In Defense of John Kelly

I don’t think anybody else is going to write this, so I will. John Kelly’s recent comments on Robert E. Lee and the Civil War received jeers from pretty much the entire Internet. When Internet mobs form, it’s sometimes worthwhile to explore whether there is another point of view that people are too nervous to articulate. Allow me to be a lonely voice, then, to step up and say that Kelly had an arguable point.


Let’s review Kelly’s remarks:

I think we make a mistake, though, and as a society, and certainly as individuals, when we take what is today accepted as right and wrong and go back 100, 200, 300 years or more and say, ‘What Christopher Columbus did was wrong.’

You know, 500 years later, it’s inconceivable to me that you would take what we think now and apply it back then. I think it’s just very, very dangerous. I think it shows you just how much of a lack of appreciation of history and what history is.

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. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today. 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.

Kelly’s point about judging historical figures according to modern-day attitudes is well taken. We’re at the point where we are ready to remove plaques to George Washington, the father of our country and one of the greatest Americans who ever lived, because he owned slaves. So: everyone in the late 18th Century was inherently evil? Is that what you think? If so, realize that two hundred years from now, if we have not been nuked, you (yes, you!) will be judged evil by many people for something you do every day and take for granted. It might be eating meat, driving a car, using an exterminator, asking for plastic bags at the grocery store, or God knows what else. But Kelly is exactly right that it is short-sighted to judge one generation entirely according to the moral standards of a later generation.


What’s more, history is often more nuanced than the comic-book versions we are taught in grade school. It might be worthwhile to note that Robert E. Lee once wrote: “There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” How many critics of General Lee know that?

True, he went on to say that he believed that slavery was a “greater evil to the white than the colored race,” saying blacks were better off as slaves in the U.S. than in Africa. Outrageous, right? Hardly any more outrageous, given the times, than Abraham Lincoln making the following statement:

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

That is from the Fourth Lincoln/Douglas debate. What? You didn’t realize Lincoln was a white supremacist? Tear down his monument! Topple his statues!


What about Kelly’s claim that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War”? It’s true! There were compromise options on the table. Lincoln opposed the Crittenden Compromise that would have likely avoided war. The real complaint of historians is that the ways to avoid war “would have enshrined slavery.” And the compromises of the time would have.

But not necessarily forever.

Another historical fact to keep in mind is that most Western societies ended slavery without major bloodshed. How did Britain, France, Spain, and other Western countries end slavery? As historian Jim Powell explained in his book Greatest Emancipations: How the West Abolished Slavery, the strategies employed by these countries included the encouragement of slave rebellions or slave escapes, government compensation to slaveholders to pay for slaves’ freedom, and abolitionist campaigns including the election of antislavery politicians.

It might seem fanciful to believe that slavery could have collapsed on its own, without war. But, as Powell notes, it was once thought fanciful to believe that the communist Soviet Union would collapse on its own.

What’s more, it is possible that blacks’ integration into society would have been less rocky if Southern states had been allowed to make the choice to abolish slavery on their own. And compromise would have avoided a very brutal and bloody war, in which at least 620,000 and perhaps as many as 750,000 people died.


My point here is not to argue that compromise was the better option, or that war was not necessary. My point is to argue that reasonable people can disagree on this point. History has a tremendous bias towards the point of view that if events happened a certain way, they had to happen that way, and only that way. If war ended slavery in the U.S., then by God, nothing else could have! But abolition happened peacefully in almost every other Western society, and it is impossible to say with certainty that it could not have happened here.

So, my friends of the Internet mob, get off John Kelly’s case. Go find someone else to swarm. Better yet, disband altogether.



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