Kelly's Civil War Comments Blasted as ‘Absurd' and ‘Dangerous'

Historians, politicians criticize Kelly’s claims that the Civil War could have been prevented by compromise

White House chief of staff John Kelly's comments on the Civil War have prompted an uproar among prominent figures such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bernice King, as well as Civil War historians, who say that Kelly’s comments are dangerous and not based on historical evidence.

The outcry came after Kelly’s response to Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who asked him about a Virginia church’s decision to remove plaques honoring President George Washington and Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

"I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country," Kelly, who is from Boston, said.

"It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it's different today," he said. "But 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."

Many historians specializing in Civil War research refuted Kelly’s claims.

Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University, told NBC that compromise was actually attempted several times before the Civil War. While he didn’t expect Kelly to be an expert in American history, he did expect a better understanding of history from someone who attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Foner said. 

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed Missouri into the Union as a slave state as long as Maine entered as a free state. The Compromise of 1850 outlawed the slave trade in Washington, D.C., but at the same time said Northerners were obligated to help return fugitive slaves to their owners. The Three-Fifths Compromise written into the Constitution counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for congressional districting purposes.

“It’s not that nobody compromised, but that the issues were uncompromisable in the end, having to do with the future of slavery,” Foner said.

Foner said it was understandable to want to speculate about what might have avoided a bloody war.

“But the fact is that slavery was also a horrific thing,” he said. “War is a terrible thing, but sometimes war has positive consequences and this is one of those instances.”

Other historians said that Kelly, as a White House official, should be held to a higher standard.

Joseph Glatthart, a professor at the University of North Carolina, said he found it "deeply disturbing that a retired four-star general does not know the cause of the war that claimed the most American lives in our nation’s history." 

Another professor, David Blight of Yale University, agreed that the comments, coming from Kelly, were surprising. He called Kelly’s remarks “sad” and “absurd” and said his perspective was outdated, rooted in a 1950s view of the war that has been significantly altered by modern studies.

“People who are ignorant in high places are ignorant by choice,” Blight told NBC. “It is, in effect, to deny and denigrate what hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers died for.”

Kelly's words were harmful and dangerous because they portray both sides as being in the right, he said.

"It’s not unlike what Trump said about the monuments issue and the protests in Charlottesville," he said. "If both sides were right in the Civil War, then why did it happen?"

Kelly's comments have been compared to the Lost Cause movement, an intellectual theory that describes both sides as fighting for honorable reasons. The view was that the Confederacy was dedicated to the heroic cause of preserving a certain way of life and fighting for local rights while the North was fighting to preserve the Union. Critics say it minimizes the role of slavery in the Civil War. 

"Historically speaking, the elimination of slavery from its role as the fundamental cause of the Civil War went along with a justification of the racial system of the south in the Jim Crow era," Foner said.

Kevin M. Levin, an historian and educator based in Boston, said it struck him that in Kelly's comments about the Civil War, he did not mention the word slavery.

“Kelly's failure to acknowledge the centrality of slavery to most of the pre-war compromises makes it impossible to understand why the Civil War occurred,” Levin told NBC in an email. “It also obscures the outcome of the war in 1865 and the end of slavery for four million people.”

Senator and former vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine said Tuesday that he strongly disagreed with Kelly's comments.

“The Civil War wasn’t because of a lack of compromise,” Kaine of Virginia said on MSNBC. “The Civil War was because of an immoral compromise.”

He said the war was about “a nation that put a Constitution in place that enshrined the institution of slavery and said that a slave is equal to three-fifths of a person.” 

Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C., said Kelly needs a history lesson.

“The Civil War was not a disagreement between ‘men and women of good faith on both sides,’” Richmond said in a statement. “It was a struggle for the soul of this country. Thankfully, the right side won the war and slavery is no longer the law of the land.”

Richmond said that the caucus is not surprised by the White House’s “repeated attempts to whitewash history” and that Kelly is “starting to sound a lot like his boss.”

Bernice King, the daughter of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said on Twitter that “it’s irresponsible and dangerous, especially when white supremacists feel emboldened, to make fighting to maintain slavery sound courageous.”

Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates responded to Kelly’s claims in a series of Tweets.

“[The] notion that Civil War resulted from a lack of compromise is belied by all the compromises made on enslavement from America's founding,” he said, adding: “It's called The Three-Fifths compromise for a reason. But it doesn't stand alone. Missouri Compromise. Kansas-Nebraska Act.”

Coates said that Lincoln's own platform was a compromise.

“Lincoln was not an abolitionist,” he said. “He proposed to limit slavery's expansion, not end it.”


When asked about Kelly's comments during the White House press briefing Tuesday, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders defended the president's chief of staff.

She said that many historians believe that if some people had been able to compromise in ways she did not specify, the war might not have occurred, an idea expressed by late historian Shelby Foote in the 1990 Ken Burns documentary "The Civil War."

“It was because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which was compromise,” Foote said. “Americans like to think of themselves as uncompromising. Our true genius is for compromise. Our whole government's founded on it. And it failed.”

Burns himself tweeted on Tuesday: “Many factors contributed to the Civil War. One caused it: slavery.”

Sanders criticized the media for pushing to “create something that doesn’t exist” and for portraying the White House as “racially charged and divided.”

“General Kelly was simply making the point that just because history isn’t perfect doesn’t mean that it’s not our history,” Sanders said.

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