Still Whistling ‘Dixie’

As the United States approaches the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, it has become increasingly common for relics from the old Confederacy to recede from public view.

While there are undoubtedly certain corners of America in which warm feelings toward the slave-owning Deep South still burn, as a general rule, a given locale or organization today has precious little to lose—and often much to gain—from abandoning whatever residual Confederate loyalties it might yet possess.  Particularly when it is under public pressure to do so.

But what happens when the entity in question is so deeply and inextricably tethered to a component of the Confederacy itself that to renounce such ties would be to hollow out its own soul?

It looks like we’re about to find out.

Down in the sleepy Virginia town of Lexington, there lies a small liberal arts college called Washington and Lee.  Founded in 1749, the school assumed George Washington’s name in 1796, following a hefty donation from the man himself.  When the Civil War ended in 1865, the school recruited Robert E. Lee, the former general of the Confederate Army, to be its president.  Lee accepted, and held the post until his death in 1870.

So mighty was Lee’s impact in transforming Washington College into a serious and respected institution of higher learning, the place was swiftly rechristened Washington and Lee University in his honor.

To this day, W&L defines itself by the general’s personal code of conduct from his days as chief administrator.  “We have but one rule here,” said Lee, “and it is that every student must be a gentleman.”  (The school has been co-ed since 1985; today, the women outnumber the men.)

From this credo, W&L maintains an honor system that most American students would find both odd and terrifying, and the result is a university that ranks in the top tier of just about every “best colleges” list and, according to at least one survey, boasts the strongest alumni network in all the United States.

(Full disclosure:  My younger brother is one such alumnus, and, in point of fact, has become as much of a gentleman as anyone I know.)

Against the clear benefits of a university adhering to the values of this particular man, there is at least one equally obvious drawback:  the fact that this same Robert E. Lee spent four years fighting in the defense of slavery in the United States.

Whatever his personal views might have been about America’s peculiar institution—they were complicated, to say the least—Lee functioned as the seceded states’ rebel-in-chief during the climactic months of the war, thereby endorsing the proposition that the holding of human beings as property was a principle worth fighting, dying and killing for.

If a university is prepared to assume the totality of a man’s strengths as part of its core identity, must it not also be prepared to answer for that man’s most unattractive faults—not least when they involve the trafficking and torture of people he would otherwise wish to be educated?  Can this wrinkle in Lee’s makeup really be so easily glossed over?

Such an intellectual compromise is, in so many words, the primary intent of an intriguing new list of demands, submitted last week to the board of trustees, from a group of seven W&L law students calling themselves “The Committee.”

To be precise, these stipulations are for the school to remove the Confederate battle flags that adorn the inside of Lee Chapel, where the late general is buried; to prohibit pro-Confederacy groups from demonstrating on school grounds; to suspend classes on Martin Luther King Day; and, perhaps most dramatically, to “issue an official apology for the University’s participation in chattel slavery and a denunciation of Robert E. Lee’s participation in slavery.”

Doth the Committee protest too much?  Does W&L have a moral obligation to the whole story of Robert E. Lee, and not just the bits that serve its interests?

It is critical to note that, in its official policies and practices, the school today cannot credibly be accused of harboring neo-Confederate or anti-black biases.  (In its letter, the Committee refers to “racial discrimination found on our campus,” but does not cite specific examples.)

The town of Lexington, which has historical ties to Stonewall Jackson as well as Lee, naturally contains many citizens who hold such repugnant views, and who sometimes express them through marches or other forms of public demonstration.  However, this is not, as it were, Washington and Lee’s problem.

It is precisely because W&L makes no formal overtures toward the pre-war South’s view of civilization that it could seemingly afford to differentiate its latter-day founding father’s virtues from his vices.  The university’s president, Kenneth P. Ruscio, suggested as much in a magazine article in 2012, writing, “Blindly, superficially and reflexively rushing to [Lee’s] defense is no less an affront to history than blindly, superficially and reflexively attacking him.”

So why not put real muscle behind this plea for historical nuance by acceding to the Committee’s fourth and final demand (if not the first three)?  What does W&L stand to lose by looking reality in the eye and acknowledging a few unpleasant facts?

Wouldn’t that be the gentlemanly thing to do?