Lee's reply to Lord Acton

Joined
Jun 17, 2014
Messages
9
#1
Robert E. Lee's reply to Lord Acton


If you will do me the honor to write to me, letters will reach me addressed Sir J. Acton, Hotel [Serry?], Rome. Meantime I remain, with sentiments stronger than respect, Sir,



~ Your faithful servant
John Dalberg Acton





~:~:~:~:~:~:~:~:~:~:~:~:~:~:~:~:~



Lexington, Vir.,
15 Dec. 1866



Sir,



Although your letter of the 4th ulto. has been before me some days unanswered, I hope you will not attribute it to a want of interest in the subject, but to my inability to keep pace with my correspondence. As a citizen of the South I feel deeply indebted to you for the sympathy you have evinced in its cause, and am conscious that I owe your kind consideration of myself to my connection with it. The influence of current opinion in Europe upon the current politics of America must always be salutary; and the importance of the questions now at issue the United States, involving not only constitutional freedom and constitutional government in this country, but the progress of universal liberty and civilization, invests your proposition with peculiar value, and will add to the obligation which every true American must owe you for your efforts to guide that opinion aright. Amid the conflicting statements and sentiments in both countries, it will be no easy task to discover the truth, or to relieve it from the mass of prejudice and passion, with which it has been covered by party spirit. I am conscious the compliment conveyed in your request for my opinion as to the light in which American politics should be viewed, and had I the ability, I have not the time to enter upon a discussion, which was commenced by the founders of the constitution and has been continued to the present day. I can only say that while I have considered the preservation of the constitutional power of the General Government to be the foundation of our peace and safety at home and abroad, I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people, not only essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continuance of a free government. I consider it as the chief source of stability to our political system, whereas 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 it. I need not refer one so well acquainted as you are with American history, to the State papers of Washington and Jefferson, the representatives of the federal and democratic parties, denouncing consolidation and centralization of power, as tending to the subversion of State Governments, and to despotism. The New England states, whose citizens are the fiercest opponents of the Southern states, did not always avow the opinions they now advocate. Upon the purchase of Louisiana by Mr. Jefferson, they virtually asserted the right of secession through their prominent men; and in the convention which assembled at Hartford in 1814, they threatened the disruption of the Union unless the war should be discontinued. The assertion of this right has been repeatedly made by their politicians when their party was weak, and Massachusetts, the leading state in hostility to the South, declares in the preamble to her constitution, that the people of that commonwealth "have the sole and exclusive right of governing themselves as a free sovereign and independent state, and do, and forever hereafter shall, exercise and enjoy every power, jurisdiction, and right which is not, or may hereafter be by them expressly delegated to the United States of America in congress assembled." Such has been in substance the language of other State governments, and such the doctrine advocated by the leading men of the country for the last seventy years. Judge Chase, the present Chief Justice of the U.S., as late as 1850, is reported to have stated in the Senate, of which he was a member, that he "knew of no remedy in case of the refusal of a state to perform its stipulations," thereby acknowledging the sovereignty and independence of state action. But I will not weary you with this unprofitable discussion. Unprofitable because the judgment of reason has been displaced by the arbitrament of war, waged for the purpose as avowed of maintaining the union of the states. If, therefore, the result of the war is to be considered as having decided that the union of the states is inviolable and perpetual under the constitution, it naturally follows that it is as incompetent for the general government to impair its integrity by the exclusion of a state, as for the states to do so by secession; and that the existence and rights of a state by the constitution are as indestructible as the union itself. The legitimate consequence then must be the perfect equality of rights of all the states; the exclusive right of each to regulate its internal affairs under rules established by the Constitution, and the right of each state to prescribe for itself the qualifications of suffrage. The South has contended only for the supremacy of the constitution, and the just administration of the laws made in pursuance to it. Virginia to the last made great efforts to save the union, and urged harmony and compromise. Senator Douglass, in his remarks upon the compromise bill recommended by the committee of thirteen in 1861, stated that every member from the South, including Messrs. Toombs and Davis, expressed their willingness to accept the proposition of Senator Crittenden from Kentucky, as a final settlement of the controversy, if sustained by the republican party, and that the only difficulty in the way of an amicable adjustment was with the republican party. Who then is responsible for the war? Although the South would have preferred any honorable compromise to the fratricidal war which has taken place, she now accepts in good faith its constitutional results, and receives without reserve the amendment which has already been made to the constitution for the extinction of slavery. That is an event that has been long sought, though in a different way, and by none has it been more earnestly desired than by citizens of Virginia. In other respects I trust that the constitution may undergo no change, but that it may be handed down to succeeding generations in the form we received it from our forefathers. The desire I feel that the Southern states should possess the good opinion of one whom I esteem as highly as yourself, has caused me to extend my remarks farther than I intended, and I fear it has led me to exhaust your patience. If what I have said should serve to give any information as regards American politics, and enable you to enlighten public opinion as to the true interests of this distracted country, I hope you will pardon its prolixity.



In regard to your inquiry as to my being engaged in preparing a narrative of the campaigns in Virginia, I regret to state that I progress slowly in the collection of the necessary documents for its completion. I particularly feel the loss of the official returns showing the small numbers with which the battles were fought. I have not seen the work by the Prussian officer you mention and therefore cannot speak of his accuracy in this respect.– With sentiments of great respect, I remain your obt. servant,



~ R.E. Lee
 

Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!

Old_Glory

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Sep 26, 2010
Messages
2,935
Location
NC
#2
The assertion of this right has been repeatedly made by their politicians when their party was weak, and Massachusetts, the leading state in hostility to the South, declares in the preamble to her constitution, that the people of that commonwealth "have the sole and exclusive right of governing themselves as a free sovereign and independent state, and do, and forever hereafter shall, exercise and enjoy every power, jurisdiction, and right which is not, or may hereafter be by them expressly delegated to the United States of America in congress assembled."
That is the first Lee quote I have ever seen where he calls Massachusetts out by name. Do you have a source for this in a book or on the web?
 

Patrick H

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Mar 7, 2014
Messages
10,211
#3
Regardless of how one feels about Lee, you've got to admit the man could craft a beautifully well-written letter. Sometimes, the formality of letter writing in those days sort of amuses me. Other times, it impresses me.
The style and structure of this letter impresses me very much.
 

brass napoleon

Colonel
Retired Moderator
Member of the Year
Honored Fallen Comrade
Joined
Feb 6, 2010
Messages
14,986
Location
Ohio
#4
Much of what he says is true, but it also should be put in context with things he said earlier, like this:

"Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labour, wisdom & forbearance in its formation & surrounded it with so many guards & securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the confederacy at will. It was intended for pepetual [sic] union, so expressed in the preamble, & for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution or the consent of all the people in convention assembled. It is idle to talk of secession. Anarchy would have been established & not a government, by Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison & the other patriots of the Revolution. In 1808 when the New England States resisted Mr Jeffersons Imbargo law & the Hartford Convention assembled secession was termed treason by Virga statesmen. What can it be now?"

- Robert E. Lee, January 29, 1861

Source: Source: http://leearchive.wlu.edu/reference/...chal/index.txt
And this post-war newspaper interview:

[General Lee] added that they went off after political leaders in a moment of
passion and under the excitement of fancied wrongs,
honestly believing that
they were entering a struggle for an inalienable right and a fundamental
principle of their political creed.


- New York Herald interview with Robert E. Lee, April 21, 1865

Source: http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/13116651
The sad truth is, that by Lee's own admission, the South made its own bed. I don't blame him for not being thrilled about sleeping in that bed, but that's the way it works. And to his credit, he understood and accepted that (unlike some others).
 
Last edited:

OpnCoronet

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Feb 23, 2010
Messages
10,355
#6
Whes!! A good thing Lee had some ability as a military leader, he certainly shows very little political acumen, much less any depth of knowledge of American history(Or theConstitution), if this letter is any example.
 

OpnCoronet

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Feb 23, 2010
Messages
10,355
#10
Oh...you need to show us all the points that General Lee is so in error on and then give YOUR VERSION of what's correct! Just take his dissertation apart piece by piece in other words!


Lee apparently had little knowledge of even Va.'s history. if he did not know that Patrick Henry had warned Va. in their meeting to decide on accepting the Constitution, that that document was not a compact and that the Union it formed was specifically consolidationist.
 
Joined
Feb 2, 2010
Messages
6,370
Location
Quinton, VA.
#11
Lee apparently had little knowledge of even Va.'s history. if he did not know that Patrick Henry had warned Va. in their meeting to decide on accepting the Constitution, that that document was not a compact and that the Union it formed was specifically consolidationist.
I was wondering where you were heading myself. I suspect few Virginians were aware then as now that the fight over the new constitution was a very close run thing here. As Virginians are wont to do they reached a middle ground, or at least enough to satisfy themselves, and added a qualifier as did New York.
 

OpnCoronet

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Feb 23, 2010
Messages
10,355
#12
The point is, that most, if not all, the political solutions to the increasing problems involved in reconciling the growing division of the country into hostile sections, were still unsettled with no one of those solutions being seen as acceptable to one side or the other.
In other words, Lee is firmly in the camp of those secessionists who have assumed the states right of unilateral secession, was in fact, a historical and poltical fact of life, when it's very existence was still up for challenge, even in 1861.
 
Joined
May 18, 2011
Messages
9,642
Location
Carlisle, PA
#13
I was wondering where you were heading myself. I suspect few Virginians were aware then as now that the fight over the new constitution was a very close run thing here. As Virginians are wont to do they reached a middle ground, or at least enough to satisfy themselves, and added a qualifier as did New York.
Unfortunately, that qualifier was nothing more than a feel-good measure. It had no legal bearing, as James Madison pointed out.

R
 
Joined
Feb 2, 2010
Messages
6,370
Location
Quinton, VA.
#14
Unfortunately, that qualifier was nothing more than a feel-good measure. It had no legal bearing, as James Madison pointed out.

R
Unfortunate is an interesting choice. Of course James Madison didn't bother to point that out until after the vote. He was a strong supporter of the new constitution and was against the addition of the Bill of Rights. Which, to me, was kind of a surprise.
 

OpnCoronet

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Feb 23, 2010
Messages
10,355
#15
I find Lee's ref. to the Mass. constitution, ironic, in the fact, that Patrick Henry referred one of his arguments against the Constitution, to the fact that the power of the Constitution could supersecded that of any state constitution, even the Va. Bill of Rights, i.e., Lee apparently did not know, what Patrick Henry(and the leaders of Mass.) knew, it did not matter what any state constitution (or Bill of Rights) said, if it conflicted with the United States Constitution.
 



Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
JOIN NOW: REGISTER HERE!
Top