Abraham Lincoln had been elected but had yet to assume the presidency when southern states started seceding from the Union in the months before his March 4, 1861 inauguration. Four others would follow that spring.
American soldiers —like Robert E. Lee, who had taken an oath of loyalty to the nation that he had served since 1825— defected to the Confederacy. Lincoln had offered Lee the command of Federal forces in April, but he declined —and resigned from the U. S. Army that month.
By joining the rebellion Lee and fellow travellers became, in effect, traitors. There was no question of taxation without representation, or intolerable acts imposed by a parliament across the Atlantic. Lincoln was not threatening to abolish slavery in states where it already existed; indeed, he had proclaimed that it was not in his Constitutional power to do so.
No, the rebels simply didn’t like the outcome of the 1860 election. They would not abide the will of the American voters.
It was a disastrous decision for Lee, for the South and for hundreds of thousands of men and women on both sides. After the Civil War, Lee was arrested, but later paroled. He also took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States and to the U.S. Constitution in order to have his rights of citizenship restored. He lost his house and plantation, which became the site of Arlington National Cemetery.
Treason turned out to be a monumentally unwise strategy for the South: two-thirds of its wealth disappeared and it would take six decades to get it back to what it was in 1860; a quarter of its men between the ages of 20 and 40 died; and in the greatest internal migration in American history, millions of Southerners, Black and white, would flee the stagnating Confederate states in the decades following 1865. A war begun to defend slavery almost certainly hastened its demise.
So what have we here and now, in 2021?
The American people have spoken and it wasn’t even close. Yet there are people in high places who cannot abide the outcome. These are people on the public payroll who have taken an oath similar to the one Robert E. Lee swore to.
Even before the disgraceful and frightening January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, there was talk by the president and his enablers of finding votes, of recalculating thrice-checked results, and of taking legislative or executive actions that clearly contravene the U.S. Constitution. The notion of martial law proclaimed by the president had reared its ugly head. For the first time in more than 220 years of American history, an incumbent president had refused to concede an election defeat or affirm the proud democratic tradition of a peaceful transfer of power.
So here we are, exactly 160 years after American democracy came crashing down, seeing how far we can push things before it comes tumbling down again. Have we learned nothing?
What happened January 6 was the natural result of our scorched earth politics. Months of intemperate intransigence by the president and his enablers led to a spasm of treason: a sitting president sicced a mob on the seat of our democracy. People died and were hospitalized. It’s a miracle that the outcome wasn’t worse. Some of the rabble-rousers were armed.
Sometimes, as was the case with Robert E. Lee, patriotic oaths need to be renewed. For those in Congress who may have forgotten what they swore to, here it is:
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.”
Or so help us God.