Good morning, it's Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, that last full day of the chaotic, problematic presidency of Donald John Trump. The man may yet manage to get himself convicted in a Senate impeachment trial -- after the fact, as it were – but either way his presidency ends tomorrow.
Today is the birthday of several American politicians, past and present, including Jose Aponte Hernandez of Puerto Rico, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, New Jersey Rep. Mikie Sherrill, and incoming Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.
But the birthday I want to linger on is that of Robert E. Lee, born at Stratford Hall, Va., on this date in 1807.
Once upon a time, Robert E. Lee's birthday was celebrated as an official holiday in the states of the old Confederacy. Mississippi and Alabama still do, although they merge it with Martin Luther King's birthday. Think about that for a moment.
Lee died in 1870 at the age of 63. Jubal Early, one of Lee's generals in the Confederate army, later spoke for his fellow Southerners: "Our beloved Chief stands, like some lofty column which rears its head among the highest, in grandeur, simple, pure and sublime."
Such reverence was not confined to the South. On the centennial of Lee's birth, President Theodore Roosevelt lauded his "extraordinary skill as a general, his dauntless courage and high leadership." Roosevelt added: "He stood that hardest of all strains, the strain of bearing himself well through the gray evening of failure; and therefore out of what seemed failure he helped to build the wonderful and mighty triumph of our national life, in which all his countrymen, north and south, share."
In truth, many of the men who marched in Mr. Lincoln's Army -- and their widows -- harbored no such warmth toward Lee. Certainly, freed slaves and their descendants did not. "We can scarcely take up a newspaper … that is not filled with nauseating flatteries," Frederick Douglass wrote on the occasion of Lee's death. "[I]t would seem," he added, "that the soldier who kills the most men in battle, even in a bad cause, is the greatest Christian, and entitled to the highest place in heaven."
Lee himself wondered about this, as Southern writer Roy Blount Jr. explored in his excellent 2003 Lee biography, which is the source of these quotes I'm passing along today. Blount makes the point that when 21st century Americans contemplate Lee, the predominant mental image is one of grayness: "Not only the uniform, the mythic horse, the hair and beard, but the resignation with which he accepted dreary burdens" of command in a Confederate cause he didn't fully support even as he went to war in its name.
Blount notes, however, that Lee never saw right and wrong in tones of gray -- even though "his moralizing could generate a fog." One example he cites is a Lee letter from the front to his wife: "You must endeavour to enjoy the pleasure of doing good. That is all that makes life valuable." But Lee quickly added, "When I measure my own by that standard I am filled with confusion and despair."
Today, most Americans judge Lee's willingness to shed blood to preserve slavery with plenty of despair, but little confusion. This is not really a long overdue "reckoning" on race, as social justice warriors would have you believe, as much as a steady evolution in this nation's thinking about human rights.
Roy Blount Jr., who was born in Indianapolis but raised in the Decatur, the Georgia town where William Tecumseh Sherman launched his famed March to the Sea, put it this way: "If we take as a given Lee's granitic conviction that everything is God's will, however, he was born to lose."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.