op-ed

I Am Shocked And Outraged That Americans Are Shocked By John Kelly

It was because we failed to do a think we really have a genius for, which is compromise. Americans like to think of themselves as uncompromising; our true genius is for compromise, our whole government’s founded on it, and it failed.

–Historian Shelby Foote on the primary cause of the Civil War, from the PBS production The Civil War, by Ken Burns.

Shelby Foote was not a well-known writer before he became an integral part of the runaway public television hit, The Civil War. The 1990 documentary kept Americans fascinated for over 12 hours of interviews, still photos and narration. Shelby Foote, with his elegant Memphis, Tennessee-tinged Southern drawl was a big part of the draw and Burns himself has said many times that Foote was an essential part of the program.

The quotation above occurs in the first episode of the series and is part of how Burns expertly provides the historical context for the war. Foote, who died a few years ago, was no white supremacist or a clown in a white sheet: he was a thoughtful writer of history who was capable of great objectivity. Burns remains a political liberal and the very thought of Donald Trump becoming president just about drove him off the edge last fall, as he warned America of a coming political tyranny. He has not, to my knowledge, recanted for allowing Foote to be a such a vital talking head on Burns’s most celebrated work.

Well, just this week, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told Fox News host Laura Ingraham that the chief reason for the U.S. Civil War was the failure of politicians to compromise. He might as well have advocated the return of slavery, so saturnine and outraged was the response in the mainstream media. Kelly was dangerously out of touch, lacked essential understanding of Civil War history, harbored a sinister agenda not unlike those at Charlottesville and so on and so forth.

Of course Kelly is right in saying what he said. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln had no real intention of abolishing slavery and there wasn’t even broad-based support for the notion in the North, which didn’t really want an influx of cheap labor invading New York factories after the blacks attained their freedom. The South didn’t seriously consider how evanescent was their “peculiar instution” and how doomed it was.

Neither side considered the possibility of compensating slaveowners for a portion or all of the billions of dollars that they would lose in abolition. That would have been a compromise. Yet when Russian Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom in Russia, that is precisely what happened there. Ironically, the Russian emancipation proclamation occurred in 1861, the same year that civil war erupted in the U.S.

But what should shock us today is that it is increasingly difficult to discuss the Civil War in anything but a racial context that views the Confederacy as a precursor to Nazi Germany and maintains that the North was only fighting for social justice and the war had little or nothing to do with brutal power politics. Are we so straight-jacketed by  the racial divide today that we cannot discuss history except within the politically acceptable narrative?

Is the thoughtful commentary on a hugely popular PBS documentary from the 1990s now judged to be agitprop for the white supremacists? What the hell has happened to America in the interim?

Kelly also called Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee ”an honorable man” and he was. Lee had freed his slaves by the time the war arrived and fought the war not for the preservation of that institution but because his state of Virginia was under threat of attack by federal forces. It was an agonizing decision for Lee, who, as an officer in the U.S. Army had sworn an oath of allegiance to the U.S. Constitution. Kelly, who is also an honorable man and a paragon of military service, understands Lee’s dilema and is as qualified to comment on his moral capacity than anyone in America today.

He doesn’t need the history lesson. Anyone who attempts to malign Kelly’s character or question his grasp of military ethics does require remedial education — and not just in history.

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