The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lots of Americans don’t think slavery caused the Civil War

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly (Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly is embroiled in a new controversy stemming from his remarks about the Civil War. Asked about the potential removal of plaques honoring Robert E. Lee and George Washington in a Virginia church, Kelly 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.”

This statement elicited considerable dismay from historians, who believe that he downplayed the real cause of the war: slavery.

One explanation for Kelly’s remarks is they reflect the views of military officers but not necessarily ordinary Americans. As the Post’s Greg Jaffe and Anne Gearan reported:

Other military officials described Kelly’s remarks as the product of a somewhat cloistered view of the conflict inculcated in military officers, but not necessarily shared by the broader public.

In fact, Kelly’s views are shared by a substantial fraction of the broader public.

Consider this graph, which was compiled by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research from 2011 polls conducted around the Civil War’s 150th anniversary:

With one exception these polls found more Americans cited states’ rights than slavery as the Civil War’s main cause. Even the exception — in which 42 percent said slavery was not the main reason — still shows many Americans take a position not dissimilar from Kelly’s.

A more recent poll shows the same thing. In July 2015, a McClatchy-Marist poll asked “Was slavery the main reason for the Civil War, or not?” Just over half (53 percent) said it was, while 41 percent said it was not. Among Republicans, opinion was more narrowly divided: 49 percent yes and 45 percent no.

In short, large pluralities and even majorities of Americans do not believe the Civil War was primarily about slavery. So for Kelly to downplay slavery’s role clearly rejects the actual history, but it doesn’t make him a cloistered military officer with a fringe view. To many Americans, his view will seem entirely conventional.