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Larry Elder at Lee Chapel

March 31, 2022

The Removal of Robert E. Lee’s Name from the Lee Chapel at Washington & Lee University

 

Matthew B. Wills - St. Croix Review

 

Matthew Wills is an erstwhile lawyer who has turned to historical writing. His latest book was a biography of a captain in the British Royal Navy, which led to an invitation for him to write for the Naval Review magazine. He grew up in Tennessee.

 

On 4 June, 2021, the Board of Trustees of Washington & Lee University (W&L) by a 26 to 6 vote announced that the university would continue under its current name. What is far more difficult to understand was its simultaneous decision to remove Robert E. Lee’s name from the Chapel.

 

In its message to the W&L community distributed on its website, the board referred to its action concerning the Lee Chapel with the following unconvincing words:

 

“Lee Chapel will be renamed ‘University Chapel’ in keeping with its original 19th century name of ‘College Chapel.’ The board will oversee and approve interior changes to restore its unadorned design and will physically separate the auditorium from the Lee family crypt and Lee memorial sculpture.”

 

The regrettable message this sends to the W&L Community and to all future generations of students and faculty is that Robert E. Lee was an infamous Virginian who never deserved a chapel named in his memory. To drive home the point, the board in the very next paragraph announced that Founders Day, traditionally held on January 19, Lee’s birthday, would be discontinued.

 

The Board of Trustees’ decision is at best incomprehensible, and at worst malicious. No serious person has ever suggested that the Lee Chapel was a shrine to the Confederacy. For Lee, who was deeply involved in the design and construction of the new chapel, this beautiful building was a sanctuary for the worship of God. Any suggestion that Lee wanted the chapel as a shrine to himself is so absurd that it requires no further comment.

 

There are three important references to this chapel in the abridgement to Douglas Southall Freeman’s four-volume biography of Lee; each reveals Lee’s involvement in the new chapel and his strong Christian faith.

 

“Following Lee’s inauguration as president of Washington College on October 2nd, 1865, he quickly established a routine of duty. Rising early at the Lexington Hotel, where he resided until the arrival of his family, he proceeded afoot to the college. Before 7:45 he was at chapel for the 15-minute services, which he invited the ministers of the principal Lexington churches to hold in rotation.”[1]

 

These 15-minute services took place in the old chapel. In 1866, the Board of Trustees felt the need to construct a new chapel. “A new chapel was authorized at a cost not to exceed $10,000.”[2] The most revealing reference to Lee’s involvement with this new chapel reads:

 

“The Trustees, at General Lee’s insistence, had put first among the construction projects of the college the creation of the new chapel. General Lee devoted himself to building the structure economically and within the allowed appropriation. With Custis’s assistance, he gave to it daily supervision and the experience gained in dealing with labor when he had been an army engineer.”[3]

 

His son, General George Washington Custis Lee, was then an engineering professor at the Virginia Military Institute.

 

While Lee invariably attended Sunday worship services, compulsory chapel attendance was abolished by him at the close of his first year at the college.

 

“He was always anxious that the students should be present and he sought various ways of assuring this. He was always at the chapel himself, sitting in the same place, next to the wall on the north side of the new building, in the second pew from the front.”[4]

 

Considering Lee’s total support of the appropriation for this new chapel, his close supervision of its construction, and his worship there every Sunday, the removal of his name from the chapel was mean-spirited. Many Christians will consider the removal of Lee’s name from the chapel as heresy, for at least three reasons. Lee was a self-proclaimed Christian; his whole life reflected Christian virtues; and Lee was instrumental in the design and construction of this chapel.

 

In all the years since Lee’s death on October 12, 1870, countless Americans and many visitors from abroad have journeyed to Lexington just to see the Lee Chapel. In 1985, Tim Mulligan visited Lee Chapel while doing research for his forthcoming book, Virginia A History & Guide. Mulligan was a sophisticated New Yorker who was educated at Phillips Academy, Andover, Yale, and the University of Paris. He wrote this about the chapel. It was, “Surely one of the more endearing Victorian Chapels in this country. . . ”[5] George Washington had endowed the college with a gift of $50,000 in stock of the James River Canal Company. Robert E. Lee had served the college for exactly five years as president. He was greatly involved in the design and construction of the chapel. Mulligan felt that it was totally appropriate to place portraits and sculptures of these two icons within the chapel. At the far end of the chapel, there was a statue of a recumbent Lee asleep on the battlefield. Of this statue Mulligan wrote: “It is, I think, exactly the right tribute. Lee was totally devoid of pretension, and a statue of him in a heroic pose would have struck a jarring note, particularly in this place”.[6]

 

Mulligan described Washington’s portrait as follows:

 

“. . . to the left of the statue (of Lee) is a wonderful portrait — the first — of Washington, by Charles Willson Peale, painted in 1772. In it, Washington wears the uniform of a colonel in the British army”. [7]

 

Mulligan’s appreciation for a portrait of Lee by William Edward West speaks for itself:

 

“The Lee Portrait, painted in 1838 in Baltimore, shows him in full-dress uniform and clearly demonstrates why he was known not only as the handsomest man in the army, but also as ‘the model soldier and the beau-ideal of a Christian man.’ Young and vital he is indeed in this superb portrait, that also shows us eyes expressing intense intelligence, and dignity, and even a certain wry humor. A revealing and discerning depiction of one of our country’s greatest heroes.”[8]

 

If the Lee Chapel had contained any art that suggested a shrine to “The Lost Cause,” Mulligan would have immediately noticed. He did not because there was nothing of the sort there.

 

The Board of Trustees has done Robert E. Lee a grave injustice. Its decision to remove his name from the chapel was done apparently to appease groups like Black Lives Matter, whose hatred for Lee, his family, and his admirers has no end. Their hatred undoubtedly extends to two of Virginia’s greatest Civil War historians, Douglas Southall Freeman (1886 - 1953) and James I. Robertson, Jr. (1930 - 2019). Freeman’s classic biography of Lee in four volumes, entitled R. E. Lee, won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. He also wrote Lee’s Lieutenants, in three volumes. It too is considered a classic. While Lee’s life has always been surrounded by mystique, Freeman’s assessment of him was based on solid, exhaustive research. He had completed R. E. Lee in 1934. Five years later, he commenced research on Lee’s Lieutenants. This gave him the opportunity to reassess Lee through the eyes of his lieutenants. Freeman’s final conclusion is found in the introduction to volume three of Lee’s Lieutenants, which reads as follows:

 

“When seen through the eyes of his subordinates as certainly as when one looked at him across the table in his tent, he is a great soldier and a great man. Twenty year’s study of him confirms and deepens every conviction of that.”[9]

 

Robertson taught history at Virginia Tech for 44 years. In addition to other Civil War books, he wrote three books about Jackson. Their titles are Stonewall Jackson The Man, The Soldier, The Legend; Standing Like a Stonewall, the Life of General Thomas J. Jackson; and Jackson & Lee: Legends in Gray. The first of the aforesaid books is the definitive biography of Jackson.

 

These historians would disdain the efforts of Black Lives Matter and Antifa to demonize Lee. They would find the action of the Board of Trustees in removing Lee’s name from the chapel egregious. Freeman and Robertson were highly respected throughout Virginia and far beyond. At Virginia Tech, Robertson was cherished by his colleagues in the history department. Robertson reciprocated their affection, writing:

 

“To William C. Davis, Gary W. Gallagher, Joseph T. Glatthaar, Grady McWhiney, and Emory M. Thomas — colleagues who annually gather on the New River to dissect history and one another — I express deepest thanks most of all for their friendship.”[10]

 

While Robertson is best known as an authority on Jackson, he had a profound interest in Robert E. Lee. Robertson wrote of the two of them as follows:

 

“In the pantheon of American soldiers, none stands taller than Generals Robert Edward Lee and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. They now seem larger than life. When considering Lee and Jackson, eyes seem to lift. So does the mind. The very words these men used — Gentleman, Duty, Valor, Honor — have a quaint sound in these times because they have become unfamiliar terms. People who say that Lee and Jackson did not really exist make that statement because no one like them exists now.”[11]

 

How will Freeman and Robertson be treated in the years ahead by Washington & Lee? Will they be denounced as racists? Will their books be banished from W&L’s library? Will W&L students be instructed not to read their greatest books? These are hard questions, but in the vitriolic America of today, they are not irrelevant.

 

Regardless of any further actions by the trustees of Washington & Lee University to downgrade their revered former president, in the long reach of history, Lee will always be a great soldier, and a great man. Military historians of the future will treat Stonewall Jackson with the respect that he deserves. Douglas Southall Freeman and James I. Robertson Jr. will remain the definitive biographers of Lee and Jackson for the foreseeable future.

 

Notes

 

 

[1] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee: An Abridgment in One Volume (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961) P. 523.

[2] Ibid, P. 528.

[3] Ibid, P. 532

[4] Ibid, P. 530

[5] Mulligan, Tim, Virginia: A History and Guide, (New York: Random House, 1986) P. 101

[6] Ibid, P. 102

[7] Ibid, P. 103

[8] Ibid

[9] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command, volume 3, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944) P. XXV.

[10] Robertson, James, I. Jr., Stonewall Jackson The Man, The Soldier, The Legend (New York, London, Mexico City, New Delhi, Singapore, Sydney, Toronto: MacMillan Publishing USA, 1997) P. XX.

[11] Robertson, James I. Jr. (paintings by Mort Kunstler) Jackson & Lee: Legends in Gray (Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1995) P. 9.     *

How Adherents See “Critical Race Theory’
William A. Galston – Wall Street Journal
July 13, 2021

 

It’s worth examining the academic roots of a phrase that has become a catch-all

At its recent annual meeting, the National Education Association adopted an agenda item stating, “It is reasonable and appropriate for curriculum to be informed by academic frameworks for understanding and interpreting the impact of the past on current society, including critical race theory.”

Becky Pringle, the teachers union’s president, declared “if this grand experiment in democracy is to succeed,” then “we must continuously do the work to challenge ourselves and others to dismantle the racist interconnected systems and the economic injustices that have perpetuated systemic inequities.”

Asked about the NEA’s decision, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that President Biden believes “children should learn about our history,” including the view that “there is systemic racism that is still impacting society today.”

With this statement, Mr. Biden has plunged headlong into a roiling national debate about critical race theory, and it isn’t clear he can win it. The issue has become central to the cultural agenda that Republicans hope to ride to victory in the midterm elections. The share of Americans who believe its impact on our society will be negative is twice as large as those with a positive assessment. Only 16% strongly support teaching critical race theory in public schools, compared with 29% who strongly oppose it.

 

Between Feb. 1 and June 13, Fox News mentioned critical race theory more than 1,300 times. Christopher Rufo, a young conservative activist who was instrumental in persuading President Trump to issue an executive order restricting diversity training throughout the executive branch, has a remarkably effective strategy. It’s no secret: In a well-known tweet, he described his plan for turning critical race theory “toxic” by putting “all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”

 

The evidence suggests that so far Mr. Rufo is succeeding. Critical race theorists, who have written extensively about the power of narratives, are losing ground to a counter narrative focused on stories drawn from workplaces, universities and public schools, and states across the country are busy enacting bills banning it in K-12 education.

 

Still, relatively few Americans—including those who regularly denounce it—know much about what critical race theory is. It originated in law schools in the 1970s and has since become a sprawling movement. To find out more about it, I turned to “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction,” co-written by one of the movement’s founders, Richard Delgado. He writes that critical race theory “questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.” It builds on critical legal studies and radical feminism, the work of European theorists such as Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and the American radical tradition, including the Black Power and Chicano movements of the 1960s and early ’70s.

 

 

Mr. Delgado and Jean Stefancic proceed to describe the key tenets of critical race theory. These propositions include the belief that racism is ordinary, “the usual way that society does business,” not aberrational; and that “triumphalist history”—the confidence that the legislation and court decisions of the 1950s and 1960s set the U.S. on the course of irresistible racial progress—neglects social backlash and legal retreat. Liberal approaches to racism, such as colorblindness and neutral principles of law, can fix only the worst abuses. But if racism is deeply embedded in thought processes and social structures, they say, then only “aggressive, color-conscious efforts” to change the status quo can make a difference.

 

“White privilege”—the unspoken, unseen advantages that whites enjoy—is a key aspect of these social structures. Changing laws without undoing the “racial subordination” inherent in white privilege will not get us very far. Incrementalism is a bankrupt strategy; “everything must change at once.” The logical conclusion is that to overcome racism, we need a cultural revolution.

The case against affirmative action, we are told, rests on “an implicit assumption of innocence on the part of the white person” this policy displaces. The guilty parties are the beneficiaries of affirmative action who take what does not rightfully belong to them. But if racism is “pervasive, systemic, and deeply ingrained,” as critical race theorists insist, then “no white member of society seems quite so innocent.” Because all whites benefit from a system of unearned advantage, race-conscious remedies simply rectify that injustice.

 

I have barely scratched the surface of this complex movement in these paragraphs. But one thing is clear: Because the Declaration of Independence—the founding document of the American liberal order—is a product of Enlightenment rationalism, a doctrine that rejects the Enlightenment tacitly requires deconstructing the American order and rebuilding it on an entirely different foundation.

A Deeper Look at Critical Race Theory

William A. Galston – Wall Street Journal

July 20, 2021

In last week’s column about critical race theory, I said that I had barely scratched the surface of this complex movement. To dig deeper, I turned to a collection of essays by the movement’s founders and early adherents—“Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement”—published in 1996. Here is what I found in the volume and in an article by Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the book’s editors and one of the movement’s most insightful thinkers.

• Critical race theory denies the possibility of objectivity. As the volume’s editor’s state in their illuminating introduction, “Scholarship about race in America can never be written from a distance of detachment or with an attitude of objectivity  Scholarship—the formal production, identification, and organization of what will be called ‘knowledge’—is inevitably political.” And politics is about power—specifically, about the struggle between those who seek to maintain oppressive hierarchies and those who seek to overturn them. Scholarship can be a powerful weapon in that struggle.

• The theory moves race to the center of our focus. As the editors put it, it aims to “recover and revitalize the radical tradition of race-consciousness,” a tradition “that was discarded when integration, assimilation and the ideal of colorblindness became the official norms of racial enlightenment.”

• The founders of Critical Race Theory identified with Black Power movements much more than with those who were working for integration. This form of race-consciousness can’t be reduced to class-consciousness. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who understood the fight for equality as a class struggle, learned this lesson the hard way during his quest for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

• Critical race theory is an explicitly left-wing movement inspired by the thinking of an Italian neo-Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. Against classic Marxism, for which material conditions are primary, Gramsci (1891-1937) focused on “hegemony”—the system of beliefs that “reinforces existing social arrangements and convinces the dominated classes that the existing order is inevitable,” as Ms. Crenshaw puts it.

• The theory offers a fundamental critique of the civil-rights movement and the liberal ideology it reflects. Such theorists argue that the civil-rights movement scored some “symbolic” gains for black Americans but left their material conditions mostly unchanged, in part because civil-rights law is inherently limited. Such laws treat “discrimination” as isolated acts by specific individuals or businesses, as exceptions to prevailing norms and practices, not as pervasive and “systemic.” Civil-rights law can mitigate the consequences of illegal and unjust acts, but it can do nothing to redress the continuing impact of past oppression.

• Critical race theory rejects the principle of equality of opportunity. Its adherents insist that equality of opportunity is a myth, not a reality, in today’s America, and that those who pursue it are misguided. The real goal is equality of results, measured by black share of income, wealth and social standing. Critical race theorists reject the idea that sought-after goods should be distributed through systems that evaluate and reward “merit.”

This metric is unacceptable, the editors say, because certain “conceptions of merit function not as a neutral basis for distributing resources and opportunity, but rather as a repository of hidden, race-specific preferences for those who have the power to determine the meaning and consequences of ‘merit.’ ” These critics don’t specify which conceptions of merit, if any, they would find acceptable.

For those who reject meritocracy and demand equal results, even race-conscious policies such as affirmative action are diversionary. “The aim of affirmative action,” the book’s editors insist, is to “create enough exceptions to white privilege to make the mythology of equal opportunity seem at least plausible.” Such policies are an inadequate response to the persistence of “white supremacy.”

Following Gramsci’s lead, critical race theory has used mainstream concepts such as equality and inclusion to wage a highly effective war of position against liberal ideology. Some liberals have been co-opted, and others silenced. But now the debate has moved to states and school districts around the country, and many parents don’t like what they are seeing. Presenting an honest view of American history in public schools is one thing, parents say, but focusing the curriculum on the “1619 Project” is quite another. Hiring practices and workplaces should be fair and welcoming to all, employees say, but mandatory diversity training premised on the ubiquity of “unconscious racism” and “white fragility” is coercive and insulting.

 

Critical race theory’s popularizers have done the movement no favors. In his bestselling book, “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” Ibram X. Kendi bluntly asserts that “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” If prescriptions such as Mr. Kendi’s come to be seen as the inevitable consequence of critical race theory, the movement will end in failure.

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