I am teaching the Civil War this semester. In fact, I have class tonight. I am thinking of starting the class with John Kelly’s recent claim that the Civil War was caused by “the lack of an ability to compromise.”
I watched the video of Kelly’s interview with Laura Ingraham of Fox News. In that video he said that “Robert E. Lee was an honorable man.” He added, “He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state back in those days. Now it’s different today.” And then came this: “But the lack of ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”
A few thoughts about Kelly’s remarks:
- Secession, and eventually civil war, occurred because the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 threatened a Southern way of life defined by chattel slavery and white supremacy. Not convinced? I invite you to read Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. My students just finished it.
- Was Robert E. Lee an honorable man? Perhaps. I am sure that many in the South saw him as an honorable man because he was willing to join the Virginia secession movement and fight for the Southern way of life as described above. “Loyalty to state” meant loyalty to slavery and white supremacy. The loyalty Lee may have had to home, place, roots, family, or local community–all virtuous ideals in the abstract–was made possible by the wealth that came from slave labor. For these reasons, Lee chose treason.
- Kelly is partially correct. The Civil War did come about by a lack of compromise. The South refused to compromise with northern Republicans like Lincoln who wanted to stop the spread of slavery. At the start of the war Lincoln, an ardent unionist, would have gladly compromised with the Southern states where slavery already existed in order to keep the union together. See, for example, his December 22, 1860 letter to Georgia Governor (and eventually Confederate V.P.) Alexander Stephens
- Kelly is also correct when he says that “men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.” The men and women of the south made their stand because their conscience (which was informed by their understanding of Protestant Christianity) led them to believe that slavery and white supremacy was right. Lincoln followed his conscience as well. He believed the Union must be preserved. Abolitionists followed their consciences too. They believed that slavery was an abomination.
- And let’s also remember, as historian David Blight has shown us, that “compromise” was what brought the Union back together after the Civil War. This was a compromise that the Union made with white supremacists in the South. A compromise that led to Jim Crow and segregation.
In the end, one cannot ignore the fact that Kelly has made these statements in the wake of what happened in Charlottesville. (He actually plays the “both sides” card again, much like his boss had done in the days following the race rioting in Charlottesville). In this sense, his remarks are more than just historical musings. They send a clear political message.