Founders Day Remarks: January 18, 2018

We celebrate Founders Day and gather for Convocation, by direction of the Board of Trustees, on the birthday of Robert E. Lee, who served as our university's president from 1865 to 1870.

On this occasion, we reflect upon the people whose vision, leadership, and hard work gave rise to this university, in which we take pride and to which we now devote our own energy. We reflect upon the purposes and the values that abide as the common thread connecting the members of this community across decades and centuries during which so much else has changed. And we reflect upon our motto —  non incautus futuri, not unmindful of the future  — which expresses our commitment to honor the past, not from a desire to remain frozen in time, but rather as a source of inspiration to direct our own efforts for the benefit of those who will follow us in the decades and centuries to come.

At the heart of Washington and Lee University lies the conviction that the future is best served by education. From that conviction grows the communal ethos to devote ourselves to cultivating the considerable potential of our students, so that they in turn may contribute powerfully to making the world a better place. The two men for whom our school is named exemplified this ethos in their own words and deeds, as have thousands of other individuals who have sustained the quality, character, and success of this university over the 269 years of its existence.

Our distinguished speaker this evening, Charles Dew, is a nationally recognized scholar of the American South before and after the Civil War. His address will draw upon his most recent book, The Making of a Racist, which is a highly-acclaimed memoir of growing up in the segregated South.

Professor Dew's previous book, Apostles of Disunion, is an insightful and influential study of the causes that led the Southern states to secede. The "apostles" referred to in the title were the secession commissioners appointed by five states — South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana — that had already seceded by January 1861. These men were sent out, carrying "the gospel of disunion," to persuade the other slave states to join the Confederacy. Dew examines their speeches and letters to demonstrate that these commissioners appealed to their fellow southerners on the grounds that their culture and economy depended on the preservation of slavery, which depended on seceding from the Union.

The commissioner sent from Georgia to press the case in Virginia was Henry Lewis Benning, for whom Fort Benning is named. He opened with a rhetorical question: "What was the reason that induced Georgia to take the step of secession?" To which he then provided a simple answer: "This reason may be summed up in one single proposition. It was a conviction, a deep conviction on the part of Georgia, that a separation from the North was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery." Benning concluded by asking the Virginians, whose indecision on the question of secession he could not fathom: "What objection, then, can you have to joining us and going with your interest, in preference to joining the North and going against your interest? You can have none, as far as I can see. Why, then, will you not join us?"

Robert E. Lee was not a member of the Virginia assembly charged with deciding the question, and thus not present to hear Benning's speech. But from Fort Mason, Texas where he was stationed as a Colonel in the United States army, he penned a direct rejoinder in a letter to his son: "Secession is nothing but revolution ... I do not believe in secession as a constitutional right, nor that there is a sufficient cause for revolution." Benning and the other commissioners made it plain they thought the preservation of slavery justified secession and war. Lee made it equally plain they were wrong. He did not hold progressive views on race, but Lee argued Virginia had neither right nor reason to secede. And he told his son, "if Virginia stands by the old Union, so will I."

The Virginia assembly initially agreed with Lee, voting by a two-thirds majority (which included the two delegates from Lexington) to remain with the Union. But a mere two weeks later, after the battle at Fort Sumter, a second ballot was called and enough votes switched sides (including one from Lexington) to tip the balance for secession.

We can imagine a counterfactual world in which the Virginia assembly stuck with its original decision, Lee accepted Lincoln's offer to lead the Union army, and perhaps he became the President of the United States rather than the President of Washington College. But Virginia did leave the Union and Lee went with it.

Colonel Ty Seidule, W&L class of '84, head of the history department at West Point, sitting here in the front row, whom we are about to honor with induction into ODK, gave an extraordinary talk on this very stage last term, in which he reminded us that Lee's choice was neither necessary nor common. The other U.S. Colonels from Virginia sided with the Union.

How, indeed, we cannot help but wonder, could a man agree to lead an army on behalf of a cause that he expressly considered unconstitutional and unwarranted? Lee explained himself in sworn testimony after the war, when Congress demanded to know why he did not consider himself a traitor. Lee responded that he believed he had an obligation that trumped both his personal opposition to secession and the duty he also felt to his country: "My view [was] that the act of Virginia in withdrawing herself from the United States, carried me along as a citizen of Virginia, and that her law and her acts were binding on me."

Lee thus resolved to give his all in the service of the cause advocated by the "apostles of disunion," with whom he disagreed. But his identity as an American and feeling for his country survived the war and shaped his response to surrender. Lee became an "apostle of reunion." He encouraged southerners to lay down their arms, return to work and school, and build themselves a future. He led by example, taking up the presidency of Washington College only four months after Appomattox because he regarded education as essential to the prospects of young people, whose lives had been devastated by the war, and to the larger project of national reconciliation. It is this work of educating students for the future benefit of the communities in which they will live that we proudly carry on today at Washington and Lee.

Charles Dew is the Ephraim Williams Professor of American History at Williams College, where he has taught since 1977. He is a nationally recognized scholar of American slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. On a personal note, Charles and I were colleagues for nearly 20 years and I am honored to count him as a mentor and a friend. When I served as the Provost at Williams my primary goal was to prevent Charles from retiring, since he continues to be one of the greatest teachers ever to serve on that faculty.

His first book, Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph R. Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works (in Richmond), received the Fletcher Pratt Award for the finest book on the Civil War published in that year. His second book, Bond of Iron: Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge (here in Rockbridge County), was a finalist for the prestigious Lincoln Prize and selected by the New York Times Book Review as a notable book of the year. His third book, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, is a landmark study widely taught in college classrooms around the country.

In 2016, he published The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade, which is the basis for his talk tonight. Please join me in welcoming Charles Dew.