White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly has spent a lifetime fighting America’s wars. But nothing he did in his many assignments as a professional soldier ever triggered the uproar that followed his comments on Laura Ingraham’s new Fox News “Ingraham Angle” last Monday night about a war Mr. Kelly missed by a century — the Civil War.
“Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” Mr. Kelly said. When Lee resigned his commission as the colonel of the 1st U.S. Cavalry in April 1861 and subsequently took command of the state forces of Virginia, and eventually of the armies of the Southern Confederacy, he was only acting to “fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country.”
And if that defense of Lee was not enough, Mr. Kelly added that the reason “an honorable man” could be sucked into such a situation was a larger “lack of an ability to compromise,” presumably on the part of the politicians.
This touched off not only political fire — that Mr. Kelly would seem to be justifying the behavior of a soldier who raised his hand against his own flag, and in defense of a cause that placed the slavery of 3.9 million African Americans among its principal reasons for fighting — but historical fire as well.
Both CNN and The Washington Post rushed to enlist commentary from prominent academic historians, condemning Mr. Kelly’s remarks. Juana Summers, writing for CNN Politics, cited African American historian Edna Greene Medford and the president of the American Historical Association, James Grossman, who criticized Mr. Kelly as “just too simplistic.”
Mr. Grossman particularly scorned Mr. Kelly’s comments on “lack of an ability to compromise” as “fantasies.” The Washington Post turned to Yale’s David Blight and Columbia’s Stephanie McCurry for even more stringent criticisms of Mr. Kelly. “It’s 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.”
In the world of media sound-bites, it’s hard for academics to compress the broad complications of major historical events and decisions without sounding either partisan or trivial. In her 2012 book, “Confederate Reckoning,” Ms. McCurry herself described the rush to Southern secession as leaving Southern Unionists with “no power to deliver the compromise necessary” to “hold their states back from the precipice of secession.”
There were, in fact, numerous proposals for compromise on offer during the nervous “secession winter” of 1860-1861, two of them hatched in Congress, the Crittenden Compromise of Dec. 18, 1860, and the Washington Peace Convention (Feb. 4-27, 1861).
But both of them fell colossally flat. And why? Partly because when Southerners spoke of ‘compromise,’ what they really meant was ‘concession,’ especially the concession of a federal slave code that would nationalize legalized slavery across most of the nation. And partly because Northerners, including Abraham Lincoln, could not believe that the South wasn’t simply bluffing.
Fours later, in his second Inaugural Address, Lincoln laid the blame for the coming of the war precisely on Mr. Kelly’s “lack of an ability to compromise” when he said, “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”
Nor was Mr. Kelly stretching points by describing Robert E. Lee as “an honorable man.” Honorable men are sometimes called upon to serve bad causes, something both Lee and Ulysses Grant experienced while serving in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War.
“To this day,” Grant wrote in 1885, he regarded the Mexican conflict as “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation,” and Lee agreed, saying that “It is true we bullied” Mexico. “Of that I am ashamed, as She was the weaker party.”
But not even Winston Churchill, as World War II raged, would withhold a word of praise to an honorable opponent in the German army, Erwin Rommel: “We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.”
While I don’t have much hesitation in describing Lee’s decision to serve the Confederacy as an act of treason, Mr. Kelly was right to observe that there were a host of legal and constitutional questions which complicate that judgment — not the least of which was the absence, before the 14th Amendment, of any clear specification in the Constitution on the relationship between national and state citizenship.
And whatever distaste I feel for Lee’s cause, no one was ever able to accuse him of ordering wartime atrocities. Even Lincoln, who wished in 1863 that he had had authority to arrest Lee before Lee could resign, acknowledged in 1865, when shown a photograph of Lee, that “It is a good face; it is the face of a noble, noble, brave man.”
“The past is a foreign country,” wrote the British novelist L.P. Hartley, “they do things differently there.” It is also a complicated country, and it doesn’t pay to rush through its landscape, looking for quick gotcha! moments. John Kelly may not be a historian, but he has been a good and honorable soldier. He knew another honorable soldier when he saw him, even at a distance.
• Allen C. Guelzo is the William L. Garwood Visiting Professor in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.