Washington and Lee University: Ground Zero in the Culture Wars

Fireworks explode over the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee during an event to mark Juneteenth in Richmond, Va., June 19, 2020. (Mallory Noe-Payne/Reuters)
Erasing figures from the past erodes our understanding of the present.

Bucolic Lexington, Va., is ground zero in the fight to rewrite American history. With statues toppling, famous names being sandblasted from buildings, portraits being defaced, and longstanding historical interpretations upended, the nation is convulsed by widespread demands to rewrite our national story. 

Cradled in the fabled Valley of Virginia and regularly ranked one of the most beautiful, most desirable, most livable towns in the country, Lexington would seem an unlikely spot for controversy of any kind. It is home to Washington & Lee University, the seventh-oldest institution of higher education in the U.S. and one of the top liberal-arts colleges in the nation. Lexington’s picturesque historic downtown flows seamlessly into the tree-lined W&L campus dominated by Washington Hall and Lee Chapel, with the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance.

For generations, students have been drawn to this spot, received their college education, and from there they’ve launched successfully into every phase of national life. W&L’s history is that of America. Founded in 1749 as Augusta Academy on what was then the western frontier, the school was transformed in 1796 when George Washington made a significant gift. As a result, the school became Washington College. Until the Civil War, it struggled as a small, regional institution. Ravaged by the war, Washington College was on the verge of collapse in 1865, when its board of trustees issued a bold call to General Robert E. Lee to serve as president. Lee’s tenure from 1865 until his death in 1870 transformed Washington College into a national liberal-arts college. He famously taught his students to be gentlemen and even expelled white students who attacked black citizens. As historian Douglas Freeman wrote, “a college that had been very near death was to live again with a vigor it never had known.” After Lee’s death, the name was changed to Washington & Lee University in honor of the two defining benefactors. 

Like countless other W&L graduates, I have linked my formative college years not just to blissful memories of life in Lexington, to lasting college friendships, and to memorable professors but also back to the character of two men: George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Although both were military leaders of rare ability, it was their character — their integrity — that has permeated life at W&L and provided the moral compass for the institution and for students like me. 

Henry Lee (Robert E. Lee’s father), Washington’s contemporary, pronounced the most definitive accolade about America’s founding president: “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” It was a reverence for Washington that guided R. E. Lee as well. Historian Paul Johnson concluded that “Lee was a noble and virtuous man, like Lincoln. . . . Honor was the key word in Lee’s life and vocabulary. It meant something very special to him.” Lee once said, “‘Duty’ is the most profound word in the English language.” It was his sense of duty and honor that led him to Washington College and enabled him to become a post-war leader in education and a force for national reconciliation.

The current rush to “reimagine” American history is focused more on Lee than Washington, but both men are clearly in the sights of radical revisionists. Statues of Washington have already been pulled down. When President Trump delivered his speech at Mt. Rushmore, the weekend of July Fourth, CNN dismissed Washington as merely “a former slaveholder.” The lives of Washington and Lee have been reduced to one insurmountable flaw: racism as defined in the 21st century. Where will this attempt at ethical cleansing end? In pronouncing both Lee and Abraham Lincoln “real heroes,” Paul Johnson wrote, of Lincoln: “He freely admitted an attitude to blacks which would today be classified as racist.” History should whitewash neither the past nor present. 

President Eisenhower kept a picture of Lee on his desk in the Oval Office. When asked how he could honor such a “traitor,” Ike responded, “General Lee was, in my estimation one of the supremely gifted men produced by our nation.” Ike concluded by expressing his hope that “present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities, including his devotion to this land as revealed in his painstaking efforts to heal the nation’s wounds.”

There is currently a faculty-led movement afoot at W&L to change the university’s name. The W&L Board of Trustees is about to debate the proposed name change. Let’s hope that it concludes that whenever we erase figures from the past, even controversial ones, we damage our own history and our understanding of both the past and the present — every single time. 

Garland S. Tucker IIIGarland S. Tucker III is the retired chairman and CEO of Triangle Capital Corporation and the author of The High Tide of American Conservatism: The 1924 Election and Conservative Heroes.


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