“The most sublime word in our language”: Robert E. Lee on Duty … or Didn’t He?

When it comes to the words of great men, sometimes we discover that they did not say them or write them, but the impression continues to exist in some quarters, largely because we would rather embrace the myth than accept the reality. So it is with the following quote, attributed to Robert E. Lee:

Duty is the most sublime word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.

In truth, even this rendering is an edited version of the expression upon which it is based. Those original rendering was supposedly part of a letter Lee wrote his son George Washington Custiss Lee in 1852, when the son was a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The text of the original would not appear until 1864, when it was reprinted in the New York Sun. There the phrase read like this:

Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things like the old Puritan. You cannot do more, you should never wish to do less.

On August 4, 1914, as the world went to war, Professor Charles A. Graves of the University of Virginia Law School addressed the issue of whether the letter was genuine. You can follow his discussion here.

Oh, well.

18 thoughts on ““The most sublime word in our language”: Robert E. Lee on Duty … or Didn’t He?

  1. Betty Giragosian September 16, 2013 / 6:04 am

    He did. Beautifully stated, in both forms.

  2. Dave Tatum September 16, 2013 / 6:17 am

    Thanks for the link, good stuff !

  3. Talmadge Walker September 16, 2013 / 7:30 am

    Can’t help but note that Puritans were Yankees.

    • Brooks D. Simpson September 16, 2013 / 9:04 am

      So, if you want to accept the quote as accurate, you would have to admit that Lee held up Puritans as role models. This places some people in a pickle.

  4. James F. Epperson September 16, 2013 / 9:09 am

    So, now you are guilty of killing two legendary quotes: “I can’t spare this mam—He fights!” and “Duty is the most sublime word in our language.” One about Grant, the other by Lee.

    • Brooks D. Simpson September 16, 2013 / 10:00 am

      I didn’t kill the Lee quote. I just found research that did. But it shows I’m even-handed.

  5. Mark September 16, 2013 / 9:31 am

    I think the letter was written by Immanuel Kant. 🙂

  6. Ed and Bettie September 16, 2013 / 10:23 am

    LOL. For what purpose did the “New York Sun” publish this letter, during the War for Southern Independence, that was supposedly written by R.E. Lee? The sentiment of the letter is favoring the character of Lee, so why would a Northern newspaper even be interested in portraying the leader of the enemy’s forces in a favorable, or positive “light?” I smell a rat. Actually, it doesn’t matter whether or not Lee ever said those exact words re: the importance of duty, because as we know, actions speak louder than words, and Lee most certainly lived his life in support of what he said “duty” meant. The quote from a piece of paper taken from Lee’s satchel (that had (supposedly) never been opened since the end of the war) actually states his viewpoint even more sublimely: “There is a true glory and a true honor; the glory of duty done, the honor of integrity of principle.” I find it amusing how much effort so many anti-Southerners put into trying to besmirch Lee’s character. His life proves their end-goal to be futile. Perhaps they should “get a life.” LOL.

    • Brooks D. Simpson September 16, 2013 / 11:41 am

      I’m curious. Did you actually read the piece? Did you understand that it was written by a professor at the University of Virginia’s law school … in 1914?

      The rat you smell indicates that you should shower more often.

    • crispinrobles June 21, 2015 / 4:07 pm

      Surrender means that the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy, that our youth will be trained by Northern school teachers; learn from Northern school books their version of the war; and be taught to regard our gallant dead as traitors and our maimed veterans as fit subjects of derision. –Gen. Patrick Cleburne, Army of Tennessee, Confederate States Army

  7. Dave Tatum September 16, 2013 / 12:52 pm

    Lee’s “Strike the tent” last words quote, is also a myth, he was in a coma, and had no last words.

  8. Dave Tatum September 16, 2013 / 12:58 pm

    Gary Adams posted this —-
    ” (There are suggestions that Lee’s autobiographer, Douglas Southall Freeman embellished Lee’s final moments; as Lee suffered a stroke on September 28, 1870. Dying two weeks later, on October 12, 1870, shortly after 9 a.m. from the effects of pneumonia. Lee’s stroke had resulted in aphasia, rendering him unable to speak. When interviewed the four attending physicians and family stated “he had not spoken since 28 September…”.) “

  9. Dave Tatum September 16, 2013 / 7:23 pm

    Then the information on Lee’s condition and last words are false ?
    Or is it you have a problem with the source?

    • Brooks D. Simpson September 16, 2013 / 8:34 pm

      I’m assuming you know the difference between a biographer and an autobiographer.

  10. Al Mackey September 16, 2013 / 7:50 pm

    I remember Freeman debunking this quote in his biography of Lee. Freeman speculated it was most likely a bored Union soldier who was part of the force occupying Arlington who forged it. Nice to see what was probably Freeman’s source.

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