General Lee’s one rule for students: “Be a gentleman”

July 30, 2012

Confederate General Robert E. Lee in 1863.

A new student once asked President Lee for a copy of the rules of Washington College. Lee replied, “Young gentleman, we have no printed rules. We have but one rule here, and it is that every student must be a gentleman.”

What did Lee mean when he used the word “gentleman?” Found among his papers after his death was the following statement:

“…the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is the test of a true gentleman.

Robert E. Lee surrenders to Ulysses S. Grant Painting By English School

“The power which the strong have over the weak, the magistrate over the citizen, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly—the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total absence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in plain light. The gentleman does not needlessly or unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He can not only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be the past.

“A true gentleman of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.

A very interesting statement, this…

Lee’s one-rule standard produced the honor system, which soon became the practical definition of a “gentleman” at Washington College. A gentleman does not lie, cheat, or steal; nor does a gentleman tolerate lying, cheating, or dishonesty in those persons claiming to be gentlemen.

Washington College at Lexington, lithograph, by Henry Howe.

Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee: A biography (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995), p. 397 (Emphasis in the original.)

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 199 Editorial comment: —

A moral code of honor undergirds the true gentleman.
Consequently, and even though he may not have this in the forefront of his mind, the gentleman acts as though he understood clearly that his life unfolds in the presence of God, Who sees and judges each of our thoughts, actions, and omissions.
A true gentleman’s self-respect will make him live by this moral code of honor even in private or faraway settings where no one from his social milieu can possibly discover what he says or does.
This higher excellence that the gentleman is constantly striving to attain comes with a great advantage: It insulates and safeguards him from the pressures of his peers and society. No gentleman caves in and compromises on his principles in order to please others. This higher moral code of honor is his sole standard of conduct.


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