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Let’s Relitigate the Civil War

There can be no "compromise" with the false view of America's past from Trumpists and pop historians alike.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The winners don’t always write history. To this day, the neo-Confederate interpretation of the Civil War and its aftermath has significantly shaped how Americans understand their past, as John Kelly’s controversial remarks on Monday  show. “I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” the White House chief of staff told Laura Ingraham on Fox News. “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.”

These comments are yet another example of the Trump administration’s appeasement of white nationalists; six weeks ago, President Donald Trump blamed “both sides” for the racist protests to preserve a Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. Yet the view of history Kelly articulated doesn’t originate on the far right; it was the mainstream interpretation that dominated American history, both on an elite and popular level, for much of the twentieth century.

In a press briefing yesterday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders defended Kelly’s remarks by citing influential figures whose interpretation of the past squares with Kelly’s. “Many historians, including Shelby Foote, in Ken Burns’ famous Civil War documentary, agreed that a failure to compromise was a cause of the Civil War,”  Sanders said. “I’m not going to get up here and relitigate the Civil War.” Sanders is right that there’s a school of thought that believes the war could have been avoided with a compromise between the North and South, but this interpretation is generally rejected by most contemporary scholars.

Sanders was disingenuous in saying she doesn’t want to relitigate the Civil War. By citing Foote’s highly controversial position, she is deliberately taking sides. Moreover, the party she belongs to has made re-fighting the Civil War a major plank in their political agenda. President Donald Trump has no reason to take a strong position on Confederate memorials, most of which are on state or municipal property and hence not federal issues; as president, Barack Obama continued the tradition of sending a wreath to the Confederate monument in Arlington National Cemetery. But Trump has gone out of his way to affirm his desire to preserve monuments to the Confederacy. Nor is Trump alone in this. In the Virginia gubernatorial race, Republican nominee Ed Gillespie has played up his commitment to defend confederate statues, even cutting a TV ad saying “the statues should stay.” Trump tweeted in support of this sentiment:

At the end of Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, which aired on TV in 1990, the historian Barbara Fields says “the Civil War is still going on. It’s still to be fought and regrettably it can still be lost.” This is hard to deny: That war still shapes the basic contours of American politics. The heartland of the American conservatism is the old Confederacy. Figures like Robert E. Lee are still the subject of heated debate, as are the very origins of the war itself.

Some analysts think such debates over history only serve to empower Trump, giving him a phony culture war to distract from his political failures. But Trumpism is a byproduct of the unfinished conflicts produced by the Civil War; thus, combatting Trumpism requires combatting this pernicious view of the war. Avoiding the subject would cede the central narrative of American history to people like Trump, and would fatally damage our ability to understand and fight one of our core political problems: the endurance of racism in America.

John Kelly and Sarah Sanders’s emphasis on “compromise” is part of a larger understanding of the American story, which historians call the “reconciliationist” narrative.” As developed by turn-of-the-century scholars like Ulrich B. Phillips and William Archibald Dunning (father of the influential “Dunning School.”), the reconciliationist narrative told a false, sweeping story about American race relations: that slavery was a mostly benign institution, and antebellum America was bedeviled by fanatical abolitionists committed to the false idea of human equality. The extremism of both the abolitionists and secessionists, the argument goes, prevented any compromise between North and South, which led to the Civil War. After the war, the abolitionists pushed for Reconstruction, which created a corrupt central government and the empowerment of African-Americans who were not ready for democracy. This led to a necessary resistance from the South in the form of the Ku Klux Klan. Peace was achieved only by ending Reconstruction with the Compromise of 1877, leading the white South to be reconciled with the North.

Stated in such bald terms, the reconciliationist narrative seems like pure apologia for the white supremacy. But the major themes of this version of history (the tragedy of failed compromise) often shapes the perception of people who would reject an overt declaration of the neo-Confederate point of view. In early 2016, Hillary Clinton was asked which president she most admired. She chose Lincoln, and offered a view of him that can be described as Reconciliationist Lite. Clinton said:

You know, [Lincoln] was willing to reconcile and forgive.  And I don’t know what our country might have been like had he not been murdered, but I bet that it might have been a little less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant, that might possibly have brought people back together more quickly.

But instead, you know, we had Reconstruction, we had the re-instigation of segregation and Jim Crow.  We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant.  So, I really do believe he could have very well put us on a different path. 

In reality, Lincoln knew that compromise with the slave South was impossible. In his address at Cooper Union on February 27, 1860, Lincoln correctly emphasized that the demands of the slave owning class in the South were beyond reason and could not be satisfied:

The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.

These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly - done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated - we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas’ new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.

For many decades after the Civil War, the Lincoln view of the conflict was less popular than the reconciliationist narrative. The reason is not hard to find: compromising with racism has always been easier for most white Americans than fighting it. As the historian Peter Novick showed in his definitive book That Noble Dream (1988), the rise of the Dunning School went hand in hand with the popularity of scientific racism and a desire in the North to live in harmony with the Jim Crow South. “But as the [19th] century drew to a close—as a result of a racist downgrading of the Negro, the need for reconciliation of the sections and the desire to strike a posture of impartiality fairness, detachment, and objectivity—the professional historians worked to revise previous northern views of several related questions,” Novick wrote. “They became as harshly critical of the abolitionists as they were of ‘irresponsible agitators’ in the contemporary world, they accepted a considerably softened picture of slavery, and they abandoned theories of the ‘slave power conspiracy.’”

Under the sway of the reconciliationist narrative, mainstream American scholarship was openly racist. “The majority of slaves were ... apparently happy,” Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager wrote in their best-selling 1930 textbook The Growth of the American Republic. “There was much to be said for slavery as a transitional status between barbarism and civilization. The negro learned his master’s language, and accepted in some degree his moral and religious standard.” In that book, Morison and Commager, among the most honored historians of their period, referred to all slaves by one name: Sambo.

“Compromise” sounds like a noble ideal that all reasonable people should aspire to. But as The Atlantic’s Ta-Nahesi Coates noted in a series of incisive tweets inspired by Kelly’s remarks, the American experience on compromise, both before and after the Civil War, has been one of whites agreeing to sideline African-American rights.

The reconciliationist narrative long dominated how most Americans understood the Civil War, but it was never unchallenged. Even at the height of the the influence of scholars like Dunning and Phillips, there was a counter-school of anti-racist history, often written by African American scholars like W. E. B. Du Bois. In works like Black Reconstruction in America (1935), Du Bois and other anti-racist scholars offered a very different view of history, one that emphasized not the need for reconciliation between North and South but rather the urgency of securing of equality for African-Americans. 

Although the anti-racist narrative takes many forms, it is united in key points of disagreement with the reconciliationist narrative. The anti-racist narrative outlines a narrative emphasizing the malignancy of slavery, the obduracy of the slave-owing class in defending its privileges, the attempt to build a multiracial democracy during Reconstruction, and the brutality of the terrorist campaign that destroyed Reconstruction and led to the entrenchment of Jim Crow. Whereas the reconciliationist narrative is a feel-good story for white America—the underlying message being that there are no deep differences in American society that can’t be solved by white people finding common ground—the anti-racist narrative is bleaker but more clear-eyed, emphasizing that racism is deeply embedded in American society and can’t be defeated without a fight.

Ultimately, the debate over the Civil War is not antiquarian, but cuts to the core political question of what sort of society America wants to be: one comfortable in white supremacy, or one willing to fight racism in all its pernicious forms. Trump has only made the stakes of this debate clearer than ever.