Were Confederate Generals Traitors?

By Walter E. Williams : Opinion

Gen. Robert E. Lee
Those who'd label Gen. Robert E. Lee as a traitor might also label George Washington as a traitor.
Walter E. Williams
Walter E. Williams

USA – -(Ammoland.com)- My “Rewriting American History” column of a fortnight ago, about the dismantling of Confederate monuments, generated considerable mail.

Some argued there should not be statues honoring traitors such as Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, who fought against the Union. Victors of wars get to write the history, and the history they write often does not reflect the facts. Let's look at some of the facts and ask: Did the South have a right to secede from the Union? If it did, we can't label Confederate generals as traitors.

Article 1 of the Treaty of Paris (1783), which ended the war between the Colonies and Great Britain, held “New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be free sovereign and Independent States.” Representatives of these states came together in Philadelphia in 1787 to write a constitution and form a union.

During the ratification debates, Virginia's delegates said, “The powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the people of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression.” The ratification documents of New York and Rhode Island expressed similar sentiments.

At the Constitutional Convention, a proposal was made to allow the federal government to suppress a seceding state. James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” rejected it.

The minutes from the debate paraphrased his opinion: “A union of the states containing such an ingredient (would) provide for its own destruction. The use of force against a state would look more like a declaration of war than an infliction of punishment and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound.”

America's first secessionist movement started in New England after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Many were infuriated by what they saw as an unconstitutional act by President Thomas Jefferson. The movement was led by Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts, George Washington's secretary of war and secretary of state. He later became a congressman and senator.

“The principles of our Revolution point to the remedy — a separation,” Pickering wrote to George Cabot in 1803, for “the people of the East cannot reconcile their habits, views, and interests with those of the South and West.” His Senate colleague James Hillhouse of Connecticut agreed, saying, “The Eastern states must and will dissolve the union and form a separate government.”

This call for secession was shared by other prominent Americans, such as John Quincy Adams, Elbridge Gerry, Fisher Ames, Josiah Quincy III and Joseph Story. The call failed to garner support at the 1814-15 Hartford Convention.

The U.S. Constitution would have never been ratified — and a union never created — if the people of those 13 “free sovereign and Independent States” did not believe that they had the right to secede. Even on the eve of the War of 1861, unionist politicians saw secession as a right that states had. Rep. Jacob M. Kunkel of Maryland said, “Any attempt to preserve the union between the states of this Confederacy by force would be impractical and destructive of republican liberty.” The Northern Democratic and Republican parties favored allowing the South to secede in peace.

Northern newspapers editorialized in favor of the South's right to secede. New-York Tribune (Feb. 5, 1860): “If tyranny and despotism justified the Revolution of 1776, then we do not see why it would not justify the secession of Five Millions of Southrons from the Federal Union in 1861.” The Detroit Free Press (Feb. 19, 1861): “An attempt to subjugate the seceded States, even if successful, could produce nothing but evil — evil unmitigated in character and appalling in extent.” The New-York Times (March 21, 1861): “There is a growing sentiment throughout the North in favor of letting the Gulf States go.”

Confederate generals were fighting for independence from the Union just as George Washington and other generals fought for independence from Great Britain. Those who'd label Gen. Robert E. Lee as a traitor might also label George Washington as a traitor. I'm sure Great Britain's King George III would have agreed.

About Walter E.Williams

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. Williams is also the author of several books. Among these are The State Against Blacks, later made into a television documentary, America: A Minority Viewpoint, All It Takes Is Guts, South Africa's War Against Capitalism, More Liberty Means Less Government, Liberty Versus The Tyranny of Socialism, and recently his autobiography, Up From The Projects.

  • 54 thoughts on “Were Confederate Generals Traitors?

    1. Comparing apples to oranges. 1. Pilgrims didn’t leave Britain as official representatives of the Crown and claim new lands in its name. 2. Colonies had no representation in British Parliament and colonial citizens didn’t have the same rights as British citizens. 3. On the contrary, after independence, states signed/ratified the Constitution which bound them and they had representation in US Congress and Senate. Unilaterally going against it was indeed treason.

    2. I gather that the discourse follows on the
      recent attempts by Progressives at sociological
      cleansing of the marketplace in the tearing down of monuments commemorating the Confereracy.
      This is as shameful an activity as condoning
      slavery. Regardless of the causes of the
      conflict and perceived rights of the participants
      at the end the victors granted amnesty to the
      losers for their acts. Lincoln and the northern
      politicians were as generous in that act as
      they were vicious in prosecuting the war. I
      believe that current actions are as odious and disrespectful of great historical icons as is
      denying that slavery is and was an odious
      activity that should not be forgotten.

      1. Why shouldn’t there be statues of the Nazis to commemorate their bravery during WW2? After all, a lot of Americans were chummy with them in the 1930’s.

        1. it’s funny Gil that so many people want to compare the U.S. and the civil war to Nazi Germany during WWII. 1st, this is the United States, not Germany so why would do such a thing, 2nd, any statues of Germans of WWII is up to the Germans to be built in Germany.

          I personally have no problem if Germany put up statues and monuments of WWII soldiers and of their dead as long as they are not part of the SS, Gestapo, brown shirts, round up and transported those to concentration camps/death camps, part of said camps and etc.

      2. The only reason the Progressive scum want to re-write history is so that the children who are young and un-educated will learn only one history — theirs. These pimples on society’s a** should be muzzled and stay in their parents basement.
        As for the sovereignty of the States – whether it was a capitol S or a small s makes no difference – the Colonies were recognized by King George as “Free, Sovereign, and Independent States”. You must also remember that during the lead up to the War of Independence, the Colonists went to their local government for redress. So the King in effect had recognized the independence of the people by way of recognition of the States. And when the authors of the Constitution were quizzed about who had the preponderance of power, their answer was that “It remains with the States”. So the South had every right under the Bill of Rights to do what it did – read the 9th and 10th Amendments very carefully. The people of the South had voted to secede and seek independence, the Northern Abolitionists essentially the Jihadists of their time wanted no less than the total freedom of slaves and if the Southern States had to perish … than so be it. Regardless of what others who have a definite slant to their agenda want to say … the South had every right to do what they did. Slavery would’ve died out anyway as it was being replaced by the likes of the Cotton Gin and other inventions. That war needn’t have happened, but Lincoln did NOTHING to prevent it. All he did was consolidate power in the Federal Government which has now been perverted to our injury by the last P.O.S. who inhabited the Offal Office for 8 years. Trump is the first President since Reagan to try and put power back in the hands of “We the People”. As for Progressives, they espouse a losing ideal thought up buy the Chief LOSER of all time Karl Marx – a shiftless ne’er do well who was a parasite on the keester of society.

    3. It is clear that states once had and still have the right to secede, a right which, not unlike many of the rights of American citizens, has been nullified by the unlawful use of force. It’s also clear that the whole, sad affair created a rift in the nation that has never healed, and helped set the stage for the mess the country is in now. It can be argued that the Constitution has not been in effect since 1865.

      That said, a question I’ve never seen addressed is whether or not a state must have reasonable grounds for secession, and what standard must be met to prove reasonableness? In a case in which a minority has gained control of a state and attempts to secede against the wishes of the population, and has solicited economic or military aid from foreign interests in furtherance of its goal, can the Federal government then lawfully prevent the secession?

      For me, a California native and resident, these are not hypothetical questions. Moonbeam didn’t go to China to reassure them of anything. He was there asking for money and possibly future military aid against the Trump administration. He and his cronies have already announced their intentions openly. If they get their way, a few million Californians will be fleeing with whatever they can carry. Many more will take up arms against Sacramento. Legal or not, it’s a given that the Trump administration will deploy troops. The wild card here is the United Nations. Most of the members of that den of criminality, especially China, have wet dreams about dismembering the United States. Would they attempt to intervene?

      I would be very interested in Professor Williams’ thoughts on these questions.

    4. Ever notice how ignorance responds to facts with name calling and insults? God knows, they would never stoop to actually researching the truth! Probably don’t know that the only place one can get a certified copy of the original treaty is from Brittain, nor why…

    5. The maintenance of slavery was most definitely a cause of the war: see any of the confederate states’ secession documents. The complexity of historical justification can be seen in the Virginia ratification delegates’ statement that the people may “resume” their “powers” if they become “perverted to their injury or oppression”. Was the federal government oppressive in its rejection of the extension of slavery into the national territories and the new States? George Washington led a revolution against an oppressive government; was the same true of southern secessionists?

      1. AND thanks for revealing the indoctrination you received from the northerners who wrote the history books after the war.
        It was ABOUT STATES RIGHTS and their RIGHT to withdraw from a “union” where they were having to provide the main means of support thanks to high tariffs on imported goods and forced low prices for their agricultural products by the Yankee Northerners who held the power in Congress.

        Now go back and Re-Read the article which is the complete and accurate truth of the matter.
        LINCOLN acted ILLEGALLY and Unconstitutionally in invading the south.
        It was a War of Northern Aggression.

        1. I just finished ‘Jack Hinson’s One Man War’. It was a great read and explained ‘Northern Aggression’ from one man’s personal experience. It sure opened my eyes.

        2. The ‘accurate truth of the matter’ is the SOUTH fired on Fort Sumter, thus starting the Civil War. Just when you thought revisionist history by some Southern bozo could not get any worse…..

          1. Suggest you study a little more history than what you were taught in school. Lincoln was a shred politician. He offered the South the option of taxes or war in his inaugural address. Federal power would be used to hold federal property “to collect the duties…”. He was referring to forts, such as Fort Sumter, which would be used to collect tariffs. Succession was largely about money, in the form of tariffs imposed by the North. Some historians have suggested tariffs was a bigger issue and that slavery (and the attendant inferiority of the black race) was for more for justification with the populace. Same old story…money is the driving force with something else offered as justification for popular consumption. The Philadelphia Press, the Chicago Daily Times, and the New York Evening Post all published stories about the tariff issue, realizing that it’s enforcement would lead to war and failure to enforce them would led to possible economic disaster in the North. Lincoln purposely choose Fort Sumter as a political move. General Scott did not want to fight to keep the fort. Lincoln overruled him and gave orders to reprovision the fort, which he knew would be resisted by the southern forces. The orders were to proceed peacefully, but if attacked to respond with whatever force was needed, ie, force the South to fire the first shot. He knew the fort was indefensible. It was the perfect setup. No matter what happened, the South would be the aggressor unless it permitted the provisioning of the fort. Lincoln even notified the governor of South Carolina of his plans. By bombarding the fort, the South walked right into the trap. The firing on the federal flag rallied the North to punish the “traitors” who “started the war”. Ironically, no one was killed by the bombardment — no one was hurt by the bombardment. There were no constitutional grounds for preventing succession, but by this setup, popular opinion was moved so much that an invasion, regardless of legality, was supported…”rally ’round the flag!”. In many ways, Lincoln made himself a dictator, and that was supported by the majority of the public for the same reason. “War fever” also broke out in the South. Ironically, in January, 1861, while Buchanan was still president, a federal fort in Pensacola Bay, Fort Barrancas, was seized by southern troops. Buchanan did nothing, hoping for a peaceful settlement to the succession issue. Nobody hears much about that fort.

            1. The war became very unpopular with citizens of the north because it was not going in their favor. Lincoln used the issue of slavery to rally support. Regardless of how the war started we did in fact end slavery in our nation! Slavery was an evil practice and had to end. Our southern heroes were real and tearing down statues does not change that fact. In fact these monuments may help us to remember not to return to our old evil ways. Try to use some common sense people.

            2. Chuck, even Jefferson Davis knew that slavery had to end. It was just a matter of time. He required they learn marketable skills before being freed, so they could provide for themselves. The war didn’t end slavery, except in the secessionist states. The Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln signed during the war only affected the secessionist states that was meaningless during the war. The states that still had slavery and the parts of the CSA controlled by the Union were not affected by that decree. It wasn’t until the ratification of the amendments that ended slavery that slaves in those states and areas were freed.

              Unfortunately, they were used to living on the plantation and having everything provided for them. Sadly, with the Democrats social programs, the same is still true today. Lincoln was right, they should have been shipped back.

        3. Especially the right to not be dictated by the North about slavery and being forced into economic recession hence their defense of slavery in their declarations and the enshrinement of slavery in their aspiring Constitution.

      2. It was sectionalism, and differences of culture – slavery was only used as a carrot when the war was going badly for the North. Remember the battle cry of 1861 ” To preserve the Union” That is what it was about – the right of a State to secede from the Union.
        Stop drinking the Leftist Kool Aid and go research it for yourself.

    6. Long before the Civil War and his presidency, Lincoln warned of the possible outcomes of freeing the slaves. He said he didn’t think the two societies could ever fully coexist peacefully,( paraphrased). Sadly, his words now ring true.

    7. Mr. Williams’ article is based upon a common error. Article I of the Paris Peace Treaty of Sept. 3, 1783 DID NOT grant sovereignty to the States (capital “S” meaning the governmental entities), it granted sovereignty to the states (small “s” meaning the citizens)! This is fact and upheld by the US Congress and the US Supreme Court, both of which officially state that in the USA it is citizens who are sovereign and that all government is servant to the citizens. Mr. Wiliams does not know the truth of the subject upon which he writes. While this does not make those generals traitors, it is a major error of the facts of history and citizens rights in the USA. In fact, the South had ample Constitutional reason to succeed, however; good reason does not always mean the action was correct. The South was wrong for legally correct reasons.

      1. I guarantee that Mr Walter Williams knows more about the subject than you do just based on your ignorant spew.
        GO get an education in something OTHER THAN Northern propaganda.

      2. @Gary Kendall, We don’t give a damn about any “grant of sovereignty” from the British King. Our founding fathers decided that sovereignty is in the people and those people temporarily transfer the powers that flow from sovereignty to our governmental representatives, for the benefit of the people, as a kind of trust arrangement. Our sovereignty does not flow from the King through the Treaty of Paris. The founders took it and gave it to We the People, where sovereignty remains.

    8. I guarantee that King George saw the upstart colonial leaders such as Hamilton, Adams, and Washington as traitors to the Crown. Had Great Britain won that conflict which we call the American Revolution, our history would be quite different. Those who signed the Declaration of Independence would not be hailed as heroes, but would have been executed as traitors; Benedict Arnold would not be regarded as a turncoat, but held up as a Loyalist to the King. Even after the North won the War Between the States, Southern leaders were not derided as traitors and criminals. Our Southern heroes were recognized as patriots for their cause, supporters of their States, defenders of States Rights. Only in the last decade has that view changed; the Looney Left has almost set brother against brother once again, using falsehood and poison rhetoric as its preferred weapon this time.

    9. This needs to be spread far and wide. We are in a desperate time, where “my” opinion is the “only” right opinion. There is no room for discussion or debate, only anger.
      It pains me to see monuments removed that have any connection with Confederacy. Many good men fought and died for the right of the states to make their own choices… very few to protect the institution of slavery.
      The pendulum has moved too far. And we seem to have forgotten that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

      1. Ohhhhhhhhhh … now the true you comes out. You don’t know your Clausewitz very well do you? He said “that war is a mere continuation of policy “with other means” (mit anderen Mitteln), or sometimes “with the addition of other means”. The operative phrase is – a continuation of policy! The North kept on trying to squeeze out the slave holding states for many years – Starting with the Tariff of Abominations in the late 1820’s (where the Northern States essentially forced Southern States to buy their goods to the exclusion of all other prospective dealers.) When the North started to charge too much on tariffs, the South started going with English merchants, hence the act. Then came the Abolitionists who wanted all the slaves freed “right now” – when under Southern Law if an owner was going to free his slaves – he had to first teach them a trade and educate them so that they could subsist on their own. So to free all of them at the same time would have been cost prohibitive. And there are many more examples of Northern tyrannical behavior towards the Southern States.
        It wasn’t until Bill Clinton – the Philanderer in Chief, who came along and pandered to the blacks that felt like the system was still keeping them down, then the War became “about slavery”.

        1. Like the American Revolution had the” War of Southern Independence (Totally Not About Slavery)” worked the only people who would have benefited from were the elites.

          1. Gil, so you don’t believe there is any benefit to living in the USA? You believe life would be better as a British subject? Odd, then, that almost every other colony fought in some way to gain independence from the Brits. Why would they do that if life under their rule was such Utopia?

            1. When the American Revolution ended taxes were tripled, slavery strengthened and Natives lost their land rights. Strange how slaves had to escape to Canada to be free.

          2. Usual ignorant moronic troll spew from the lefty paid troll and total idiot.
            Hey moron; The Slave owners in the South were the Minority !!
            ALL Citizens of the Confederate States of America would have benefited with lower prices on imported goods and higher prices on their produce.

            1. Slave owners accounted for ~35% of households of the slave-owning States of the South – a clear backbone of their economy.

        2. @VE Vet-OMC, a certain lunatic does not know any literature very well. He does know that he has to put out VPC approved propaganda in order to get paid. He also knows that he can twist a few tails along the way, just for his own entertainment.
          One can tell by statements like: “… that’s the thing with war – you have one objective: to win.” That he has never studied the subject. His statements are so vague, in his attempt to sound wise, that one hardly knows what his point is. His knowledge of history is equally abysmal.

          1. Puh-lease as an alleged veteran you should know to not lose a war and be at the whims of the victors. By the same token if you were just a soldier you would have a similar view about not being captured by the enemy. In both cases it’s not going to end well.

          2. True enough brother – he’s a moron. Guess he doesn’t know that – “To those who are willing to fight for it … freedom … has a flavor the protected shall never know.” — L/Cpl Edwin L. “Tim” Craft, B Co 3rd AT’s, Khe Sanh Combat Base, February, 1968

            1. What’s that VE V? It’s okay to lose because when the U.S. lost interest in fighting the Vietnam War you were all ordered to stand down? I presume that’s what you mean when you say winning a war isn’t a goal.

            2. @VE Vet, That is a good observation. GFYG also does not know that “…to not lose a war…” is not the same as winning.
              Sierra 7 Bravo 06 out.

    10. BY the same token, those advocating the removal of stature of Confederate leaders because they espoused slavery need to take down the statues of Washington, Jefferson, and many of the other founding fathers. Why? They were slave owners. Funny, I haven’t heard of anyone wanting tobdobthat.

      1. Not yet, you mean, and what will be fall the USA flag, since slavery existed, and was allowed to prosper, under its banner until the passage of the amendment banning the practice.

      2. Make no mistake, when they are finished with trashing Southern culture they will continue the mission with George Washington and the signers of the Declaration and the Constitution – after all, they were “old white slave owners” so any documents they wrote must be invalid. Be careful when dealing with the leftist/Socialist mentality, their end game isn’t often revealed until too late.

        1. @2W Abn Vet, If the progressive/liberal/socialists can destroy our history then out Constitution can never be read in context ever again. Then the Constitution can mean as little as they like.

      3. Not yet. But eventually, the left will call for their removal. Actually, for years they have been referred to as “dead white guys.” Its only a matter of time until the left totally rewrites history and expunges anything or anyone it does not deem politically correct. Let the government totally regulate the internet and we will see new “facts” emerge.

    11. Like the author said, in so many words, most people know very little about the history of the Civil War. As he pointed out, the victors get to write the history, so it tends to be one-sided and self-justifying. I’m glad to see this article is written by a black author and a well informed one, at that. He is not a black man with a “victim” mentality, blaming the past or the prejudices of others for his successes or failures. I think the hatred and venom being spewed forth concerning Civil War symbols and statues is a perverted form of political correctness and a form of scapegoating, based largely on ignorance. It might make the “haters” feel good tearing down monuments to the past (like ISIS does), but, as Jorge Santayana pointed out, forgetting the past can be dangerous.

    12. To those who label Gen. Robert E. Lee as a traitor, you don’t know squat about how the States and States Rights were viewed in the 1850’s. And the war wasn’t about slavery as the leftists would have you believe, the battle cry of 1861 was “To preserve the Union.” In other words, the South legally seceded, and the North decided that they would provoke the South to fight (see the resupply of Ft. Sumter) as a pretext for forcibly repatriating the Southern States. Its like a wife who wants a divorce and the husband watches her walk out only to go after her, beat her bloody, and drag her by the hair back home.
      I respect Gen Lee and the rest of the Confederates as they fought for what they believed in. You have a tough time finding men like that now days.

      1. @VE-OMC absolutely correct. Slavery was only publicized to get popular support from the northern civilians and abolitionist. An argument I have been having in the family for years.

      2. Since when is attacking a government fort considered legal secession? Hint: it is not and never will be. By the way, plenty of Nazi and Japanese soldiers fought for what then believed in. Grow up.

        1. Clark, you’re the one that needs to grow up. Not every war the US fought was the right war and just because the US was the winner does not make them right. You conveniently use the Nazi’s and Japanese to bolster a week argument. Would you say the war against Native American’s was the right war? Of course not. Because you would look pathetic, more than you do now. The answer to this question: was the South legally able to secede comes from the right of the Colonies to secede from the Crown. That wasn’t “legal” either but the winners then declare themselves right. Also you may want to research the attitudes and feelings of all Americans during that time, not your 21st Century moral high ground. Several New England States wanted to secede way before the South. I guess they were wrong too? THEY don’t think so.

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