In November 1866, British statesman Lord Acton wrote to Gen. Robert E. Lee, asking for the revered Confederate commander’s views on the historical consequences of the War Between the States.
Lee — whose Jan. 19, 1807, birthday is widely observed in the South — replied at length. The following are excerpts from Lee’s letter:
15 Dec., 1866
Sir — Although your letter … has been before me for 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 policies of America must always be salutary; and the importance of the questions now at issue in 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 of 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 party 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 a 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 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 [Salmon P.] 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 judgement 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 [Stephen A.] Douglas [of Illinois], in his remarks upon the compromise bill recommended by the commitee of thirteen in 1861, stated that every member from the South, including [Sen. Robert] Toombs [of Georgia] and [Sen. Jefferson] Davis [of Mississippi], expressed their willingness to accept the proposition of Senator [John] Crittenden of Kentucky as a final settlement of the controversy, if sustained by the republican party, and that the only difficulty in the way of an amiable adjustment was with the republican party. Who then is responsible for the war?
Although the South would have preferred any honourable 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 have received it from our forefathers. …
With sentiments of great respect, I remain your obt. servant.