. People should be factual in their statements though.

          3. facts rarely get in the way of discussion from one end of the spectrum

          4. Matt Adams Avatar

            Understandable, Steve doesn’t seem hard bent on ideologies.

            The Civil War is fascinating if you want to look at the whole picture. We would be singing a different tune if Gettysburg had not had happened.

        3. William O'Keefe Avatar
          William O’Keefe

          Steve, you are usually more accurate in your comments. The Resumption Clause cannot be simply ignored because of its inconvenience to your narrative. Once he resigned his commission and Virginia withdrew from the United States, his oath was null and void.
          There are a number of historians who hold that he knew the North would win so he was fighting a war of attrition in hopes of a negotiated peace.

          1. Stephen Haner Avatar
            Stephen Haner

            Sophistry on the “resumption clause” argument negating an oath.

            Agreed that Lee among others understood the long odds of military success, but he also hoped for international recognition and intervention that would pressure the Union to allow the Southern states to depart. That meant victories were needed. Quite a butcher’s bill for a “war of attrition.” Sharpsburg? Pittsburg Landing? “War of attrition?” The trenches around Petersburg setting the stage for Verdun?

            Like Grant, Sherman, Sheridan and Jackson, a stone cold killer who knew what happens when men decide, in that line from “A Bridge Too Far,” “to play the war game today.”

          2. William O'Keefe Avatar
            William O’Keefe

            We both are entitled to our own opinions. I believe that the basis for his decision was wrong but also believe that his entire life justifies his being treated better, especially is this day of wokeism and cancel culture.
            I don’t understand your sophistry comment? Care to explain?

          3. Stephen Haner Avatar
            Stephen Haner

            Probably the wrong word, as it implies an intent to deceive and you clearly accept what you say. But it is legally fallacious. Oaths are not temporary, and my old man felt bound by his long, long after he took off the uniform.

            I don’t envy Lee and the others of the time the choice they had to make, but he had the option of resigning his commission and not taking up arms at all on either side of the tragic, bloody conflict that all with a brain saw coming.

          4. William O'Keefe Avatar
            William O’Keefe

            I suspect that we are closer in our views then this exchange suggests.

  6. There’s an interesting post on the Bacon’s Rebellion Facebook page entry for this column, which I will cross-post here. Jim Harrelson writes:

    Mr. O’Keefe’s opinion is completely ignorant of the laws and culture of the day, Lee’s own writings and the fact that Robert E. Lee manumitted (educated, trained, financed and freed) more estate slaves in his lifetime than Abraham Lincoln.
    December 29, 1862, General Robert E. Lee’s 10 year manumission process of approximately 200 Slaves belonging to his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis/Lee estate was completed under Virginia law.

    The Custis Will states, “And upon the legacies to my four granddaughters being paid, and my estates that are required to pay the said legacies, being clear of debts, then I give freedom to my slaves, the said slaves to be emancipated by my executors in such manner as to my executors may seem most expedient and proper, the said emancipation to be accomplished in not exceeding five years from the time of my decease.”

    Gen. Lee was one of four executors assigned to the estate. That five years stipulated in the Custis Will, would not end until October of 1862. During which time Virginia was invaded, Gen. Lee became otherwise engaged in thwarting said invasion of Virginia. Gen. Lee was nonetheless concerned of his duty as executor of the Custis Will. Three letters state his very humane concerns regarding the lives and welfare of the Custis family Slaves, as well as encouraging their emancipation and success. Always leading by example within his means to act for their welfare as well as in accordance with Virginia Law and his father-in-law’s Will.

    December 16, 1862 in a letter to Mary, General Lee clearly states his feelings for manumitting the Slaves:

    “As regards the liberation of the people, I wish to progress in it as far as I can. Those hired in Richmond can still find employment there if they choose. Those of the country can do the same or remain on the farms. I hope they will all do well and behave themselves. I should like if I could to attend to their wants and see them placed to the best advantage. But that is impossible.”
    December 21, 1862 in another letter to his wife Mary, in Richmond.

    “As regards the servants. Those that are hired out can soon be settled. They can be furnished with their free papers & hire themselves out. Those on the farms I will issue free papers to as soon as I can see that they can get a support. As long as they remain on the farm they must continue as they are. Any who wish to leave can do so. The men could no doubt find homes, but what are the women & children to do? As regards Mr. Collins he must remain & take care of the people til I can dispose of them some way. I desire to do what is right & best for the people. The estate is only indebted to me now. The legacies & debts are paid, & I wish to close the whole affair, but whether I can do so during the war I cannot say, nor do I know that I shall live to the end of it. I cannot give the date of your father’s will. The papers are not with me. Perhaps Custis can get at them. The will was probated before the county court of Alexandria. Custis has also the bonds of the men who hired Reuben, &c. When he returns see him about it. He will return with the President who will be back before New Years day. I shall not issue any free passes to the people while they are on the farms. As long as they remain there they must work as usual. I will be willing to devote the net proceeds of their labour for the year to their future establishment. Those at Arlington & Alexandria I cannot now reach. They are already free & when I can get to them I will give them their papers.”

    There you have the man by his own testimony not only freeing the people, but humanely insuring their prosperity to succeed on their own merit. He did not have to offer them anything else. How cruel a Slave master was he to insure their security and welfare. Gen. Robert E. Lee went even further in another letter January 11th 1863, to his son George Washington Custis Lee he reiterates his further concerns for the freed servants welfare.:
    “I hope you will be able to do Something for the Servants. I executed a deed of manumission, embracing all the names Sent me by your mother & Some that I recollected, but as I had nothing to refer to but my memory, I fear many are omitted. It was my desire to manumit all the people of your Grd father, whether present on the Several estates or not. I believe your mother only Sent me the names of those present at the White House & Romankoke. Those that have left with the enemy, may not require their manumission. Still some may be found hereafter in the State, & at any rate I wished to give a complete list & to liberate all, to Show that your Grd Fathers wishes so far as I was Concerned had been fulfilled. Do you not think that is the best Course? If you Can get the Complete list you Can either have a deed drawn up embracing the whole, or a Supplementary deed embracing those who have been omitted, Stating they had been Carried from the plantations from by the enemy. Mr. Caskie says six men have been Sent to Mr Eacho by Mr Chas: Scott. viz Obediah, George, Wesly, Henry, Edward & Oscar. The latter may be intended for Parks or Austin, but one of them is missing. Can you ascertain which & where he is. Harrison was hired to the Agent or Contractor on the Orange & Alexa R. R.

    Can you find out where he is? I shall pay wages to Perry & retain him till he & I can do better. You Can do the Same with Billy. The rest that are hired out had better be furnished with their free papers & be let go – But what Can be done with those at the White House & R_(omankoke). Those at & about Arlington Can take Care of themselves I hope, & I have no doubt but that all are gone who desire to do So. At any rate I Can do nothing for them now.”

    He not only pursued finding those he could manumit, he guides his son in his judgment to find them as well, and offers to pay those who remain with him as free laborers. Robert E. Lee was such a “Cruel Slave Master” that he admits he didn’t even know who all the Slaves were in his family’s charge. He was so inhumane to lead by example in freeing these people even in accordance with the Law, but more so in supporting their welfare and future prosperity that he offered them every best chance he could.

    Gen. Robert E. Lee signed the deed of Manumission for the Custis/Lee Slaves, which was processed in Spotsylvania Courthouse December 29th 1862.

    — Via Susanne Toomey.

    1. William O'Keefe Avatar
      William O’Keefe

      Harrelson gives a very detailed description of Lee’s action regarding manumitting the slaves but that wasn’t the purpose of my post. It was to describe a book that was being recommended by someone for whom I have a high regard. So, I’m surprised that Harrelson would use that to assert that my opinion is ” completely ignorant of the laws and culture of the day.” His is apparently the art of drawing conclusions from faulty premises!

  7. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Allen Guelzo is a mediocre historian at best. Skilled at recasting what others have already done. His Gettysburg book is the only Gettysburg book in my collection that I freely gave away and glad to be done with it. Guelzo’s book falls in line with Ty Siedule’s hit piece on Lee last year. The pioneer of Lee bashing is Alan T. Nolan’s Lee Considered. Time is running out on defaming and cashing in on Lee’s good name.

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      Apparently not. He may get mentioned on this blog more often than Gov. Northam.

    2. Thank you for the warning. I did not know Allen Guezlo and was tempted to give his book a try.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        Tucker’s book High Tide at Gettysburg is accessible and has insights that are piercing. Try that one.

        1. Thank you.

    3. tmtfairfax Avatar

      The best book on Gettysburg I’ve read is Edwin Coddington’s The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. It took me a couple months to read it carefully, including the massive number of detailed footnotes. Not everyone agrees with Coddington’s conclusions but his documentation and detail are beyond compare.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        Coddington’s book is a scholarly work. If you really want to get down in the weeds of the battle of Gettysburg subscribe to Gettysburg magazine. Order the back issues. The most recorded and written about battle since Waterloo.

      2. Stephen Haner Avatar
        Stephen Haner

        The “Blame Longstreet” camp or the “Blame Lee” camp? The South was doomed the day the cannons were fired at Sumpter….

        1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
          James Wyatt Whitehead

          Some blame Jeb Stuart.

          1. Matt Adams Avatar

            When your Calvary is no where to be found, it’s hard to know what is ahead of you.

        2. tmtfairfax Avatar

          Coddington’s thesis is that good leadership by Union generals, rather than just Confederate mistakes, won the day for the North.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            and which puzzles me a bit , so much focus and attention on Lee and much less on other generals, especially the North.

            In the North – there is quite a lot of scholarly attention to the Generals but much less public realm , fewer sitting on horses, less schools and roads named for, etc…

            Why so much focus on Lee who may well not have been the “best”?

          2. tmtfairfax Avatar

            While they each made mistakes, Grant, Sherman, Sheridan and Thomas were fighters and took the battle to the Confederates. And then there were Burnside, Hooker and McClellan.

          3. LarrytheG Avatar

            Yep – but Lee is often/probably the most focused on, right?

            Did Grant own slaves also?

            Have statues of him been taken down?

        3. Matt Adams Avatar

          That is an overly simplistic view of the War.

          I state that on the fact that if the skirmish on Chambersburg Pike had not occurred there might not have been a battle. As Gettysburg was never an intended target. The end state of the campaign was Harrisburg, once secured the South could use the resources and encircle Washington D.C. in hopes of eliciting a surrender or peace negotiations.

    4. William O'Keefe Avatar
      William O’Keefe

      You may be right about Guezlo but his book is recommended by another Princeton faculty member who I deeply respect and is highly regarded.

  8. Newt Gingrich reviews Guelzo’s book in a column published in The Virginia Star.

    While conceding that Lee “committed treason” and fought for the Confederacy, which wanted to uphold slavery, Gingrich defends him against the woke mob. Lee, he writes, was a complex figure

    “His decision not to accept command of the American Army just before the outbreak of the Civil War was motivated by multiple complicated factors. And Lee didn’t just proceed to join the Confederacy overnight. In fact, he initially remained neutral and wanted to broker a peace settlement to reunite the country over time. He didn’t want secession.”

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      The irony of Southern Republicans engaging in an active defense of Democrats who killed other Americans to preserve slavery, on the eve of an election in a state now dominated by Yankee “come here’s” is just too rich. This is a trap which anybody can see being laid by the Democrats (pleased that the statue stayed up until election season) and everybody just walks into the Valley of Political Death. Truly the choices are the evil party or the stupid party.

      1. I do agree that, politically speaking, the defense of Civil War statues, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson is a loser in Virginia. Popular opinion has moved on.

        But saying that defending Virginia’s historical heritage is a loser is not to say that the cultural cleansing is OK, and that there aren’t important issues to be examined. We’ve seen that the Left does not stop with the Civil War statues. Memorials are being torn down to anyone associated in any way with the war, slavery or segregation, regardless of their contributions to society. Moreover, there is no logical principle to halt the slide down the slippery slope to purging founding fathers who happened to be slaveowners, and delegitimizing the principles this country was founded on.

        Where do you draw the line, Steve? At what point do you say, enough is enough? And upon what basis do you draw that line?

        1. Stephen Haner Avatar
          Stephen Haner

          Be sure to turn off the lights as you will be the last to leave the building….

  9. Donald Smith Avatar
    Donald Smith

    Well-said. Those people who consider Lee a traitor will stand to their beliefs and opinions, and we will stand to ours. They will dismiss us, and we will dismiss them. And…tomorrow will be another day.

    It’s tiring to deal with those people, but we have to do it.

  10. The Amazing Criswell Avatar
    The Amazing Criswell

    The Bill of Rights made clear what the signers of the Constitution already knew: That powers not specifically delegated to the federal government were retained by the states and the people.

    The Constitution outlines how congress admits new states to the Union. It is silent as to how states withdraw from the Union. That means the states and the people decide how to exercise their right to withdraw. In Virginia, there were democratic mass meeting state-wide to elect members to a Virginia convention to consider withdrawal. Its early votes were against secession. It was only after Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to fight against his fellow Americans that Virginia withdrew.

    Lee is no traitor. He did not violate is military oath while he was a US Army officer. He resigned his Army commission. He was no long under the requirement of his oath, just as a retired US president is not long under the requirements of his oath of office.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I was curious – what is/was the process of disavowing your commission in the military. When you resign, is that disavowing your oath?

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