Streetwise Professor

October 31, 2017

Kelly Causes Mass Apoplexy, Again

Filed under: Civil War,History,Politics,Uncategorized — The Professor @ 7:56 pm

John Kelly shares his boss’ ability to cause mass apoplexy on the left. And I think he knows it, and does it deliberately.

Kelly caused today’s mass freakout by making remarks about Robert E. Lee and the Civil War. He committed three grave sins.

First, he criticized presentism, which is an -ism that the left wholeheartedly endorses:

“There are certain things in history that were not so good, and other things that were very, very good,” Kelly said. “I think we make a mistake as a society, and certainly as individuals, when we take what is accepted as right and wrong, and go back 100, 200, 300 years or more and say, ‘What Christopher Columbus did was wrong.'”

“Five hundred years later, it’s inconceivable to me that you would take what we think now and apply it back then. I just think it’s very very dangerous. It shows you how much of a lack of appreciation of history and what history is,” said Kelly, a retired Marine Corps General.

Just so. Exactly.

Then, he defended Robert E. Lee as an honorable man:

“Robert E. Lee was an honorable man who gave up his country to fight for his state,” Kelly said. “One hundred and fifty years ago, that was more important than country — it was always loyalty to state back in those days.”

As a matter of historical truth, this is also spot on. Who disputes that Lee chose his state over the United States?–but only after secession, and when his state was threatened with invasion.

Whether this conduct is honorable or not is fundamentally subjective. Honor–as Lee understood it, and as people like Kelly understand it–means living up to a certain code of conduct, adhering to one’s beliefs, even at great personal cost. The underlying beliefs are not objectively verifiable: they inhere in the subject. Honor involves adhering to them.

Now, you may object to Lee’s code, and what his beliefs were. But it is nigh on to impossible to dispute that he made his choice in good conscience, fully recognizing the personal risks he was taking.

Insofar as that code is concerned, Lee was acting on the basis of a theory of the United States, and the Constitution thereof, that was widely held in the South. Namely, that the Union was a compact of sovereign states, and that states had the right to depart from the Union of the federal government infringed on the rights of the states. In this view, the purpose of Union was to defend the rights of the states, and an infringement by the federal government on those rights justified the dissolution of the Union.

The Civil War basically ended that theory as a practical force in American politics, but it was a viable, and widely held, theory in 1861. And under that theory, one was a citizen of the US via one’s citizenship in a state. The state was more basic, more fundamental, than the union of the states.

Many object that Lee swore an oath to the US. A couple of things here. First, hard cases–situations where basic principles are in conflict–make bad law. Lee indeed agonized over his oath and his divided loyalties. Second, under the theory that Lee (and others) operated, obligations went both ways: the federal government had obligations to the states, and their citizens. In the minds of many Southerners, the government’s violation of its obligations relieved them of theirs. And rightly or wrongly, many Southerners viewed those rights to be at risk as the result of Lincoln’s election in 1860.

This theory was taken very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that it greatly–and some would argue fatally–impaired the Confederate war effort. Southern governors, most notably Joseph Brown of Georgia, drove Jefferson Davis to distraction with their strict insistence that the Confederate government in Richmond respect the rights of their states. Jefferson Davis was one of those who claimed that this was indeed fatal to the South because it undermined a unified war effort necessary to achieve victory. When he said the epitaph of the Confederacy was “Died of a Theory,” the theory he was referring to was that of states’ rights.

It is true that many have dishonestly claimed that the insistence on states’ rights shows that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. In fact, these are not alternative theories of secession, or the war, but complementary ones. The right that Southern states were insistent upon, to the point of dissolving the Union, was that of a state to choose its “domestic institutions.” And the domestic institution the Southerners were willing to fight over was that of slavery.

You may argue against the theory, but you can’t credibly argue that Lee was dishonorable in adhering to the principles thereof. One may be an honorable and faithful servant of a false god.

Among his contemporaries–including many Northerners–Lee was considered an honorable man, and indeed perhaps, the archetypal honorable man. Recall that Grant saluted Lee on the steps of the McClean House at Appomattox, after accepting the surrender.

Lee was also from an honor culture, or cultures, actually–the South, and the military (and the antebellum military was deeply infused with Southern cultural values). Lee’s idea of honor no doubts resonates with Kelly, the product of another honor culture, the US Marine Corps.

Again, you may dislike or even ridicule this culture (as Twain did in Huckleberry Finn) but you cannot deny its existence or fundamental features, or claim that Lee did not strive to adhere to its values and strictures.

But Kelly’s biggest sin was this:

Now it’s different. 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.

This is what really got heads exploding. Deep thinkers like Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), Jake Tapper (you know, the ex-VH1 reporter who made his bones by doing snarky, superficial, and rather sleazy programs on, say, the legal battles over the Lynyrd Skynyrd legacy), and Ta-Nehiesi Coates inveighed against Kelly for daring even to suggest this.

In fact, Kelly’s remark is correct, as a matter of logic and of history.

Insofar as logic is concerned, a necessary condition for conflict is the failure to reach agreement–compromise. Those who make a deal aren’t fighting.

Insofar as history is concerned, sectional conflict was avoided throughout the 19th century through arduously negotiated compromises. The Missouri Compromise (1820), the Compromise Tariff (1833), the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Sectional compromise was the leitmotif of mid-19th century American political history: the Civil War was the exception to that rule, the time when compromise failed.

Abraham Lincoln’s political idol–Henry Clay–was known as “the Great Compromiser” for his work in negotiating the first three of these. But Clay was dead in 1860, as was another major figure in negotiating deals, Daniel Webster. Moreover, the political balance had changed, and the pernicious effects of Kansas-Nebraska made compromise even more difficult.

But nonetheless compromises were attempted. The Crittenden Compromise, introduced to Congress in December, 1860, was the most notable of these. It was satisfactory to southerners, but not to northerners, so it died aborning. (One of Crittenden’s sons became a Union general, another a Confederate general. The latter died in battle in 1861.)

Yet even in March 1861, Lincoln was making conciliatory gestures to the South in an attempt to achieve compromise. Lincoln ran explicitly denying any intent to interfere with slavery where it existed (a position he also took during the debates with Douglas), and conceded fundamental states rights principles to the South in his inaugural address:

have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never recanted them; and more than this, they placed in the platform for my acceptance, and as a law to themselves and to me, the clear and emphatic resolution which I now read:

Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.

Note well this sentence: “we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.” Lee would have agreed: he viewed the prospect of an invasion of Virginia by the government of the US to be a lawless act, and it is on that issue of lawlessness which he and Lincoln disagreed.

Lincoln went so far as to accept what was an anathema to abolitionists–the Fugitive Slave Act–arguing that the controversy was a matter of details (“a merely unsubstantial controversy as to how it should be kept”), not Constitutional principle:

It is scarcely questioned that this provision was intended by those who made it for the reclaiming of what we call fugitive slaves; and the intention of the lawgiver is the law. All members of Congress swear their support to the whole Constitution–to this provision as much as to any other. To the proposition, then, that slaves whose cases come within the terms of this clause “shall be delivered up” their oaths are unanimous. Now, if they would make the effort in good temper, could they not with nearly equal unanimity frame and pass a law by means of which to keep good that unanimous oath?

There is some difference of opinion whether this clause should be enforced by national or by State authority, but surely that difference is not a very material one. If the slave is to be surrendered, it can be of but little consequence to him or to others by which authority it is done. And should anyone in any case be content that his oath shall go unkept on a merely unsubstantial controversy as to how it shall be kept?

In other words, even Lincoln was perfectly willing to reach a compromise that preserved slavery where it existed, and which allowed Southerners to retrieve escaped slaves from anywhere in the US.

The basis for compromise on the lines of those thrashed out 1820-1854 existed, and many on both sides strove to realize it. But the Fire Eaters in the South in particular rejected it. So it is historical fact that the war came because the politicians of 1860-1861 failed to reach compromises like those their predecessors had accomplished a few decades before, despite attempts to do so.  There is a very solid historical basis for what Kelly said.

Now of course any such compromise would have perpetuated slavery. But this is something that Northerners were overwhelmingly willing to accept. And here is the irony. By rejecting the compromises that the North (and the Republicans specifically) would have been willing to offer that would have extended slavery, the Southern radicals embarked on a course that resulted in its destruction within a handful of years. They turned the would-be successor to the Great Compromiser into the Great Emancipator.

The morals of sectional compromise are also not nearly as clearcut as the Ta-Nahiesi Coateses of the world would have it. Yes, Lincoln would have willingly been complicit in the perpetuation of a great evil–something that he recognized as a great evil. But by rejecting Southern terms, and insisting on Union, Lincoln unleashed a war that resulted in the deaths of ~2.5 percent of the US population–and about 20 percent of the military age male population in the South. As Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural, “every drop of blood drawn by the lash was paid by another drawn by the sword.” War is a great evil too. You may prefer one evil to another, but you have to acknowledge that it is indeed a choice between great evils.

This raises another issue that I will write about in the future. It is relatively straightforward to understand why the South seceded, and to recognize that at root it left over slavery. It is harder to understand why the North fought to keep them in the Union. It most certainly was NOT to eradicate slavery: even by 1863, emancipation did not have majority support in the North, and the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865 only by the slimmest of margins, and with the help of some very swampy political dealings.

So why? I have some conjectures–largely unsatisfying–that I’ll share in the future. Suffice it to say it is far too neglected a subject, especially in contrast to the  vast amount of ink spilled over explaining secession.

In sum, for all of the freaking out that Kelly’s remarks induced, he has a far firmer grasp on historical truths than those freaking out do.

But he had to know that what he said would spark a backlash. Yet he went ahead. This is actually quite fascinating, and revealing. He did so after the left attempted to shut him up and shout him down for going after the execrable Florida representative over the Trump phone call to the widow of a soldier killed in Niger. By speaking up on such a controversial topic so soon afterwards Kelly is making it very clear that he will NOT be intimidated.

Further, it demonstrates on matters of substance that Kelly’s beliefs track Trump’s very closely–or should I say that Kelly’s sincere beliefs track positions that Trump has staked out? Further proof that anyone thinking that the temperamental difference between Trump and his chief of staff reflects differences in political positions is sadly deluded. Indeed, Kelly’s gravitas (isn’t it funny that word is usually reserved for Democrats, even those who don’t really have it?)  will make Trump far more effective. Kelly is an effective spokesman, and an unapologetic one.

Semper Fi. That makes him a very formidable foe for the left.He is not afraid of a fight, and knows how to win one.



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  1. There’s an awful lot of ahistorical crap being written about the Civil War at the moment. Consider this Tweet:

    4/Furthermore, he said, had our ancestors lived in America rather than Lithuania in 1860, they would have fought for the *right* side.

    How does this guy’s Dad know what side is ancestors would have fought on? All he’s doing is virtue-signaling by implying their ancestors were so woke they’d have instinctively fought against slavery. One of the worst sorts of revisionism is applying modern values to people who fought past conflicts and using that to state what their motivations were.

    Comment by Tim Newman — October 31, 2017 @ 11:31 pm

  2. […] “Slavery is evil!” over and over until our brains melt, but Streetwise Professor has done as all a service by pointing out that what Kelly said was factually correct and would make sense to anyone who knew […]

    Pingback by More Civil War Revisionism | White Sun of the Desert — November 1, 2017 @ 6:01 am

  3. “Many object that Lee swore an oath to the US.” Washington had sworn an oath to King George III. Still, Washington is now persona non grata with the Left, eh? Though not for that reason.

    Mind you, the States’ Rights argument by southern politicians was rather hypocritical: they’d been dead set against States’ Rights when they had the whip hand in the federal government.

    Comment by dearieme — November 1, 2017 @ 7:24 am

  4. Our so-called “elites” don’t know anything about the Civil War. That’s why there will be another one.

    Comment by Thomas Jefferson — November 1, 2017 @ 10:29 am

  5. Just because slavery was accepted at the time of the war, does not mean that one should now venerate as “honourable” those who defended it. The Prof tries to argue that Mr Lee was honourable because he was defending his state from invasion by a hostile force, and indeed if you deliberately limit the scope of your consideration, that could be considered true. But Lee knew exactly why his state was at risk, and chose to be complicit in it anyway. Again, I understand that slavery was not considered immoral by a majority at the time, and I don’t judge those who erected statues to Lee after the war, because that was still the prevailing moral view (at least by those in control of the media spin, such as it was at the time). Indeed, I don’t even judge Lee that harshly – I guess he was a product of his era.

    However, it is not revisionism to question, in the harsh light of hindsight, whether those morals were just. It is nonsense to say “The underlying beliefs are not objectively verifiable”. If anybody has difficulty objectively verifying that slavery was a great evil, then they must be morally bankrupt. An accessory to a crime is still guilty. While I agree that it is unfair to judge the actions of these individuals without referring to the prevailing moral standards of the time, it is equally unfair to simply ignore the benefit of hindsight and keep these anachronisms presented as a point of pride outside of institutions which are supposed to represent justice and freedom (as we understand those moral imperatives today).

    Comment by Hiberno Frog — November 2, 2017 @ 7:42 am

  6. Hiberno Frog

    “However, it is not revisionism to question, in the harsh light of hindsight, whether those morals were just.”

    The trouble with that is that you have no idea what future generations will find immoral. You currently have what you would consider moral views and positions; many of those might be considered offensive in 100, 200, 500 years time. Don’t you think you should adjust them now so as not to offend the people of the distant future?

    Comment by Recusant — November 2, 2017 @ 8:34 am

  7. @Frog

    Frog, I don’t think that Kelly was doing anything beyond stating a fact – the refusal to compromise.

    I don’t know how you’re coming up with your “point of pride” comment with respect to Kelly’s statement.

    Comment by elmer — November 2, 2017 @ 11:20 am

  8. For another bit of hilarious idiocy on the history, check this out,

    Comment by The Pilot — November 3, 2017 @ 2:59 pm

  9. @Pilot–Oh that was a winner all right. A strong competitor for the Ta-Nehisi Coates bloviating. I liked this part, as a perfect example of the mindset: “It excuses contemporary white Americans from feelings of guilt that this nation was nearly torn in half because of a debate over whether black people are human beings.”

    Ex post facto collective guilt! Under no reasonable moral theory should I (or will I) feel the slightest guilt for the actions or thoughts of other people who lived 150+ years ago. What happened then based on the choices of other people has no bearing on me. I cannot be culpable of things that happened a century before I was born. Even overlooking the retroactivity, guilt should not be assessed collectively based on some crude categorization.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 3, 2017 @ 10:45 pm

  10. But wait, SWP, there’s more!

    This time from Jonah Goldberg, who does not like Trump very much:

    Comment by elmer — November 5, 2017 @ 8:31 am

  11. @Recusant: It’s not about our interpretation whether the Confederates acted morally, nor about future people’s interpretation of our morality. It’s about putting a statue in front of the courthouse and asking, in the here and now, does this represent what we expect from our legal system? And to all but a handful of extremists, the answer is no, it does not fully represent that. This is not to judge the Confederates for their actions (which I agree, need to be seen in historical context) – but if you put a statue of somebody in front of the courthouse (or the town hall), you better be ready for people to ask what, exactly, that person represents in that place (i.e. a noted racist in front of the building where all people are supposed to be treated equally) and to challenge it if they feel that the two are inconsistent.

    @Elmer: Sorry, the “point of pride” was about statue being outside courthouse and town halls, not the speech in particular.

    The best analogy I can come up with for myself, is if somebody wanted to put a statue of Oliver Cromwell in a prominent place in my hometown in Ireland. Yes, I’m sure he believed that he was acting morally when he subjugated and slaughtered the native Irish. Yes, he was doubtless a fantastic organiser and co-ordinator. But no, I don’t think that statue would last more than an hour before it came to a violent end. Fore sure, you could put it in a museum and say “this person did this good thing and this bad thing”, as Kelly has said. And that would be fine – nothing wrong with remembering one’s history. But when you put a statue in a prominent place in town, you are, by definition, saying much more than that.

    Comment by Hiberno Frog — November 6, 2017 @ 11:57 am

  12. Mussolini’s definition of Fascism: “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”

    I think that a better definition than anything that tries to rely on specific behaviours like “Fascists are violent” or “Fascists like war” or even “Fascists are racists”. Italian Fascists were notably less racist than Hitler’s and it was late in the day after pressure from Germany that the Italian Fascists were to introduce Nuremburg style laws against the Jews.

    I suggest that the reason that this definition is not quoted more frequently, is simply because it so obviously captures the core sensibility of modern day progressives.

    Comment by TDK — November 10, 2017 @ 3:55 am

  13. “It is harder to understand why the North fought to keep them in the Union. It most certainly was NOT to eradicate slavery: even by 1863, emancipation did not have majority support in the North, and the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865 only by the slimmest of margins, and with the help of some very swampy political dealings.”

    Sherman had an answer, in a letter to a secessionist:

    “You mistake too the people of the North. They are a peaceable people, but an earnest people, and they will fight too. They will not let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it.”

    The North engaged in the war to preserve the Union, and that’s it.

    Comment by rkka — November 12, 2017 @ 10:44 am

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