More than 150 years after the Civil War ended, Americans continue to argue over the circumstances that led up to the bloodiest conflict on our soil.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly uncharacteristically waded into the controversy Monday night during an interview with Fox News:
“Well, history's history. And there are certain things in history that were not so good and other things that were very, very good,” he said. “I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country.”
Taking a page from President Donald Trump’s remarks following the violent Charlottesville protests in August, Kelly added: “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.”
Civil rights leaders immediately attacked Kelly. Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter called the comments "irresponsible and dangerous."
But one local Civil War expert said the conflict was, indeed, a failure to compromise — on the economics of slavery, not just on matters of conscience.
"Lincoln refused to compromise on the question of slavery’s expansion," Peter Carmichael, director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, said.
Meanwhile, Southern "leaders refused to compromise because they claimed it was their constitutional right to take slaves wherever they wanted.”
The South had an unfair advantage, the North contended. Their labor was free and their profits greater. When territories in the west, most notably Kansas, started to vie for independence, the question became whether slavery would follow.
Northerners thought “‘Land in the west is my future. It is the future for my children because independence depends on land ownership,’” Carmichael said. “If slaves come in, then that land gets closed off just like wealthy Southern society is closed off.”
At the center of their disagreement was class differences among white men, he added.
“Both sides had different visions of what constituted a good and moral society,” Carmichael said. “Both sides were Christians who believed in democracy, in capitalism and shared a historical background. Where they parted was on slavery.”
Back to the question of compromise, previous agreements between the North and South had been reached. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 permitted Missouri to join the Union as a slave state in exchange for Maine being a free state. And the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed western territories to decide for themselves if slavery was legal.
Given those decades of compromise, the South's secession was akin to treason.
“The act of disunion is a violation of what the founders had decreed to Americans,” Carmichael said. “This gift of union is a gift of democracy. You violate the union, you violate democracy.”
A culture war was also brewing between North and South. The North viewed their neighbors as backwards with little education and a crumbling infrastructure. The South felt belittled and attacked.
President Abraham Lincoln's election was the final straw. Most of his support came from north of the Mason-Dixon line, which put the South's clout in question. The South took a gamble, and did so not in the spirit of states' rights but instead of economic might, according to Carmichael.
"It was the beginning of the end of their political power in Washington," he said.
At the close of the Civil War, after hundreds of thousands of people died, a revolution to end slavery had started but not necessarily ended. This brave new world left lingering echoes of racism and inequality that remain in place to this day, Carmichael said. Consider sweatshops in Asia and India, or mining in Africa.
“Race matters but within a context that is radically different than the Civil War wrought,” Carmichael said. “You can’t conflate the two because it keeps us from looking at the specific circumstances in which inequality is created and perpetuated in modern society.”
On the question of whether Lee was an “honorable man,” Carmichael said to judge him otherwise would be to discount his time and place in history.
“When faced with the world he inhabited, he made choices that would have been difficult not to make. He filled his duty as he understood it.”