Streetwise Professor

December 27, 2022

Did West Point Just Remove Memorials to Traitors?

Filed under: Civil War,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 4:47 pm

The US Military Academy has begun removing 13 memorials to graduates who served in the Confederate Army. This has elicited many reactions like this from Jeff Jacoby:

(H/T Jeff Carter).

History, and historical figures, are almost always more complicated than the Jeff Jacobys of the world can accept. That is especially true of Lee, and of many Confederates generally.

Jacoby essentially is a pitch-perfect mimic of the Radical Republican position circa 1865. Radical Republicanism was a minority view at the time, even within the North, let alone the nation as a whole. One of the deep mysteries of American history is how Lincoln would have dealt with the Radicals. They were all for vengeance–including prosecuting Lee and Jefferson Davis for treason. Lincoln was not. I have to conclude that Lincoln’s death was a national tragedy not least because of his more humane and healing approach to the defeated South.

The objective of evaluations of historical figures should be to understand their actions and subjective motivations in the context of their time. When you do that with Lee and other Confederates, the charge of treason in particular is not obviously true, as it apparently is to Jacoby et al. Indeed, it is pretty clearly untrue.

Treason is all about duty to one’s nation and government. And the whole reason the Civil War occurred is that there was deep division on what that duty was, to whom it was owed, and what the government and nation owed in return.

Now I am not saying that the Civil War was not ultimately about slavery–it was. The point is that slavery was the issue that made competing views of American government irreconcilable. But those views of government existed independently of slavery, pre-dated the emergence of slavery as the issue in American politics, and had principled adherents on both sides.

Look at the debates over the ratification of the Constitution, and in particular the Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists, who morphed into Federalists and. Republicans. From the very Founding there were deeply conflicting views about government and nation. Accusations of treason cannot be evaluated without an honest acceptance of that fact.

The Anti-Federalist, Republican/Jeffersonian, Southern view was that the United States were sovereign states in a voluntary compact. From that perspective, someone like Lee had a duty to his state, and when his state seceded to whom he owed allegiance was a real dilemma. But it was a principled, and logical, position to conclude that (a) his obligation was first and foremost to his state, and (b) when that state exited the voluntary compact with other states, one was duty bound to follow the state. To do otherwise is what would have been treason.

Of course, if you take the nationalist perspective, what Lee did was treason. But the nationalist perspective became the default in the United States only because those who held it prevailed in the war. The treason charge is therefore essentially winner’s justice which denies the legitimacy of views widely held at the time of secession. Subjectively, Lee did not believe he was committing treason. Quite the reverse.

Although the North fought to assert the nationalist position, it was not universally held even in the North. Many Northern Democrats were very sympathetic to the Southern view of the nature of the United States.

Ironically, even many of those West Point graduates who remained loyal to the United States did not embrace wholeheartedly the nationalist vision, and especially not the Radical Republican version thereof. The Radicals hated the leadership of the Army of the Potomac in particular because they deemed its West Point-trained officer corps as being far too sympathetic with Southern (Democratic, actually) Constitutional and political views: the officers of the Army of the Potomac repaid the hatred with interest.

When Old Army officers parted ways in 1861, it was with sorrow, and generally without political acrimony. A Hancock, say, may have regretted his friend Armistead’s choice, but he did not become a traitor in Hancock’s eyes.

It is also ironic that both sides invoked the Declaration of Independence to justify their choices–just different parts. Lincoln in particular focused on the “all men are created equal” part. The South on the right of any people to dissolve the bonds of government when it had become tyrannical part. Both considered themselves the true heirs to the Founding and its principles, and the other to be, well, a traitor to them.

Meaning that under one of the competing theories of American government, Lee was not a traitor in 1861, and as an adherent to that theory Lee clearly did not believe he was committing treason in 1861. In 1865, that theory had been vanquished, not completely, but pretty effectively.

Treason is a crime, and a crime requires mens rea–intent. Lee lacked such intent.

Similar considerations pertain to Jacoby’s other charges, especially contributing to the deaths of tens of thousands of “loyal Americans”–interesting modifier there, by the way, and again one which assumes the rightness of one view of the nature of the United States: presumably the deaths of around 250,000 (disloyal) Southern soldiers and large numbers of Southern civilians is at best a matter of indifference to Jacoby. To a principled adherent of the contrary view it was the North that was responsible for the death and destruction of the war by denying by force the right to secede from a voluntary compact.

As for the memorialization of Confederates at West Point, that was part and parcel with the post-Reconstruction effort to create a nation in which states were clearly subordinated to the national government. Like all such efforts, it was a bargain. In essence, the bargain was that the North would recognize the valor and sincerity of its Confederate foes, and the South would acknowledge the triumph of the nationalist view of the USA.

In the few years remaining to him after Appomattox, Lee openly accepted the second half of that bargain. It took some years for the deal to be finalized and represented in deeds, whether it be memorials at West Point or the return of Confederate battle flags (under TR) fully 40 years after the war.

Viewed with all that historical context, the triumphalism and certainty of Jacoby and others is more than a little unseemly. Yes, Lee and other Confederates are forever tainted by the fact that slavery was the issue that brought the conflict of Constitutional views to the point of secession and war. But accusations of treason and responsibility for the deaths of so many Americans reflect a failure to accept the historical reality that there was, in fact, profound disagreement on the nature of the United States and its government. Indeed–that’s exactly why the war was fought. Further, the iconoclasts are reneging on a deal that was made to cement their view of the Constitutional issue that permitted the nation to move forward as a more unified country.

As I’ve written before in posts on Confederate memorial controversies, it is better to let the memorials stay and understand why they are at places like West Point in the first place, rather than to remove them. Especially removing them in a spirit of political animus and triumphalism like that epitomized by the likes of Jeff Jacoby.

PS. This episode of Uncancelled History (hosted by Douglas Murray) on Lee is worth watching. I think it is a fairly balanced and properly contextualized presentation of Lee and the choices.

Allen C. Guelzo, author of a recent biography on Lee, leans towards the he’s-a-traitor view.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. History is hard. If there is one thing I learned while serving on the board of the National WW2 Museum in NOLA is that history is extremely hard. There are lots of issues to grapple with.

    The Civil War is becoming a victim moment in American history rather than a teaching moment. Lee was a great general prior to becoming General of the Army of Northern Virginia. He and Grant paved the way to reconciliation at Appomattox. It was Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, that messed things up. Truly, Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth was as pivotal to US History as Pearl Harbor and other “days” or “events”. Lincoln would have integrated the Army/Navy right away. He would have paved the way for acceptance. Instead, Johnson enabled people like Forrest who started the KKK, and that led to Jim Crow, which led to the welfare state we have today.

    Comment by Jeff Carter (@pointsnfigures1) — December 27, 2022 @ 7:17 pm

  2. Having come here after the Twitter thread, I understand the Jocoby et al position—projection once again. They are using this argument to enforce a nationalist view of America’s political body—states don’t matter, the Federal government above all. Once again, our “betters” think they can rule us, rather than have self-government of them people, by the people, for the people; to coin a phrase.

    Comment by The Pilot — December 27, 2022 @ 10:02 pm

  3. I read once that Southern politicians were against States’ Rights when they controlled Washington and became pro-States’ Rights when the boot was on the other foot. Is that right?

    (Even if it is right it wouldn’t follow that Lee felt like that.)

    Comment by dearieme — December 28, 2022 @ 6:08 am

  4. He, as with many modern fellow travelers and useful idiots, want a strong, national government, as opposed to the federal one we possess. The Constitution is an impediment to this outcome, however diminished it has become in the last century. Calling confederates “traitors” is a means to brainwashing people into thinking nationally—“you don’t want to be a traitor by opposing further centralized government, do you?”

    Comment by The Pilot — December 28, 2022 @ 4:09 pm

  5. @The Pilot. He is the Boston Globe’s simulacrum of a conservative, but he is really a progressive closer to Woodrow Wilson than Calvin Coolidge.

    Comment by cpirrong — December 28, 2022 @ 6:57 pm

  6. @dearieme. That’s not correct. The nationalist party, the Federalists, was basically limited to New England after about 1800, and the South in particular was the States’ Rights region. It is evident as early as Jefferson and Madison’s Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. South Carolina attempted to nullify federal laws in 1832, well before the South’s political dominance began to erode. It is true that the States Rights advocates’ militancy varied inversely with the South’s political power. The biggest threat to the South was the potential for loss of balance in the Senate. This is what made the conflicts over the territories so intense: admitting more free than slave states would have tilted the balance in favor of the North. But this increasing militancy was not a reflection of hypocrisy: the South had always leaned heavily towards the Union as a voluntary contract view, and became more insistent on States Rights when they perceived them to be under greater threat.

    Comment by cpirrong — December 28, 2022 @ 7:05 pm

  7. If Lee was a traitor,then all those who fought for independence were likewise traitors.

    Comment by Sabena — December 29, 2022 @ 12:15 am

  8. Thank you, SP. I first read your Constitution when I bought it in pamphlet form in Boston (or maybe Philly). I was impressed – particularly by its insistence that any power not expressly given to the Union remained with the States or the people. In light of that it seemed to me that the secession of the Southern states must have been constitutional; I don’t see why the fact that they seceded in defence of something so objectionable as slavery can alter that opinion. Hell, Massachusetts would have been within its rights to secede because it wished to return to executing witches.

    Many years later I learnt that Jefferson thought the Louisiana Purchase was unconstitutional. I can see why: the Union had not been granted the power to buy sovereign territory from another country.

    Comment by dearieme — December 29, 2022 @ 7:25 am

  9. Jeff Jacoby is a scum sucking roach.

    Comment by Joel Walker — December 29, 2022 @ 3:20 pm

  10. @Joel Walker. Hey! Roaches have feelings too!

    Comment by cpirrong — December 31, 2022 @ 2:58 pm

  11. Treason is a heavily emotionally charged word.

    How to define it?
    1) it can be to go against your legal de jure government
    2) it can be to betray your people – family, friends, community

    When your formally constituted government is betraying you, your friends and family and community, dissent, and possibly even armed dissent may be considered wholly honourable and right, and if you win nobody will consider you a traitor.

    Comment by Jack the dog — January 4, 2023 @ 6:38 am

  12. @Jack the dog. Exactly. But such complexity is lost on the Jeff Jacobys of the world, secure in their righteousness.

    Comment by cpirrong — January 5, 2023 @ 1:28 pm

  13. “ The South on the right of any people to dissolve the bonds of government when it had become tyrannical.”

    After noting that long-established bonds ought not be broken for abundant & serious reasons, Jefferson was able to point to a long train of abuses & usurpations, evincing a design to subject the colonies under absolute despotism. The South Carolina instrument of secession has but one- “Our northern brethren no longer return our fugitive slaves.”

    Lincoln proposed only to limit Slavery’s extent. In the Cooper Union Address, he was able to show that, to the extent they ventured an opinion on this matter, all signers of the Constitution who expressed an opinion said that the federal government had that power.

    So I think the Confederate accusation of tyranny in this case falls considerably short, and is yet another manifestation of the true meaning of CSA – Cotton, and Slaves, and Arrogance.

    Comment by rkka — January 5, 2023 @ 8:22 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress