Follow-up: “Confederate Flag: Symbol of Heritage or Hate?”

27 09 2010
On Thursday, September 23, 2010, I attended the talk “Confederate Flag: Symbol of Heritage or Hate?”, given by Todd Torkelson to the Minneapolis Skeptics. Both the talk and the ensuing discussion were fun, thought-provoking, and full of arguments, many made by me. In this post, I give attribution and further supporting information for some counter-arguments I made to a couple of specific claims.

“Robert E. Lee was anti-slavery.”

Cover image for "Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee though his Private Letters", by Elizabeth Pryor Brown

"Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee though his Private Letters", by Elizabeth Pryor Brown

We need to be careful about saying things like “Robert E. Lee was anti-slavery”, as Torkelson did. That statement requires mountains of qualification and context. Present-day audiences are likely to interpret “anti-slavery” as “abolitionist”, which Lee certainly was not. Lee was “anti-slavery” in a certain sense, a sense that probably would be very surprising to most people today. In her 2007 book “Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through his Private Letters”, Elizabeth Brown Pryor argues that Lee considered slavery a “necessary evil” that was harder on whites than blacks, that for Lee “African-Americans were poor workers and a time-consuming emotional handicap, more trouble than they were worth.” But slavery was part of God’s grand design, so the suffering slave-owners would just have to accept it, and hope that God would lift their burden at some unspecified point in the future. This quotation of Lee by Pryor is especially revealing:

Even in 1865, his world nearly shattered and slavery abolished, he would write that  he considered “the relation of master and slave, controlled by human laws and influenced by Christianity and enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white & black races.” Concluded Lee: “I would deprecate any sudden disturbance of that relation unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity to both.”

I’m relying on Pryor to support this counter-argument because she had unprecedented access to, and made unprecedented use of, Lee’s private correspondence. In Chapter 9, “Humanity and the Law”, of her book, Pryor addresses Lee’s views on slavery in great depth; I’m barely skimming the surface here. She acknowledges that her work contradicts many previous claims about Lee, and explains how some of those incorrect claims may have originated, in a fascinating talk about “Reading the Man” at Arlington National Cemetery on May 19, 2007.
But what about Torkelson’s strongest evidence that Lee was “anti-slavery”, that he “freed the slaves he inherited”? Pryor again:

Just how long he owned human property is unclear. As he departed for the Mexican War, Lee wrote a will in which he freed the much maligned [by Lee] Nancy and her children, though what he intended for the others he owned is not stated, nor is it clear whether or not we should assume that a special relationship had inspired Nancy’s preferential treatment. Douglas Southall Freeman thought that he liberated all of his slaves after 1847, since he found no tax listing for them after that date. According to a Dr. John Leyburn, who claimed to have interviewed the general before his death, Lee “had freed most of his Negroes before the war”, sending some to Liberia. Another account, written by Robert E. Lee Jr., stated that “General Robert E. Lee inherited three or four families of slaves and ‘let them go… a long time before the war.'” The account states that the reason no formal paper was executed at that time was that he did not want them to have to leave Virginia, which state law required. Hiring records, however, show that Lee himslef still owned slaves at least until 1852, and that he used enslaved blacks as personal servants until the end of the Civil War.

“The Civil War was not about slavery.”

The bulk of Torkelson’s talk laid out a strong argument that the Civil War was about slavery. However, some attendees seemed to disagree.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor of the Atlantic, demolishes the argument that “the Civil War was not about slavery” with quotations from many declarations of secession and other evidence, in a beautifully-written article that I encourage everyone to read: “The Ghost of Bobby Lee” He also brilliantly addresses the fundamental flaw in this entire line of argument, including his own previous belief in Robert E. Lee’s oft-claimed anti-slavery:

It’s weak to manipulate the dead in order to reconcile our present, to force men to play our Gods. Robert E. Lee was a man, and a product of a time and place that turned people into, quite literally, the most valuable resource in this country… These were the kind of forces at work in his world, and I’m not convinced we have the intrinsic right to expect someone like Lee to oppose them. Likewise, I may think that it was sinister for people who “looked like me” to sell me into slavery, but that presumes an expectation of racial unity which almost certainly didn’t exist at the time. Again, it summons the dead to do the work that I would shy away from.

Coates clearly strives to be objective and to confront strong counter-arguments and his own pre-conceptions. Another good example is “Slaves Who Liked Slavery”, also well worth reading, and “Stolen Legacy”, posted just today. Coates says, “The broad reclamation of a Civil War equally shared by all Americans is, at this moment, the work of my life.” Can’t wait to read more.
Photo of Andrew Jackson Smith

Stolen Legacy: 'Andrew Jackson Smith, born a slave, fled, when told that his "master" would be taking him with him into the Confederate Army. Instead, Smith fled 25 miles through the rain and presented himself to Union forces.'