Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 28/General Lee as College President

Southern Historical Society Papers
General Lee as College President by Edward Southey Joynes

[From the Richmond, Va., Dispatch, January 27, 1901.]


Reminiscences of His Work in Lexington, Va.

Professor Edward S. Joynes, who holds the chair of Modern Languages at Columbia College, South Carolina, a similar position to that he held at Washington and Lee University, when General Robert E. Lee was President, gives some interesting reminiscences of General Lee in that capacity. Professor Joynes is an uncle of Judge J. Upshur Dennis, of the Baltimore bench. Mr. Joynes says in a letter written to a friend:

"My recollections shall be chiefly of General Lee as a College President. Is is as such that he is chiefly present to my memory always for admiration, sometimes for contrast with later experiences. I will not enlarge upon the quiet dignity and patience with which he always presided over our often wordy and tedious meetings, his perfect impartiality, and unwearied courtesy, his manifest effort to sink his own personality, as if to minimize the influence which he knew attached to his own views, and to leave to the faculty as a body, and to each member of it, the fullest sense of authority and independence.

"Indeed, nowhere else in all my wide experience have I found so much of personal dignity and influence attached to the professorship as at Lexington; and this was largely due to the courtesy and deference with which General Lee treated the faculty, and every member of it, in both official and private relations. Yet not the less, on those rare .occasions when it became necessary, did he assert the full measure of his authority. He rarely spoke in faculty meetings, and then only'at the close of debate usually to restate the question at issue, seldom with any decided expression of his own opinion or wish.


"I remember on one occasion a professor quoted a certain regulation in the by-laws. Another replied that it had become a dead letter. 'Then,' said General Lee, 'let it be repealed. A dead letter inspires disrespect for the whole body of laws.'

"On another occasion a professor appealed to precedent, and added, 'We must not respect persons.' General Lee at once replied: 'In dealing with young men I always respect persons, and care little for precedent.'

"When General Lee became President of Washington College it had been required that students should occupy the college dormitories; only a few of the older students were permitted to lodge in town. General Lee reversed this rule. As a measure of discipline it was required that all students board and lodge in the families of the town; to lodge in the dormitory was accorded as a privilege. He said the young boys needed the influence of family life; the dormitories he regarded as offering temptations to license. The result vindicated the wisdom of his view.


"In dealing with the young men General Lee had a truly marvellous success. The students fairly worshipped him, and deeply dreaded his displeasure; yet so kind, affable, and gentle was he to- ward them that all loved to approach him. Still, an official summons to his office struck terror even into the most hardened.

A young fellow, whose general record was none too good, was summoned to answer for absence. He stated his excuse, and then, '/<//. /,',,//,r/ A'. /<" '/. Cntl,-,/, /',V.v/</, ,//.

lu- added another and another, 'Stop, Mr. - ,' said ( it -in Tal Lee, ' one good reason should be sufficient to satisfy an honest mind,' with emphasis on the word 'honest.' that spoke vol- umes.

"Another, an excellent student, now a distinguished lawyer in Tennessee. was once beguiled into an tincxcused absence. The dreaded summons came. With his heart in his boots he entered General Lee's office. The General met him smiling: ' Mr. M., I am glad to see you are better.' ' But General, I have not been sick.' 'Then I am glad to see you have better news from home.' ' Hut General, I have had no bad news.' 'Ah,' said the General, ' I took it for granted that nothing less than sickness or distressing news from home could have kept you from your duty.' Mr. M. told me, in relating the incident, that he then felt as if he wished the earth would open and swallow him.

1 ' To a recalcitrant student, who was contending for what he thought his rights as a man, I once heard General Lee say: 'Obedience to lawful authority is the foundation of manly character ' in those very words.

"On rare occasions of disorder, actual or threatened, General Lee would post a manuscript address to students on the bulletin board. These were known among the boys as his ' General Orders.' They never failed of their effect. No student would have dared to violate General Lee's express wish or appeal if one had done so the stu- dents themselves would have driven him from the college.


" I wish to add one other important fact, illustrating General Lee's view of discipline, in a case of frequent occurrence. He held idle- ness to be not a negative, but a positive vice. It often happened that the plea was made that an idle student was doing no harm and indirectly deriving benefit, etc. General Lee said, ' No. A young man is always doing something; if not good then harm to himself and others.' So that merely persistent idleness was with him always sufficient cause for dismissal.

"General Lee's ideal of education was the training of manly character, and that, lor him, meant Christian character. To a ven- erable minister of Lexington he said: ' I shall be disappointed, sir I shall fail in the leading object that brought me here unless these young men all become consistent Christians.' When he came to Lexington the old President's house was in a sadly dilapidated condition. The trustees desired to build at once a suitable house for the President's residence. But General Lee insisted that the first money collected should be devoted to building a chapel, and he would not allow the President's house to be begun until the chapel had been completed and furnished—that chapel beneath which now rests his own beautiful mausoleum. Here daily religious services were held at an early hour by the ministers of Lexington in rotation—but not on Sunday, for General Lee preferred that the students should go to the church of their parents in the town.


"General Lee had very well defined opinions on educational subjects. In quoting some of these it might, perhaps, be unjust to apply them to present conditions, which, of course, could not then be foreseen. He was a strong advocate of practical, even technical education, as was shown by his plans for Washington College; but he was equally firm in his support of training studies and liberal culture. I have often heard him say it had been his lifelong regret that he had not completed his classical education (in which, however, he had a respectable scholarship) before going to West Point. Also, he did not believe in separate technical schools, but thought 'that scientific and professional studies could best be taught when surrounded by the liberalizing influence of a literary institution.' Hence, he sought to unite all these in the development of Washington College.

"Especially General Lee did not believe in a military education for others than army officers. Military education, he used to say, is an unfortunate necessity for the soldier, but the worst possible preparation for civil life. 'For many years,' he said, 'I have observed the failure in business pursuits of men who have resigned from the army. It is very rare that any one of them has achieved success.'

"One incident finally, which I witnessed, illustrating the General's playful humor. A new roadway of broken stone had just been laid through the college grounds. Colonel J. T. L. Preston, then professor in the Military Institute, came riding through on his way to town. As the stones were new and rough, the Colonel rode alongside on the grass. As he halted where the General was standing, he halted for a talk. General Lee, putting his arm affectionately around the horse's neck and patting him, said: 'Colonel, this is a beautiful horse; I am sorry he is so tenderfooted that he avoids our new road.' Afterwards Colonel Preston always rode on the stone-way."