Back in May, President Trump gave an interview to the Washington Examiner and asked this:
“People don’t ask that question, but why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”
At the time, he was slammed for the question, which many took as suggesting that Trump either did not know that slavery was the cause of the war — and there was no compromise on that — or he knew and didn’t care.
Well, here we go again with the same topic, but this time with someone else high in the Trump administration. This time White House Chief of Staff John Kelly made some highly disturbing remarks about the Civil War during an interview on Monday night with Fox News Channel host Laura Ingraham. He 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.”
Yes, Kelly was saying that the Civil War erupted because of an inability to compromise — not the fact that Southerners were insisting on keeping black Americans enslaved. What sort of compromise do you think would have been acceptable to Kelly?
Historians blasted Kelly, including Stephanie McCurry, a history professor at Columbia University and author of “Confederate Reckoning: Politics and Power in the Civil War South,” who told my Washington Post colleague Philip Bump: “That statement could have been given by [former Confederate general] Jubal Early in 1880,”
Here are a few lessons on the Civil War and on African American history that could be useful to Kelly and Trump next time they decide to open their mouths about the Civil War. I have published them before, but it seems like a good time to do it again.
Clearly some lessons in African American history are needed. Here is a short reading list, from Dexter Gabriel, an assistant professor in the history department at the University of Connecticut, who has a joint faculty appointment with the Africana Studies Institute. His research interests include the history of bondage, resistance and freedom in the “Black Atlantic,” as well as interdisciplinary approaches to slavery within popular culture and media.
- “Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage” by Sowande’ Mustakeem
The book by Mustakeem, an associate professor in African and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, explains the violence and regulation of the process called “the Middle Passage,” the part of the slave trade that took place at sea.
- “Trouble in Mind” by Leon F. Litwack
The book by Litwack, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and an authority on black history, is an account of the brutal age of Jim Crow.
- “Stamped From the Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi
The book by Kendi, an award-winning Africana studies historian at the University of Florida, is a definitive history of anti-black racist ideas and their impact on American history.
- “The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition” by Manisha Sinha
The book by Sinha, the Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut, reveals the often ignored role that African Americans played in their emancipation, from the American Revolution through the Civil War.
- In the Face of Inequality: How Black Colleges Adapt” by Melissa E. Wooten
The book by Wooten, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, looks at how race and racism shaped America’s black colleges and universities in the mid-20th century.
- And here are a more books from other recommenders:
- “Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America Since 1940” by Jonathan Holloway
Holloway is a professor of history, African American studies, and American studies at Yale University. His book tells stories that African Americans have told about their past and why they matter today.
- “Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History 1513-2008” by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Gates is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, and his book is a comprehensive history.
And here’s a lesson on the cause of the Civil War taken from an award-winning 10-volume series on U.S. history by Joy Hakim, called “A History of US.” The series explains history through rich stories and colorful language and has been used in elementary, middle and high schools and even college classes. It has won many awards, including the 1997 James A. Michener Award for Writing, and it formed the basis of a PBS miniseries. Historians, including Civil War expert James McPherson, have praised the series over the years.
Hakim and the publisher gave me permission to publish material from the books, so here is the answer to Trump’s question from two volumes in the series.
It is also worth noting that Andrew Jackson, who Trump has said was a hero, was a slave owner who carried out brutal policies as president. When Harvard University gave him an honorary degree in 1833, former president John Quincy Adams, a Harvard graduate and an overseer, refused to attend the ceremony and called Jackson “a barbarian and a savage who can scarcely spell his own name.”
To answer Trump’s question on the Civil War, this is from Joy Hakim’s “A History of Us” series, the volume titled, “War, Terrible War 1855-1865”:
PREFACE I: Dinner at Brown’s Hotel
THE TIME: April 13, 1830
THE PLACE: Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel, Washington, D.C.
THE OCCASION: A dinner to celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s birthday [Jefferson had been dead four years, but politicians like dinners and celebrations.]
THE MAIN CHARACTERS: Vice President John C. Calhoun and President Andrew Jackson
The nation was in trouble. Only a few people could see that, but President Andrew Jackson was one of those who was alarmed. The country — which he and everyone else called “the Union,” or the “Federal Union” — was being divided in half, right along its belt line. It was being divided into North and South, and those terms had to do with much more than geography. People in the North and South were beginning to dislike each other, and say so with angry words.
There was that old problem of what Southerns called their “peculiar institution,” and others called “slavery.” Slavery was making people in the North and South think and act differently from each other.
There were other problems. The old southern states, like South Carolina, were having economic troubles. Their land was worn out. South Carolina blamed the North, and some of Congress’s laws, for its problems.
John Calhoun — South Carolina’s handsome but unsmiling political leader — said a state had a right to nullify, or cancel, a federal law that it considered unconstitutional. That meant each state could decide which laws to obey, and which not. (You can see that the nation wouldn’t last long if each state made its own rules.)
South Carolina was used to having its way. It was the state that, 43 years earlier, had insisted that slavery be allowed in the new nation’s constitution. Now it was insisting on what were called “states’ rights.” And that was what most of the toasts were about at that dinner at Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel.
There were 24 toasts that evening before they got to Andrew Jackson. People could see that he was fuming over the ideas being toasted. The president rose to his feet — and so did everyone else. Martin Van Buren (who was soon to be president) climbed on a chair so he could see. Then the man they called “Old Hickory” raised his glass high above his silver hair, glared at John Calhoun, and said:
“Our Union — it must be preserved.”
They say that Calhoun’s hand shook and some wine trickled down his arm, but he was undaunted. He gave his toast.
“The Union — next to our liberty, most dear.”
What happened next? People in the North heard Jackson’s message, but in the South they listened to John Calhoun. Calhoun told them that slavery was a “positive good” and that a belief in states’ rights was a belief in liberty.
That conflict of ideas would create the worst war in all our history …
PREFACE II: A Divided Nation
The time was 1860, and Americans had a problem. It wasn’t a new problem: they’d been living with it since the nation began. There were those words in the Declaration of Independence — all men are created equal. It had turned out that not all people were equal in the United States. One large group of people was not even free.
Slavery had come to the land with the Spanish and English settlers. But they weren’t the first to enslave people on the American continents. Some Native American nations had used captives as slaves. It was an evil but common practice across the world. There were jobs that no one wanted to do, and in the days before machinery, slaves seemed an answer. So if you were on the losing side of a war, or were kidnapped by a rival tribe, or by a thief, you might have ended up a slave.
In colonial times, there was slavery in both North and South. But slavery didn’t make much sense in the North: farms were small and the farmer and his family could often handle the farm work themselves. After the Revolutionary War, slavery was outlawed in most northern states.
The situation was different in the South. From the earliest colonial days, the crops that grew well there — tobacco, cotton, rice, and sugar — demanded large numbers of fieldworkers. But there were few workers to be had — until a Dutch ship arrived at Jamestown in 1619 with a boatload of Africans. At first the Africans were indentured servants. Then they became slaves. It solved an economic problem for planters: slaves made a cheap, easy source of labor. After the Revolutionary War, slave laws grew harsher and harsher in the South.
Slavery raised issues besides economics. One was racism. In the United States the slaves were all people of color: either Indians or blacks. And there was the issue of right and wrong. Some Northerners — and some Southerners — thought slavery morally wrong. Yet few of them were willing to do anything about it. The Southerners who opposed slavery did not speak up loudly and, as long as slavery stayed in the South, most Northerners were happy to forget about it.
But there were western lands coming into the country — and that was where problems developed. Southerners wanted slavery to expand. They wanted the new territories in the West to be slaver territories. Northerners didn’t.
Remember, most of the white people who didn’t like slavery kept quiet. They didn’t do anything about it. Was that wrong? Why didn’t they speak out? Maybe because it wasn’t easy to attack slavery. Those who did speak out weren’t very popular. They were called “abolitionists (ab-uh-LISH-un-ists) because they wanted to abolish, or end. slavery. Today we know that abolitionists wanted to do the right thing. But if you want to understand history — to understand why things happened the way they did — you have to try to think as people did in the past. You have to put yourself in their times. Slavery had been around for a long time. But people who weren’t enslaved didn’t realize how terrible it was. Most Northerners didn’t know any slaves, and many white Southerners fooled themselves into thinking the slaves were happy.
What would happen to the South’s economy if slavery were abolished? No one knew. It was said that businesses — in the North as well as the South — would be hurt. To people who were content with things as they were, the abolitionists seemed like troublemakers. They wanted to change other people’s lives.
The Southern leaders wanted to change things, too. They wanted slavery extended to the western territories. They wanted to be able to bring slaves with them when they traveled north. They said the whole nation needed to allow slavery.
A few sensible people tried to find ways to end slavery without destroying the Southern economy. Ralph Waldo Emerson (who was a poet and writer) suggested that the government pay the slave owners for their slaves and then set them free.
That would have cost a whole lot less than going to war. But both sides rejected the idea. In the South, John Calhoun said that slavery was a wonderful, God-inspired system — good for slaves and good for the nation. Others, like Abraham Lincoln, saw clearly that slavery was evil and could only breed evil.
“We began,” said Lincoln, “by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for some men to enslave others is a ‘sacred right of government.’ These principles cannot stand together.”
By 1860, there seemed to be no way around it. If the Union was to survive, and be true to its founding principles, there would have to be a war.
It was the worst war in American history. It was called the Civil War, or the War Between the States, and sometimes brother fought brother and father fought son. More than 620,000 Americans died. Cities were destroyed, farms burned, homes leveled, and on one bloody day at a place called Antietam, more men were killed than on any other day in all our history. The total deaths were almost as many as in all of our other wars combined. If the same percentage of today’s population were killed it would mean five million deaths.
It was the South against the North and, although the North won, neither side came out ahead. The South, which had once been prosperous, was in ruins. The North was left with huge war debts. And both North and South had the graves of fathers, sons and husbands to weep over.
What was it all about? Why were Americans fighting Americans?
When the war began, people on both sides claimed they weren’t fighting over slavery. But they were fooling themselves. Before the end of the war it was clear: slavery was the main issue. Most white Southerners wanted to keep slavery because they thought their way of life depended on it. Most Northerners thought slavery wrong and that, as Abraham Lincoln said, the nation could not exist half slave and half free.
There were other issues too: the Southerners, who were also called “Rebels,” believed in “states’ rights.” They thought any state should have the right to pull out of the United States (they usually called it “the Union”). They said it was tyranny to hold states in the Union against their wishes. They said they were doing the same thing that George Washington and John Adams and the other revolutionaries had done against King George: fighting for their freedom. But it was white freedom they were fighting for. They didn’t want to consider the fact that they were tyrannizing black people.
What they did was form their own nation. Eleven Southern states seceded from the Union. They created the Confederate States of America and elected a president and a congress. They said all they wished was to go peacefully from the Union.
The North wouldn’t let them do it. Revolution is only right, said President Abraham Lincoln, “for a morally justified cause.” But the South had no just cause. So, said Lincoln, secession was “simply a wicked exercise of physical power.”
This was an important issue they were deciding. The American nation was still considered an experiment. Would a people’s government survive? Lincoln said Americans needed to prove “that popular government is not an absurdity.” Then he added, “We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.”
The Northerners, who were also called “Yankees,” or “Federals,” were willing to fight for the American form of government — for the Constitution, for the Union. They said that when the states joined the Union, they agreed to uphold the Constitution and they couldn’t just pull out anytime they wanted. If that were allowed, soon there would be no Union at all.
From the next volume in Hakim’s “A History of Us” series, “Liberty For All? 1820-1860.”
Remember when Charles Thomson galloped to Mount Vernon to tell George Washington he had been elected president? That was in 1789. Remember George Washington’s triumphant journey from Virginia to New York? Remember the parades and the cheering?
Boys and girls who were 10 when George Washington was inaugurated are now 81 and gray-haired.
It is 1860 and a man from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, has won the presidency. There will be no parades for Lincoln and little cheering. Some people are saying that the American experiment in democracy — started so bravely 71 years earlier — is finished. It has lasted longer than anyone expected. But now, they say, the Union is doomed.
How could that have happened? How could the United States, with all its energy and optimism, be in grave danger?
Well, the country had been born with a promise, a paradox, and a problem. It had tried to avoid the problem; good people had hoped it would go away. But problems have a way of getting worse.
Sometimes the longer you put them off the harder they are to solve. The problem, of course, was slavery.
And the promise — what the promise? The promise was in the words of the Declaration of Independence. The great Declaration that had helped form the nation shone like a bright light to people all over the world. Its words said:
We believe that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness — that to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.
It was something new for a government to make that kind of promise — equality for all. It was something new and wonderful and special.
And that created the paradox. Because the reality was different from the promise. In America there were people — just like you and me — who lived the lives of prisoners. If they tried to escape, they faced armed patrols and attack dogs. How could men and women, who cared so much about liberty, keep their brothers and sisters in chains? How could they allow slavery? That was a paradox.
And African-Americans weren’t the only ones for whom the promise of the Declaration was not met. Indians, Asians, and women did not have equal rights.
“We didn’t mean you,” said some of the nation’s leaders. “We were only talking about white men being equal,” they said.
Fair-minded people began to question that answer.
The problem of injustice is never easy to solve. Slavery was tied to economics and a way of life. That made it difficult to destroy. Many slave owners didn’t really like the system. They didn’t know how to end it. None of America’s leaders have found a way.
Finally it would all come to war. No one wanted it, but there seemed no way to prevent it. It would be the bloodiest of wars — a civil war — with cousin fighting cousin and families torn apart. When it was over, America’s childhood was over. The nation would be weary and wounded, but more fair. Slavery would be dead and the Constitution would have three new amendments. Those amendments would make the promise of equality the law of the land.