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EDITORIAL: Gen. Kelly’s dangerous myth about the Civil War

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The Civil War was fought, says President Trump’s chief of staff, because people lacked an “ability to compromise.”

Oh, goodness. We’re writing this editorial in a building in downtown Chicago, but we think we just heard Abe Lincoln roll over in his grave in Springfield.

From pretty much the day the Civil War ended, on June 2, 1865, apologists for the Confederacy have tried to re-litigate its causes, insisting the war was never really about slavery but about states’ rights and political oppression by the North. And, by golly, if only those truculent Northern radicals had been willing to compromise, the war could have been avoided and slavery would have died a natural death soon enough.

This is nonsense, a fake history designed to expurgate past sins and excuse present-day racism. Not for nothing is such thinking all the rage among the white supremacists who rally around Confederate war monuments.

But to hear it from Gen. John Kelly?

EDITORIAL

On a Fox News show on Monday, Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, said this: “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.”

Let’s consider that.

The Civil War was fought by the South to preserve the institution of slavery. Pure and simple. The Confederate states themselves left no doubt about this in their formal declarations of secession.

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest in the world,” stated the Mississippi declaration. “Its labor supplies the product, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”

Where does Gen. Kelly find room for compromise in the face of that?

Long before the Civil War commenced, Americans by the millions had begun to understand that slavery was an abomination. At minimum, it was widely understood, there could be no comprise that allowed the spread of slavery to new states in the western territories. How much longer could human freedom take a back seat to “material interest?”

Equally specious is the argument that slavery already was dying out before the war, due to a growing moral revulsion and changes in agricultural practices.

Yes, Congress had banned the importation of slaves in 1808, but the domestic slave trade continued to grow straight through to the Civil War. Southern slavery — almost 4 million black men, women and children — was the backbone of a rapidly expanding cotton industry.

And if this morally troubled the Confederate elite, you won’t find a hint of that in their declarations of secession. Texas, for one, complained that it had joined the Union as a slave state and had every intention of remaining a slave state forever: “She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery — the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits — a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”

Yet the glorification of the South’s “lost cause” persists.

“It shows the durability of certain mythologies and certain narratives that people don’t want to give up,” David Blight, director of Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, told the Associated Press. “If you can say this and believe it, then you don’t have to think about slavery.”

And, we would add, you don’t have to think about the legacy of slavery to this day — from Jim Crow laws to the unequal treatment of minorities by the criminal justice system to a recent string of voter suppression schemes. You don’t have to consider that hundreds of Civil War monuments standing today were erected not after the war but decades later, and not to honor fallen soldiers, but to send a message: This is still a white man’s world.

The statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist rally in August turned deadly, was erected in 1924. The Civil War was long over by then, but an era of almost daily lynchings was in full bloom. Many of those who attended the statue’s dedication wore the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan.

We have a president who can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys. After the neo-Nazis clashed with counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, Trump said he saw “hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides.”

Now we’re being fed the same stuff — a dangerously false moral equivalency — by the president’s top aide, Gen. Kelly.

This is no way to draw together a divided nation.

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