THE LEES OF VIRGINIA Seven Generations of an American FamilyBy Paul C. Nagel Oxford University Press. 332 pp. $24.95
In "Descent From Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family," and now in his latest book, which tracks more than two centuries of "The Lees of Virginia," Paul Nagel shows that neither name had the power to turn its members into saints. But his extensive research does establish that the two dynasties were enthralling.
Worshipers of Thomas Jefferson will doubtless be inflamed by Nagel's suggestion that Richard Henry Lee (1733-94) was done out of his rightful honor of declaring American independence.
In 1774, Richard Henry, a delegate to the Continental Congress, drafted an address to the king. Congress rejected it as "immoderate and disrespectful." On June 7, 1776, Lee's glorious moment came when he rose in Congress and offered the motion proclaiming American independence. The motion was adopted, but Congress, fearing "Richard Henry's sharp temper and belligerent pen," chose "a quieter Virginian," another redhead, Thomas Jefferson, to write the Declaration of Independence.
Some 40 years later, Nagel writes, "a family member sought to coax John Adams into agreeing that Richard Henry was actually the author of the Declaration." Adams wouldn't go that far, but he said more Lees were of "merit" than any other family.
The Lees' strength lay in working together "as teams of parents and children, and especially brothers, sisters and cousins." During the revolution, five Lee brothers were pivotal: Francis Lightfoot and Richard Henry shouted for freedom in the Continental Congress; William and Arthur pleaded the American cause in London; and Thomas Ludwell urged the vote for independence in the Virginia House of Burgesses, in conjunction with cousin Squire Lee. Not to forget the brothers' sister, Alice Lee Shippen, in whose salon the silver teapot of independence always boiled.
Other Lees spent their lives between fame and infamy.
Light-Horse Harry, for instance, earned his name in the Continental Army, where his daring lightning strikes cut brilliant swaths through battle. Likewise money passed through his hands like quicksilver. In a singular case of either le`se majeste' or impiety, Harry paid a debt to George Washington with a bad check. Later governor of Virginia and briefly a general, Harry eventually skipped his debts and responsibilities to island-hop in the Caribbean.
His son, Henry Lee (nicknamed Black-Horse Harry, for reasons that will become clear), like most Lees preferred to marry close relations. Black-Horse went further and preferred to seduce a close relation. He not only ravished his wife's young sister, his ward, but squandered her inheritance.
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, half-brother to Black-Horse, Nagel ranks in greatness with Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Nagel portrays him not as the sacred Southern icon but as a family man. He writes that the young Robert's letters display "a sense of humor, a capacity to tease, a delight in the graces of young ladies, a fondness for gossip and an affection for his relatives. These features have been nearly smothered by persons who produced recollections to prove posthumously that Robert had been constituted entirely of religious dedication, impeccable deportment and a devotion to study."
Though Stratford, his birthplace, was lost to Gen. Lee, his heart soon was centered in Arlington, overlooking Washington and the Potomac, and on the daughter of the house, Mary Anne Custis, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. Nagel quotes the general as calling Arlington "fouly polluted" by the war, but, surprisingly, does not mention the story that Union Gen. William Sherman made a graveyard of Mrs. Lee's rose garden at Arlington so that the Lees could never live there again.
Some who still think of Lee's fight as the "War for Southern Independence" will not agree with Nagel that it required Charles Francis Adams II's eulogy of "human perfection" at the centennial of Lee's birth "to complete the elevation of Lee's repute."
To a child of the Confederacy, brought up to believe that Gen. Lee was the Man of Marble, Nagel seems to chip away at the hero, without revealing any serious cracks. Still, I wouldn't want Nagel looking into my own family line.
Sadly, today, heroes all have feet of clay. Monuments stand on shifting sand. The apotheosized no longer reach Heaven. But as Nagel quotes one Lee to another, "However prostrate and o'er clouded may be the fortunes of our house, it may yet boast an aristocracy of talent and patriotism, which poverty or slander can never tarnish or take away." The reviewer writes for the Style section of The Washington Post.