Skip to main content

Ednote

Words Have Consequences

By David Skinner | HUMANITIES, January/February 2008 | Volume 29, Number 1

Robert E. Lee grew up, in modern terms, deprived of a father figure. Henry Lee III, aka Light Horse Harry, the colorful Revolutionary War hero and serially broke land speculator, abandoned his wife and children, leaving behind much debt and damage to the family name.

Harry had his better moments, though. In the Revolutionary War, he captured four hundred British soldiers, losing only one of his own men in the process. And as governor of Virginia, he fought on the winning side of the argument over what should be the third word of the U.S. Constitution: people or states.

A Constitution that opened “We the States” would have been more in tune with the constitution drawn up later by the Confederacy for which Harry's son commanded an army. Its language deliberately mirrored and deviated from the U.S. Constitution, opening “We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a more perfect union . . .”

For professional reasons, I take great pleasure in editorial disputes of world-historical consequence. They show that words matter and that each one can be so much greater than a mere one-thousandth of a picture.

Andrew Jackson's Bank Veto was no mere word to the wise, as Daniel Feller shows in his fine essay on this critical episode in American economic history. And wordplay was hardly for its own sake in the early American literary salons, whose forgotten manuscript culture David Shields has recently brought to light and describes in his cover story for this issue. And a well-turned phrase enabled Abraham Lincoln the lawyer to bring around more than one judge and jury, as Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson makes clear in his article about the Lincoln law papers.

Words can also be windows onto the soul. Ask Elizabeth Brown Pryor, who recently completed what might be called an epistolary biography of Lee, using newly discovered personal letters of the general to get beyond the forbidding image of Southern gentility and military stoicism.

The title of her book says it all: Reading the Man. In more ways than expected, it is a study in the personal devastation of defeat that gives rise to several what-ifs: What if Lee had not gone into the military? What if he had been commander of the Army of the Potomac? What if he had been committed to the view that the Constitution was a document of We the People?

Another instance of words as action has been the Endowment's commitment to strengthening our national memory through thousands of programs focused on American history. Spreading knowledge of the deeds and words of America's history-makers from colonial to modern times has been the goal of this program since President Bush first announced it in 2002 on the seventeenth of September, also known as Constitution Day. The name of this program is, of course, We the People.