Romanticized View Of Civil War Means 'Nobody's Really Responsible,' Historian Says10:51

A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee stands in the center of the renamed Emancipation Park on Aug. 22, 2017 in Charlottesville, Va. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)MoreCloseclosemore
A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee stands in the center of the renamed Emancipation Park on Aug. 22, 2017 in Charlottesville, Va. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The Civil War was back in the news this week after White House chief of staff John Kelly praised Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, saying that he was "an honorable man" and that a lack of ability to compromise led to the Civil War.

Historians around the country reacted strongly to the statement. Here & Now's Robin Young speaks with historian and Yale University professor David Blight about the history of compromise leading up to the Civil War, and the parallels for today.

Interview Highlights

On compromises on slavery

"The problem of slavery was compromised as early as the Constitution. There were four or five measures in the Constitution — although the word 'slavery' was never used, that's exactly what they were talking about. The Three-Fifths Compromise, there were other elements: the postponing of the issue of the domestic slave trade for 20 years, and others. There was the compromise over Missouri in 1820, which was about the admission of the slave state of Missouri. At the same time they went out and made Maine into a free state."

On the 1857 Dred Scott case's impact on the ability to compromise

"After the Dred Scott case, there was no middle left anymore in American politics. There were no compromise measures that would work. And this is where [Abraham Lincoln] does come into the picture of course: that Republican Party, that will eventually elect Lincoln by 1860, takes a firm stand against the expansion of slavery anywhere the federal government had jurisdiction, and that drew a line in the sand that pro-slavery Southerners — most of them Democrats — could not, in their view, tolerate."

On Republicans restricting the expansion of slaveholding in the West

"The essential original compromise here — this is what people need to understand — was a compromise with the Constitution itself, which did protect slaveholding as property rights. They were property under the law of slave states. And the Republicans said, 'We will not bother you where you already own slaves in your own states, but we will stop its expansion in the West.' Now, the problem with that idea is that Southerners, pro-slavery Southerners, quite rightly interpreted that the following way: They said to stop or to condemn slavery anywhere is to condemn it everywhere. They believed that if you're condemning slavery in the Western territories, and you're saying the American future cannot have slave labor, you're morally condemning it where it already exists. And too many of them, who became secessionist, said they could not live in the same Union with an anti-slavery political coalition that seemed in their view to be on a hell-bent course to destroy their labor system, their economy, their way of life."

"After the Dred Scott case, there was no middle left anymore in American politics. There were no compromise measures that would work."

David Blight

On parallels between America in the 1850s and today

"America had a huge problem in the 1850s with nativism, with immigration, had a huge problem with nationalism — pro-slavery nationalism and anti-slavery nationalism. It had a huge issue in defining, 'What is an American?' It had a massive problem of race and slavery and trying to define the American future. And perhaps above all to this issue of disunion, it had a political party system tearing itself apart. And this in particular is something we wanna look closely at, because the American political party system right now is not in good health. There's all kinds of talk about, 'Where are the third parties? Where are the resistance parties? Where are the anti-Trump Republicans going?' And we have a very restricted history of third parties in this country. But the one time in American history when a brand-new political party came into existence, and then won the presidency within six years, was the Republican Party of the 1850s. It is the model. It's the story we have to look at to try to understand whether something like that is beginning to happen again."

On why he thinks John Kelly's comments on the Civil War fit into a "reconciliationist" tradition

"Gen. Kelly's comments are rooted in an understanding of American history that was popular essentially in the 1940s and '50s. It's that old. And for two and three generations, historians have exploded it and tried to wash it out of the American consciousness, and we've obviously failed. This is the idea that both sides fought for noble ends, both sides were honorable in their conscience and in their pursuits, that Southern slaveholders and Southern officers who bolted from the Union were going with their states out of honor rather than their country, as the general just said. And in the end if you believe this approach, this kind of sentimentalized, romanticized approach to Civil War memory, then nobody's really responsible. And in the end, we don't have to deal with what the war was truly, really about, which was slavery and then the aftermath of the emancipation of four million slaves and the redefinition of an American republic."

This segment aired on November 3, 2017.


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