The Inheritance of Generals Washington and Lee

Lee Chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. (Photo: Larry Metayer/Dreamstime)
A school named after them has so far avoided the mob violence plaguing other campuses.

If we are to question our patron saints, then we must do so without losing a sense of ourselves.

University presidents have struggled to strike this balance in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville. The rush to remove controversial Confederate statues has highlighted that many universities are failing to protect their ideals when they’re confronted with mob behavior. Certainly no one would deny that university presidents, particularly in the South, find themselves in a difficult position. But rather than standing athwart the frenzied public atmosphere and yelling stop, they have simply pointed out, in the words of Duke University president Vincent E. Price, that “the turmoil and turbulence of recent months” does not stop at the schoolhouse door – as if this justifies administrators’ inability to cope with it. When it comes to controversial figures such as Robert E. Lee, university presidents have largely adopted a policy of shoot first and ask questions later.

Largely, but not entirely.

At Washington and Lee University, my alma mater, the administration of William Dudley has rightly committed itself to studying the academic and institutional legacy of Robert E. Lee, who served as the president of what was then called Washington College from 1865 to 1870. In an e-mail to the W&L community, President Dudley called on members to “embrace our ignorance,” by which he meant being “mindful of the most important things we do not yet know, in order that we might be spurred to examine them more deeply.” He also announced a year-long academic symposium that would study the history of Washington and Lee; guest speakers include Jonathan Rauch, Charles Dew, and Allen Guelzo, among others. Rather than rashly react to the demands of the mob, Washington and Lee has resolved to understand the contributions of its namesakes and discuss their virtues and shortcomings openly, in the name of truly open dialogue.

Because all great fortunes are, in some sense, tainted fortunes, it will be impossible for Washington and Lee to preserve General Lee’s vaunted status as a demigod of gentlemanly virtue. Yet even with his faults, Lee deserves to be honored.

The proffered standard, adopted by many liberal critics of Lee, centers on the question of fidelity to self-government. My friend and classmate Paqui Toscano identified the crux of the case for such a standard when he argued last week in the New York Times that “it’s not hard to distinguish those who provided the intellectual framework for American rights from those who did everything they could to rend it apart.” Lee’s current critics argue that because he fought against the Union and owned slaves, honoring his legacy gives legitimacy to the white-supremacist cause.

The problem with this interpretation is that it unnecessarily relegates Lee to the Lost Cause and its derivatives. It inverts the position of those that Richard Brookhiser called “professional Southerners,” who dwell exclusively on virtues (“bravery, chivalry”) while ignoring faults (“buying and selling people”). The statue-smashers do exactly the opposite; a wiser course would be to distinguish between the commendable and the condemnable.

More fundamentally, the insight gleaned by students at Washington and Lee, and largely absent from the public examination of Lee, is that the retired general made significant strides in promoting self-government among college students. As president of Washington College, Lee instituted an honor system predicated not on written regulations but on the unwritten requirement that “every student must be a gentleman.” By eschewing written code, he sought to teach students to voluntarily live an honorable life, “thereby developing their character.” “As a general principle,” Lee said, “you should not force young men to do their duty.”

The retired general made significant strides in promoting self-government among college students.

Far from an archaic practice, the honor system continues to govern students at Washington and Lee. Not only does it cultivate good character and self-governance, it also binds students and alumni together as a community. According to Angela Smith, director of the Roger Mudd Center for Ethics at Washington and Lee, the honor system “functions for many students at W&L as a cherished moral ideal that makes them feel bound to one another and to this institution in a way that is special and distinctive.”

That the honor system cultivates both individual responsibility and what Lincoln called the “mystic chords of memories” among generations of students goes a long way in explaining why W&L, unique among elite universities, has avoided the tumultuous clashes displayed on many campuses. In February 2016, a particularly contentious year for campuses across the country, Ann Coulter, Dick Cheney, and many other high-profile political figures spoke on campus as part of the speakers’ slate for Mock Convention, a quadrennial, entirely student-run convention where students attempt to accurately predict the presidential nominee for the party out of power. While Coulter’s remarks in particular irked a number of attending students, there was neither a preemptory campaign to have her barred from speaking nor, as at Berkeley, anarchy. Nor was Coulter, or any speaker in my time on campus, met by the illiberalism that precipitated the collegiate mobs that prevented Heather Mac Donald from speaking at Claremont and that attacked Charles Murray at Middlebury. Nor has any W&L student been so vicious as to spit on an invited guest, as a Yale student did to National Review’s own Kevin D. Williamson.

But it hasn’t just been speakers. In my time as a student, W&L had sharp debates about the presence of replica Confederate battle flags in Lee Chapel and a proposal to include gender and diversity classes in the required core curriculum. Yet the campus has remained civil.

The key question is the extent to which one can separate W&L’s honor system from Lee. Will the school continue to encourage self-governance, civility, and responsibility while jettisoning the baggage associated with Lee’s name? And if it can, should it? The danger of failing to show appreciation for our inherited institutions is, as William F. Buckley Jr. reminds us, that we might exhibit “an impiety that casts doubt on one’s care about freedom.”


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