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The Cornerstones of Stratford

Address at the Dedication of Stratford, October 12, 1935, by the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation

By Douglas Southall Freeman


You have come this afternoon to this calm shrine of spacious memories to do much more than give thanks to God that the spiritual victor of a conquered cause who died sixty-five years ago today is as much alive as when he stood on Seminary Ridge or spurred his horse into the Bloody Angle. You have come to do more than to celebrate with high rejoicing the extinction of the debt on Stratford. You have come to admit a new obligation as you discharge an old. It is one thing to say that Stratford belongs now to the American people; it is another to assure the future of this property by improvements that will defy time and by endowments that disaster cannot destroy. I know I do not depress you when I say that at least as much as has been expended already must be devoted hereafter to this enterprise. Acquisition is only the first step toward perpetuation.

Yet this reminder does not dim the splendor of one of the most remarkable achievements of our day. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars have been raised and paid during a period when the heat of adversity has dried up many of the fountains of beneficence. Precisely as the Northern States took pride in the fact that the construction of the capitol in Washington continued throughout the war between the States, so we may find significance in the fact that the great depression has witnessed, here in this one State alone, two such notable enterprises as the restoration of Williamsburg and the purchase of Stratford. There could have been no more dramatic expression of your faith in the future; no more positive evidence of your conviction that our age is not breaking with the past, but is making the past a part of our inspiration for the future.


It is a fact of high importance that the first and the most recent labors to preserve the homes of great Americans should both have been in Westmoreland. This county is the western Attica, the birthplace of a larger number of notable men of the past than ever saw the light in an area so small. Now that Mt. Vernon and Stratford have been saved, now that Wakefield and Gunston Hall are sanctuaries of citizenship, we must be diligent in giving to the birthplace of James Monroe like dignity; and we must see that the tract at Port Conway that was the nursery of James Madison is forever consecrated ground. Similarly, the site of John Marshall’s birth, like the place of his death, must be open to every pilgrim. If she can have the noble aid of those who have rescued Stratford from decay, Virginia in another two decades will have deeded to posterity the home and birthplace of all her greatest sons, together with the scene of every great military conflict in her annals. We could render in our day no larger service to America.

Mt. Vernon was purchased by women whose granddaughters still guard it; the first step toward the acquisition of Monticello was taken by women; without the leadership of women, we should not have Stratford today. We cannot account for this by suavely explaining that the patriotic organizations of women are more active than are those of men. We must look deeper, and must realize that here we have an expression of the instinct for home that is one of the main factors in making women, as de Tocqueville said a century ago, the true conservators of society. That instinct, transcending reason, makes every labor reasonable.

The modest president of the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation no doubt would have me rest my reference on this impersonal basis, but you yourselves would not be willing that I should so end my introduction. Virginians made four distinct efforts to purchase Stratford, for they were mindful always of its place in American history. They failed for reasons I need not recount; they failed though once on the steps as the other end of this house, a cash tender of $95,000 was made at the instance of a single individual, who wished to present Stratford to the nation. The success of this effort to procure the property is not due so much to the offer of a higher sum than had ever been considered. Rather does the success of this effort go


back to the imagination of Miss Ethel Armes and to the superb leadership of Mrs. Charles D. Lanier. Perhaps when Miss Armes first visited Stratford, the Lares of practicality might have cried out, “Behold, this dreamer cometh”; but that gracious dreamer herself was practical. Determined to save Stratford, she searched until she found the one woman of all women who could best direct that great undertaking. It was not by chance that Mrs. Lanier was the daughter-in-law of Sidney Lanier, who was the Virgil of our Southern Ilium; nor was it by chance that Mrs. Lanier lived in Connecticut. It was, you remember, a poet-exile by the waters of Babylon who most remembered Jerusalem. A hundred names could be mentioned with thanks and honor today; the whole of this dedicatory address might be devoted to a record of the individual labors of the members of the board and to acknowledge of the generous advance of funds by a devoted friend who imposed no condition save that she remain anonymous. But I am sure it is the wish of all of you that these two be the names emphasized today—the names of Miss Ethel Armes and of the president of the association. Concerning Mrs. Lanier we may be permitted to paraphrase Speaker Robinson’s tribute to the youthful Washington and to say that her modesty is equal to her worth “and that surpasses the power of any language which I possess.”

You have come, however, to something even finer than to share in the observance and to pay homage to these devoted women. You have made this pilgrimage to honor the service and the ideals of a family which is so much greater than any member of it that I would sound a discord in our thanksgiving were I to confine my remarks to Thomas Lee or even Robert E. Lee. In his interesting work on “The Lees of Virginia,” which appeared just a week ago today, the learned Burton Hendrick points out for the first time that the architecture of this building, which is unlike that of any other famous colonial residence of Virginia, is distinctly reminiscent of Ham House at Stratford-Langton, near which the first Richard Lee, after he grew rich in Virginia, acquired an estate in England. Ham House had two pointed roofs and was built in the form of a capital “H.” Even if Dr. Hendrick were not right in tracing Stratford to that original in Essex—and he probably is—we assuredly are justified in saying that the great “H” of the walls of Stratford has eight cornerstones,


not four. And if that be true, then the “head of the corner” is family. On family, the great fame of the Lees is built. “H” stands first of all for Home.

The progression and decline of great American families has been epitomized in the colloquial phrase, “three generations from shirt-sleeves to shirt sleeves.” That brief, grim cycle of the acquisition and loss of family fortune does not date, as we are apt to assume, from the beginning of the era of vast depressions in industry. This American tragedy can be traced from the seventeenth century. Virginia had her great landed proprietors and her opulent industries before 1700; but the names most eminent in the seventeenth century are not, with few exceptions, those most distinguished even a hundred years later. Today, though we might count several score Virginia families that have kept their ideals since the days of her first settlers, there probably is not one which has preserved its fortune along with its station for that entire period. The continuity of family, if traceable at all, is genealogical rather than economic in America.

               Of the few exceptions in Virginia, the Lee stands first. For two centuries and a half, from 1649, when the first Richard Lee became secretary of state for the colony of Virginia, until 1898, when General Fitzhugh Lee was the central figure in the crisis preceding the war with Spain, there was no period of more than thirty years in which members of the Lee family were not conspicuous; and in the two greatest upheavals of that long span of years, they were at the top of turmoil. The builder of this house, President Thomas Lee, is eminent among all American fathers in the number of distinguished sons that he begot. Together with William Randolph, of Turkey Island, he may be counted one of the two more eminent progenitors of Virginia history. When the day comes that we can hope to hang again in the great hall the original portraits that once adorned its walls, historical perspective will compel us to give first place to Thomas Lee, not for what he himself achieved, but for what he set in motion. He and his wife, Hannah Ludwell, developed some spiritual inheritance of mind until they created among their sons a sense of family union and helpful co-operation that explains how the landless younger issue was not outdone in public service by the owners of the entail. Always to them family and place were linked together.


Family, Stratford and home were synonyms. In the correspondence of General Robert E. Lee, for example, I do not recall more than a few casual references to Leesylvania, though it was from the Leesylvania branch of the family that he sprang. To him Stratford was Lee. Here surely, in this cornerstone of family there is a lesson for America today.

It would be a potent augury for the future were we to apply to the present homes of our own families the zeal we have displayed for preserving the ancestral seats of our heroes. The stability of the nation rests upon the maintenance of the family; the family ideals is scarcely separable from place; home as a specific place is a conception most difficult to maintain in an age when men move so often from one abode to another that they actually forget where they lived in past years. Count Keyserling saw this on his visit to America in 1928. I hope he did not err when he predicted that the families which must bear the burden of leadership would seat themselves once more on the land. Family—obligation and the wise stewardship of inherited fortune will mean more to us if the sire is buried in his own garden and the grandson lives daily in the room that heard the first cry of his father’s father. Home usually means most to those who live longest in one place, especially if it be a place of beauty.

Bound up with this cornerstone of family here at Stratford was the second, essential to its support, the cornerstone of wise marriage. Two years ago, the hope was expressed on this very spot that Stratford most properly could include a library on genetics, as distinguished from genealogy, for there is no home in America where the value of wise mating is better exemplified than here. In the annals of the Lees for three centuries there was only one marital scandal and, so far as I know, not one divorce. For six generations after the emergence of the Lee family in America there were not more than two or three instances where it could be said that the Lees married persons who were not of equal blood and station with themselves. The result was the steady maintenance of the physical stamina and intellectual vigor of the stock for generations until its perfect flowering in one of the greatest human beings of modern times, Robert E. Lee. You have read of the Jukes and the Zeroes and of that nameless Virginia family of degenerates who have filled jails and brothels


and hospitals for the insane. When you compare with these the issue of Richard Lee or of Jonathan Edwards you have the strongest argument that could ever be advanced for prudent marriage.

To these cornerstones of family and prudent marriage, most of the Lees cemented that of good management. During the colonial period they never made the mistake of assuming that blood of itself was sufficient. They realized that the lowering of the standard of living carried with it the prospect of an inferior environment, and they sought always to have each generation secure the next by proper husbandry and by sound investment. We are accustomed to regard General Robert E. Lee as a man who paid a dreadsome price for devotion to principle, and he did, yet even when his income was considerable for the time, he economized to secure the economic future of his four daughters. The one reproach that he ever directed against his ancestors, so far as I know, was leveled at the second Richard Lee for that scholar’s neglect of his estates. The logic of the six most outstanding generations of the Lees, sharpened by the financial failure of several members of the family, was a deliberate denial of the theory that it is well for each generation to make its own fortune. The Lees would have said that it was better for each generation to add to its inherited fortune.

Passing those cornerstones of cultural attainment and social adaptability of the Lees, familiar with many books, let us pause at the sixth cornerstone of Stratford. Devoted as they were to the ideal of family, clannish as they sometimes were considered, strict as they were in their marriages and diligent in their business, the early Lees were never introverts. With them, public service was one of the most direct implications of noblesse oblige. Citizenship was their avocation. And what a record they made! Of those first six eminent generations in America, fifty-four male members of the Stratford and Leesylvania lines are known to have lived to maturity. Five of them were professional men who did not hold public office. Of the remaining forty-nine, thirty-seven had a record of public service. These included ten burgesses, ten members of the State legislature, six professional soldiers, three naval officers, six members of the colonial council, one secretary of the colony, four members of revolutionary conventions, three governors or acting governors, two signers


of the Declaration of Independence, two diplomatists, three members of the continental congress, three members of the United States Congress, one member of the United States cabinet and numerous diligent servants of lesser place. Seventy-two offices were filled by these men of the blood of the Lees on the direct male line. When we remember that the female line included among its descendants such persons as President Zachary Taylor and Chief Justice White of the Supreme Court, we probably are safe in saying that half of the service of the Lees is even now unknown. What a difference future would lie ahead of America today were a leading family in each State—if only one leading family—to display like willingness to bear the burden of government! Nay, what assurance of stable democracy would be ours were men of station, character and capacity to show half the zeal for public service that they exhibit for golf! The loftiest of avocations is citizenship. When it becomes casual, the State is endangered; when it is neglected, the State is lost. It should perhaps be added that the offices to which the Lees gave their great talents were, in the main, appointive. Where elective, the choice lay with legislative bodies and rarely with the body of voters. General Robert E. Lee once remarked regretfully that it had been evident for years “that the country was doomed to run the full length of democracy”—doomed, mark you, not destined in a loftier sense. The direct elections of all officials by universal suffrage is considered by some to be the proper expression of that full-length—I almost said that sprawling—democracy. Such a dictum of universal suffrage for all public offices may be pleasing in theory; but, in practice, a system of contentious primaries and abusive general elections will never bring back into public life men like the Lees. If the American citizen insists upon exercising the full prerogative of the ballot, he cannot be denied it, but he must pay the price. That price all too often is demagogism on the hustings and mediocrity in office.

If the Lees were willing to accept appointive office but rarely would have cared to run the gauntlet of such popular elections as we have today, it must not be assumed that this was because of any timidity in their character. On the contrary, as we make our way around this house that is forever their memorial, the seventh cornerstone is that of courageous decision. From the time Richard Lee the emigrant de-


clared for Charles and defied the government of Cromwell, until the fateful day when R. E. Lee resigned his commission in the army of the United States, there was never an hour when a Lee did not make his decision and declare it. A definite characteristic of the colonial mind of America in the 1770’s was its ability, in our current phase, to see a problem “in the round.” The Lees had that vision to a singular degree. Intellect and judgment would be focused on an issue till its essentials were clear. A choice was made. Thereafter nothing could divert a typical Lee. They were revolutionaries in the struggle with England, but in every other conflict between older and newer allegiance, the Lees, with few exceptions, were for the earlier cause. It was no small thing for “Light Horse Harry” Lee, at the time of the adoption of the Virginia resolutions, to declare for his mother State; yet he did it with a firmness and a finality that left no doubt in any man’s mind. In 1861, the greatest of the Lees made exactly the same decision as the first of his American forbears, but made it instinctively and from the same sense of prior obligation, family obligation. Today old political faith and the new are as much in opposition as they were in 1650 or in 1861: Upon us, as upon the Lees, may be placed the duty of choosing which shall have our hearts, our treasure and, if need be, our lives. It is not for me to say where your choice shall lie; but it is ours to pray that we may make the choice of our times as courageously as did the men who walked these halls.

Decision saved the Stratford plantation in 1776 from the slow economic atrophy that was overtaking the colonial system designed to enrich England at the expense of America; decision wrecked the Arlington estate in 1861 when two other economic systems clashed. It was characteristic of the Lees that they met prosperity and adversity with firm resolution and with equal mind. Were we, then, to engrave on each cornerstone of this structure some quality of the minds of the Lees, I would write on yonder corner, the eighth and the last, the words: THE LEES ACCEPTED THE CONSEQUENCES OF THEIR ACTS. Ah, how many scenes from the great annals of the family those words bring up! In an age of equivocation, of vacillation and of cowardly attempts to escape the eating of the fruits of our own folly, how much to our profit may we ponder the pictures this place recalls! One scene is enough. The voices of all his ancestors echoed


in the words of Robert Lee when the Confederate commander said on the 9th of April, 1865, to General Alexander: “As for myself, you young fellows might go to bushwhacking, but the only dignified course for me would be to go to General Grant and surrender myself and take the consequences of my acts.” Those words, surely, resound in your ears and in your hearts today. Others make [sic] take to constitutional bushwhacking—both on the right and on the left; as for us, God helping us, we shall bear witness to the faith that is in us, and, like Lee, take the consequences of our acts.

Surely, as we face that uncertain future, it is good for us to be here—to climb to this high place where shines so clear a light of conscience and of duty, where breathes so gracious a spirit of family and of marriage, where still resound the voices of wise counsel and of bold decision, where the memory of courage and of service can never die. You ladies of the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation have the honor to dedicate Stratford; we who are here as your guests can make you no better offerings of thanks than to rededicate ourselves, and our children and our children’s children, to the nation’s old ideals at these eternal cornerstones of Stratford.