10 May 2010

Traitor? Treason?

“I have made certain terms with Lee – the best and only terms. If I had told him and his army that their liberty would be invaded, that they would be open to arrest, trial and execution for treason, Lee would never have surrendered. I will resign the command of the army rather than execute any order directing me to arrest Lee or any of his commanders, so long as they obey the laws.” ~ General Grant upon learning of Lee’s indictment for treason



Though Lee was originally opposed to secession, he made his opinion clear in his response to being offered the command of Federal forces at the onset of hostilities:


"...though opposed to secession and a deprecating war, I could take no part in the invasion of the Southern States." ~ From Lee's reply to Francis Blair

Not one Confederate was ever tried for treason, though several were indicted. Lee was a true patriot, choosing family & country over "government." Lee resigned his commission rather than disobey an order. Since he believed, given his choices, that this was the only moral option he had, I think Lee made an honorable choice. Lee lost his citizenship. Can a non-citizen commit treason? Did Lee, in resigning his commission and joining the CSA, effectively renounce his citizenship or did the Federal government take it from him as a result of his actions? I suppose it depends, at least in part, on one's perspective. If Lee was a traitor (and I don't believe he was), he would be the only traitor for which a ship in the United States Navy was ever named. He would be the only traitor in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. He would be the only traitor whose image was used in a positive way to recruit military personnel to fight and win WWII. Quite an accomplishment for a "traitor", wouldn't you say? 

According to the source for the recruiting poster image,
". . . recruiting efforts in Virginia were bolstered by invoking Lee's memory." Hmmm, rather contradictory, if you are to believe how some paint Lee's actions and how he should be remembered. The Federal government using Lee's image to recruit volunteers to fight in the U.S. Army? Why did it work? How is it that Lee's image attracted recruits to the same organization he ostensibly betrayed as a "traitor?" So the U.S. military used a positive and affirming depiction of a "traitor" to attract recruits to the same military that this "traitor" supposedly betrayed and to defend the same Nation he supposedly committed treason against? Yeah, works for me. 

Depicting Lee as a "traitor" and "treasonous" is simply shallow, simplistic historiography. Presentism in historical interpretation just doesn't work.

(Images are from the Virginia Historical Society's website.)

39 comments:

cenantua said...

In the history of Southerners (at least men, I'm not sure about women) joining the US military in years after the war (not just WW2), Lee and any number of others served as inspirational models of duty and honor. I'd be lying if I said he wasn't among those who was a factor in my feeling a need to join the military, at least initially. I have a quote from someone in WW1 that is also of interest, not so much focused on Lee, but on his father as a Confederate soldier. I'll see if I can find it.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks for the input Robert. I have another post related to this topic. Not to cast any disrespect to other regions, but I believe most of the recruits since the WBTS have, as a % of the population, come from the old Confederacy. I also believe I read somewhere that Southerners hold a greater % of Medals of Honor as well. Can't be definitive on that, but I recall reading something on it. You might have a reliable source to verify that.

cenantua said...

"most of the recruits since the WBTS have, as a % of the population, come from the old Confederacy. I also believe I read somewhere that Southerners hold a greater % of Medals of Honor as well"

I've heard that, but have never seen proof.

Incidentally, noting your link to the submarine, Robert E. Lee, when I switched from the surface Navy to submarines, I had a shot at joining the crew of the Stonewall Jackson (Stony J), but she was being decommissioned and, as exciting as it was to be a plankowner on a decom crew on THAT boat, I opted for a newer boat. Tour of duty would have been short and I think I would have ended up on the West coast. I preferred Norfolk, which had it's own perks, because, at one point, we were in a dry dock right next to where the Virginia was converted from the Merrimack.

Michael Lynch said...

"He would be the only traitor in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol."

Actually, he wouldn't be. Edmund Kirby Smith, Zebulon Vance, and Alexander Stephens are there, too. So is John Sevier, if you want to count treason against North Carolina.

--ML

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Interesting. My oldest son served on the Eisenhower.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hello Micahel - ah yes, good patriots all!

The Warrior said...

Lee is one of my heroes. God bless his soul.

msimons said...

Well Stated Mr. Williams Lee is no more at Traitor than any other Southern. All this Treason nonsense is stirred by those who hate Lee and the South.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Mike:

I don't think that is true in ALL instances, but certainly in many, and especially true among those who seem to have a track record of attacking Confederate heritage and heroes. I think it's rather obvious.

Michael Lynch said...

I don't think the "treason" angle is necessarily derogatory. The Constitution defines treason in part as levying war against the U.S., and Lee was (as far as the government was concerned) an American who definitely levied one heck of a war. The technical question of whether his acts constituted treason as defined by law is quite different from the moral question of whether what he did was justifiable.

--ML

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael:

I would tend to agree with you. It's also important to note that the U.S. Code clarifies treason (as a crime) to a greater degree.

There has to be more involved than just "levying a war against the U.S." as that would make all our enemies in other wars i.e, - WWII, guilty of treason. I believe the Constitution and U.S. Code speak specifically to citizens of the United States who commit these acts.

Thanks for your comment. I had very similar thoughts.

cenantua said...

I think Mr. Lynch makes an excellent point. I also believe that the dividing line here is perspective. From the perspective of the Union, Lee was party to treason because he was, as a US citizen (resigned officer or not) who sided with secession and a rebellion, engaged in a war against the US. On the other hand, from the perspective of the Confederacy, which believed that it had broken away and established a separate government (though, I believe, many were conscious of the consequences of their actions if they lost), it would/might not be defined as treason. In the end, the US won the war, thereby, he will always be subject to accusations of treason, even though no charges were brought against him.

Despite all this, I don't see the act of them (Lee or our Confederate ancestors) being party to secession or a rebellion as playing among the factors that brings some Southern men (and maybe women) into the ranks of modern US military organizations. I think he (and our own people in gray) left us other legacies which we emulate.

We don't join (at least my opinion) because our ancestors seceded and I seriously don't think we (or even Southerners who joined as far back as WW1) join to prove our worthiness despite our ancestors' participation in a rebellion against the very country that we enlist to defend. I think it left a lot of us with the feeling that joining was a part of what was expected of us (call it our "duty," if you will), and it was, in part, tied to our Confederate ancestors. I'd also say that that connection plays into the "honor, courage and commitment" thing, well after joining. It's how serious we take that obligation, as ironic as it may seem to some, considering Lee's resignation and decision to take up arms in defense of his state (which is not in line with contemporary understanding of "against all enemies foreign and domestic"). Maybe it's just me, but that's the way I saw it, at least when I initially went in.

It may or may not have been treason according to different historical interpretations, but historians (myself among them) can't or shouldn't deny that the legacy of Lee was a power that worked to the benefit of America in wars since 1865.

Anonymous said...

Complete garbage in that revolution is an implicit right in the Constitution. When we defeat tyranny, it is a victory for freedom, not treason. I think I read some period views that said, "since the Union was entered without force, then force cannot keep states in by use of force".

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

It was a revolution that birthed the Constitution. That being said, you can't have citizens taking up arms against the government. That would be anarchy. However, in the case of the CSA, they did not want to overthrow the existing government, just leave and form another one. Big difference.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Robert:

Good points and I agree with most of what you say, except for the fact that I believe Lee, whether wrongly or rightly, believed he was willingly renouncing his citizenship which, of course, clouds the whole notion of treason.

Lee most likely was/is seen simply as a "rallying" figure (and rightly so). He fought for his concept of honor, duty, and country and serves as inspiration for others to do the same. I really don't think it's any more complicated than that. Despite our modern age, he remains a hero to many.

"Lee was a power that worked to the benefit of America in wars since 1865."

I would definitely agree and I believe that is further reason why he does not deserve to be labeled a "traitor."

cenantua said...

A quote from a lieutenant (29th/Blue-Gray Division) from my home county, during WW1... his father, by the way, was a corporal in the 35th Btt. Va. Cav.:

"Papa took his chance in the Civil War and I am willing to take mine in this. If not it is all right as I would just as leave go this way as any other and if I do I feel like it will balance up... It is a just cause and I am proud to be an officer in the U.S. Army."

I have another quote as well, and it was actually related to the unveiling of the Confederate Veterans' Monument in Luray, but still voicing pretty much the same thing he said in the above quote.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Robert - very interesting.

cenantua said...

"I believe Lee, whether wrongly or rightly, believed he was willingly renouncing his citizenship which, of course, clouds the whole notion of treason."

Do you think that he was aware that, if the Confederacy lost, he could suffer the consequences of treason? I believe so, but think that he saw another form of treason as well if he were not to side with his state. Perhaps it could be said that he had to decide which was the greater treason, and he chose according to his system of beliefs.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Certainly it had to have crossed his mind. Yes, as I've noted, I believe Lee loved the Union and was very proud of his ancestors' role in establishing it. But I think that he believed it had become something far different from what it had originally been.

Michael Lynch said...

Two things I'd point out to Anonymous.

First, as to this remark: "When we defeat tyranny, it is a victory for freedom, not treason."

Yes, when you defeat it. Undefeated governments have a habit of defining treason in ways not congenial to the people they defeat.

Second: "I think I read some period views that said, 'since the Union was entered without force, then force cannot keep states in by use of force'."

Well, it worked, didn't it?

--ML

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

I believe the point was the constitutionality of a "forced union." Darwin's theory worked to its logical end: "He with the biggest gun wins."

Rebel Raider said...

"The Constitution defines treason in part as levying war against the U.S., and Lee was (as far as the government was concerned) an American who definitely levied one heck of a war."

It is important to establish the context in which the definition of treason was originally drafted. In the Federalist Papers, the terms 'insurrection',and 'rebellion',are referring to popular uprisings(by a portion of the people) WITHIN a State;against the duly established governments of those respective States. They were NOT referring to sovereign States withdrawing peacefully from the union.

Second: "I think I read some period views that said, 'since the Union was entered without force, then force cannot keep states in by use of force'."

"Well, it worked, didn't it?"

Perhaps we should look at the legalities of the invasion of the southern States. Were not the States supposed to be protected from invasion? Again, in seems clear that the founders were dubious of forced unions; feeling that it would be antithetical to the ideas of freedom and liberty

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

RR:

"the terms 'insurrection',and 'rebellion',are referring to popular uprisings(by a portion of the people) WITHIN a State;against the duly established governments of those respective States. They were NOT referring to sovereign States withdrawing peacefully from the union."

Precisely. And I think that point is further made in the next post. Thanks for the comment.

Michael Lynch said...

"In the Federalist Papers, the terms 'insurrection',and 'rebellion',are referring to popular uprisings(by a portion of the people) WITHIN a State;against the duly established governments of those respective States."

Of course the Confederates didn't consider fighting for the Confederacy to be a treasonous act. It's pointless to ask whether people engaged in an act of secession think their new state is legitimate or not.

--ML

Rebel Raider said...

"Of course the Confederates didn't consider fighting for the Confederacy to be a treasonous act. It's pointless to ask whether people engaged in an act of secession think their new state is legitimate or not."

Actually, I would argue that it is precisely the point. Before we can establish that treason was committed;we must first establish whether secession was legitimate(or not). Also, we are not talking about a breakaway province such as Kosovo or Chechnya. These were sovereign and independent States that formed the union and that gave the federal government its limited, delegated powers. They(the Confederates)probably didn't view fighting for the Confederacy to be treasonous,because it didn't fit the definition established by the founding generation. Your comments would seem to suggest that this is all merely a matter of perspective, and thus the truth cannot be discerned. However...

Robert F. Hawes Jr., has stated the case quite skillfully:

"Reduced to the simplest core elements, "rebellion" and "treason" have to do with resistance to,defiance of, or betrayal of an established authority or sovereignty to which one owes allegiance or obedience. Therefore, before seceded states can be accused of "rebellion" or "treason," we must first establish that they are subordinates to an established authority or sovereignty to which they owed allegiance and obedience."

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

RR - excellent points.

Michael Lynch said...

Yes, if the seceded states weren't part of the U.S., then it wouldn't be treason. That's sort of like saying that stealing a car parked on your street isn't larceny because you've claimed absolute sovereignty over the street. It might make it legal as far as you're concerned, but I doubt the local authorities are going to let you keep the car.

I guess my point in all this is just to say that as far as the U.S. government was concerned--whether they were correct or not--the Confederacy remained part of the U.S., and therefore they believed that the Confederates were indeed Americans making war on their own country. That the Confederates disagreed with that is a given. I'm not trying to say that either side was or was not legitimate in its interpretation, only that within the framework of U.S. law one could have made a good case that treason had taken place.

--ML

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"That's sort of like saying that stealing a car parked on your street isn't larceny because you've claimed absolute sovereignty over the street."

Hardly. We're talking about governments and public property, not private property. Again, I believe, as Ike pointed out, that good and honest men disagreed over the Constitutionality of secession from the beginning. They believed that a voluntary union could voluntarily be dissolved.

Rebel Raider said...

It wouldn't be treason because the states were not divested of inherit sovereignty and independence, by merely acceding to the Constitution. Nor did the Constitution forbid secession. I have already dealt with the definition of treason as understood by the founding generation. I realize that it is terribly inconvenient, but it is what the founders understood. The analogy that you chose to use is in no way relevant to the subject. It also ignores all of the major points of my posts(and others).

"I guess my point in all this is just to say that as far as the U.S. government was concerned--whether they were correct or not--the Confederacy remained part of the U.S., and therefore they believed that the Confederates were indeed Americans making war on their own country."

The issue of whether the U.S. government was correct(or not) is no small matter. It is worth pointing out though, that this was largely Lincolns interpretation of U.S. law. It is also clear that he had to use mental gymnastics to make his ideas of union even remotely coherent.

Yes, a case could be be made that treason had taken place. But one could make a better case (that it had not) on the legitimate bases of sovereignty,states rights,self government,limited federal power,voluntary compact,treason defined by the founders., etc. Thus far, all I have heard in opposition to these points, is a passage (concerning treason) ripped from its historical context.

Michael Lynch said...

I'm not saying that the issue of who was correct isn't a small matter. I'm just saying that if the government considers someone a citizen, and that person makes war on the U.S., then it shouldn't be too surprising that the word "traitor" gets thrown around.

My analogy isn't intended to blur the line between public and private property. My point is simply that if you're going to commit an act which you justify based on a particular interpretation of the law, then there is the real possibility that a different interpretation of the law may result in a different stance on the act's legality. If someone claims that they're not subject to laws governing U.S. citizens, and then they commit an act that would be criminal if performed by someone subject to those laws (like making war on the U.S.), then they're innocent of the act only if they can demonstrate that they were not, in fact, subject to those laws at that time. If you think they weren't, that's fine by me. If you think they were, then describing those acts as they're defined by U.S. law in the Constitution is not deorgatory, but simply giving those acts their technical, legal definition.

I'm not making an argument about Lee's character, which was impeccable. Neither am I making an argument about the legality or illegality of secession; maybe it was legal, maybe it wasn't. Richard raised the issue of defining a certain behavior as treason, and I simply pointed out why I think you could legitimately make that case. The Constitution says that Americans who levy war on the U.S. could be liable to charges of treason, and I said that Lee indeed made war on the U.S., and was, in the eyes of Union authorities, an American.
The Union government did not consider the Confederacy a sovereign nation, and Lee made war. Therefore, if you buy the Union government's argument, you could theoretically make the treason charge stick.

I'm not trying to persuade anyone to buy the Union's argument. I'm just presenting it, in the (apparently mistaken) belief that it might help address the issue of why some people would use the term "treason" to describe Lee's activities, which is what we were originally discussing.

Don't shoot the messenger here, fellas. I'm not the guy who drafted Lincoln's talking points. You'll have to take it up with him.

--ML

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks for clarifying Michael and for taking the time to comment. And just to be clear, I'm not necessarily arguing in favor of secession, nor that it was the prudent choice. I do, however, believe that it was an unsettled question and that it was reasonable for Southerners to believe they had the right to secede.

David Rhoads said...

For what it's worth, in a letter written to his son Rooney in January 1861 (which I believe Richard alluded to elsewhere in one of these posts), Lee expressed the following opinions about secession and about the "perpetual" state of the Union:

"Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It was intended for 'perpetual union,' so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution or the consent of all the people in convention assembled. It is idle to talk of secession. Anarchy would have been established, and not a government, by Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and the other patriots of the Revolution."

In addition to raising doubts about Eisenhower's assertion in 1960 that Lee "believed unswervingly in the Constitutional validity of his cause," Lee's statements in this letter to Rooney are not that different from the argument Lincoln advanced in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861:

"I hold that, in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual....

"Again, if the United States be not a government proper, but an association of States in the nature of contract merely, can it, as a contract, be peaceably unmade by less than all the parties who made it? One party to a contract may violate it--break it, so to speak; but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?

"Descending from these general principles, we find the proposition that in legal contemplation the Union is perpetual confirmed by the history of the Union itself. The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And, finally, in 1787 one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was 'to form a more perfect union.'

"But if the destruction of the Union by one or by a part only of the States be lawfully possible, the Union is less perfect than before the Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity.

"It follows from these views that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union; that Resolves and Ordinances to that effect are legally void; and that acts of violence, within any State or States, against the authority of the United States, are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances."

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

David:

Thanks for the input. I mentioned some of these comments by Lee in an earlier debate about this same issue. Of course, its important to point out these were Lee's sentiments prior to Union forces invading Virginia and prior to many of Lincoln's actions. I don't think there is any question that Lee's views evolved as time went on during the war.

Rebel Raider said...

It seems every time that the issue of 'treason' or 'secession' is discussed, that the above quote of Lee is trotted out. This is done in an apparent effort to provide the definitive view of Lee on the issue of secession. All it really succeeds in doing is affirming that Lee's views had not yet developed (as Mr. Williams already noted). We all know that Lee was not a firebrand secessionist, and instead hoped for a peaceful maintenance of the union. It is also equally clear that Lee was aware of the hypocrisy of the New England states in evoking secession for its own economic benefit. This is made abundantly clear in a correspondence letter with Lord Acton in 1866. Also, the phrase 'perpetual union', does not appear in the preamble of the Constitution. It actually appears in Article XIII of the Articles of Confederation. Which incidentally, was a dead letter at this time.

The view that Lincoln presents that the Union 'evolved' into, and 'matured' into the Constitution is specious nonsense. It was an obvious attempt to cut and paste various phrases(from irrelevant documents) to arrive at the conclusion that secession was unlawful. Lincoln was elected to uphold the Constitution of the United States...not the Articles of Association;Articles of Confederation or any other colonial charter.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks RR - you're doing a fine job here sir.

David Rhoads said...

Presumably the fact that Lee's 1861 letter to Rooney directly addresses the secession issue at the very moment of the crisis and does so in a definitive manner--"Secession is nothing but revolution."--is the reason it is "trotted out" when Lee's opinions about secession are discussed. One might presume in addition that Lee was being candid given that he was writing to his son. Perhaps at the age of 54 Lee did not yet know his own mind, but I would give him the benefit of the doubt. At any rate, the letter is on point, as they say in the law, and tends on its face to agree with Lincoln's contemporaneous view, specious nonsense or not. The 1866 letter to Lord Acton, by the way, says nothing to contradict the 1861 letter to Rooney.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

DR:

But again, Lee's views obviously changed as he witnessed what he saw as the Lincoln's unconstitutional usurpation of power.

Rebel Raider said...

At no time did I suggest that these comments were not the genuine pre-war views of Lee concerning secession. What I did say was that it is apparent that his views developed during the course of the war. It is important to point out that even at this time that Lee did not believe an invasion of the South to be lawful. In the quote that you submit he goes on to say:

"Still,a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me."

Lee was interviewed following the war by a New York Herald reporter where he stated the following concerning secession:

"In the convention that formed the organization of the land, the question of defining the relative power of the States, and their relation to the general government, was raised, but after much discussion was dropped and left unsettled. It has remained unsettled until the present time. The war is destined to set it to rest. It is unfortunate that it was not settled at the outset; but as it was not settled then, and had to be settled at some time, THE WAR RAISED ON THIS ISSUE CANNOT BE CONSIDERED TREASON."(emphasis added)

While under oath, Lee was questioned concerning his participation in the secession of the Southern States by a Congressional subcommittee following the war:

Question: You understand my question? Suppose a jury was empaneled in your neighborhood, taken by lot, would it be possible to convict, for example, Jefferson Davis, for having levied war against the United States, and thus having committed the crime of treason?

Lee: I think it very probable that they would not consider that he had committed treason.

Question: They do not generally suppose that it was treason against the United States, do they?

Lee: I do not think that they so consider it.

Question: State, if you please---and if you are disinclined to answer the question, you need not do so---what your own personal views on that question were?

Lee: THAT WAS MY VIEW;that the act of Virginia, in withdrawing from the United Sates, carried me along as a citizen of Virginia, and that her laws and acts were binding on me.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

RR:

Once again, excellent comments. Specifically:

"the act of Virginia, in withdrawing from the United Sates, carried me along as a citizen of Virginia, and that her laws and acts were binding on me."

That's been my contention in that Lee had actually, in his own mind, effectively renounced his U.S. citizenship. And, if you go back to my original post on this:

http://oldvirginiablog.blogspot.com/2010/05/just-for-review.html

makes note of 19th century views on Federalism and the citizen's relationship to their respective home state(s).