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Politifact VA: The Myth of a Kindly General Lee

Ballerinas in front of the Lee Monument
As the Robert E. Lee monument has become a rallying spot for anti-racism protests, Politifact reviewed some popular myths which portray Lee as a benevolent figure who favored abolition. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

*Editor's note: We apologize for an earlier version of this story, where the text used the word "slaves" to refer to people who were enslaved. VPM's editorial standards and guidelines prioritize people-first language in an effort to affirm and uphold the dignity of all people - and we apologize for failing our standards this time. The copy has been updated.

As the Robert E. Lee monument has become a rallying spot for anti-racism protests, our Politifact VA editor, Warren Fiske, reviewed some popular myths which portray Lee as a benevolent figure who favored abolition. This piece is based off a national Politifact story.

TRANSCRIPT

CRAIG: Warren, the statue of Robert E. Lee, towering above Monument Avenue for 130 years, appears to be in its last days.

Once an icon of the Confederacy, the statue more recently has become a divisive symbol of race relations in Richmond.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis policeman, the statue’s 50-foot base has been covered with graffiti. It was the site, earlier this month, of a police pepper-spraying of a peaceful gathering.

Gov. Ralph Northam has ordered the statue’s removal - saying it’s time for Richmond and Virginia to move on. A temporary injunction has been granted, and we’ll find out Thursday if it will be extended.

In the meantime, Southern heritage groups have rushed to Lee’s aid, saying he wasn’t a villain. The Southern Heritage Preservation Group posted on its Facebook page, “Lee opposed both secession and slavery.”

PolitiFact fact-checked this claim. Warren, tell us the findings.

WARREN: The claim has two parts - that Lee was against secession and slavery. 

On the first part, it’s clear that Lee spoke against secession. 

In January 1860, he wrote to a friend, “I do not believe in secession as a constitutional right, nor that there is sufficient cause for revolution.”

But if secession came, Lee said he’d fight on the side of his native Virginia. 

And that’s what he did - turning down a promotion to stay with the North and command troops.

So he opposed secession with words, but supported it with actions.

CRAIG: What about the second part, that Lee opposed slavery?

WARREN: This one is hard to fathom for the simple reason that Lee enslaved people.

He inherited several families of enslaved people when his mother died in 1829.

And when his father-in-law died in 1857, Lee took over the management of 189 people who were enslaved. 

Interestingly, his father-in-law wrote in his will that everyone had to be freed within five years of his death.

Lee asked state courts in 1858 and 1862 to indefinitely delay the liberation, but to no avail. Finally, on December 29th, 1862, he set them free. 

CRAIG: How did Lee treat the enslaved people?

WARREN: He was tough. Knowing that he might only be able to enslave people for a few years, he tried to increase their work production so he could pay off debts.

Four tried to escape in 1859. They were caught and, according to court testimony - Lee ordered them stripped to the waist and whipped.

CRAIG: Is there any evidence, then, that Lee opposed slavery, like the Facebook post says?

WARREN: Lee wrote in 1856 that slavery is a “moral and political evil.” But he said it was more so for whites than Blacks. 

And he said Blacks were “immeasurably better off” in the U.S. than Africa” - and, quote, “the painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race.”

CRAIG: OK. The Southern Heritage Preservation Group’s post says Lee was against secession and slavery. What’s the Truth-O-Meter rating?

WARREN: Lee’s actions were different from his words. Although he did speak against secession, he led an army trying to break up the union

And though he did say on rare occasions that slavery is evil, Lee’s actions as a man who kept people enslaved and as a general contradicted any argument he favored abolition. 

So there’s a trace of fact in the statement. But on the whole, PolitiFact rated the statement Mostly False.