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Cash or Character:

Which Means More to You?


I make my living as a financial planner and I've seen some real financial messes in my time. But few stories intrigue me as much as that of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the Civil War. His is one of the most compelling riches-to-rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-"true riches" stories of American history. To understand it all we must go back a few generations before Robert's time.


Born in 1807, Robert E. Lee came from an illustrious and prosperous Virginia family. His ancestors were among some of the earliest settlers from England in the colony of Virginia and they were personally known by the King of England. But when the time came to choose between tyranny and freedom, the Lee family cut their ties with the Crown and produced two signers of the Declaration of Independence. Robert's father was a personal friend of George Washington's and served as a cavalry commander under him. After the Revolutionary War, he served as governor of Virginia and represented Virginia in Congress. The Lee family seemed to have a knack for knowing the right people and being in the right place and on the right side of history. Thus they prospered through all those years.


When Robert was still very young, the prolonged illness and premature death of his father threw the family into financial hardship. But the Lee charm worked again when Robert married Mary Custis, the daughter of George Washington's adopted son, in 1831 (Washington did not have children of his own so he adopted the grand-children of his wife, Martha). When her father died, Lee's wife inherited quite an estate, including many of Washington's personal belongings. Robert and Mary enjoyed a prosperous life in Virginia, along with their seven children, leading up to the Civil War (despite Robert's long absences while serving in the U.S. military between 1828 and 1860).


In the early 1860's, as the Civil War raged across Virginia for four brutal years, the Lee's properties were either ruined by the fighting armies or confiscated by the U.S. government. The Lee residence at Arlington, for instance, was confiscated (for Lee's failure to pay his taxes!) and turned into a military cemetery (now called, Arlington National Cemetery).


After the war, broke and without a home, Lee was offered every worldly temptation to capitalize on his considerable fame throughout the South.

  • Money - He was offered $50,000 per year to be the president of a New York company seeking to promote commerce in the South.

  • Power - He was recruited by many powerful political figures to be the post-war governor of Virginia.

  • Fame - He was offered large sums of money to write books, his memoirs, and magazine articles about his war experiences.

Given everything Lee had before the war and all that he had lost, which one do you think he picked? Can you believe he turned them all down?!? Was he crazy? (Note, those of us who study the Civil War are vexed by the fact that Lee left little in writing of his thoughts about his war experiences. What a treasure that would be!)


Instead, in late 1865 he accepted a low-paying position ($3,500 per year, plus the use of a house) as president of a relatively insignificant, nearly bankrupt college in Lexington, Virginia named Washington College (after its original endower and most famous benefactor, George Washington).


Why would Lee accept such a humble position when he could have named his job and pay, and surrounded himself with all the comforts of this world during his "golden" years? C'mon Robert, what kind of retirement plan is that? What was Lee's motivation for accepting this obscure job with low pay? In his words:


"I shall fail in the leading object that brought me here, unless these young men become real Christians."


Wow! What a commitment! Do you think he really meant it? Was General Lee that principled?


A few years after accepting the job, Lee was approached with an offer of $10,000 per year merely for the use of his name with a particular company. They didn't want him to do any work, just use his name. His response is quite revealing of the man:


I am sorry, sir, that you are so little acquainted with my character as to suppose that my name is for sale at any price.


There were things more important than money to Lee. He'd rather live as a pauper for his convictions than feast at the table of self-fulfillment. That adds up to true riches.


Lees fame and hard work restored the fortunes of Washington College and he served as its able president until his death in 1870.  In his honor, the college was later renamed, Washington & Lee University.


Historians may argue forever and disagree about whether or not General Robert E. Lee was on the right side of history in the Civil War, but it's very easy to see that he was on the right side of history in the spiritual civil war.


Steve Braun

January 10, 2003





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