A Cancel Culture. . .Victory?
Washington & Lee University's Trustees Vote to Keep Lee's Name. But the Job Isn't Done Yet.
Good news. Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia - a town that is also home to the state-supported Virginia Military Institute and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, and an ignominious restaurant called the “Red Hen” - will not be changing its name to remove Robert E. Lee. So say their Board of Trustees. And it wasn’t even close.
If you’ve not visited Lexington, it is worth a visit (but skip the awful “Red Hen” restaurant). You can spend most of the day here. Maybe two.
I would know. I’ve done it.
When my oldest son began looking at colleges during his junior year in 2006, Washington and Lee, and VMI were at the top of our list. I thought my son - now an Army Infantry Officer - might benefit from VMI’s military education. But he had been a “summer scholar” in high school at Washington and Lee and recruited by the resident wrestling coach for their Division III program. He loved the school. So did we.
Washington and Lee - the late US Sen. John Warner’s alma mater, among many other distinguished alumni - remains one of the most competitive schools in the nation. Maybe things have changed, but we were told that if students weren’t in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class, no matter what else they did or had done (like captain the wrestling and lacrosse teams, score a bazillion on their SAT’s, etc.), they would not be admitted. Somewhat arbitrary, but they are the rules. And my son, in a class of roughly 80, was not among the top 8 (but close). The other eight schools to which he applied accepted him. Off to top-rated Division I wrestling school in Pennsylvania, he went. The rest is history.
What was the allure of W&L? It has a stunningly beautiful campus. Its small, intimate size was attractive (about 1,800 students at the time). We loved Lexington for its history, proximity to great outdoor activities, and liked the professors we met. But more important, as with most schools - their culture, traditions, and history were impressive, even intoxicating.
And what a history. It began as August Academy in 1749, later moving to its current site in 1782 as Liberty Hall Academy. George Washington himself rescued the school in 1796, and they named it after him - Washington College - as a result. Here’s the story, according to W&L’s website:
Liberty Hall Academy was in dire financial straits in 1796 when U.S. President George Washington chose the school as the beneficiary of 100 shares of James River Canal Company stock. He had received the stock as a gift from the Virginia General Assembly in recognition of his service to the commonwealth. The stock was one of the largest donations to any educational institution at the time. It remains part of the institution’s endowment to this day, contributing to the University's operating budget.
Explaining the purpose of his gift, Washington wrote that the time had come "when a plan of universal education ought to be adopted in the United States.” Education, Washington further asserted, not only prepares us for personal success and public service, but also unifies diverse communities of students and teaches them to live in harmony.
To express their gratitude, the trustees changed the school’s name to Washington Academy, prompting Washington to respond: "To promote Literature in this rising Empire, and to encourage the Arts, have ever been among the warmest wishes of my heart."
But after the Civil War, Virginia was in tatters, as was the school. With few places to go, defeated Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee accepted the school's presidency, which was again in desperate straights. Again, from W&L’s own website:
On Aug. 4, 1865, four months after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, the Washington College board of trustees invited Lee to become president of the college. The trustees believed that his dedication to principle and duty would inspire students and faculty. In addition, they hoped his reputation as the leader of the Confederate army could help attract students and funding from both the north and the south, thereby allowing the school to recover from its perilous situation.
For his part, Lee described his motivation for accepting the presidency in an 1865 letter to his wife: "Life is indeed gliding away and I have nothing good to show for mine that is past. I pray I may be spared to accomplish something for the benefit of mankind and the honour of God." He elaborated in another letter the following spring: "So greatly have [educational] interests been disturbed [in] the South, and so much does its future condition depend upon the rising generation, that I consider the proper education of its youth one of the most important objects now to be attained, and one from which the greatest benefits may be expected."
After all, he’d served as superintendent of West Point, from which he’d graduated. While he would not live long after the Civil War - he passed away from heart disease in 1870 - he helped rebuild the school.
He built and was the first resident of the President’s house, which still houses the University’s leader. And - at least in 2006 - the ‘barn door’ used now as President’s garage was always kept open for Traveller’s return - General Lee’s wartime horse. He built upon the school’s legendary “honor code” and expanded the student body’s enforcement of it. Traditions like this may trigger some empty-headed snowflakes, but they help students connect with the school’s history, founding, and purpose.
I remember that visit so well. Lee personified the school. “Do your duty,” a Lee intonement, was ubiquitous. After he died, the school constructed Lee Chapel where most of his immediate family is interred, including his famous revolutionary war father, Harry “Lighthorse” Lee. Traveller’s grave is just outside. Lee, of course, retains a unique burial site inside (except the “woke” on campus have removed the flags).
Contrary to “woke” history, Washington and Lee was never really a shrine to the “lost cause,” slavery, or the Confederacy, despite a handful who wished it so. It was a tribute to the man, Robert E. Lee, including his decisions - good and bad - his gallantry, his integrity, his dedication to the school and its students, and his complicated legacy. There is no denying that Lee, by refusing requests from his officers to retreat into the hills and engage in guerrilla warfare - helped to unite the nation. He specifically asked that no Confederate monuments be erected. That is why I have no problem removing statues of him, even others. He never wanted one.
So, why the move to cancel Lee’s name from the school? It is simple. It is, or was, simply another “ground zero” in our cultural wars, led, as is often the case, by a recalcitrant and malign faculty. That faculty voted overwhelmingly to cancel Lee and change the name, dragging not a few weak-minded useful idiots within its student body to help their lost cause over the years.
Question: if Robert E. Lee’s legacy and name offend you, why the hell did you attend the school in the first place? There are plenty of other woke indoctrination factories and Play-Doh-equipped safe spaces for you to frequent.
Lee’s legacy and history are complicated. The US Park Service is currently renovating not just the Custis-Lee Mansion that sits atop Arlington National Cemetery but is making plans to recast its history. On a recent visit there, we learned their goals. To de-emphasize Lee and focus on the slaves he inherited from his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis. “Lee was just a temporary visitor here, anyway,” one Park Service employee told us. Uh-huh. And it will be called “Arlington House.”
By the way, Arlington County & City, Virginia, used to feature “Arlington House” in its official logo. But because it offended the local NAACP, residents here will soon vote to replace it with something bland and forgettable, undoubtedly more politically correct, whatever it will be. Erasing history remains a thing, even in a jurisdiction where Arlington National Cemetery is headquartered. I wonder if I can just vote “no.”
But kudos to the 22 of 28 Board of Trustees at W&L who voted to keep the name. Why would a school erase or even dishonor its history? Sure, Robert E. Lee’s legacy is complicated, even blemished. Sure, the memories of the Confederacy bring up painful memories of our past. So do many other events in our history. But why erase it? Shouldn’t we learn from it, so we don’t repeat it? Isn’t that one of the reasons we have universities and institutions of higher educations in the first place? And teach history?
W&L’s trustee’s next step should be systematically replacing its woke faculty. I’ll volunteer to move to Lexington and teach history and political science. For free.