By Robert Stacy McCain
April 25, 2007

Winston Churchill called him "one of the noblest Americans who ever lived," and Theodore Roosevelt called him "the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking peoples have brought forth."

But has political correctness turned Robert E. Lee into a villain? That will be the question explored by six historians this weekend at a symposium commemorating the bicentennial of the Confederate commander’s birth.

"We were afraid that Lee would not receive the honors he should get because of the prevailing political correctness," says Brag Bowling, a Richmond resident who helped organize Saturday’s event at the Key Bridge Marriott Hotel in Arlington.

The symposium will be the largest event of its kind this year honoring Lee, who was born Jan. 19, 1807.

The event site was chosen in part to be near the former Lee family home in Arlington (which now overlooks Arlington National Cemetery). He and his wife, Mary Custis Lee, were married there in 1831, and Mrs. Lee inherited her grandfather’s mansion on his death in 1857.

The symposium site was chosen because of its proximity to Washington.

"We wanted to take this to the nation’s capital," says Mr. Bowling, a national board member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which is hosting the symposium. More than 200 have registered to attend.

"They’re coming in from all over the country," he says. "I had one phone call … from some guy in Norway. We’ve got people coming from California, Texas, Massachusetts — all over the country, and from Canada."

Lee, the son of Revolutionary War hero "Light Horse Harry" Lee, was born in Westmoreland County, Va., and graduated from West Point. He served more than 30 years in the U.S. Army, distinguishing himself in the Mexican War as an aide to Gen. Winfield Scott.

Lee, who freed the slaves his wife inherited from the Custis family, called slavery "a moral and political evil" and opposed secession. After Virginia seceded in 1861, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army rather than bear arms against "my native state."

Hostility to Confederate heritage "has really gotten bad in the last decade," says Mr. Bowling, who says that political correctness in academia and in the press often leads to "dishonoring Confederate soldiers and ignoring the true reasons why the South wished to secede."

Such hostility is based on a misunderstanding of the political background of the war, says Thomas DiLorenzo, who will speak at Saturday’s symposium.

"It’s hard for people to understand Lee’s legacy unless they understand the political philosophy that he held and that informed him as to why he was fighting," says Mr. DiLorenzo, a professor of economics at Baltimore’s Loyola College. "Lee was a military man, so he very seldom said anything about politics. But after the war, he did."

Lee saw the war as "a continuation of the battle between the Hamiltonian consolidationists and the Jeffersonian decentralists," says Mr. DiLorenzo, referring to the "remarkable correspondence" between Lee and British statesman Lord John Acton in 1866.

In a letter to Acton, Lee referred to the writings of Jefferson and Washington and warned that "the consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded."

Lee’s letter was "a very eloquent expression of the Jeffersonian philosophy of the Constitution … and I think it tells us a lot about why he believed he was fighting this war," Mr. DiLorenzo says.

Joining Mr. DiLorenzo at the symposium will be author Kent Masterson Brown, historian John J. Dwyer, Donald Livingston of Emory University, novelist Thomas Moore and Clyde Wilson of the University of South Carolina. Robert Krick, former chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, will speak at a banquet Saturday evening.

"We have people who are going to make you think," Mr. Bowling says. "When you leave this seminar, you’re going to say, ‘That’s a really unique way of looking at things. I haven’t thought of it like that before.’ "

The official sponsor of Saturday’s symposium is the S.D. Lee Institute, which was begun in 2005 as the "academic wing" of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Mr. Bowling says. The institute is named for Confederate Lt. Gen. Stephen Dill Lee (no relation to Robert E. Lee), who at a 1906 SCV gathering declared: "To you, Sons of Confederate Veterans, we will commit the vindication of the cause for which we fought."

Mr. Bowling hopes the Arlington symposium "will be the blueprint for other S.D. Lee seminars around the country."

Nationally, the Sons of Confederate Veterans enrolls 30,000 members who are descendants of those who served in the Confederate military services.

"There are tons and tons of people who are proud to be Southerners and proud of their Confederate heritage," says Mr. Bowling. "We’ve taken polls and we have overwhelming support in Virginia, but you’d never know it, to read the newspapers."

Copyright 2007 The Washington Times

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