The Country Needs this Robert E. Lee Biography

In 1935, the year before Margaret Mitchell’s magnolia-scented novel “Gone With the Wind” began 21 months on bestseller lists, Douglas Southall Freeman, the son of a veteran of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s legions, published, to critical acclaim and commercial success, the final two volumes of his worshipful four-volume biography of Lee. Freeman called Lee “the Southern Arthur” who “accepted fame without vanity and defeat without repining.”

Today, the nation is wiser and better than when President Franklin D. Roosevelt dispensed rhetorical treacle about Lee having been “one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.” Or when President Dwight D. Eisenhower hung Lee’s portrait in the Oval Office as one of the four greatest Americans, with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin.

Lee was unambiguously a traitor, guilty of, in the Constitution’s language about treason, “levying war against” the United States. He also was a bore. His life coincided with extraordinarily complex controversies — about the nation’s nature, civic duty, the meaning of patriotism and the demands of honor. Remarkably, there is no record of his expressing a thought (here is a Lee sample: “Never exceed your means”) more interesting than Polonius’s bromides (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”).

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