In the perennial debate surrounding the American Civil War, a common assertion is that the politicians, generals and soldiers who comprised the Confederate States of America were “traitors” who were guilty of “treason.” It is a funny kind of meme, chiefly because it strikes at the heart of the American experiment, namely the right to self-determination, particularly through the institution of governments “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” as the Declaration of Independence puts it. That is to say, the Declaration explicitly advocates the very kind of “treason” that we’re supposed to abhor in the likes of Robert E. Lee.
In truth nobody cares all that much about the fact that the Confederates were “traitors,” inasmuch as that would require a level of deliberate, honest-to-goodness patriotism that is more or less unfashionable these days. People dislike the Confederates not because of “treason” but because of slavery—i.e. we are repulsed by the Confederate experiment not because it was an act of rebellion but because of what it was an act of rebellion for.
I am afraid we have lost the ability to make a distinction between the principle and the application in this case. In a recent column, Leonard Pitts referred to the Confederates and the Union as “traitors who fought to destroy America and patriots who fought to preserve it.” Which is a perfectly ridiculous way to sum up the political tactic of secession, particularly as it was exercised by the Confederate States. Whatever the CSA was up to, “destroying America” was not it, unless one wants to argue that the America nation is utterly inseparable from a handful of the states that comprise it. But you would be wrong: you can act as if the Union depends entirely on Arkansas or Louisiana remaining a part of it, say, but that idea is preposterous enough that even the Supreme Court has rejected it.
All of which is to say that, while the general opprobrium directed toward the Ordinance of Secession is a good and proper thing, we should not be confused as to just what it is to which we stand opposed. The hand-wringing over “treason” makes little sense in the context of American political history—our country was founded on rebellion, so much so that the leaders of the American Revolution would have been executed had they lost. It is worthwhile to learn to tell the difference between slavery (which is awful) and revolution (which is as American as apple pie).