A day after White House Chief of Staff John Kelly went on Fox News and displayed his ignorance about slavery and the Civil War, historians were hammering him over the fact that his claim that a lack of compromise is to blame (there were many attempts at compromise, none worked) and that he was echoing Confederate apologetics.
“That statement could have been given by [former Confederate general] Jubal Early in 1880,” said Stephanie McCurry, a history professor at Columbia University and author of “Confederate Reckoning: Politics and Power in the Civil War South.”
“What’s so strange about this statement is how closely it tracks or resembles the view of the Civil War that the South had finally got the nation to embrace by the early 20th century,” she said. “It’s the Jim Crow version of the causes of the Civil War. I mean, it tracks all of the major talking points of this pro-Confederate view of the Civil War.”…
Both McCurry and David Blight, a history professor at Yale University and author of “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,” broadly reject all of these arguments.
“This is profound ignorance, that’s what one has to say first, at least of pretty basic things about the American historical narrative,” Blight said. “I mean, it’s one thing to hear it from Trump, who, let’s be honest, just really doesn’t know any history and has demonstrated it over and over and over. But General Kelly has a long history in the American military.”
Kelly said that the Civil War only happened because people weren’t willing to compromise on both sides, but that is flatly false. There were many attempts at compromise. He might recognize some of them because the language is kind of a dead giveaway, like the Missouri Compromise, which admitted both Maine and Missouri as states, the first as a free one and the second one as a slave state in order to keep the balance of power in place. The same law forbid slavery north of the 36’30 line (other than in Missouri).
There were many other attempts. The importation of slaves was banned in 1807 while the owning of slaves was not. Then there was the Compromise of 1850, a series of bills intended to reduce tension between free states and slave states. And the Fugitive Slave Act. Ultimately, these compromises couldn’t hold because there was one fundamental difference that cannot be reconciled: It’s either acceptable to own human beings or it isn’t. There is no half-measure that makes those positions able to exist together for very long.