Yesterday everyone was talking about White House chief of staff John Kelly’s interview with Laura Ingraham of Fox News in which he laid out his understanding of the Civil War. We heard nothing that should be surprising to our ears.
Here is what he said in its entirety:
Well, history’s history. And there are certain things in history that were not so good and other things that were very, very good.
I think we make a mistake, though, and as a society, and certainly as individuals, when we take what is today accepted as right and wrong and go back 100, 200, 300 years or more and say, ‘What Christopher Columbus did was wrong.’
You know, 500 years later, it’s inconceivable to me that you would take what we think now and apply it back then. I think it’s just very, very dangerous. I think it shows you just how much of a lack of appreciation of history and what history is.
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.
First, by Kelly’s own logic if it is wrong to apply our own standards 150 years later in judging Americans in the 1860s than it was also wrong for Americans at the turn of the twentieth century to do so with the dedication of the very monuments currently under scrutiny.
The comments that have received the most attention, however, are in the final paragraph. I am not going to quibble with his assessment of Robert E. Lee. Needless to say I disagree that a man who attempted to destroy this nation should be characterized as “honorable.” It is the other two points that are much more problematic.
Americans were not necessarily more connected to their state than the nation as a whole. One of the most basic concepts we teach in the classroom is the idea of “Manifest Destiny” which suggested that the nation had a right to expand westward and civilize areas occupied by Native Americans in the name of capitalism and Christianity. White southerners committed to slavery believed that the federal government could be leveraged to create a slave empire that expanded both westward and southward into the Caribbean and beyond. It was only after they realized that slavery could no longer be protected and strengthened through the federal government that they chose to begin the process of breaking up the Union.
But it is Kelly’s final claim about the failure to compromise that is the most perplexing. It reflects no understanding of the history of the United States from its very founding through the middle of the Civil War. It was compromising that brought the nation to the brink of war from the Three-Fifths Compromise to the Compromise of 1850. At the beginning of the war Lincoln supported an amendment that would have given federal protection to slavery. In 1862 he was still willing to compromise with slaveowners in the Border States to compensate them for voluntarily freeing their slaves. Compromise is everywhere you look.
You don’t get closer to understanding secession and war by suggesting that there wasn’t a sufficient attempt at compromise. You get there by focusing on just how committed some people were to protecting the institution of slavery.
Kelly’s understanding of the war should not be surprising if we step back and think about when he likely learned about the war for the first time. He may have picked up the compromise shtick from listening to Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’s documentary, but that doesn’t get us very far. Kelly learned the war in the 1960s during the centennial, which offered a sanitized version of the war. In his comments he failed to say anything about slavery, but keep in mind that he would have learned very little, if anything, about it growing up. The war would have been framed as a brother’s war that pitted white American against one another fighting for their respective causes.
In Kelly’s world, they were all “honorable.” Kelly’s understanding of the war is a time capsule that brings us back to the 1960s, but we forget just how long this Lost Cause/Reunion narrative had its hold on our popular memory of the war. It’s not until the late 1970s and early 80s that you even begin to see noticeable change in history textbooks, museum exhibits, and National Park Service sites.
A number of people have concluded that Kelly’s narrative reveals a racist agenda. I think that is an unwarranted conclusion. Certainly, his comments are unfortunate, but I suspect that if you sat the general in a room with an updated text or placed him in conversation with a reputable historian he would come around. This is a guy who hasn’t read a book about the Civil War, beyond the narrowly-defined field of military history, in decades.
Ultimately, Kelly’s understanding of the war and even Robert E. Lee is a product of an outdated and discredited view held by his generation.