In some ways, the present sounds a lot like our distant past.

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Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveller, is buried beside Lee Chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. The general himself is buried a few feet away, in the chapel.

I visited the chapel just over a week ago while I was in Lexington for a journalism program at the university, two days of discussions among professionals and students about ethics and doing the right and honorable thing. I also visited Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s home.

It was the weekend before our historic presidential election, so as I thought about how divided the nation was then, it was with a sharp awareness of the divisions we still have.

We are still at odds over the role of the federal government in relation to the states, and race continues to bedevil the nation.

The winning presidential candidate, having offended much of the population, got nearly all his votes from one set of white voters, while the other candidate got other white people and the great majority of everyone else.

Schools around the country reported racist incidents after the vote.

I went to Lee Chapel because I’m interested in the history that shaped the present, and the chapel includes a museum about Lee’s role in that history.

Lee served as president of what was called Washington College after the Civil War, until his death in 1870.

Lee had high regard for his horse, and it’s still revered by many, as is Little Sorrel, Jackson’s war horse. Little Sorrel is buried in Lexington, too, where Jackson lived for several years, including the time he spent teaching at Virginia Military Institute before going off to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

I’d always been taught that Lee was a man of principle and honor; even the North came to see him that way as part of the healing after the Civil War. Lee was against his state, Virginia, seceding from the Union, but when it did, he took up arms on its behalf.

He also owned people, including dozens through his marriage to a descendant of Martha Washington. In school, I was taught that he disliked slavery. There’s a famous line from a letter to his wife that is cited in this regard, “ … slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country.”

Other parts of the letter were more consistent with his peers, arguing that slavery was hard on white people and beneficial to the Africans who would gradually become civilized. It was, he wrote, a matter best left to God and time, which might seem reasonable unless you happened to be enslaved.

You can find similar attitudes today. Slavery was bad, but. …

The next day, I took a tour of the Stonewall Jackson House. The gift shop at the entrance included a rich variety of mementos, including many inscribed with a statement he often made, “You may be whatever you resolve to be.”

Jackson had worked his way up from the lower rungs of society. He owned farmland, a house in town and six people, who’d have a difficult time becoming whatever they resolved to be.

Both museums included mention of enslaved persons, which I appreciated, though not much was known about them.

My tour guide talked about Jackson holding Sunday school services for black people.

In the kitchen, he mentioned that when the cook died, Jackson was kind enough to pay for her burial. Sure, the guide said, Jackson owned slaves, but he took care of them.

Afterward, I thanked him for the tour, and said I did wonder whether he might leave off the part about Jackson being so good to his slaves.

He took offense and said he was not in favor of slavery, but that it was a different time, not to be judged by modern standards. I tried again to explain I only meant that his words could be seen as minimizing the owning of fellow humans.

He said he reminds people who want reparations (I hadn’t mentioned that at all) that Africans sold slaves, and some black people owned slaves. He continued to tell me things that had nothing to do with what I’d asked, then in the midst of my response left to do another tour.

We didn’t have a real conversation. Later, on one leg of my flight back to Seattle, I had a long conversation with a man who lives in a small city near Lexington. We talked mostly about our families, and then about how divided people were leading up to the election.

He had an idea why that was so: The federal government is too big and is driving people apart. If states could do whatever their residents wanted to do without interference, we’d all get along better, he said.

I said there might be some other factors involved in creating divisions. We don’t always share the same facts or the same understanding of history. The conversation trailed off. He went back to his tablet, and I to my Kindle.

A lot of old business hasn’t been laid to rest yet.