In the Sept. 4 letters, "Gen. Lee: Hero or Traitor?" J. Randolph Watson, an African American, states that historical evidence supports the view that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee "was a traitor to the Constitution." On the other hand, I, also an African American, find that history and the law avow that Gen. Lee is a hero.
Historically, rebellion against the United States has not been punished as treason. Leaders of the Whiskey Rebellion were pardoned by presidents Washington and Adams. And when Jefferson had Aaron Burr arrested for treason, Chief Justice Marshall, as circuit justice, directed a verdict of acquittal. Other lower federal court cases -- arising out of the War of 1812, the Dorr Rebellion and John Brown's raid -- brought completed prosecutions for treason against the state, not against the United States.
Lincoln, following precedent, cut off any federal treason prosecution arising out of the Great Rebellion by his general amnesty proclamations of Dec. 8, 1863, and March 26, 1864. Under them, "full pardon" and restoration of full citizenship rights were granted to all who took up arms against the United States if they subscribed to an oath to "henceforth faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Union of States thereunder" and to "abide by and faithfully support" the Confiscation Acts authorizing emancipation as well as the Emancipation Proclamation promulgated thereunder. (Among those Confederate soldiers offered general amnesty were antislavery Quakers, antislavery Moravian Brethren and slaves who fought with the promise of freedom.)
Among the several categories of persons excepted from general amnesty and required to apply directly to the president for clemency was the group to which Gen. Lee belonged -- those who had resigned their Army and Navy commissions to aid the rebellion.
Amnesty is an act by which the state restores to those guilty of offenses against the state the position of innocent persons. It includes more than pardon, inasmuch as it obliterates commission of the offenses.
Gen. Lee's clemency petition, endorsed by Gen. Grant, apparently was overlooked at the White House. To the chagrin of the "radical" Republicans in Congress, President Andrew Johnson routinely vetoed their Reconstruction legislation (including the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Freedmen's Bureau Act) as he liberally granted special pardons to those excepted from general amnesty.
Gen. Lee died on Oct. 12, 1870, without having followed up on his clemency petition with President Grant, so his citizenship was not restored until Congress acted in July of 1975 with passage of Senate Joint Resolution 23, which stated that:
"In accordance with section 3 of Amendment 14 of the United States Constitution, the legal disabilities placed upon Gen. Lee as a result of his service as General of the Army of Northern Virginia are removed, and that Gen. Lee is posthumously restored to full rights of citizenship, effective June 13, 1865."
CHARLES E. WILLIAMS