White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly sent historians scurrying to their liquor cabinets Monday night when he resurrected a long-discredited theory about the Civil War during an appearance on Fox News. “The lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War,” Kelly declared in no uncertain terms. Forced into a conflict not of their choosing, “men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand.”
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders endorsed this view. “There are a lot of historians that think that. And there are a lot of different versions of those compromises.”
Sanders is wrong. Very few historians would sign off on Kelly’s comments. But these remarks weren’t about historical accuracy. They were simply the latest in a nine-month push by the Trump administration to turn back the clock on Civil War history, badly distorting the public’s understanding of this crucial chapter in our past.
The White House loves a “both sides” narrative, especially one that conceals the vile racism of one side’s ideology. And it seems hellbent on restoring us to the dark days of Jim Crow-era scholarship, when historians like James R. Randall lauded the bravery of both sides, Union and Confederate, and lamented the foolish politicians — the “blundering generation” — whose mistakes forced these noble souls to come to blows in April of 1861. The Civil War, in this telling, erupted because of a failure of imagination — or, as Kelly put it, an inability of foolhardy politicos to compromise over fairly trivial sectional differences.
Such an interpretation highlights the honor displayed by both sides — a debatable point in itself — while warping the reality of how and why the Civil War occurred. The war was not an avoidable tragedy, fought for no reason. Rather, it was a virtually inevitable conflict, stemming from a long-simmering brew of sectional differences whose primary ingredient was slavery.
From America’s infancy to the outbreak of civil war, Southern politicians made it their preeminent mission to defend the slave system against potential opposition from the North.
To say that slavery, an institution that held 4 million African Americans in a brutal system of oppression, caused the Civil War is an oversimplification. Slavery provided the foundation upon which white Southerners constructed a pervasive ideology of white supremacy. It was that ideal of racial superiority that bound non-slaveholding white Southerners to the ideological system of slavery and that spurred them to join the Confederate cause in 1861. Slavery, then, was a way of life — one that white Southerners fought to defend at all costs.
Northerners, to be sure, were not enlightened believers in racial equality. Slavery existed in parts of the North well into the 1800s. The institution, however, never dominated Northern societies as it did in the South. Northerners could not construct vast cotton plantations in snowy New England. As Northern slavery died out, a new ideology rose to dominate thinking in that section: free labor — the right of every man to work his own land.
Needless to say, the ideologies of slavery and free labor were incompatible.
For decades, the two sections jostled with each other, vying for preeminence as the nation expanded. The only reason they continued to coexist for as long as they did was, in fact, compromise. Contrary to the argument put forth by Kelly and Sanders, sectional compromise was the lifeblood of American politics from 1787 to 1861. Indeed, the nation was founded on what abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison termed the “covenant with death and agreement with hell” — the Constitution.
Balancing between Southerners who threatened to pull out of negotiations if slaves were not counted as persons for representational purposes — more people in a Southern state meant more congressmen — and Northerners who wanted to dominate Congress themselves, delegates engineered the infamous “Three-Fifths Compromise,” counting each slave as three-fifths of a person.
Over the ensuing decades, a pattern emerged following the constitutional blueprint: When clashes over the balance of power loomed, politicians patched over irreconcilable sectional differences with a compromise, putting off conflict for the time being. As the nation pushed westward and dealt with the issue of how to organize new states, these flare-ups — and the Band-Aid resolutions that covered the nation’s festering wound without healing it — became more frequent.
Deals were struck to avert conflict over organizing new territory three times: the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Far from the lack of imagination that Kelly sees, antebellum politicians imagined every method possible of holding the Union together, averting conflict over slavery by sating white Southern demands regarding the preservation of the institution and its expansion into the West.
Following the Kansas-Nebraska Act, however, a new force arose that refused to compromise any longer over the territories. The Republican Party was founded on the goal of keeping slavery out of the West, allowing (white) settlers to spread free-labor civilization across the continent.
Southern politicians naturally perceived the Republicans as a threat. If slavery were no longer allowed to expand, they understood, the free-labor North could eventually gain dominance in Congress and overthrow the institution once and for all. When Abraham Lincoln lamented the cycles of compromise, noting in 1858 that the “government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free,” Southerners saw the writing on the wall. His election spurred the secession of 11 Southern states and the formation of the Confederacy — a last-ditch, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to preserve the slave system.
Contrary to Kelly’s and Sanders’s theory, even after secession, politicians — including now-President Lincoln — tried to forge a compromise to paper over sectional differences yet again and save the Union. Lincoln made clear that he had no interest in touching slavery where it already existed in the South. In his first inaugural address, he endorsed a proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing the existence of slavery within its current borders in perpetuity — a 13th Amendment that would have saved, rather than abolished, slavery.
Seeing the same pattern raise its ugly head once again, abolitionists fretted about another compromise to secure slavery. If the “price of the Union” was “compromises and national demoralization,” Frederick Douglass lamented in his newspaper in January 1861, then “every right minded man and woman in the land [should] say, let the Union perish.” Much to abolitionists’ shock, however, their fears did not come to pass. Republican concessions were not enough for Southerners, and Lincoln refused to bend on the issue of keeping slavery out of the territories. Both sides turned to arms.
Kelly and Sanders are thus wrong on all fronts. The war was not an avoidable conflict, occurring for no reason. It was an inevitable and necessary eruption over slavery — one that further compromise would only have delayed, not prevented.
Only civil war ended the cycle of compromise, cutting through the Gordian knot of slavery. And only civil war enabled the emancipation of 4 million slaves following Confederate defeat. The real blundering generation, it seems, is the one currently occupying the White House.