“Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself.
Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others?” ~Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, 1801
After the War Between the States, General Robert E. Lee accepted the presidency of a struggling college in the small Shenandoah Valley village of Lexington, Virginia. General Lee was accustomed to lost causes. The War had decimated Virginia’s economy and, along with it, the future prospects of Washington College. Though the school’s rich history included an endowment of stock by George Washington,1 its future seemed rather dismal.
After Lee accepted the position at George Washington College, an English nobleman offered him an annual salary of $50,000, which was substantially more than the $1,500 from Washington College at the time. Lee rejected the offer and with his ever-present spirit of self-denial, replied: “I cannot leave my present position. I have a self-imposed task. I have led the young men of the South in battle. I must now teach their sons to discharge their duty in life.”2
Lee was no stranger to self-denial. As a young boy, he had to nurse his ailing mother and would hurry home after school each day to carry her to her carriage, so that she might enjoy a drive in the country. “As her strength failed, the boy took other cares upon himself.”3
Self-denial and self-control showed themselves in other aspects of his life. One biographer noted, “Like his father, [Lee] had a furious temper; unlike his father, he had almost always absolute control over it.”4 Due to the frequent absence of Lee’s father, it was Lee’s mother who taught him “industry, self-denial, self-control, truth, religion.”5
As Lee matured into a model young man, his self-denial began to bear fruit. Lee graduated from West Point second in his class and without a single demerit. Everyone who encountered Lee took note of his character. Fellow Virginian, Confederate, and West Point classmate, Joseph E. Johnston, wrote that Lee had “a superiority that every one acknowledged in his heart”6 Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens called Lee “the most manly and entire gentleman I ever saw.”7
This superiority was not phony, nor was it something that Lee consciously promoted. Quite the opposite. Lee simply possessed that rare quality of true humility and true greatness. The idea of humility producing honor is foreign to our brutish, self-absorbed culture; but it should be common knowledge among Christians. As the book of Proverbs reminds us in two places: “Before honor, is humility.”8
Self-denial led Lee to make one of the most sacrificing decisions in world history. After President Lincoln offered him the command of the Union forces on the eve of the War Between the States, Lee spent much of the night of April 19, 1861, in prayer. He declined Lincoln’s offer. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas Southall Freeman later wrote, “It was the decision Lee was born to make.”9
Lee’s choice was based on his love for Virginia, his willingness to forgo what would have been certain military victory for the sake of duty, and his understanding of the constitutional principles he had been taught at West Point:
It depends on a State itself whether it will continue a member of the Union. To deny this right would be inconsistent with the principle on which all our political systems are founded, which is that the people have in all cases the right to determine how they shall be governed. The State may wholly withdraw from the Union...the secession of a State from the Union depends on the will of the people of such a State.10
But a nation’s self-government and self-determination must be tempered by the collective self-control of that nation’s citizens. Lee knew this and once told a subordinate, “I cannot consent to place in the control of others one who cannot control himself.”11
Understanding this truth and knowing what kind of persons populate our legislatures, executive mansions, and courts, should be cause for concern. Immorality and sins of self-indulgence by government officials in America, though nothing new, today seem to be the norm. To the believer who understands the dangers, this is a sobering fact. Those who lack self-control are dangerous in power. Those who can exercise self-control can mitigate an over-reaching government, at least to some degree.
G. K. Chesterton may have said it best, “We do not need to get good laws to restrain bad people. We need to get good people to restrain bad laws.” It is better to have both — good laws and good people, both subject to the resurrected Son of God.
Near the end of his life, a young mother approached Lee and asked what she should teach her son. Looking first at the child, then at the mother, Lee paused before answering. Perhaps the lessons of life flashed through his mind in that moment of time — his own boyhood taking care of his mother, his years at West Point, the opportunity offered by Lincoln the night of April 19, 1861, the crushing defeat of the South that followed, and his position at Washington College. There was only one simple but profound answer; one sentence that would embody all that Lee had experienced and learned in life. Without regret and with great confidence, Lee slowly replied, “Teach him he must deny himself.”
Suitable advice for any young mother, as well as for citizens who cherish self-government.
1. In 1796, George Washington rescued the struggling Liberty Hall Academy by giving the school $20,000 worth of James River Canal stock — its first major endowment. The trustees promptly changed the name of the school to Washington Academy, and later to Washington College, as an expression of their gratitude. Washington’s donation still contributes to the operating costs of Washington and Lee University today. The college honored General Lee by adding his name after Lee’s death in 1870.
2. Richard G. Williams, Jr., The Maxims of Robert E. Lee for Young Gentlemen ( Fairfax, VA: Xulon Press, 2002), xiii.
3. J.G. de Roulhac Hamilton, The Life of Robert E. Lee Young Gentlemen (Stuarts Draft, VA: Virginia Gentleman Books, 1917), 15.
4. Ibid., 16.
5. Ibid., 14.
6. John M. Taylor, Duty Faithfully Performed – Robert E. Lee and His Critics (Dulles, VA: Brassey’s, 1999), 17.
7. Williams, 78.
8. Proverbs 15:33 and 18:12
9. Douglas Southall Freeman, R.E. Lee (n.p.: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934, 1936,)
Volume 1, 431.
10. From Rawle on the Constitution as quoted by Hamilton, 26. William Rawle was a distinguished lawyer and judge from Pennsylvania. His textbook was required reading for every fourth year cadet at West Point.
11. Williams, 70.
Topics: American History