You’re Wrong, John Kelly

John Kelly, White House chief of staff

A question for John Kelly, who believes “the lack of ability to compromise led to the Civil War”: What exactly would such a compromise have comprised? Would a compromise under which the South kept half its slaves and agreed to whip them only on odd-numbered days have satisfied both sides, not to mention the current White House chief of staff?

Kelly’s comment only shows his ignorance of the crisis of 1861, occasioned by the election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, as president. Lincoln was not a rabble-rousing abolitionist, and he was willing to entertain compromises to keep the South in the Union, including a proposed Constitutional amendment that would allow slavery to continue where it existed without federal interference. But, on one point, Lincoln refused to compromise: The extension of slavery into the Western territories. Non-extension was the raison d’être for the Republican Party, and any agreement to allow slavery into any of the territories would have been unacceptable to Northerners.

Lincoln’s offer to guarantee slavery where it existed was insufficient for the South, which by 1861 was demanding the nationalization of slavery, that is, a guarantee that the right to property in human beings would be protected everywhere in the United States — North as well as South, and in all the Western territories. The South also insisted on rigid enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, which would have had the effect of turning Northerners into slave-catchers. In addition, many Southerners were calling for reopening the international slave trade (for the importation of Africans) and were casting covetous eyes on Cuba and other slaveholding or potential slaveholding areas to the south.

All of this was unacceptable to virtually everyone in the North, not just abolitionists. Lincoln had been willing to offer a guarantee of slavery where it existed because he assumed that by some future date, 1900 was frequently mentioned, slavery would die out because it was antithetical to modern, industrial capitalism. Historians today question that assumption (see Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, for example), and point to the vitality of slavery in the rich cotton lands of the deep South, as well as to the use of forced labor in modern times in Hitler’s concentration camps and Stalin’s Gulag. In any event, Southern demands that slavery extend into the West as well as southward were a hedge against the fear that if slavery were pent up in the areas where it existed, it would eventually wither away.

Kelly’s remark about compromise overlooks the history of American slavery, which was riddled with compromises. As David Blight, a historian at Yale University, observes, “Most any measure of compromise had been tried and had been worn out.” Much of the debates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 reflected differences between big and small states as well as free and slaveholding states. The big-state small-state compromise was a bicameral legislature in which the Senate was composed of two members from each state, regardless of size, and the House apportioned on the basis of population. The apportionment of House members led to a dispute over slavery, as the South wanted to base representation on total population — slave and free — while the North wanted to allot taxation on that basis. The solution: Slaves count as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of apportioning representatives and taxes. (One wag tweeted, “If John Kelly isn’t a complete idiot, he’s at least 3/5ths of the way there.”)

The Revolutionary generation may have been unwilling to confront slavery where it existed, but the founders knew slavery was antithetical to their justification of independence from Great Britain. Accordingly, they guaranteed under the Northwest Ordinance that the territory north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi would remain forever free. No mention was made of the lands south of the Ohio. But, when President Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the United States came into possession of a huge swath of territory where there was no provision under American law for or against slavery (though slaves were present because of previous French and Spanish sovereignty). In 1820, Congress enacted the Missouri Compromise, admitting Missouri as a slave state, Maine as free state (it originally had been part of Massachusetts), and forbidding slavery from the rest of the Louisiana Purchase north of latitude 36º30’.

The Mexican War brought further lands into the United States for which the question of slavery had to be decided. Under the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted as a free state, and Utah and New Mexico were organized as territories in which the question of slavery would be determined at some future date by popular sovereignty (that is, the settlers would decide). Since the territories organized in 1850 were not part of the Louisiana Purchase, the compromise did not violate the terms of the Missouri Compromise, even though it potentially permitted slavery north of what had become in the North the sacrosanct 36º30’ line.

In 1854, that line was abrogated under the terms of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which mandated that new states would be admitted into the Union, even if they were acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase, under popular sovereignty with the setters deciding the fate of slavery. The passage of this act led to a firestorm of protest in the North, the creation of the Republican Party, and brought an obscure Illinois prairie lawyer by the name of Abraham Lincoln back into politics.

John Kelly’s ignorance of the history of compromises prior to the Civil War reflects that of his boss, who earlier this year claimed he could have struck a “deal” to prevent the conflict. Both men fail to note that by 1861 slavery had become an intractable moral issue for millions of Americans. While Southerners called for the protection of slavery everywhere, most Northerners agreed with Lincoln, who said, “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” And, on compromise and the Civil War, John Kelly is wrong.

Posted November 3, 2017

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