Lee can be called a rebel, but he was not a traitor
The News makes a common but significant rhetorical error in the Sept. 5 editorial “National shame” by branding the Confederates as traitors. As Robert Graves pointed out in his great essay, “Benedict Arnold Was No Traitor,” traitors differ from rebels in that they receive compensation for their apostasy. Thus, Judas, and his 30 pieces of silver. So, Robert E. Lee should properly be called a rebel, for he received no such benefit. In fact, in turning down Abraham Lincoln’s offer to lead the Union forces, it’s conceivable that with his tactical brilliance, a shorter Civil War would have ensued, and Lee may even have had a shot at the presidency. By the misuse of “traitor,” Washington would have to be considered a traitor to the crown, which he had sworn allegiance to as a British officer. But, like Lee, he’s only a rebel.
Lincoln’s soaring rhetoric in the Gettysburg Address and in his second inaugural took care never to brand the rebels as traitors. In fact, he preferred reconciliation over punishment (“With malice toward none, with charity for all …”). And, a century later, Kennedy and Goldwater, friends in the Senate, had tentatively planned a series of debates for the ’64 campaign, modeled after the Lincoln- Douglas debates in 1858. Imagine how our political oratory might have been elevated had these two renowned authors faced off. But the assassins’ bullets have done irreparable damage not only to our history but also to our political language. Which brings us to the rhetorical nadir of the 2016 campaign.