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The Lees of Virginia: Seven Generations of an American Family.

There is no doubt that Paul C. Nagel is today one of America's more respected and better-known historians. With a record of publications dating back almost thirty years now, he has spent a lifetime studying the period from the Revolution to the Civil War. Beginning with studies of American Nationalism and the nature of the union (One Nation Indivisible [1964] and This Sacred Trust [1971]), Nagel has in more recent years turned his attention to family history, including the present volume on the Lees of Virginia and earlier works on the famous Adamses of Massachusetts. Unrelated as these may appear to be, they are nevertheless linked together by the author's quest for the meaning of America between 1776 and 1865. Hence the last part of the title above.

Despite much advanced praise, Nagel's latest foray into genealogical history does not live up to all of its great expectations. On the positive side, Nagel ably delineates and underscores the prominent social-political influence of the Lees in Virginia and the many contributions they made to the development of their state and to the creation and preservation of an independent republic. The names here are familiar (Richard Henry Lee, Arthur Lee, Lighthorse Harry Lee, and Robert E. Lee) and not so famous (Richard the Founder, Richard the Scholar, and Frank Lee). To his credit, too, Nagel presents this cast of many with "warts and all," as the old expression goes. This is no eulogy and the surviving descendants are to be commended for allowing full access to records and freedom of expression.

The resulting portraits of family members and relatives read like a soap opera or made-for-TV mini-series with their tales of dynastic struggles, disinheritance, political feuds, squandered wealth, alcoholism and gambling, drug addiction, love affairs, failed marriages, and thwarted careers (see Richard the Squire, Phil Lee, Billy Shippen, Tommy Shippen, Arthur Lee, Richard Henry Lee, Lighthorse Harry Lee, Charles Lee, for examples). With few exceptions, the story is a melancholy one of general declension over a period of two hundred years.

Besides Richard the Founder, Frank Lee (the quiet man of the Revolution), Charles Carter Lee, and Robert E. Lee, the heroes here are really heroines, namely, the Lee women who endured bad marriages and husbands because that was their expected role. From the evidence presented, many ladies chafed at their circumscribed world and would have preferred to remain single (see Hanna Lee Corbin, Alice Lee Shippen, Betsy Lee, and Nancy Shippen Livingston).

In addition to hints of feminine dissatisfaction, other worthwhile insights include new information about the Lee's English forbears (they were wealthier than thought), the un-democratic nature of Bacon's Rebellion (which was no prelude to the Revolution), why R. H. Lee, the mover for independence in June 1776, was not selected as one of the drafters of the Declaration, the importance of mundane committee work as evidenced by Frank Lee's untiring efforts in the Continental Congresses, and R. H. Lee's dispute with Jefferson and later attempts to vilify the Sage of Monticello. At the same time, older views of the Revolution are reinforced: it was undertaken reluctantly (like the Lees, many colonists benefitted under British imperial rule) and in defense of English rights.

What one longs for but does not get is analysis. If anything, more questions are raised than are answered. Why, after such a promising colonial beginning, were the Lees so dogged by tragedy and failure? Were they just unlucky or did they cause their own downfall by excessive drinking, gambling, indebtedness, and bad judgment? What, in turn, caused these character flaws? Was it a case of too much in-breeding from a penchant for marrying cousins? Overweening ambition and the desire to get ahead at all costs in order to maintain an aristocratic lifestyle? Disdain for democracy? Also, were the Lees typical or atypical? (A major fault here is a general unfamiliarity with family histories and demographic-gender studies that could have provided a useful basis for comparison.)

A supposed strength, the book's narrative style, turns out to be another weakness. Not only is the writing clumsy and cumbersome with an excessive use of the passive and conditional voices, but the chapter transitions are contrived and predictable (as if the author was trying to move rapidly through a mass of material). One suspects a hurried attempt here to rush a volume into print to take advantage of previous successes and name recognition. Although a complicated genealogy as well as gaps in source materials certainly hindered the authoes task of clear and concise presentation, a good editor armed with objective critiques could have improved the overall quality of presentation.

While Nagel is correct to look at less famous members of the Lee family, readers no doubt will hurry to the chapters on Robert E. Lee to see what is said about this most revered figure. Let it be known that Nagel gingerly side-steps the controversies surrounding Lee's personality and generalship, preferring instead a more old-fashioned approach that emphasizes his quiet courage to endure (derived in turn from a deep religious faith and patriarchal concern for family). Based on the evidence presented, however, one could easily conclude (as has been done) that the real Lee was a much troubled man (with respect to his own career and his familial relations) and haunted by a dubious legacy.

Finally, Nagel's use of the term American is problematic since the Lees were most definitely a Southern family. Apparently Nagel believes (as many consensus historians do) that the South was un-American with its beliefs in slavery, states' rights, and secession and that to associate Robert E. Lee with that tradition is to tarnish his image. Thus the emphasis upon General Lee's supposed opposition to slavery and secession and his reluctance to support the Confederate cause. This description is suspect, however. Not only did the South represent the republican mainstream in America before 1865 (as James M. McPherson has noted), but there is reason to doubt the above depiction of R. E. Lee (see Alan T. Nolan's Lee Considered, published in 1991).

Keeping the above caveats in mind, readers with interests in Virginia history, the Civil War, and family studies will benefit from Nagel's volume.
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Author:Wood, W. Kirk
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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