Caleb McDaniel of Rice University takes on the John Kelly’s Civil War comments from a different angle. Most historians writing for the public have focused on Kelly’s suggestion that the Civil War was caused by “the lack of an ability to compromise.” McDaniel addresses Kelly’s claim that Robert E. Lee “was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important country.”
As McDaniel writes in his recent piece at The Atlantic:
Kelly’s comments reflect a widespread misunderstanding of the power of nationalism in the antebellum era and the ways that loyalty to nation, rather than to state, had served slaveholders’ interests before the war. The notion that state loyalty was “always” stronger is a popular, if simplistic, interpretation of the conflict’s roots—one that’s been reinforced by Hollywood films, monuments to the Confederacy, and documentaries like Ken Burns’s Civil War.
The truth is that Lee and his fellow slaveholders were ardent nationalists in the decades leading up to the Civil War, as the Princeton historian Matthew Karp described in his recent book This Vast Southern Empire. And no wonder: For most of its history, the nation had usually protected and served the interests of slaveholders.
Read the entire piece here.