White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly was the guest for the premiere of Laura Ingrahamâs new show on Fox News Channel on Monday night. During the interview, he outlined a view of the history of the Civil War that historians described as âstrange,â âhighly provocative,â âdangerousâ and âkind of depressing.â
Kelly was asked about the decision of a church in Alexandria, Va., to remove plaques honoring George Washington and Robert E. Lee.
âI would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,â Kelly said. âHe 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 itâs 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.â
âThat statement could have been given by [former Confederate general] Jubal Early in 1880,â said Stephanie McCurry, a history professor at Columbia University and author of âConfederate Reckoning: Politics and Power in the Civil War South.â
âWhatâs so strange about this statement is how closely it tracks or resembles the view of the Civil War that the South had finally got the nation to embrace by the early 20th century,â she said. âItâs the Jim Crow version of the causes of the Civil War. I mean, it tracks all of the major talking points of this pro-Confederate view of the Civil War.â
Kelly makes several points. That Lee was honorable. That fighting for state was more important than fighting for country. That a lack of compromise led to the war. That good people on both sides were fighting for conscientious reasons. Both McCurry and David Blight, a history professor at Yale University and author of âRace and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory,â broadly reject all of these arguments.
âThis is profound ignorance, thatâs what one has to say first, at least of pretty basic things about the American historical narrative,â Blight said. âI mean, itâs one thing to hear it from Trump, who, letâs be honest, just really doesnât know any history and has demonstrated it over and over and over. But General Kelly has a long history in the American military.â
Blight described Kellyâs argument in similar terms as McCurry â an âold reconciliationist narrativeâ about the Civil War that, in the past half a century or so has âjust been explodedâ by historical research since.
The idea that compromise might have been possible was rejected out of hand by McCurry and Blight.
âIt was not about slavery, it was about honorable men fighting for honorable causes?â McCurry said. âWell, what was the cause? .â.â. In 1861, they were very clear on what the causes of the war were. The reason there was no compromise possible was that people in the country could not agree over the wisdom of the continued and expanding enslavement of millions of African Americans.â
There were a number of compromises on slavery that led up to the Civil War, from the drafting of the Constitution to the addition of new states to the Union.
âAny serious person who knows anything about this,â Blight said, âcan look at the late 1850s and then the secession crisis and know that they tried all kinds of compromise measures during the secession winter, and nothing worked. Nothing was viable.â
âAll of these compromises were about creating a division where slavery already existed and where for a time they conceded that the Constitution shackled them in their ability to attack it,â McCurry said. Before the war, the strategy for dealing with slavery was to contain it. By 1860, she said, the Northâs economic success and expanding population and the Southâs loss of representation in national politics put slavery at risk. The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 allowed Southern slaveholders â who had $4 billion in wealth in the form of enslaved people, McCurry said â to argue that the threat to slavery was imminent.
âIn 1861, compromise wasnât possible because some Southerners just wanted out. They wanted a separate nation where they could protect slavery into the indefinite future,â McCurry said. âThatâs what they said when they seceded. Thatâs what they said in their constitution when they wrote one.â
Kellyâs framework is âalso rooted, frankly, in a Lost Cause mentality that swept over American culture in the wake of the war, swept over Northerners,â Blight said, âthis idea that good and honorable men of the South were pushed aside and exploited by the âfanaticalâ â ironically â first Republican Party.â
Blight noted that Lee wasnât simply defending his home state of Virginia against Northern aggression.
âOf course we yearn for compromise, we yearn for civility, we yearn for some common ground,â he added. âBut, look, Robert E. Lee was not a compromiser. He chose treason.â
âThe best of the Lee biographies show that Lee was a Confederate nationalist,â Blight said. âHe knew what he was fighting for.â
Both historians, though, held particular disdain for the idea that putting state over nation was the essence of the fight.
âMy God, where does he get that from?â Blight asked. âThat denies the very reason to be, the essential reason for the existence of the original Republican Party, which formed in the 1850s to stop the expansion of slavery and ended up developing a political ideology that threatened the South because they really were going to cordon off slavery.â
âThis idea that state came first? No, it didnât!â he said. âThe Northern people rallied around stopping secession! This comment is so patently wrong.â
âItâs one thing to say Lee chose state over country,â McCurry said. âWhat [Kelly] says is that was his country. That would be news to 350,000 Union war dead.â
âItâs just so absurd,â Blight said. âItâs just so sad. Itâs just so disappointing that generations of history have been written to explode all of this and yet millions of people â serious people; experienced, serious people and now people with tremendous power â have grown up believing all this.â
There was, however, a small silver lining.
âThis Trump-era ignorance and misuse of history is forcing historians â and I think this is a good thing â to use words like âtruthâ and âright or wrong,â â Blight said. âIn the academy we get very caught up in relativism and whether we can be objective and so on, and thatâs a real argument.â
âBut there are some things that are just not true,â he said. âAnd weâve got to point that out.â