Flashback to Ford restoring Robert E. Lee’s citizenship: ‘Lee’s character has been an example to succeeding generations’
President Gerald R. Ford signed into law Aug. 5, 1975, legislation a bill restoring citizenship to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who was the principal military commanding general of Southern forces during the Civil War.
“Once the war was over, he firmly felt the wounds of the North and South must be bound up,” Ford said. “He sought to show by example that the citizens of the South must dedicate their efforts to rebuilding that region of the country as a strong and vital part of the American Union.”
The resolution passed the Senate unanimously and passed the House 407-10, with notable liberals, such as Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), Rep. Thomas Harkin (D.-Iowa) and Rep. Barbara Jordan (D.-Texas) joining the majority.
Ford made his remarks at Lee’s Arlington House, the mansion overlooking the nation’s capital on the grounds that are now sanctified as Arlington National Cemetery.
“As a soldier, General Lee left his mark on military strategy,” Ford said.
“As a man, he stood as the symbol of valor and of duty,” he said. “As an educator, he appealed to reason and learning to achieve understanding and to build a stronger nation. The course he chose after the war became a symbol to all those who had marched with him in the bitter years towards Appomattox.”
General Lee’s character has been an example to succeeding generations, making the restoration of his citizenship an event in which every American can take pride.
The president most famous for his pardon of his predecessor President Richard M. Nixon, said there were lessons to be learned from the example of Lee and he quoted from a letter the general wrote to a Confederate veteran anxious about signing an oath of allegiance to the United States: “This war, being at an end, the Southern States having laid down their arms, and the questions at issue between them and the Northern States having been decided, I believe it to be the duty of everyone to unite in the restoration of the country and the reestablishment of peace and harmony.”
Ford said Lee had made a formal request June 13, 1865 to President Andrew Johnson for his citizenship to be restored.
Although the petition was endorsed by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, it was acted upon because the request was not accompanied by Lee’s own Oath of Allegiance, which the general had signed and sent to Secretary of State William Steward, who never forwarded it to the president. It was found by an employee at the National Archives in 1970.
Although there was sympathy for restoring Lee’s citizenship on Capitol Hil, Hollywood comedy writer Don Penny said he pushed Ford to get behind the restoration in an oral history interview with the Ford Presidential Library.
“For example, one day during the Bicentennial I said, “’You know, I think we should give Robert E. Lee his citizenship back.’ He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Well, you know, after the Civil War some 56,000 Confederate officers signed an amnesty that we’ll never fight again and to his credit, Robert E. Lee signed it, too,'” said the comedy writer brought in as a consultant to improve Ford’s public speaking and demeanor.