Robert E. Lee and the Nine Worthies

Is it a good thing for a Catholic publication to promote the life of Robert E. Lee as an example to be imitated?

Recently, a respected Catholic publication ran an article that called for more rebellion among young Catholics. The article raised some eyebrows. It urged Catholics to reject “the world” in the form of “critical race theory” by, inter alia, admiring the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Lee, the author tells us, is the “perfect antidote” for young people to combat “materialist Marxism.” The author went so far as to characterize the subjects of Confederate monuments, now being removed from public places, as ideal exemplars of “Christian men.”

The author probably meant to be provocative by putting things this way. If so, he certainly succeeded. Is it a good thing for a Catholic publication to promote the life of Robert E. Lee as an example to be imitated? For some, the answer is obvious, though for different reasons. 

For many, Lee was a slaveholder and that’s all you need to know about him. Chattel slavery was evil; Lee was a slaveholder; Lee was evil. QED. For the author of the essay, the case is equally obvious: those who are tearing down statues of Confederate monuments are also tearing down statues of Abraham Lincoln and the Founding Fathers. The “woke mob” wants to tear down our heritage, our heroes; Lee is part of our heritage; ergo, Lee is a hero and the antidote to this madness. QED. 

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You’ll notice that, in both cases, the motive is not really concerned with honoring the past per se but with countering a present threat. In the author’s mind, that means “materialist Marxism.” But the same is true of the argument against Lee as well. The current obsession with slavery and its history is almost wholly political. 

Statues of Lee and other confederates were left undisturbed while a black president governed the country for eight years; but with the election of Donald Trump, such quiet came to an end. The vilification of Lee and the Founding Fathers is meant to taint the political enemies of the Left with racism. Allowing crowds to tear down statues of your heroes is a political message: we will erase you, too, if you oppose us. The author of the essay is correct about this if nothing else.

Our current political climate does not allow us to discuss the virtues of otherwise flawed but important historical figures, or how they should be remembered. Yes, Lee owned slaves. Does that mean one cannot admire his positive qualities? However, there is also the question of private versus public celebration of controversial figures. It might be one thing to note Lee’s virtues in a history textbook, or in private associations like the Daughters of the Confederacy. But do not public memorials of him and other Confederate leaders honor the cause of slavery? 

And even supposing Lee possessed positive attributes, is it right to honor him as Catholics? Lee was an Episcopalian. Is there any real need to celebrate his virtues when the example of so many saints, in every era, can provide such examples? Are Catholics never to honor non-Catholics? (This would be news to the many liberal Catholics who venerate Martin Luther King Jr. as a saint, quite literally.)

In defense of Lee, one could point to the fact, as others have, that slavery was ubiquitous prior to the late eighteenth century and that it is ahistorical to denigrate those for whom slavery was a given fact in their lives. To some, such questions will seem ludicrous, however. To understand is to excuse, for a certain type of person. “We now know that slavery is evil, and everything tainted by it is evil. Efforts to ‘contextualize’ and ‘understand’ slaveholders are of themselves morally repugnant,” so the argument goes. Historical circumstances don’t matter; slavery is the original sin, and its effects are retroactive, its evil beyond argument, and any association with it a sign of damnation.

I bring these examples up to illustrate the difficulty in attempting to commemorate the past honestly, and fairly, in a complex society such as that of the United States. Part of the rationale for the current erasure of “problematic” monuments goes back to the Civil War’s end. In order for the country to heal, public leaders made an effort to memorialize the sacrifices of both Union and Confederate during the war. In doing so, as (mostly progressive) historians since the 1960s have noted, this tended to erase the memory of slaves who sought for their freedom before and during the war. The mania for removal and destruction began with a laudable attempt to recognize the history of black Americans, to give them a place in the public memory of the nation.

Perhaps inevitably, this effort at recovery of black Americans’ past turned into a crusade to stamp out the memory of their former oppressors. By dinning into the minds of every school child for generations that African chattel slavery was the only evil worth remembering, it naturally made those associated with it worthy of oblivion. Human memory is limited; perhaps all societies memorialize some historic figures at the expense of others.

These types of questions, if we are being honest, do not always admit of easy answers. It is reasonable to remove statues erected during the era of segregation, whose main purpose was to emphasize the legal and social subordination of blacks. But it is one thing for those in public authority to remove statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederates, by law, and another to allow mobs to destroy them.  It is one thing for those in public authority to remove statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederates, by law, and another to allow mobs to destroy them. Tweet This

Moreover, not all monuments were erected during Jim Crow for that purpose. I used to drive by a memorial on a major road in Kansas City, Missouri, when I still lived there. The Daughters of the Confederacy placed it there to commemorate the fallen Confederate soldiers. The local city leaders removed it during the statue mania a few years ago because it was on public property. 

Was this necessary? Is it honoring slavery to remember soldiers, some of whose remains could not be recovered because they were blown to bits on the battlefield? Or what about the memorial removed in Wisconsin a few years back, remembering the Confederate soldiers who died in a Union prisoner of war camp? Did that memorial honor slavery too? Do people have a right to mourn their dead publicly? Or is that only reserved to the “winners” of history? Perhaps the real question is whether anyone’s memory can be honored without it becoming a matter for present politics these days.

I don’t pretend to have the answers to all of these questions. But I do think people should be allowed to revere the memory of “problematic” historical figures, even if that offends other people. Those who disagree should be allowed to condemn people like Lee as well. Personally, though I have always thought Lee possessed some worthy qualities, I have never thought of him as being someone to emulate, like a saint. Let his statues be removed, if a majority of the community so desires this. But I do not believe those who think his virtues worthy of public admiration are villains worthy of destruction. I don’t think anyone should lose their job over such things, or be “canceled” otherwise because of it.

I suspect the mania for destroying monuments and erasing the past is partly due to the modern tendency to view breaking with the past—especially, one’s own heritage—as a sign of progress. I am thinking of revolutionary violence, but there are other examples. What strikes one about this tendency is that the personal virtues of the people involved seem to matter so little. As long as the figure was “on the right side of history,” one can celebrate them; if not, they must be erased. 

For moderns, I suppose, it is more important to have overcome a past evil than to be a virtuous person. This isn’t wholly a modern phenomenon, of course. St. Augustine once famously said martyrs are made “not by the amount of their suffering, but by the cause in which they suffer.” Just so with our modern heroes. We can’t seem to celebrate them unless they share our present causes.

Need this be the case? It has not always been so, and I suspect our post-Christian society’s lack of forgiveness partly accounts for such controversies. Nothing can ever be forgiven, so every past evil must be relitigated in every generation. 

Our ancestors were wiser, it seems to me. During the Middle Ages, Christian authors celebrated the so-called “Nine Worthies,” men whose virtues and exploits made them models to be venerated and imitated. These included Christian emperors Justinian and Charlemagne but also pagan, pre-Christian heroes such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Hector (from The Iliad), as well as Jewish heroes from the Old Testament like Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabeus. Even though these men were not Christian, the “backward” medievals somehow managed to celebrate their virtues, unbothered by their paganism or Judaism. Perhaps, even as good “moderns,” we could learn something from them.


  • Darrick Taylor

    Darrick Taylor earned his PhD in History from the University of Kansas. He lives in Central Florida and teaches at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, FL. He also produces a podcast, Controversies in Church History, dealing with controversial episodes in the history of the Catholic Church.

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