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