Kelly Was Half-Right About the Civil War

(Bloomberg View) -- White House Chief of Staff John Kelly kicked over our national hornet's nest last week when he said "the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War." Historians took him to task for misreading the cause of the conflict, but in fairness: Kelly was correct, just not in the way he meant it.

Kelly suggested there was a lack of compromise between North and South, when in fact the whole history of the country up until 1860 had hinged on such compromise: the three-fifths compromise, counting slaves as less than full persons; the Missouri Compromise, extending slavery west but limiting its spread; and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, giving settlers in those territories "popular sovereignty," the right to decide the question of slavery for themselves.

Ultimately, it was the lack of compromise within the South that precipitated war.

In 1860, the Democratic Party arrived at its national convention in Charleston, South Carolina, deeply divided. Northerners chose Charleston as the convention site in hopes of promoting party unity. Once there, they proposed a platform meant to appease Southerners.

The Northerners’ platform condemned interference by states with the enforcement of the fugitive slave law, a rebuke to their own home states. It affirmed the party would "abide" by the 1857 Dred Scott decision (which barred the federal government from regulating slavery in the territories), even though that decision was deeply unpopular in the North. And it included the annexation of Cuba (which allowed slavery), a Southern priority.

It wasn't enough. Southern delegates demanded an explicit endorsement of the principles underpinning the Dred Scott ruling; a federal slave code guaranteeing the property rights of slave owners and severely restricting those of slaves; and the protection of slavery on the high seas, a first step toward overturning the federal prohibition on the international slave trade. They drafted their own platform incorporating these positions -- and refused to budge.

Much of the convention consisted of speeches by Northerners imploring Southerners to compromise, lest the party fracture, the Republicans win, the Union split -- and war ensue. "We do not ask you to surrender one iota of the position which you occupied in 1856," pleaded an Ohio delegate. Northerners even offered a platform that merely reaffirmed the one from four years prior.

No deal.

Southerners stood pat in their rejection of the platform and the majority's preferred presidential candidate, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, notwithstanding his leading role in passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act. To Southerners, Douglas had committed an unforgivable sin: refusing to support Kansas's extreme pro-slavery (and illegitimately adopted) constitution, which prohibited free blacks from living in the state.

When delegates adopted the Northern platform, a large Southern bloc walked out. Douglas failed to win enough of the remaining delegates to secure the required two-thirds vote. The convention adjourned, the party split, and the die was cast.

At a second convention in Baltimore, Douglas prevailed after the threshold for receiving the presidential nomination was lowered. But Southern Democrats held their own convention and nominated Vice President John Breckenridge for president. It's true that Northerners could've abandoned Douglas, but victory required carrying Northern states, which the Southern platform made all but impossible.

Had the South compromised for the sake of party unity, it's conceivable (though unlikely) that Democrats could have won the White House -- averting a civil war for at least for a few more years. Even after the election of Abraham Lincoln, of course, war was avoidable, given the Republican position that the federal government would not interfere with slavery where it already existed.

The existence of slavery didn't cause the war. War resulted from repeated Southern overreach in attempting to extend and protect its "peculiar institution," from embracing extremism in Kansas -- which made criminals of abolitionists -- to insisting on the unfettered spread of slavery in the West, to splitting the Democratic Party, to rejecting a constitutional amendment backed by Republicans prohibiting federal interference with slavery, to seceding from the Union and undertaking an armed rebellion. Each was a strategic blunder born of extreme intransigence, and the overreach continued during the war, when the Confederacy declined to negotiate a peace settlement, despite significant sympathy for it in the North.

The South, in demanding it all, ended up with nothing. The nation was better for it, ultimately. But Americans -- north and south -- paid a cataclysmic price.

John Kelly had it half-right: The inability to compromise did indeed lead to war. But it's the half he got wrong that is perpetuating a revisionist myth that continues to divide the nation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”

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