Tuesday, October 31, 2017

John Kelly on Compromise and the Civil War



John Kelly, the White House Chief of Staff, has been under troll ridicule attack for several days now for saying that the Civil War resulted from a failure to reach a compromise. One certainly may question General Kelly's wisdom in making the statement, and insist that no compromise on slavery in 1861 would have been morally acceptable. However, General Kelly is vastly more knowledgeable of history than his sarcastic critics (surprise!). As a witness for his defense, I call President Abraham Lincoln, who wrote the following letter to New York Tribune editor Horace ("Go West, Young Man") Greeley while the Civil War raged:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, August 22, 1862
Hon. Horace Greeley:
Dear Sir.
I have just read yours of the 19th. addressed to myself through the New-York Tribune. If there be in it any statements, or assumptions of fact, which I may know to be erroneous, I do not, now and here, controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptable in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.
As to the policy I "seem to be pursuing" as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.
I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.
Yours,
A. Lincoln.
What President Lincoln was saying, and perhaps General Kelly as well, is that sometimes official duty may trump moral principle, even at great cost to others. As history turned out, the Civil War continued, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (which of itself did not free a single slave), the Union prevailed in the war, and slavery was abolished in the U.S. by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. That does not change the historical accuracy of General Kelly's statement, nor does it vindicate the historical ignorance of his know-nothing critics.
Of course the trolls will simply respond that Abraham Lincoln was a European White Male Racist and demand that the statue pictured above be removed.

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