A Matter of Treason

REVIEW: ‘Robert E. Lee: A Life’ by Allen C. Guelzo

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October 24, 2021

I guess only a handful of people know where to find Robert E. Lee nowadays—or rather his most famous likeness, the bronze equestrian statue that for more than a century sat high atop an obelisk rising from a traffic circle on a broad, leafy avenue in Richmond, Virginia. Last month, a large crane was brought in to haul the thing down. Workmen hired by the state sliced the bronze Lee into pieces and boxed them up. Onlookers cheered. The governor of the commonwealth—a man named Ralph Northam, who has proved himself to be a creature not previously thought to exist in nature, a phlegmatic demagogue—was there to make certain he received proper credit for his brave, unbending opposition to human slavery. As the workers trucked the boxes off to an undisclosed location, the governor grinned like a minstrel.

No need to get sentimental about it, but the decapitation and dismemberment of Lee in the onetime capital of the Confederacy felt like the end of something, something big. The statue isn’t simply gone, it’s hidden away, with the implication that it may never again be exposed to general view—certainly never again as a public emblem. Its removal marked more than the end of the years-long controversy about statues honoring the men who fought on the wrong side of the Civil War. Just as likely we’ve reached a terminal point in how we are allowed to talk—and perhaps, in time, to think—about the signal event of American history.

Much of this talk, to put it mildly, lacks historical rigor. The dwindling number of die-hards who cling to the myth of the Lost Cause see slavery as contingent to the war, while the much larger number (far and away a majority) see slavery as the only reason the war was fought. Both sides avoid complication because they use history as a platform for moralizing. Robert E. Lee himself appears either as a marble saint or an ogre of staggering villainy.

We could all take a lesson from perhaps the greatest living historian of the period, Allen C. Guelzo, whose biography of Lee has just been published. In addition to his magisterial achievements in such books as Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President and Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, Guelzo is one of the few academic historians who doesn’t mind being associated with the political right. He’s been a longtime contributor to National Review and the martyred Weekly Standard, and is now affiliated with the James Madison Program at Princeton.

I don’t know Guelzo’s view of removing the Lee statue from Richmond, but I imagine he would disagree that Lee’s status as (to use the go-to phrase) a white supremacist or even as a slave-owner is sufficient reason to expunge him from the rolls of public honor. Tossing down the memory hole every American who comforted himself with notions of racial superiority would leave us with a lot of shredded family albums, not to mention the empty plinths and abandoned historical sites. In every age some number of geniuses have risen above the default prejudices and moral evasions that their friends and neighbors absorb without thinking. These inoculations are rare, however; consider, to take one contemporary example, our almost unanimous tolerance for the industrial torture of animals for the sake of cheap food. No, for Guelzo, Lee’s great offense was not his invidious and (among his peers) universally held ideas about race but an actual, definable, objective crime, and the crime was treason.

Guelzo’s Lee is a man in full: genteel, cruel, loving, intolerant, generous, neither the hero of 19th and 20th century hagiographers nor the figure of unalloyed evil preferred by our contemporaries. But at the heart of the portrait here is the unforgivable crime. As Guelzo reconstructs it, Lee’s treason developed from three sequential decisions made over as many days in early 1861.

After a long and notable career, Lee was one of the most admired military men in the country when the fuse of secession was lit. It was no surprise that Abraham Lincoln, scarcely more than a month into his presidency, wanted to elevate Lee to field commander of the Federal army. (Lincoln’s choice in generals as the war dragged on has been much criticized, but his first one showed he knew what he was about.) Lee met with Lincoln’s intermediary, Francis Preston Blair, and told Blair that he was "devoted to the Union." Indeed, Lee said, if he had the power he would free every slave in the South to keep the country united.

And yet… "He did not know how he could draw his sword upon his native State," Virginia. In Richmond the state legislature was still formally undecided on whether to join other southern states in secession. The first of Lee’s fateful decisions was to turn down Lincoln’s offer, hoping that he could somehow stay neutral, even as Virginia stayed neutral, on the assumption the coming unpleasantness would stop short of war. Yet neutrality also made his place in the Army untenable, leading to the second decision, to resign his commission. And the logic of these two decisions pointed inevitably to the third, after Virginia voted officially to secede. When the legislature summoned him to Richmond, he traveled in civilian clothes, but he agreed to assist in organizing the state militia’s response to any "invasion" by the federal government. He would "devote myself to the service of my native state," he said, "in whose behalf alone will I ever again draw my sword."

"Thus did Robert E. Lee," writes Guelzo, "irrevocably, finally, publicly [turn] his back on his service, his flag, and ultimately, his country. All of this was done for the sake of the preservation of a political regime whose acknowledged purpose was the preservation of a system of chattel slavery that he knew to be an evil and for which he felt little affection and whose constitutional basis he dismissed as a fiction…. It would, in the end, cost him nearly everything …."

Guelzo’s reconstruction of Lee’s turn to treason is meticulous, comprehensive, and fair, a master class in historiography. Lee’s present-day detractors will likely think it’s beside the point, at least for their purpose, which is to place Lee beyond the pale on the basis of his racial views alone. Lee is often described as a traitor today, even among the left, but never as the primary charge in the indictment; his betrayal usually is featured almost as an afterthought, the cherry on top of his inequity, like condemning Charles Manson for his terrible table manners. In the catalogue of evils nowadays, treason, all by itself, ranks pretty low. The Richmond crowd cheering the removal of the Lee statue probably couldn’t work up much righteous anger against Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden.

The relative indifference to treason is a symptom of our intelligentsia’s weakening devotion to the nation state. "In the cosmopolitan atmosphere of globalism," Guelzo writes, "the notion of treason has acquired an antique feel." This is a weakening indeed. As Guelzo notes, for all its faults, the nation-state works (imperfectly) as a stay against ethnic, dynastic, and religious mischief of the kind that put Europe in a state of perpetual warfare until the 18th century. "To wave away treason as a crime is to put in jeopardy many of the benefits the nation-state has conferred in the last three centuries."

Guelzo’s judgment of Lee, balanced as it is, should discomfit conservatives no less than liberals, especially anyone on the right willing to gloss over Lee’s crime against our country in favor of his undoubted martial virtues or some magnolia-fragranced image of agrarian heroism. Most impressive of all, Robert E. Lee: A Life injects learning, subtlety, and even compassion into a debate that has more often been characterized by ignorance, simple-mindedness, and sanctimony. It is Guelzo’s bad luck, and ours, that the debate has been settled by intellectual bullying and brute force, just when we needed his contribution most.

Robert E. Lee: A Life
by Allen C. Guelzo
Knopf, 608 pp., $35

Andrew Ferguson is a contributing writer at the Atlantic and nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Published under: Book reviews