Many have pointed out that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s veneration this week of Robert E. Lee as an honorable man and his contention that the Civil War came about as a result of an inability by politicians to “compromise” reflected a glaring blind spot about the actual issue at hand. It is, of course, mind bogglingly insensitive to imply that the existence of legal slavery is something about which we might conceivably have found a suitable compromise. But we on The Sun’s editorial page don’t run a Moral Black Hole of the Week feature (though maybe we should). No, we deal in the Alternative Fact of the Week, and it is on the grounds of General Kelly’s flagrant historical inaccuracy that we shall dispatch with this latest Trump administration outrage.
The fault of the nation’s leaders in the lead-up to the Civil War was, unequivocally, not their unwillingness to compromise. Rather, the path that led us to our bloodiest conflict was littered with attempts at compromise:
In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (whose personal conflicts and failings on the subject of slavery are legion) included this among the grievances against King George: “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.” It was, Jefferson later said, “struck out in complaisance to South Carolina & Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves.”
The Constitution contains what many consider the most insulting compromise on the issue of slavery, one that counted a slave as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of determining representation in Congress. (Ironically, it was the Southern states, where slaves were treated as inhuman, that wanted them counted on the same basis as free whites because doing so would have given them more clout in the House of Representatives and, via the Electoral College, more say in picking the president.) Another compromise in the Constitution allowed the importation of slaves to extend for 20 years after ratification.
The Northwest Ordinance, which established the terms by which the land west of the Appalachians, north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi would be organized, prohibited slavery there but allowed slaveholders to claim any fugitives who escaped to those territories.
The debate over whether Missouri should be admitted to the union as a slave or free state was so intense that many predicted a civil war, prompting intensely vitriolic debate in Washington. (One memorable line from a Georgia congressman: “You have kindled a fire which all the waters of the ocean cannot put out, which seas of blood can only extinguish.”) The Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed for the admission of Missouri as a slave state along with Maine as a free state (to maintain balance in the Senate) and further dictated that in other new territories derived from the Louisiana Purchase, slavery would be allowed only below Missouri’s southern border.
That held until the acquisition of new territories after the Mexican-American war caused the same problem to resurface. The Compromise of 1850, engineered by Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky, also a key figure in the Missouri Compromise and known as “The Great Compromiser” (General Kelly, you may notice a certain word that keeps popping up), staved off civil war again. It set Texas’ boundaries, admitted California as a free state, set up popular sovereignty on the slavery question for Utah and New Mexico and strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act, among other things. That settled matters for mere four years, when the question of slavery in what is now Kansas and Nebraska, this time with the added political/economic pressure of a possible transcontinental railroad route, forced a repeal of the Missouri compromise.
Finally, when the election of Abraham Lincoln caused a general slaveholding freak-out (the future Great Emancipator’s repeated assertions that he would not interfere with slavery where it was established notwithstanding), Congress made one last attempt at compromise (or, more properly, appeasement). A series of measures known as the Crittenden Compromise failed narrowly, but one related provision passed: an amendment to the Constitution that itself could never be amended or repealed to prohibit Congress from ever abolishing slavery in the Southern states. Lincoln effectively endorsed it in his first inaugural address, but only Kentucky ratified it before the first shots of the Civil War were fired that April.
The only way one could read that history as representing an unwillingness to compromise would be to assume that slavery should not only have remained in the South but that it should have been allowed to spread unfettered. Surely that’s not the position of the supposed grown-up in the White House, right?