Page:Southern Historical Society Papers volume 06.djvu/66

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56
Southern Historical Society Papers.

entirely upon the character of our governments. To vindicate the South in the late civil war is far from my purpose, and the columns of the Independent or of other Northern journals would not be open to me if I were to make such an attempt. The conquered seldom or never write the accepted histories. The arbitrament of war has settled adversely the question of secession as a peaceful or feasible remedy for wrongs, real or imaginary.

In passing judgment upon the personal faith and honor of General Lee and his associates, as affected by secession, the historian or critic or moralist must be careful to view things from the stand-point of 1860 and not that of 1878. The truth is as melancholy as it is undeniable, that whatever theory of States-rights or of constitutional limitations may have been maintainable in 1860, the practice and the accepted theory of late years make the constitution a rope of sand, consolidation a political fact and the general government an irresponsible centralism. The amendments to the constitution since 1860 are to be excluded in all debates about the character of our Federal system prior to the war.

"Codes of military ethics" have nothing to do with the obligatoriness of General Lee's oath as an officer of the army. They are as irrelevant as would be a citation from the Declaration of Independence on a matter of constitutional interpretation. No one disputes that General Lee in 1861 was an officer of the United States army, and as such had taken the usual oaths. It is alike undisputed that he was a native of Virginia, claimed citizenship and residence in this State. Virginia, the State of his nativity and citizenship, seceded from the union of the States, and in her withdrawal claimed the allegiance and loyalty of her sons. The basal question, lying at the root of this discussion and determining it absolutely, is, had a State in 1861 the right to secede? If the answer be in the affirmative, then the allegiance of her citizens, ipso facto, ceased to be due, if it had ever belonged to the Union or Federal government.

Secession may have been unwise, rash, inexcusable, suicidal. Let all that for the nonce be conceded. When a sovereign State acted, the decision was final so far as her citizens were concerned. Code of military ethics is an irrelevant suggestion. Did the oath of Lee as an officer of the United States bind him as against the sovereign command of his State? That turns on the right of the State to secede. If Virginia possessed that right nothing but expatriation could release her citizens from the obligation to follow her fortunes.