There Is No Compromise on Slavery

Every reasonable American, who hasn’t been brainwashed by the bigots who still celebrate the Confederacy and the Civil War, knows that war was fought over slavery. To suggest otherwise is just flat out bigotry. On Monday, White House Chief of Staff General (ret.) John F. Kelly appeared on the premier of right wing host Laura Ingraham’s Fox show. The discussion turned to the Civil War and the recent move to remove memorials to the men who betrayed the United States by taking up arms to defend slavery. Kelly response was appalling. He made the specious claim that the war could have been avoided by compromise

Kelly on Monday night explained the Civil War’s genesis by saying “men and women of good faith on both sides” took a stand based on their conscience.

“Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” Kelly said, adding: “The lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.”

The host of CBS “The Late Show” Stephen Colbert questioned what Kelly meant by lack of compromise:

“What do you mean there was a lack of compromise?” Colbert asked during his show. “The Civil War happened because of compromise: the Missouri Compromise, the Three-Fifths Compromise. You’re a general and you don’t know why the Civil War happened? What do you think caused World War II, a zoning issue?”

“Maybe I’m being unfair, and maybe a lack of compromise really was at the heart of the Civil War,” the host continued, dictating a historical “letter” from a “Confederate soldier” that read:

“We keep saying, maybe we could just have slaves like Monday, Wednesday, Friday? And they’re all like, nah. And we’re like okay, what about every other weekend? But they won’t give us any slaves. They’re being total Nazis about this.”

“Or maybe, Kelly knows better, and is just being willfully ignorant,” Colbert said. “Because as the chief of staff, he’s now forced to defend the positions of an idiot.”

An very insightful commentary on Kelly’s lack of knowledge on the cause of the Civil War came from Charles Pierce at Esquire Politics

I was most interested in Kelly’s tacit endorsement of “compromise” as both an all-purpose solution for all national problems and as a manifestation of a uniquely American genius. This literally was the first point made by the late Shelby Foote in the first episode of Ken Burns’ series on the Civil War, a television masterpiece that has grown quite pale with age. As (David )Blight, (Ta-Nehisi) Coates, and a half-dozen other people have pointed out, most of the compromises in this context were balanced on the bleeding backs of millions of enslaved black people. In fact, there’s no better example in history that compromise-qua-compromise does not mean progress than how instrumental the retrograde Compromise of 1850 was in destroying the Missouri Compromise, which was no real bargain in and of itself.

Moreover, to accept Kelly’s interpretation of these events would require you to believe that there was an untapped reservoir of virtue in the Southern politicians of the time. You would have to believe that they would have abandoned their dream of maintaining slavery and expanding it south and west. You’d also have to believe they were willing to surrender the power over the national government that the Three-Fifths clause gave them. No politician ever born would have been willing to give up those kind of advantages, and those Southern politicians least of all.

Even Abraham Lincoln felt this, if he didn’t act on it immediately. He put paid to Kelly’s whole argument at Cooper Union in 1860.

The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.

These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly – done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated – we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas’ new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.

In more recent times, “compromise”—or, more exactly, “bipartisan compromise”—has become one of those conjuring words that create good feeling and very little else. As the late Molly Ivins used to say, democracy is a tool. You can use it to build a house, or you can hit your thumb with a hammer. The same can be said for compromise. It’s a tool. It can be constructive or destructive, and, in the long view of history, one has to conclude that the compromises leading to the Civil War were little more than the foundation for the destruction to follow. “Compromise” as an airy goal to be pursued without an appreciation of the consequences has embedded a terrible ambivalence in our history—and an awful kind of amnesia into the bargain.

But the best comments on Kelly’s ignorance and pandering to Trump’s racist base cam e from Grio’s Roland Martin:

“I need John Kelly to actually go back and read a history book that my 12-year-old nieces are reading right now because clearly he fell asleep in history.”

“And then to say, well, we don’t have an appreciation of history. I love this whole deal about how, well, you know, he was an honorable man. Really? There were abolitionists during that particular period who did not believe in slavery. So, don’t call them men of their time.”

Robert E. Lee was a traitor to the United States of America and the Constitution to which he took an oath to defend. Lee was a racist slave owner, not a person who should be memorialized. Lee was no hero. John Kelly missed that.