Compromise and the Civil War: Rejecting the euphemism of John Kelly

Nobody has to be a professional or even amateur historian to understand the import of General John Kelly’s words (below), stated in his capacity as Chief of Staff of the President of the United States, in a formal public interview, in 2017.  In current vocabulary, you just have to be “woke” to understand the meaning.

“… the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War,” is a euphemism for saying, “If northern politicians had been a lot more willing to allow slavery to continue, and to forcibly return escaped slaves, and to allow southern states to secede so that white slave owners could continue to use violence and terror to control their slaves, the Civil War might not have happened.”  Every person in the United States, free and especially slave, knew in 1860 that the first is a euphemism for the second.  And every person in the United States knows this today.

General Kelly uses a euphemism, and not the more true phrasing, for a reason.  He uses the euphemism to deliberately elide the issue.  Why use the euphemism, then?  The only explanation is that the euphemizer cares more about the feelings of the white slave owners, their descendants and their enablers, than the black slaves, their descendants and their allies.  It is that simple.  He decided to tell people what side of the fence he was on.  We heard, loud and clear.  I hope he feels the shame that someone with his experiences should feel, but I am pessimistic that he actually does feel that shame.

General Kelly complains that that people should not apply the moral standards of the present to judge or evaluate the actions of persons in the past.  As many have pointed out, his choice of moral standards of the past is that of the white slave owners. He does not choose the moral standards of the black slaves. He chooses not to empathize with them, and to ignore the easily drawn conclusion that millions of people in the past were quite sure that slavery (forcing people to work through violence and terror) was evil.  Their “old” knowledge of the evils of slavery was quite consonant with our “current” knowledge of the evils of slavery.  There is no basis for his complaint, except a willful blindness.

What Kelly said:

You know, 500 years later, it’s inconceivable to me that you would take what we think now and apply it back then. I think it’s just very, very dangerous. I think it shows you just how much of a lack of appreciation of history and what history is.

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.

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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