On Monday night, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly appeared on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show, The Ingraham Angle, after advisors to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign were indicted. Paul Manafort and Rick Gates turned themselves in to the F.B.I. for laundering funds, and George Papadopoulos plead guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about his interactions with Russian intelligence services. Rather than discuss the consequences of these indictments of Trump’s advisors, Kelly shifted the conversation to that of the Civil War and the Confederate monument debate, only to propagate an inaccurate argument about the cause of the Civil War.
After calling Robert E. Lee—the Confederate General whose statue incited debate and protest over monuments dedicated to figures who remain a blight on United States history— an “honorable man who gave up his country to fight for his state,” John Kelly argued that the Civil War was caused by “the lack of an ability to compromise.” In regards to the Confederacy and its subsequent monuments, Kelly declared, “men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand,” harking back to Trump’s remarks from earlier this year that “there is blame on both sides” of the aisle between those who are neo-Nazis and white nationalists, and those who are leftist activists protesting against hate in Charlottesville.
When Kelly made the argument that the Civil War was caused by a “lack of an ability to compromise,” writers, activists and journalists on Twitter immediately pointed out that Kelly’s argument was ill-informed and incorrect. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates joined the chorus of voices calling out Kelly for his ignorant and “creationist theorizing” on the Civil War. As Coates points out, the Civil War was not a result of an inability to compromise between the Union and the Confederacy, and there were multiple attempts at “compromise” years before the Civil War even began.
These “compromises” attempted to stave off a war between the Union and the Confederacy, aided by documentation in the United States Constitution. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise bartered the state of Missouri’s position as a slave state for Maine’s admission to the Union as a free state and rejection of slavery in portions of the Louisiana Purchase. In 1850, the slave trade was eradicated from Washington, D.C. but only with the requirement that fugitive slaves would be then hunted by free state citizens. Again, in 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed the states of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves if slavery would be allowed in their states. The Constitution’s Three-Fifths Compromise also “counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of congressional districting,” that is to say, enslaved African-Americans were not to be treated as or considered human beings.
There were numerous attempts at “compromise,” well before the Civil War between the Union and Confederacy, which began in 1861 and ended in 1865. Coates reminded Kelly of the fact that even during the Civil War, President Lincoln’s platform was itself a compromise, intended to limit the expansion of slavery rather than eradicating it. Coates draws connections between attempts at compromise before and during the Civil War, to the Compromise of 1877—12 years after the end of the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery—which “led to explicit White Supremacist rule in the South for a century,” the consequences of which are still palpable to this day across the United States, and can be exemplified by the spread of white supremacist and neo-Nazi gatherings in Charlottesville earlier this year.
“You do not have to sit in a Harvard history colloquium to understand the Civil War...But you do have to actually read what the people who started the War actually said,” Coates tweeted before linking to the Civil War Trust, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public on the facts of the Civil War and its historical battlefields. The Chief of Staff’s remarks that Robert E. Lee was “honorable,” after it is well documented that he was a man who commanded the Confederate States of America in an endeavor to keep slaves—who were not to be considered full people—enslaved, further highlight the presence of sheer ignorance and cluelessness in regards to American sociopolitical history in the White House.
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