In the aftermath of the Charleston, S.C., church massacre in 2015, there is heightened interest in how we should remember Confederate leaders and symbols. Robert E. Lee has been the most prominent leader facing a reconsideration of his role in American history. In March, a federal court granted permission to New Orleans to remove a Robert E. Lee monument. Charlottesville recently decided to move a Lee statue from the city’s central square.
An especially thoughtful consideration of Lee’s memory has occurred in the District in recent months. The Washington National Cathedral has been holding public discussions about what should be done with a stained-glass window honoring Robert E. Lee. The window was installed in 1953 with funding from the United Daughters of the Confederacy and features key scenes from the general’s life. According to a task force report, the Lee window will remain in place as the cathedral conducts discussions about the window and “attendant issues of racism, slavery and racial reconciliation.” Ultimately, the decision on whether to remove the Lee window — along with one commemorating Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson — will be made by the cathedral’s governing body.
When the Lee window was installed in 1953, before the enactment of the historic civil rights legislation of the 1960s, many Americans may have viewed Lee as a hero. The window’s design emphasized Lee’s postwar efforts to heal the breach between North and South and honors his example as a Christian gentleman.
It made sense to celebrate Lee as a model Christian. Lee had reconfirmed his faith, engaging to “continue as Christ’s faithful servant and soldier unto his life’s end.” By all accounts, he fulfilled that vow. Lee’s leading biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, noted, “There was but one question ever: What was his duty as a Christian and a gentleman?”
The desire of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to honor Lee for attempting to reconcile the North and South was also commendable. Lee’s decision to apply for a pardon in 1865 was a difficult one. He sincerely believed he had done nothing wrong yet made the application anyway, knowing many Americans would view his application as an admission of guilt. He went forward with it because he believed his example would serve as encouragement for his fellow Southerners who needed to move past the war and rebuild their lives.
One aspect of Lee’s life that was not represented in the window was his connection to slavery. The United Daughters of the Confederacy insisted the window reflect the South’s defense of constitutional government and not be about any attempt to save the institution of “Negro slavery.” Yet, an understanding of Lee’s personal experience with the institution — he owned or managed slaves for more than 30 years — is essential for an accurate understanding of the man.
Before and during the Civil War, there is evidence Lee disliked slavery in theory and supported gradual emancipation. He also believed, however, that slavery was necessary for the improvement of African Americans and any attempt to end it prematurely would be contrary to God’s wishes. In a letter just months before the end of the war, Lee wrote that he considered “the relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country.”
After the war, Lee advised friends and family not to hire freedmen and worked to attract European immigrant labor to Virginia. At a congressional hearing in 1866, he said it would be better for Virginia if “she could get rid” of the freed slaves. In 1868, Lee shared his views on the freedmen with his youngest son: “I wish them no evil in the world . . . but our material, social and political interests are naturally with the whites.”
When Yale University’s president and board of trustees decided to rename Calhoun College, they considered whether John C. Calhoun’s legacy fundamentally conflicted with Yale’s mission. In the case of Robert E. Lee and the Washington National Cathedral, we must ask if Lee’s principal legacy — defending a Confederacy founded upon chattel slavery — is compatible with a house of worship serving all Americans.
It’s clear to me that Lee’s legacy is irreconcilable with the mission of the Washington National Cathedral. The Lee window should be removed.
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