Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the truculent White House press secretary, rose to defend John Kelly on Tuesday. President Trump’s chief of staff had engaged in some Civil War revisionism during an interview the night before, and she was ready to back him up. One particularly comical moment came when Sanders declared that “just because you don't like history doesn't mean you can erase it and pretend that it didn't happen.” The same could and should be said to every Confederate apologist.
“He was a man,” Kelly said of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, “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.”
People who defend the Confederacy give intellectual quarter to traitors. Yet we now live in a political Upside Down, a strange dimension where slaveholders who fought to expand slavery can earn praise from a retired Marine Corps general otherwise prone to caustic remarks. (In the same interview, he called for Hillary Clinton to be investigated and refused to apologize to Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) for his recent lies about her.) Historians cried foul, but, to date, no one in the Republican Party has pressured Kelly to resign, nor has anyone suggested locking him inside a library.
Did Kelly skip his high school history class about the Civil War? More likely, he made a conscious choice to lionize the lost Confederate cause in the service of defending those statues that have become, as I’ve argued here, loci for white supremacist demonstrations.
At any rate, Kelly is wrong about what caused the Civil War. Secessionists cared about “states’ rights” insofar as they wanted the right to enslave in perpetuity. Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, declared in 1861 that their new government’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.” The Civil War was fought primarily over slavery, folks. Let’s all move past that.
But let’s engage another point he made: The failure to “compromise,” which he said caused the war. As writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jelani Cobb have noted, that’s total bunk given how many compromises had already been made over the subjugation and dehumanization of black people in bondage. Three-Fifths Compromise, anyone? Or the Kansas-Nebraska Act?
Kelly also noted: “Now it’s different today.” He was referring to the shift in loyalty from one’s state to the nation as a whole. But Confederate apologists make similar claims about the war’s moral core. It’s different today, they say. Now we know it’s wrong to own slaves, but then it wasn’t so simple, they believe. Stretching to give Lee (and his statues) political cover, they suggest that it’s wrong to judge Americans of the past by American standards of the present. Is it, though?
Kelly and others should have to explain why a white man who betrayed America to enhance the unearned franchise of whiteness should be exempt from modern-day benchmarks for dignity, patriotism and humanity. When Kelly and those who agree with him give Robert E. Lee a pass, they argue implicitly that the slaver’s lens is the one through which we should view that conflict, rather than the slave’s.
Antebellum times featured many a debate — including a rather famous matchup, Abraham Lincoln vs. Stephen Douglas — over the literal humanity of the kidnapped Africans and their descendants enslaved throughout the South. Although nothing is slavery but slavery, we still have to argue the idea that black people are fully human. Systemic racism is still real. Our justice system is not blind to race. Our governments, national and local, are largely controlled by white men debating the fates of disempowered racial minorities.
As Sanders began concluding her lengthy defense of Kelly, correspondent April Ryan asked a question. "Sarah, was slavery wrong?” she asked. "Does this president believe that slavery was wrong?” Sanders said that it is “disgusting and absurd to suggest that anyone inside of this building would support slavery.” It was a pugnacious answer to a serious question, and she didn’t really answer it. Whether or not Trump, or Kelly, would support slavery is moot. It’s clear they support the slavers.
Jamil Smith is a journalist in Los Angeles and a contributing writer to Opinion.