Trump’s chief of staff said a “lack of ability to compromise” caused the Civil War. That’s extremely incorrect

Still chasing a lost cause.
Still chasing a lost cause.
Image: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
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A growing list of leaders in the American “Party of Lincoln“—the Republican Party—have become apologists for the slave-holding Confederacy that went to war with Abraham Lincoln’s United States and then assassinated him in 1865.

John F. Kelly, US president Donald Trump’s chief of staff, was the latest, when he went on Fox News last night (Oct. 30) and tried to rewrite this ugly, vital period of American history. He called the Confederate commander Robert E. Lee an “honorable man,” and said “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.” That’s incorrect in two different ways. Watch below:

First, as the Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and several others immediately pointed out, the United States did try to compromise on slavery multiple times before the Civil War began. Indeed, the country’s entire 85-year history until that point, from its founding in 1776 to the outbreak of civil war in 1861, was filled with attempts to reconcile its original sin. (Coates’ entire thread is worth reading.)

The Three-Fifths Compromise, made in 1787 during the US Constitutional Convention, decided literally how much of a person a slave counted for in terms of a slave-holding state’s representation in US Congress. Then came the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which allowed Missouri to be admitted to the US as a slave state. The Compromise of 1850, credited with staving off war for at least a decade, strengthened fugitive slave laws and allowed Utah and New Mexico to decide for themselves whether or not to permit slavery.

As Coates noted, efforts to compromise on the issue of slavery and formerly enslaved African Americans continued during the war and well after it ended in a Union victory:

Second, false premise notwithstanding, the notion that the US Civil War was the result of anything other than the issue of slavery is a lie that’s been perpetrated by “Lost Cause” Confederate sympathizers for decades—and has been rejuvenated since Donald Trump became president of the United States.

Kelly’s comments come just days after Trump himself referred to statues of Confederate soldiers in Virginia as “our heritage”:

Trump previously called the statues “beautiful,” bemoaning their removal and creating a false equivalence between slave-holding American founders like George Washington, who helped create the US, and Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee, who took up arms against it to protect a system based on slave labor.

Other Trump advisors, aides, and associates have made similar comments about slavery and the Civil War. Former chief strategist Steve Bannon has said the war was fought over “economic development.” Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson called slavery “good history.”