A matter of treason

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.”