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Over My Shoulder #16: Michael Fellman (2002), The Making of Robert E. Lee

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 18 years ago, in 2006, on the World Wide Web.

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is another passage from from Chapter 4 (Race and Slavery) of Michael Fellman's The Making of Robert E. Lee (2000) (see also GT 2006-02-24: Over My Shoulder #12). Here’s some more on the Lees, slavery, and the slaves at Arlington. It’s mostly about Robert E. Lee’s wife Mary, but be sure to note Robert’s sanctimonious attempts to dissuade her from even taking the modest step of ransoming a slave from an especially cruel slave-driver. (In this matter is everything to be yielded to the servant, & nothing allowed to the master? Well…) It would be interesting to know whether the two white strangers were connected at all with the Norrises’ attempted escape the following year or the anonymous letters to the New York Tribune about their capture (which were, like most 19th century letters to the editor, published anonymously). In any case:

Lee’s views on slavery were considerably influenced by the opinions and activities of his wife and his mother-in-law, both of whom were deeply involved in the American Colonization Society, an early form of ambiguous antislavery activism, which sought to free the slaves by sending them back [sic] to Africa. As a young married woman, this project was a commitment of Mary’s heart and nost just her head. She wished to nurture, educate, and catechize the family slaves right away, in preparationfor eventual manumission and export. She wrote her mother in 1831, I hope that we may be able to do something in time for the spiritual benefit of those neglected slaves and for their eventual freedom. Because on these terms liberty meant expulsion of the entire inferior black race with whom whites could never imagine cohabiting on an equal footing, such colonizationism was racist antislavery doctrine.

In her diary for the 1850s, Mary frequently discussed the project. She joined her mother, she wrote, in the hope that one day all their slaves would be able to emigrate to Africa, so that they could carry light & Christianity to that dark heathen country. Nevertheless, admitting to a presentiment that she would not live long enough to carry out this grand scheme, she proposed to try it gradually. She picked her slave William and his family to act as pioneers, a kind of pilot project. And then she stated the larger purpose of the heart that lay behind her social project: What is life worth unless you can accomplish in it something for the benefit of others, especially of those so entirely dependent upon one’s will and pleasure.

Mary’s body servant, Eliza, was another pet project. I have always promised Eliza her freedom to emigrate to Africa in a few years. … If she will go to Africa she can have her freedom, Mary Lee wrote in her diary in 1853. She feared, however, that Eliza might marry here and be unwilling to go, especially if she should marry a free man. In the event, Mary Lee noted in 1860 that Eliza had her freedom and that she now lived in Newport with her husband. Somehow, Eliza had secured her freedom while avoiding being shipped back [sic] to Afirca. Such was the outcome favored by the vast majority of manumitted slaves, whatever the desires of their former masters.

As an interim measure on her slaves’ path to freedom and repatriation, Mary Lee, with the help of her daughters, set up a school for slaves, almost certainly a Sunday school, on the Arlington plantation. This was an unusual move, because the overwhelming majority of slave owners feared rightly that literacy would give slaves acces to seditious abolitionist materials, which would lead them to demand or seize their freedom. In 1819, this concern had led the Virginia legislature to outlaw education for blacks, but several of Virginia’s clergymen continued to encourage Sunday schools, arguing that the gentry class would answer to God, not to the legislature. It is not clear how many slaveholders in addition to the Lees followed this path of circumspect lawbreaking.

At least occasionally, Agnes Lee taught in this school for slaves in the mid-1850s. In her journal, she expressed her attitude and that of her father toward her students. I must put down my pen … & go teach my little scholars. We have a considerable number of ebony mites as Papa calls them & as no one knows as much as another it makes their instruction very tedious. Off to school she went, only to find an empty room. Well! I have gone down, I insist upon teaching them in classes & yet only one of my class ever arrived [in] time so I have employed this odd moment in writing.

Agnes’s pen dripped racial condescension even as she earnestly broke the law. Her view on her pupils’ tardiness reflected the Southern white contempt for slaves’ perceived lack of punctuality (although it must be noted that Northern factory managers had the same complaints about their workers, who also thus resisted discipline and set their own work schedules). The amused phrase ebony mites also demonstrated her father’s doubts about a project in which he disbelieved, although he did nothing to stop it, probably regarding it as harmless. While influenced by Mary’s colonizationist project, he was generally rather skeptical of its value, and sometimes he doubted whether Mary’s do-goodism was a very wise course. In one rather complex case in 1841, Robert attempted to dissuade Mary’s project of buying a slave off an unkind master in order to free him. In judging of results you must endeavour to lay aside your feelings & prejudices & examine the question as thus exposed. In this matter is everything to be yielded to the servant, & nothing allowed to the master? What will the effect of the precedent be on the rest [of the slaves and on] your father and his authority? Lee promised that he would comply with her wishes, but he urged her to consider well upon the matter & act for yourself.

After her father’s slaves became hers and Robert’s, Mary hardened her attitude toward them. On February 10, 1858, when Robert was trying to sort out the chaos on the other Custis plantations, Mary wrote an old friend about his efforts in trying to reduce these very complicated affairs into some order: It is very unsatisfactory work for the servants here have been so long accustomed to do little or nothing that they cannot be convinced of the necessity now of exerting themselves, in order to speed up the accomplishment of the promise of freedom in the will. Actually, Mary was being illogical, as the promise had been given unconditionally, albeit for five years down the line. Then Mary continued, unless there is a mighty change wrought in them I do not know what good they will do themselves, but at any rate we shall be relieved from the care of them which will be an immense burden taken from our shoulders. Actual experience in manumission was hardly proving to be the fulfillment of the colonizationist dreams of years past.

Over the next week, Mary continued to brood. On February 17, she wrote to W. G. Webster that two white men had been constantly lurking about with the servants & telling them that they had a right to their freedom immediately & that if they would unite & demand it they would obtain it. Only the merciful hand of a kind Providence … prevented an outbreak. Their freedom is a very questionable advantage to any but ourselves who will be relieved from a host of idle & their useless dependents. Of course, colonization had always promised masters relief from their slaves, but here Mary Lee dropped the charitable aspect of the project–the rationalization that it was intended for the good of blacks–and treated manumission as a racial safety valve for white masters.

Not colonization but her father’s will had freed these slaves, and Mary was retrospectively exasperated with him. My dear father in his usual entire ignorance of the state of his affairs has left provision in his will which it will be almost impossible to fulfill even in double 5 years. Just sending them out of the state, which Virginians freeing their slaves were required to do, would be prohibitively expensive, she believed. She then drew the sarcastic conclusion that we should be most deeply indebted to their kind friends the abolitionists if they would come forward [and purchase their] freedom at once.

It even gave Mary Lee a certain perverse satisfaction to note the virulent racism in Canada, that land of freedom to which thousands of slaves had fled, when she visited some hot springs there in 1860. There are a great number of runaways here, but I have not met with any acquaintances, Mary Lee wrote her daughter Annie. The white people say that before long they will be obliged to make laws to send them all out of Canada, so I see no place for them but Africa. I am told they suffer a great deal here in the long cold winters. After enticing them over here the white people will not let their children go to the same schools or treat them as equals in any way. Amalgamation–interracial marriage–is out of the question tho occasionally a very low white woman marries a black man. Either blacks had to be dominated by kind masters within slavery, or else they had to be returned to Africa. They could never live in equality with whites anywhere in North America, and freedom would bring them only into a condition worse than slavery. The Canadian racism she observed confirmed Mary’s beliefs in white supremacy and black degradation.

As the Civil War approached, given their experiences, both the Lees were disgusted with slavery. At the same time, they were prepared to defend it as the only viable safeguard of white control over blacks until that distant day when the South might be whitened through complete African repatriation [sic].

–Michael Fellman (2000), The Making of Robert E. Lee. New York: Random House, ISBN 0679456503. 67–72.

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