by Bill O’Keefe
When General John F. Kelly recently said that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man and that the Civil War resulted from a failure to compromise, critics denounced him as a “Lost Cause” apologist who was ignorant of history and insensitive to racism and bigotry. His background, education, and accomplishments in the Marine Corps suggest, however, that such character assassination is a classic case of identity politics.
Anyone who has studied the Civil War objectively sees it as one of our greatest tragedies. In 1861 the United States was a fragile union only weakly held together by a Constitution that had only been ratified 73 years earlier. Today we hold that slavery was evil. But, outside of abolitionists here and in Europe, that was not the prevailing view then. It should not be surprising that a system that had existed since 1800 B.C., and still does in some places in the world, would be slow to change, and that the process of change would create deep and difficult tensions.
Critics who point to compromises affecting black slaves — starting with the Constitution — make a legitimate point that patience and slow progress benefited slave owners at the expense of blacks. We cannot know for sure what would have happened if South Carolina, Mississippi and other intransigent slave states had found common ground with the Union through further compromise. We do know that 620,000 deaths would have been avoided. And, we can be fairly confident that evolving economics and culture would have made slavery less viable. Whether those changes would have shortened the bigotry and racism that continued during the post-war period — and which exists to a lesser degree today — is unknowable.
In the attacks on General Kelly, the word “compromise” has been used pejoratively. Writers ignore the fact that our system of government is built on compromise to avoid the tyranny of the minority by the majority. Henry Clay once observed that politics is about governing and that if you can’t compromise, you can’t govern. That fact is very much in evidence today.
In an attempt to show General Kelly as a “Lost Cause” apologist, critics have created a false narrative about Robert E. Lee. One writer in The New Yorker went so far as to say that Lee attempted to overthrow the United States government. Others have claimed that he was defending slavery.
As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once observed, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
Historical facts more than demonstrate that Robert E. Lee was more than honorable; he was a man of conviction, integrity, deep spirituality, and humility. He did not support secession and believed that slavery was evil. He was also spiritually naïve in believing that God would emancipate blacks on His schedule. He was respected by Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant.
And Dwight Eisenhower (who had his portrait in the Oval Office) said that Lee was, “in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. . . . selfless almost to a fault . . . noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history. From deep conviction I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities.” Americans, he said, could continue to learn something from the Confederate general because a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be “unconquerable in spirit and soul.”
General Lee’s reputation will withstand the current attempts at revisionist history because, in the end, facts do matter. And, General Kelly is learning that as Winston Churchill said, “Politics is almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times.”
Bill O’Keefe, a resident of New Kent County, is president of Solutions Consulting.