History is Present

What the Historians Say

What Historians Say About Compromise


Recently, Trump Administration Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, appearing on the Fox News show, The Ingraham Angle, commented about Confederate monuments, memorials, Robert E. Lee, and the cause of the Civil War. (You can watch the interview beginning around 5:27). Historians and journalists were among those who found Kelly’s interpretations about the Civil War era incomplete.

The questions that historians and the public ask of the past, the reasons they ask them, and the meaning they draw from their conclusions all change as their own contexts change. “Compromise” had different meaning in the mid-twentieth century than it does today. Then, when General Kelly attended college, the assessment of compromise rested on the continuation of political unity. To many now, the chief outcome of compromise was the continued enslavement of human beings. That contemporary expectations change is normal, and the historical record continues to yield fresh insights on whatever question historians—and the public—ask.

General Kelly’s comments on both Lee and the place of compromise—or the breakdown of it—in the outbreak of the Civil War reflect not only the conclusions of historians in the mid-twentieth century, but also the ways that public education and popular culture understood and explained the Civil War. Indeed, many here at the museum came of age and learned about the Civil War in the same way as General Kelly.

Yet as historians continue to ask new questions and explore new sources, we have access to ever-richer ways of understanding the past. At the American Civil War Museum we look to the best current scholarship to inform how we think, talk, and teach about all aspects of America’s most transformative conflict.

Below are links to commentary by historians about General Kelly’s comments that we find useful, and a list of publications that explore these matters in greater detail.

Historians commenting on Kelly’s remarks:

Carole Emberton

David Blight, David Waldstreicher, Manisha Sinha

Peter Carmichael

John Fea

Daniel Crofts

Eric Foner, Manisha Sinha, Edna Medford

Edna Medford, Jim Grossman, Fitzhugh Brundage (with Ken Burns and Ta-Neihisi Coates) 

Stephanie McCurry, David Blight

Publications we look to for historical background:

On the matter of “compromise”

Michael Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s

Dew, Charles. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War
Note: Dew argues that slavery could only be saved outside the Union and not within it.

David Potter, Impending Crisis, 1848-1861
Note: Potter argues that the collapse of the center and the triumph of extremists on both sides meant again that no compromise was possible.

Daniel Crofts: Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union and Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis

William Freehling: The Road to Disunion: Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861
Note: Freehling argues that the presence of divisions within the South meant there was a radicalizing momentum from its leadership away from compromise.

Caleb McDaniel: The South Only Embraced States’ Rights as It Lost Control of the Federal Government

On the matter of Lee: