[I’m sorry: this post is long. The provocation for it is serious, however, and I couldn’t thoroughly shred this despicable media effort to make what John Kelly said yesterday something it was not and not even close to being without going over my word limit. I hope you read it. It’s hard to try to counter a concerted effort to mislead and lie to the public from this tiny outpost.]
This development yesterday really depressed me. Either the leftward professions are losing their collective minds, or they are so dedicated to turning the public against the president that they will engage in complete fabrication. Both conclusions are frightening.
Yesterday, CNN reporter April Ryan thought it was appropriate to end a White House press briefing by shouting, “Sarah, is slavery wrong? Sarah, is slavery wrong? Does this administration think that slavery was wrong? Sarah, does this administration believe slavery was wrong?” What, other than a complete absence of fairness and professionalism, provoked this unethical outburst? It was this statement by Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly, as he was interviewed by Fox News’ latest star, Laura Ingraham, regarding the The Confederate Statuary Ethics Train Wreck, specifically the Charlottesville controversy over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Here is Kelly’s entire statement:
“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.”
Based on that statement, April Ryan, and other hair-trigger “resistance” zealots, concluded that there was now a question whether the Trump administration “thinks slavery is wrong.”
But such is the dishonest and biased state of the news media today.
Let’s begin by examining the components of Kelly’s statement.
A. “I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man.”
There are no contemporary accounts from anyone who knew Lee that he was not honorable, meaning honest, moral, ethical, and principled, the usual synonyms for honorable. I doubt Kelly was using the word in its most literal sense, “worthy of honor,” but he might have been, The argument is, and I would make it, that such traits a honesty, integrity, courage and other ethical values make any individual, famous or not, worthy of honor.
Lee was terribly, tragically wrong in his choice regarding which side to fight for during the Civil War. I am not an admirer of Lee for this reason. However, during his life there were many episodes where he exhibited exemplary character. His immediate acceptance of responsibility for the failure of Pickett’s Charge was one, meeting his returning soldiers personally and exclaiming, “It was all my fault.” Another was his insistence that the Confederate army surrender rather than take to the hills in guerrilla resistance that might have extended the Civil War indefinitely. Lee was flawed, and few men in history who were so admired by their contemporaries have made such a tragic mistake. That does not alter the fact that he was an honorable man.
The problem is that the modern Left does not believe that it is possible to be honorable and to not embrace the Left’s most fervently held principles, even if you lived centuries ago. This is, in part, why our politics are so uncivil, and why partisans today show less respect to those with differing opinions on public policy than Lee and many of his generation showed to members of the enemy army who were trying to kill them.
B. “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.”
This is a statement of fact. Lee’s position was certainly consistent with Kelly’s statement. In some kind of magic, un-negotiated conspiracy to take what Kelly said to mean something he emphatically did not say, one writer after another has claimed that Kelly was arguing that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. Here, for example, is Vox:
“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…”
Though what view? Kelly wasn’t opining on the reason for the Civil War, or what was the root cause. He was talking about Robert E. Lee. Is there any question that if Virginia had decided not to secede—as of course it seceded over slavery—Lee would have fought with the Union? I have never read any historian or biographer who said otherwise. Here’s Biography.com, usually an uncontroversial distiller of historical consensus in its Lee biography:
“But Lee’s commitment to the Army was superseded by his commitment to Virginia. After turning down an offer from President Abraham Lincoln to command the Union forces, Lee resigned from the military and returned home. While Lee had misgivings about centering a war on the slavery issue, after Virginia voted to secede from the nation on April 17, 1861, Lee agreed to help lead the Confederate forces.”
That’s what Kelly said. Not every soldier thought that loyalty to state over country was the correct priority, and Kelly wasn’t saying that Lee’s position was the dominant one. It was a common one, however. 1861 was less than a hundred years after the culturally diverse Colonies came together to fight the American Revolution, and the states had been fighting over the balance of power between the federal and state governments almost non-stop ever since. Kelly was acknowledging the fact that Lee’s extreme state loyalty seems odd today, when so many citizens live in several states during their lives, and move from one to another without giving it a second thought. 150 years ago, citizen bonds to the state of their birth was a far, far greater issue, and being asked to take up arms to fight against that state would have posed a wrenching dilemma for most Americans.
That is all Kelly said. If one doesn’t understand the context of Lee’s decision to fight on the same side as the defenders of slavery, then one cannot begin to assess Lee’s status as an American figure. Anyone leaping from that statement to “the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery” is engaging in a clinical level of confirmation bias, and that’s exactly where the attacks on Kelly are coming from. This statement, that doesn’t mention slavery, isn’t about the root cases of the Civil War, and that only explicates Robert E. Lee’s overwhelming reason for fighting for the Confederacy, is being deliberately distorted to show that President Trump and others in his administration are apologists for racism. The fact that nothing in Kelly’s words even hint at that didn’t stop this example of mass race-baiting, based on air.
[I might, however, take issue with Kelly’s statement that “it’s different today.” It appears that the only difference for the Left is that many of its members would take up arms with its partisan tribes and ideological movements against their country. It is certainly beginning to look that way. But I digress…]
The worst distortion of Kelly’s statement, however, involved the final section:
C. “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.”
I have been astounded at the dishonest, almost perverse attacks on this statement. Kelly was not saying that the famous Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, both crafted to try to cool what was obviously becoming an existential argument between the slave-holding states and the free states. Kelly said that in the end, no compromise could be reached to avert war. In the end, there was no longer sufficient trust and willingness to yield on core issues to stop the momentum to a violent split.
The Washington Post’s Phillip Bump tracked down two historians Stephanie McCurry, a history professor at Columbia University, and David Blight, a history professor at Yale University, to support the fantasy thesis that Kelly had misstated the facts and was embracing a “Jim Crow version of the causes of the Civil War.” [Aside: the Post headline, “Historians respond to John F. Kelly’s Civil War remarks: ‘Strange,’ ‘sad,’ ‘wrong’” is misleading. I thought that this meant that there was a wide consensus against Kelly’s statement. No, Bump found two historians with this opinion. Two historians are not “historians,” and the headline is deceit.] They embarrassed themselves, and should have embarrassed their profession, except that historians are so slanted Left and so anti-Trump that they are beyond shame on such topics.
“This is profound ignorance, that’s what one has to say first, at least of pretty basic things about the American historical narrative,” Blight said. “I mean, it’s one thing to hear it from Trump, who, let’s be honest, just really doesn’t know any history and has demonstrated it over and over and over. But General Kelly has a long history in the American military.”
“It was not about slavery, it was about honorable men fighting for honorable causes?” McCurry tells Bump. “Well, what was the cause? . . . 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.”
Kelly didn’t say the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, and he didn’t say that “it” was about “honorable men fighting for honorable causes.” Kelly was talking abut Lee and only Lee, while noting that his “State, then Country” priority was not unusual at the time. When he said that “men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand,” he did not call slavery an “honorable cause.” He never called slavery an honorable cause, or referred to it at all. He says there were people of good faith on both sides of the conflict—true—and that they believed they were following their conscience. How can anyone argue with that? What’s the converse? Those who fought for the South knew they were fighting for an evil cause, and defied their conscience to do so? They were wrong. That’s all. Wrong. Not evil, not of bad faith, not psychopaths or sociopaths. Just wrong.
But the new Left narrative holds that not grasping the full degree of human rights abomination that was slavery the second an individual was ejected from the womb is an indelible black mark on their character.
Then Blight joins in regarding the compromise statement:
“Any serious person who knows anything about this can 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.”
The Civil War wasn’t fought in the late 1850s, you shameless strawman flogger! The war broke out in 1861, after the two sides lost their ability to compromise, or, as Kelly correctly said and you dishonestly insist on misinterpreting him, after there was a “lack of an ability to compromise.”
Two other articles attacking Kelly show how unethical this contrived criticism is. Another Post article by Avi Selk, with the factually false title “Actually, John Kelly, the failed ‘compromise’ to avoid Civil War would have enshrined slavery,“ begins this way:
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, whose boss is well known for unique opinions about the Civil War, introduced his own hypothesis to the world last night when he blamed the war on “the lack of an ability to compromise.”
The Washington Post has already written about what historians think of Kelly’s thoughts, their assessments ranging from “dangerous” to “kind of depressing.”
But the truth is, the panicky months before the Civil War were full of attempts to compromise with the rebellious South.
The most popular proposal, by far, was a constitutional amendment that would have irreversibly immortalized slavery as a feature of the United States.
And although supporters of this compromise — up to and including Abraham Lincoln and most of Congress — did fail to pull it off, it wasn’t for lack of trying.
This so awful and obviously awful that I am temped, as I often am, to leave it to intelligent readers to pick out the dishonesty and stupidity, but okay, to save time:
1 It begins by “poisoning the well,” mocking Trump’s historical acumen, when Kelly isn’t Trump.
2. The Post article doesn’t discuss “what historians think” about what Kelly said. As I noted, it discusses what two historians obviously chosen for their position think, and their position misrepresented what Kelly said.
3. Kelly didn’t say that the Civil War happened because there were no attempts to compromise. That “the panicky months before the Civil War were full of attempts to compromise with the rebellious South” doesn’t in any way contradict Kelly. Nor does the fact that the sides tried to compromise and failed show that Kelly’s representation that there was a “lack of ability to compromise” at the end. In fact, it shows he was correct. Did Kelly at any time, in any way, say “The Civil War started because nobody tried to compromise”?
Let’s say that I want to have another child, try and try, but cannot get my wife pregnant, because of low sperm count. The doctor says, “Jack, you cannot conceive because you have a lack of the ability to conceive,” and I say, “Liar! I’ve been trying!”
It’s really funny, when you read the article. Selk extensively cites Daniel W. Crofts’ “Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery,” which recounts how last ditch efforts to stop the war with a grand compromise, an Amendment that would assure that only the states could end slavery individually (as they eventually would have, hence the absurdity of the headline*), failed. That’s right: the article that claims that Kelly was wrong and ignorant to say that a failure to compromise led to the Civil War devotes itself to the failure of a compromise that would have stopped the Civil War.
The second outrageously dishonest article I referred to is this one, in The Atlantic. The post is way too long already, so I will largely leave it to readers to discern the utter bait-and-switch of the piece, and its complete distortion of what Kelly said. It begins by accusing Kelly of embracing the Confederate apologists “Lost Cause” rationale, when, as I have shown, he did nothing of the sort.
“But all the better to call the President a racist with, my dear,” as the Wolf said to Little Red Riding Hood,
*The other problem with the headline is that Kelly didn’t argue that a compromise would have been ideal, effective or even good. That a Civil War stopping compromise would have had bad consequences is irrelevant to the issue at hand.