Social Justice Project #36

Practical Concerns and Questions

Am I responsible for what my great-great-grandfather did?

I found out through some genealogical research that an ancestor of mine fought in the American Civil War. That ancestor fought in the Confederate Army. In the most technical sense of the word, that ancestor was committing an act of treason against the United States. The Constitution defines treason as “levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort” (Art. III, Sec. 3). A conviction on a charge of treason, according to the Constitution must be proven given a confession or testimony is given by two witnesses to the act of treason.

As we know from a study of American history, there were no mass treason trials after the Civil War. Most people who fought on both sides returned to their homes and tried to restart their lives. But what if there had been repercussions from service in the Confederate army? Suppose my ancestor, along with many others, had been declared traitors to the United States? He, along with many others, would have been in danger of losing his life, because treason could be punishable by death.

Yes, my ancestor fought in the Confederate army. What if I was called a traitor because of what he did? Our Constitution and the laws made in pursuance thereof do not enshrine generational guilt in them. That means even if my ancestor was prosecuted for treason on the charge of making war against the United States and found guilty, I could bear no culpability in that act because I was not there and did not participate in the act.

How does this intersect with the pursuit of justice?

It is clear that there are crimes that happened in our past. Slavery and racism were realities in our past. But, the past is the past. We can look at the past as an historical reality, but it cannot be changed. In our practice of law, each of bear responsibility for the acts which he or she has committed. We should be judged by that standard in law. I may repudiate what my ancestor did, but I cannot be blamed for it in any legal sense.

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