In forward-looking America, history is sometimes regarded as a roadblock to progress, a nuisance. And that, as has been repeatedly proven, is a mistake.
Why look back when the future is so important? Well, because failure to do exactly that has consequences.
The latest to get caught up in “he must have dozed through class that day” is White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who has been criticized for his reading of the Civil War.
“I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” Kelly said in an interview 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.”
Kelly, who already flunked empathy and credibility in his defense of Donald Trump’s call to a military widow and an attack on a sitting congresswoman, has definitely abdicated his role as the adult in the room.
Of course, the “Lost Cause” mythology, repeated by Kelly and endorsed by Trump, of noble Southern gentlemen and women standing up for an honorable way of life left out African-Americans’ experience and opinions. The myth was used to prop up cruel and discriminatory Jim Crow policies for another century. It was also wrong on its face.
“In 1861, they were very clear on what the causes of the war were,” Stephanie McCurry, a history professor at Columbia University, told The Washington Post. “The reason there was no compromise possible was that people in the country could not agree over the wisdom of the continued and expanding enslavement of millions of African Americans.”
Historians have pointed out numerous compromises that were attempted and failed, as the South sought to protect its most profitable enterprise — the enslavement of human beings and the unpaid labor they provided. And as for the states’ rights argument, when it came to rounding up enslaved people who had escaped to Free states, the South had no problem pressuring the federal government to arrest them and deliver them across state lines to return them to bondage.
“This idea that state came first? No, it didn’t!” said David Blight, a history professor at Yale University. “The Northern people rallied around stopping secession! This comment is so patently wrong.”
President Abraham Lincoln said, “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
And why is that history lesson especially relevant now? Kelly’s “both sides” argument continues a theme of this White House: moral equivalency of morally indefensible actions and ideas. It veers uncomfortably close to Trump’s assertion that there were good people among the neo-Nazi and KKK marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Heather Heyer, the young woman killed when a car rammed into a peaceful crowd, has largely been forgotten in a political back-and-forth.
The neo-Nazi marches have continued, though sometimes sparsely attended and often outnumbered by counterprotesters. The mostly young white men with uncovered faces lit by torches, using protecting statues to heroes of the Confederacy myth as a cover, resemble the angry mobs that hounded and attacked African-Americans before, during and after the bloody war that Kelly believes could have been avoided with a little give-and-take from both sides on that slavery “thing.”
Never too late to learn?
Black lawmakers and leaders have offered to fill in the gap in the former four-star general’s knowledge because so much is at stake right now, with America’s widening chasm on race and possible reconciliation. Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in a statement, “John Kelly needs a history lesson. The Civil War was not a disagreement between ‘men and women of good faith on both sides.’ 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,” the Louisiana Democrat said.
Democratic Rep. Frederica S. Wilson of Florida, the subject of Kelly’s continued ire, tweeted: “Hmmm. What exactly, I wonder, would be the right ‘compromise’ between slavery and freedom for human beings?”
Hmmm. What exactly, I wonder, would be the right "compromise" between slavery and freedom for human beings?https://t.co/ZWwpwCSGzx— Rep Frederica Wilson (@RepWilson) October 31, 2017
As Donald Trump deals with Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation closing in on campaign associates and advisers, let’s hope he brushes up on more history of another president whose advisers thought little of legal barriers. That did not end well.
And as the president uses the occasion of a terrible terrorist attack in New York City to blame one of New York State’s U.S. senators, he should take the long trip to Asia (another world region with history lessons to teach) and familiarize himself with the words of the first modern Republican president: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
You could look it up in a history book.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.