The comments by John Kelly, President Trump's chief of staff, about the Civil War either reflect his ignorance on the topic or a desperate attempt to deflect attention from the other serious troubles facing the administration he serves. Sadly, ignorance is the more forgiving assumption.
Kelly said: “I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. 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 first back in those days. Now it's different today. But the lack of an 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.”
Let's address the compromise theory first.
White America was always willing to compromise to maintain slavery. Ta-Nehisi Coates tweeted, “I mean, like, it’s called the 3/5 compromise for a reason. But it doesn’t stand alone. Missouri Compromise. Kansas-Nebraska act.” Lincoln paid $1 million to D.C. slave owners after the Emancipation Proclamation for “loss of property.” The “compromise” theory is factually incorrect and morally bankrupt.
Kelly’s compromise theory asserts that it is a mistake to put today’s standards of morality on historical events. Why? Was slavery less of an abomination in 1860 than today? Was it less of a crime to rape Black women then than it is now? Have we just figured out that destroying families by selling mothers, fathers and children is morally depraved? Was it ok to use lashes from a whip as punishment then, but not now? Slavery always was and always will be a scourge on human dignity.
Kelly claims Lee fought for loyalty to his state, not slavery. This excuse is routinely used by those searching for a reason for the Civil War other than slavery. This narrative is meant to avoid the ugly truth that Americans were willing to kill American soldiers and to die to preserve the right to own other humans. This truth was openly stated and documented by the people were making these decisions. It’s all there for Kelly to read, if he were interested in the truth.
There were vigorous debates on whether Virginia should leave the union. A common view was expressed by a delegate, identified in records as “Mr. Holcombe” (Convention, March 20, 1861), who stated that Virginia's "manufacturing, mining, agricultural, and commercial interests" lay with the South. He further explained that, by remaining with the North, Virginia risked losing many slaves, their primary source of capital.
Indeed, many against secession believed remaining in the union was the best way to protect slavery. Henry Clay explained that three of the major problems that the South had with the North -- attempts to outlaw slavery in Washington, D.C., to outlaw it in the territories, and abuse of the fugitive slave law -- would all become more serious with secession. The South would lose any power to ensure the survival of slavery in D.C. and the territories because the North would hold this property as part of their nation, with the support of the military. Plus, many more slaves would run to the free North and certainly would not be returned. ("Henry Clay's Last Speech," published in the Alexandria Gazette on April 10, 1861).
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Virginians knew what the dispute was about. South Carolina seceded because of “the election of a man to the office of president of the United States whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” Mississippi left because “our position is the thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-the greatest material interest of the world...A blow at slavery is a blow at Commerce and civilization.” Louisiana left because “the people of the slaveholding states are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.“ Alabama saw the election of Lincoln as a declaration of the people of the north “of hostility to the south, her property and her institutions...”
Texas solemnly declared “all white men are and of right out to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in the states, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator.” Florida simply said that “slavery is the element of all value, and the destruction of that destroys all that is property.”
When Virginia decided to secede, leaders were just as clear, saying that federal government power was “…derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.”
W.E.B. DuBois said it best:
"People do not go to war for abstract theories of government. They fight for property and privilege and that was what Virginia fought for in the Civil War. And Lee followed Virginia. He followed Virginia not because he particularly loved slavery (although he certainly did not hate it), but because he did not have the moral courage to stand against his family and his clan…It is the punishment of the South that its Robert Lees and Jefferson Davises will always be tall, handsome and well-born. That their courage will be physical and not moral. That their leadership will be weak compliance with public opinion and never costly and unswerving revolt for justice and right. It is ridiculous to seek to excuse Robert Lee as the most formidable agency this nation ever raised to make 4 million human beings goods instead of men. Either he knew what slavery meant when he helped maim and murder thousands in its defense, or he did not. If he did not he was a fool. If he did, Robert Lee was a traitor and a rebel – not indeed to his country, but to humanity and humanity’s God."
Ta-Nehisi Coates said it in fewer words: “Praising Bobby Lee as an honorable man is just sad. Like some kid insisting his deadbeat dad is actually a secret agent away on a mission.”
Kelly’s claims about compromise, morality and the cause of the war are demonstrably false. His perspective is very forgiving of the slave owners and dismissive of the people who were enslaved. Sadly, that is completely consistent with the views of the administration he serves.