Delivered in Raleigh, N.C. on Lee's Birthday, January 19, 1912
Ladies and Gentlemen:
We have met tonight to do honor to the memory of General Robert Edward Lee, a man whose position in the world is so well established, and whose fame is so strongly based that nothing which we can do or say will add to his glory. But, on the other hand, I can myself but count it a high honor to be deemed worthy to be permitted to talk about him to an intelligent and sympathetic audience.
Some years ago there was unveiled in Richmond a noble equestrian statue of General Lee. The statue has been much criticised, but there is one thing about it which always strikes every observer and compels the admiration of all for appropriateness - the inscription on it is one word, "Lee." There have been numerous Lees, many of them famous - Light Horse Harry of Revolutionary fame, General Governor Fitzhugh Lee, to mention but two who were well worthy of monumental honors - and yet no visitor to Richmond from any part of the civilized world ever asks the question, "To whom was this statue erected?" Everybody knows. There is but one Lee. He is the noblest, the purest, the highest possession of any people.
It has been the fortune of many to win fame, to have their deeds recorded in history, and their achievements taught through the world to the young as a part of their education. The desire to attain fame is a large incentive in the human heart for great action and high thought, but most men who have lived and who have been honored in story and in song and in history, and whose deeds have been perpetuated in marble, have been those who won final victory. It is the unique glory of Robert Edward Lee that, having failed to conquer, he has yet achieved a distinction beyond his fellows.
What is there about the man that thus selects and differentiates him from the group of those whom men honor as great? Why is it that every Southerner loves and reveres his memory? Why is it that the victorious North has placed him in the Hall of Fame? Why is it that English historians and army officers have vied with Southern orators in panegyric? Why is it that he for more than forty years has steadily grown in the esteem of mankind until he stands today the least criticised among all the heroes of the world, modern or ancient? Why is it that all mankind acknowledge the wondrous power and charm of the man and no one can be found to find fault with him? I think the reason may be found not alone in his singular "beauty of personality and emphasis of presence," in his magnificent intellect, in his perfect life, in his ideal Christian character, in his mastery of the science of war, but in that older fact which first finds exemplification in the life of Moses when, returning from his interview with the Lord on Mount Sinai, he found that in his absence the children of Israel had made for themselves a golden calf and were worshipping it, and he lost his temper and broke the stones and punished his people, and then went up unto the Lord to make intercession in their behalf, and said, "O Lord, these people have sinned a great sin and have made them gods of gold, yet now if Thou wilt, forgive their sin; and if not, I pray Thee blot me out of Thy book."
This was no demagogy. It was not said in the presence of the people. It was said by the creature to his Creator. It was said by one in whose face there shone the light which emanated from the Lord. It was said by one who had seen the lightnings and heard the thunders of Sinai. It was said unto the Al mighty God. "If Thou wilt punish my people, punish me also." From the days of Moses to the days of Gen. Robert Edward Lee, no other man had ever done so fine a thing; for Lee, who did not believe in secession, who was an officer in the United States Army and loved the Union, who had won renown on the fields of Mexico under the stars and stripes, to whom had been offered the highest position in the command of the armies of the United States, to whose clear vision there must have appeared the certainty of the final outcome, calmly said to the Union, "If you will punish my people, punish me also. From the days of Moses to the days of Gen. Robert Edward Lee, no other man had ever done so fine a thing; for Lee, who did not believe in secession, who was an officer in the United States Army and loved the Union, who had won renown on the fields of Mexico under the stars and stripes, to whom had been offered the highest position in the command of the armies of the United States, to whose clear vision there must have appeared the certainty of the final outcome, calmly said to the Union, "If you will punish my people, punish me also. I will not fight against Virginians."
The love of home, of family, of neighborhood, of county, of State, was predominant with him. The elemental foundation of all free government if found in this vital fact. There can never be a free people save those who love and serve those closest to them first, and those farthest away afterward. The Gospel must be preached to all the world, but its preaching must begin at Jerusalem. It never could have begun anywhere else, and if it had, it never would have gone anywhere. General Lee was a home-lover. He was a Virginian first and an American afterward. His intellect might be convinced, and was convinced, that under the Constitution of the United States the Union was to be perpetual, and to use his own language, "It is idle to talk of secession," but when secession became a fact and Virginia had gone out of the Union, there was no logic, there was no power, there was no temptation, there was no honor, there was no hope, there was no glory, that could for one moment make him hesitate about drawing his sword on the side of Virginia.
For myself, I have always believed in the right of secession. I never doubted that each State retained to itself the power to withdraw from an unbearable Union, and my admiration for the man who did not so believe but went with his State when the States seceded is intensified by my own conviction of the lawfulness of secession. And this view makes the war between the States a thing which should give pride to Southerners for all time. It was not a fight for slavery. When men tell me that the South fought for slavery, I answer them, Gen. Robert Edward Lee, freed his slaves before the war and left important military duties to go to his home in order to carry out the will of his wife's father in setting free her slaves. Let the children of the South learn rather that the fight was a fight for local self-government, without which in all its fullness and power there can be no such thing as a Union of coequal States. It is the old doctrine of States? Rights - a doctrine which belongs to no section and is monopolized by no party. Indeed, the first Republican platform ever adopted was based on an idea of State rights so extreme that those of us who professed most strongly to believe in them refused to go to the extent demanded in that platform. The Republicans justified their refusal to return runaway slaves on the right of a State to legislate for itself on the subject of slavery.
There is another great fact in the life of General Lee which makes him pre-eminent in all his career. No one ever heard of his putting the blame of failure of any enterprise on the shoulders of any one else. When his wonderful genius had planned a battle and assigned each commander his duty, if the battle went wrong through the failure of any commander, General Lee never gave to the world any explanation of why the battle was lost. He never sought for a single instance to aggrandize his own glory by detracting from the service of any other.
Indeed, I may go so far as to say that he never seemed to be conscious of any desire for the commendation of man. His whole career is founded on the single word, "duty," which he himself declared to be the sublimest word in the English language. Having done his duty, what others said, what others thought, what misinterpretations might be made to his own hurt, seemed never to concern him, but he was always anxious that every other person connected with his enterprise should have full praise for any unusual merit exhibited by him. This trait of character approaches the fulfillment of the law, the whole law, which is briefly comprehended in this, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." Service to his neighbors was always his life work, and when the war was ended, we fund him calmly and deliberately refusing the acceptance of a country home in England with an ample annuity; declining the presidency of a great insurance company with a large salary; and gratefully accepting the meager salaried presidency of a broken college. What a spectacle, my countrymen, to see this commander of the greatest army that the world had ever seen, patiently, cheerfully, gladly, supervising the education of a few hundred boys! He had taught the South the mastery of war. It was his highest desire thereafter to instill into the youth of the land a love of peace and knowledge of the ways of industry. We cannot honor the memory of a man like this. We can only ourselves catch a few rays of light from the sunshine of his face.
When the North tells me that General Grant was great, I admit it, and gladly join in praise for his graciousness to General Lee; but then I add that if he was great, he had his faults, personal and intimate, not to be mentioned in public because of the greatness of his service to the country. But General Lee was great without fault. There is nothing in his life to hide. All that we want is for the world to know him as he was. We should like for every child in the universe to be cognizant of everything he did and said, entirely confident that having learned every movement and every saying, the child would arise from his study a stronger, a better, a purer person, and with a high ideal of life. Again, the North and the world may justly make a hero out of Abraham Lincoln - I do not hesitate to recognize and proclaim the essential greatness of the man - but there are stories which he told which I could not repeat to this audience tonight without offense. But if I could tell you all that General Lee ever said, you would rise in your seats and thank me for the gentleness, the purity, the cleanness of the speech which I had made.
And yet I have read within a week a book professing to be an appreciation of General Lee which says that he failed. I cannot believe that any man has failed, or the principles for which he contended have ever failed when he has left to the world a life so rich and full, clean and serene, as to make every man who studies it desirous of doing something and being better himself.
Life and Speeches of Charles B. Aycock,Governor of North Carolina, from the library of Reverend Bruce Robinson.
Source: VA Div. SCV