White House Chief of Staff John Kelly waded into the fray of relitigating the Civil War on Monday night, calling Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee “an honorable man,” and blaming “the lack of an ability to compromise” for starting the Civil War in an interview with Fox News host Laura Ingraham.
Kelly was asked to comment about the ongoing controversy over Confederate statues in the United States, and specifically, about the recent removal of two plaques honoring Lee and George Washington from a church in Alexandria, Virginia.
“I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” Kelly responded. “He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which, 150 years ago, was more important than country.”
Though this view has long been promoted and even taught in schools around the country, there has been a new push to recognize the cause of the Civil War as rooted in a disagreement about slavery and the refusal of Southern states to give it up.
You don’t have to dig that far into historical documents to see how states reacted when they were told to give up slavery in the 1800s. For instance, in its declaration to secede from the Union in 1861, Texas state officials wrote, “…in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations.”
Many other states shared similar views.
Historians and journalists quickly pointed out Kelly’s view isn’t in line with the facts. In the decades before the Civil War, politicians from the North and South made many deals to keep slavery intact, including the three-fifths compromise of 1787. Atlantic writer and author Ta-Nehisi Coates tweeted extensively on Kelly’s comments, saying Trump’s chief of staff was misrepresenting the Civil War. In fact, Coates argued, the Civil War was all about compromise between the North and South.
“Notion that Civil War resulted from a lack of compromise is belied by all the compromises made on enslavement from America’s founding,” Coates wrote. “Lincoln’s own platform was a compromise. Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He proposed to limit slavery’s expansion, not end it. During the Civil War, Lincoln repeatedly sought to compromise by paying reparations–to slaveholders–and shipping blacks out the country.”
When Kelly became Trump’s chief of staff in July, he was widely viewed as someone who could bring strict discipline into a chaotic Oval Office, but he has increasingly been at the center of the administration’s latest controversies.
Earlier in October, Kelly got involved in President Trump’s feud with a Gold Star family by accusing US Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) of being an “empty-barrel,” for — as he characterized it — bragging about helping secure funding an FBI office in her home state, even though Kelly’s version of events were called into question by video of the event. Kelly declined to apologize to Wilson during the Fox News interview.