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Harvard and the Cult of Robert E. Lee


Robert E. Lee in repose at Washington & Lee University

Robert E. Lee in repose at Washington & Lee University

Photograph in the public domain 

Robert E. Lee in repose at Washington & Lee University

Photograph in the public domain 

The new year has arrived, which means the Sons of Confederate Veterans will soon march down Main Street here in Lexington, Virginia, to celebrate the January birthdays of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Two days later, a much larger Lexington crowd will march on Martin Luther King Day, waving American flags alongside rainbow flags, and carrying Black Lives Matter posters. Dueling parades inaugurate each year in my Shenandoah Valley town, although by 2022 you might have thought things would be different. 

This past year witnessed the removal of Lee statues from Richmond and Charlottesville, while in Lexington, Jackson’s statue, which long dominated the Virginia Military Institute’s parade ground, was relocated to a battlefield museum. Still, some things never change. When the faculty and student executive committee of Lexington’s Washington and Lee University (W&L) petitioned for Lee’s removal from the school’s name, many alumni fought back. “Retain the Name” yard signs sprouted on Lexington lawns, while pro-Lee billboards appeared on roadways leading into town. 

In June, W&L’s trustees announced they wouldn’t change the name, although “Lee Chapel” has regained the “University Chapel” title it bore when Lee was president after the Civil War. You can still visit Lee’s mausoleum“the Shrine of the South” —in the back of the chapel, where the marble Lee sleeps on his altar-shaped sarcophagus.


Whenever I describe life in Lexington to my Harvard classmates, they react as if I’m discussing a Flannery O’Connor story. Lee fandom seems far removed from life in New York, San Francisco and Boston. They are surprised when I explain how, in the early twentieth century, Harvard alumni played an oversized role in making Lee a national hero. In fact, Harvard’s place in the exaltation of Lee helps explain why many Americans still revere the “Saint of the South.”

In 1928, when The New York Times recognized Lee’s birthday by praising his “nobility of character,” the paper said, “Abolition Massachusetts had done more than any other Northern state to lift the shadows from the fame of Lee.” TheTimes was referring to Charles Francis Adams, Jr. A.B. 1856, LL.D. ’95, chief proponent of Lee in the North. Adams’s vocal admiration for Lee was so well-known by 1907 that W&L invited him to speak at the centennial celebration of Lee’s birthday. This unusual eventin which a former Union officer, great-grandson of U.S. President John Adams, A.B. 1755, A.M. ’58, LL.D. ’81, and member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers stood before Lee’s shrine and sang his praiseshas been described by some historians as the high-water mark in the reconciliation between North and South.

Adams wasn’t the only Harvard alumnus to celebrate Lee’s centennial. Then-President Theodore Roosevelt, A.B. 1880,praised Lee’s “serene greatness of soul” in his letter to the Committee of Arrangement of centennial celebrations. Teddy paved the way for cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt, A.B. 1904, LL.D. 1929, who asserted in 1936, when unveiling Lee’s statue in Dallas: “We recognize Robert E. Lee as one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.”

But although the Roosevelts are Harvard’s most famous Lee fans, Charles Adams established the trend. I first learned about Adams’s infatuation years ago, when reading Thomas Connelly’s “Birth of a National Hero” chapter in The Marble Man, a book that chronicled what Connelly called “the cult of Lee.” As I read through Connelly’s survey of Lee’s devotees, I thought: Harvard, Harvard, Harvard. Here was Gamaliel Bradford ’1886, descendent of the Plymouth Colony founder, writing Lee the American, a key biography in Lee’s de-Southernizing. And here was Mark Antony DeWolfe Howe, A.M. 1888, who later became editor of the Harvard Alumni Bulletin, using the pages of the Atlantic Monthly in 1905 to praise “the dignity and beauty of the individual life in which the lost cause was chiefly embodied.” Here also was Owen Wister ’23, Theodore Roosevelt’s Porcellian buddy, using chivalric myths about Lee and the antebellum South to create the hero in his blockbuster novel of the American West—The Virginian

Harvard alumni weren’t alone in their romanticization of Virginians. Even Julia Ward Howe, author of “The Battle of Hymn of the Republic,” penned a post-war anthem to Lee: “A gallant foeman in the fight,/ A brother when the fight was o’er…” But Charles Adams’s love for Lee surprised me most, because I remember how, in the 1980s, Harvard encouraged incoming freshmen to read The Education of Henry Adams. There, Charles’s younger brother upheld Lee’s son, Rooney ’1858, as the quintessential gentlemanly-but-ignorant Southerner:

No one knew enough to know how ignorant he was; how childlike; how helpless before the relative complexity of a school. As an animal, the Southerner seemed to have every advantage, but even as an animal he steadily lost ground. 

Henry Adams, A.B. 1858,  claimed he liked Rooneyin the way you might like a golden retriever. He grouped Rooney with his Southern compatriots in a caricature of “the Virginians” that reads like an attack on Wister’s novel. 

Today, Adams’s snooty disparagement of Southerners sounds like the nineteenth-century language used to belittle blacks: “ignorant…childlike…animal.” Perhaps his words were a reaction against his brother’s crush. According to Henry: “Lee should have been hanged. It was all the worse that he was a good man and a fine character and acted conscientiously….It is always the good men who do the most harm in the world.” Ironically, both brothers contributed to Lee’s fame: Charles by praising Lee, Henry by insulting all Southerners, which made them defend their Confederate heroes more avidly.

But why did Charles Adams admire Lee? Was it only the Coriolanus effect of a veteran appreciating the enemy commander more than the civilian rabble? Curious, I recently read Adams’s speeches and autobiographya dark window into a fallen patrician and failed railroad executive, who critiqued industrial excesses by idealizing the agrarian South, and who deplored the rising tide of European immigration and black advancement. “I don’t associate with the laborers on my place,” Adams wrote in his autobiography. “I believe in the equality of men before the law, but social equality, whether for man or child, is altogether another thing.” As for racial equality, although Adams led black troops during the Civil War, he wasn’t impressed by them. Adams told the W&L audience that blacks were “distinctly inferior” and described emancipation as an unfair “confiscation” of “property.”  

Adams felt grateful to Lee for discouraging guerilla campaigns against Union forces, after the surrender at Appomattox. He never acknowledged that southerners instead conducted their guerilla campaigns against blacks, in the form of post-Reconstruction racial violence, while northerners turned a blind eye for the sake of “reconciliation.” 

The closing pages of Adams’s autobiography gush with pleasure about his speech’s reception at Washington and Lee, remembered as an occasion of  “pure gratification,” “in every way satisfactory.”  It was a happy reunion of the old Massachusetts and Virginia elite, reminiscent of the good old days when the Adams family and the Virginians dominated the American presidency--before the expansion of the franchise to working class white men brought the populist Andrew Jackson to power and made Adams’s grandfather a one-term president.  

Ultimately, Adams followed the path of aristocrats defeated by the modern age: he became president of the Massachusetts Historical Association and spent his retirement romanticizing the feudal past. In his 1902 Phi Beta Kappa address at the University of Chicago, “Shall Cromwell Have a Statue,” Adams compared Lee to “the great English nobleman of the feudal period, or the ideal head of the Scotch clan.” We know where this nostalgia for clans, when combined with racist dogma, led. By the 1920s Harvard had its own Klan fans, as documented in The Crimson.

But Harvard also had an alumnus who wrote an impressive rebuttal to Lee’s admirers. In 1928, W. E. B. Du Bois A.B. 1890, Ph.D. 1895, founder of the NAACP, was so disgusted with The New York Times’s praise of Lee that he used the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, to publish a four-paragraph critique of Lee’s moral cowardice. Du Bois’s criticism of Lee fans contains an indictment of our current society:

Their fathers in the past have condoned lynching and mob violence, just as today they acquiesce in the disfranchisement of educated and worthy black citizens, provide wretchedly inadequate public schools for Negro children and endorse a public treatment of sickness, poverty and crime which disgraces civilization.

This January, as we face another year of the new feudalism spawned by income inequality and systemic racism, Du Bois’s words challenge us all.


Editor’s note: Readers mayalso  be interested in Elizabeth Samet's Vita portrait of Ulysses S. Grant, published in 2019.

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