When compromise ends, war begins

As unimportant as it may seem to left-side political commentators now, the Civil War was in fact brought on by an inability to compromise. It’s worth remembering that although slavery was widespread throughout the Western Hemisphere, only in the United States did it come to an end through war—the bloodiest conflict in American history.

Why? Because the rather than find ways to end slavery in tandem, the North went its way and the South did likewise. I’m no expert in Civil War history, but I have been researching it for a few months now, convinced that the battle lines of that conflict mirror the conflict-driven politics of today. Even a cursory review of history shows that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s brief summary of the Civil War last week is defensible — despite the swift and aggressive denunciation he received from progressives.

“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 said.

“Strange” and “sad” view, say the professors.

To the sad and strange record: There were many attempts to compromise over slavery throughout the early part of United States’ history. Such compromises included the original language of the Constitution which legalized it, and the banning of the international slave trade in 1808. Attempts to end the institution in the US followed, with proposals to repatriate slaves to Africa, or pay slave owners for the loss of of their labor force. In fact, compensated emancipation was the approach chosen by Britain and 16 other nations.

Sadly for Americans, our most sweeping political compromise on slavery was also the most damaging to national identity; an 1820 agreement to limit slavery to geographical boundaries of line between the north and the south (not the pre-existing Mason/Dixon line but the line of the Missouri Compromise).

The fatal error in the law was its border. In social identity terms, it allowed slave owning to become part of the prototypical southerner identity, a characteristic that helped northerners see themsevles in a positive light. Slavery stopped being a shared moral burden to be ended by the people of United States and became territorial, a hateful scourge carried out by immoral Southern planters.


Thomas Jefferson, near the end of his life at the time, remarked that northern members of Congress were “taking advantage of the virtuous feelings of the people against slavery to affect division of parties by geographical line. They will expect this will ensure them … the majority they could never attain on the principles of federalism.”

By the 1830s, abolition had gone from a policy preference to a crusade. In 1830, William Lloyd Garrison launched his Boston paper, the Liberator, by denouncing moderation:

“In Park-street Church, on the Fourth of July, 1829, in an address on slavery, I unreflectingly assented to the popluar but pernicious doctrine of gradual abolition. I seize this opportunity to make a full and unequivocal recantation, and thus publicly to ask pardon of my God, of my country, and of my brethren the poor slaves, for having uttered a sentiment so full of timidity, injustice and absurdity.

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation.”

In 1836, Southern members of Congress responded to northern agitation by successfully instituting the “gag rule,” which automatically tabled any discussion of slavery in the chamber.

Why would southern whites continue a practice they themselves long said was evil? Cotton became a very profitable crop, dependent on slave labor throughout the South. They feared a race war between former slaves and whites, argued Thomas Flemming, in “A Disease of the Public Mind.” He notes that white fears were fully realized in Haiti in 1803. Already freed by decree in the French Revolution, blacks realized that Napoleon’s troops intended to restore slavery. As the Wikipedia entry puts it, “Most whites that were left in Haiti proper were killed in a brutal genocide.”

Southerners, unable to quit the peculiar institution but increasingly criticized by northerners, stopped demanding the right to end slavery on their own terms and began to defend defend slavery as a moral good.

To anyone familiar with intergroup dynamics this is predictable. A group who feels unable to change a negative characteristic will re-negotiate the terms in which they see that trait.This “positive distinctiveness” is the same process governing how hiding in the closet became Gay Pride, or how African-Americans adopted the “black is beautiful” movement.

No matter how justified northern demands for an end to slavery were, the North, the Republican Party (and most of the American west including Washington state) cannot claim innocence in provoking a war that killed perhaps as many as 1 million Americans. The abolitionists of the North, where African-Americans made up 2 percent of the population, became increasingly uncompromising in their position regarding the need for southerners to free slaves, who made up 40 percent of the southern population.

By 1856, President Franklin Pierce’s final message to Congress complained that abolitionists were organizing “mere geographical parties,” who were devoted to “the odious task … of calumniating with indiscriminate invective not only the citizens of the particular states with whose laws they find fault, but all others of their fellow citizens throughout the country who do not participate with them in their assaults upon the Constitution.”

President Abraham Lincoln himself explored both repatriation and compensated emancipation, but found no interest among African Americans in being deported from their homes, and no appetite among his fellow northern Republicans for paying Southern planters to give up slaves. Lincoln continued to seek compromise. For example, he exempted slaves in loyal states from the Emancipation Proclamation.

The war eventually succeeded in crushing the South, but as we all know, failed in securing equality or even basic civil rights for African-Americans. Garrison the no-compromises abolitionist moved to declare victory and dissolve the American Anti-Slavery Society after slavery was outlawed in 1865 — before black people were fully recognized as US citizens. 

256px-William_Lloyd_Garrison_carte_de_visite
William Lloyd Garrison, uncompromising abolitionist

That prompted former slave Fredrick Douglas to remark, “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.”

Returning to Kelly, his summation is true on its face, if we grant him the understanding that he meant both sides failed to compromise.

Where many seem to have taken issue is the notion that the North should have entertained compromise at all. Indeed, national columnist Leonard Pitts wrote, “This country stole from black people. It stole their bodies, their children, their names, their land, their lives. Now, some of us seek to steal the very memory of the crime.”

It’s fair to say that it was worth going to war to end slavery. That enough compromises had been made. But when a people become unwilling to accept a different approach to the most searing moral issues, they must accept that they have consciously set themselves on a path to conflict. Or as Pitts described the Civil War, “a war that killed more Americans than Hitler, Hirohito and bin Laden combined.”

Look again at the reaction of even well credentialed historians such as Yale Professor David Blight to Kelly’s inability to compromise statement:

“It’s just so absurd. It’s just so sad. It’s just so disappointing that generations of history have been written to explode all of this and yet millions of people — serious people; experienced, serious people and now people with tremendous power — have grown up believing all this.”

Or Stephanie McCurry, a history professor at Columbia University:

“It’s the Jim Crow version of the causes of the Civil War. I mean, it tracks all of the major talking points of this pro-Confederate view of the Civil War.”

While it is appropriate to take apart and analyze an amateur’s view of the Civil War (and mine is certainly less informed probably than that of even Kelly), doing so with vitriol and condescension smells of the very stew of divisiveness that brought us into our most fatal national conflict.

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