In 1867, the president of Washington College, a small men's institution in Lexington, Virginia, was asked by the Educational Society of his state to serve on a committee of three that was to prepare an address to the parents of the sons of Virginia, urging on them a more hearty cooperation with teachers in matters of discipline and instruction. The Civil War had left a legacy of wildness among young men, and authority needed reinforcement.
President Robert E. Lee, former commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and former commandant at West Point, was as expert on education and discipline as any man in the state. Upon his appointment, he wrote a lengthy position paper in the form of a letter to the other two members of the committee--one a professor, the other an Anglican minister--to outline the basic purposes and goals of education, which were also the markers of a proper gentleman's character. In many ways, he also painted a picture of the man he hoped he had made of himself.
Education, not nature, made the man. "Education embraces the physical, moral and intellectual instruction of a child from infancy to manhood," Lee wrote. "Any system is imperfect which does not combine them all, and that is best which, while it thoroughly develops them, abuses the coarse animal emotions of human nature and exalts the higher faculties and feelings." Repression of the brute beneath was a sine qua non; therefore, "obedience is the first requisite" in family training as in school, the two central sites for the struggle to inculcate order in the unruly child.
But education was not to be the simple dictatorship of the teacher: The appropriate control of others had to stem not from sheer force but from example. "Neither violence or harshness should ever be used and the parent [and teacher] must bear in mind that to govern his child he must show that he can control himself," Lee stressed. The essential need was for "firmness mixed with kindness." Not merely should the child's "mind be expanded," but "his heart must be affected, his feelings moved." The "sentiments of religion" had to be inculcated by "systematic instruction." Likewise, learning to love labor, to develop independence and quash animal idleness, must be "pursued by earnest and regular exertion." But, as with the teaching of religious sentiments, all drills had to be coupled to demonstrations of piety and industry by parent and teacher.
If all went well, the heart as well as the head of the student would become attuned to self-control. "The love of truth is equal in importance to habitual obedience," Lee reiterated. Nobility of character was the chief end of education--careers would follow--and any choice would be socially responsible and individually fulfilling if made by the dutiful man.
These calmly stern teachings came without hesitation or doubt from the pen of the sixty-year-old Lee, who had seen so much of the affairs of men, including the most base. As he wrote this letter, two books sat on his desk: the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer and a well-worn Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic Roman emperor. These sources and values, inherited from the milieu of the Virginia slaveholding gentry in which he was bred, explain much about the persona of Robert E. Lee, the Lee who was an exemplar, in his own eyes as well as those of others, of the best of his class, his place, and his time. Perhaps more than any other American, with the exception of George Washington, whom he consciously emulated, Lee has long been taken as a moral hero, the greatest Southern white gentleman, the Marble Man. Lee was complicit in this creation because he held himself to a life of endless discipline and selfless virtue in a very determined way.
The struggle for self-mastery--the effort to repress every potentially disruptive impulse and emotion--was perpetual. The Christian virtue of humility instructed this moral wrestler that he would, of course, never reach his goal, but the older Stoic virtue of pride--one of the seven deadly Christian sins--kept him marching along the stony path of control and denial.
Such a character ideal had been typical for the eighteenth-century Virginia slaveholding gentry. But Lee lived in the midnineteenth century, in a society still defined in part by such traditions but also deeply influenced by Romanticism and the warm piety of Evangelical Christianity. In middle age, to be true to his religious striving, Lee felt obliged to open himself to soul-searching and spiritual passion during a conversion experience. Once he had reached upward, however, Lee turned toward an even more distant and chilly sense of duty, as if in flight from the vulnerability his transformation had demanded.
As a young man, Lee often had been quite ebullient. One story Lee told on himself to a close friend demonstrated in a lighthearted way some of the tension between the less repressed side of his character and his endless drive for self-mastery and self-abnegation.
In 1846, when he was thirty-nine, Lee was stationed at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, engineering new fortifications. One winter's day, when a heavy snowfall blanketed the roads of New York City, several enterprising liverymen brought out horses and sleighs and offered rides up and down Broadway. Lee wrote to John Mackay, his closest West Point chum, about his experience on the sleighs. "The girls returning from school were the prettiest sight, piled on each other's laps, with their bags of books and laughing faces. Indeed there were no lack of customers at sixpence a ride, and you might be accommodated with a lady in your lap in the bargain." Temptation. "Think of a man of my forbidding countenance, John Mackay, having such an offer." Will the mask cover the desire? "But I peeped under the veil before accepting and though I really could not find fault either with her appearance or age, after a little demurring preferred giving her my seat." The gentleman dominates the man when he recalls the discretion demanded of a properly married gentleman such as he. "I thought it would not sound well if repeated in the latitude of Washington," where his wife's family lived, as well as many other young women of his acquaintance, "that I had been riding down BW with a strange woman sitting in my lap. What might my little sweethearts think of it, Miss Harriet H[ackley Talcott]," the wife of another West Point friend, "among the number. Upon reflection I think I did well, for though you know I am charmed when I can get one of the dear creatures on my knee, yet I have my fancies in this as in other things. I found however that I was looked upon as such a curmudgeon by my fellow passengers that I took the first opportunity to leave them." Hooted at for his punctiliousness, which some took to be prudery, the proper Lee conquered his desires by getting off that dangerous sleigh.