Earlier last week on Laura Ingraham’s new Fox News show The Ingraham Angle, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly called Confederate General Robert E. Lee an “honorable man” who “gave up his country to fight for his state.” Kelly also said that a “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.” That last bit is clunky, but the basic gist is: Kelly heaped praise on the most prominent general of the Confederacy and then both-sided the Civil War in explicit terms while also asserting that the war itself was an avoidable mistake.
Remember when Kelly was billed as the rational center who would reign in this regressive, calamitous regime?
This soft, truth-allergic rendering of Robert Edward Lee has been creeping into mainstream rhetoric for decades. While it’s true that Robert E. Lee was not the most openly vocal supporter of slavery, the man fought in a war to ensure its preservation.
Don’t... don’t do it. I see you, oppositional keyboard warrior; don’t you dare give me the “states’ rights” or “tariff” excuse. Don’t even step into the arena with that “lost cause” tomfoolery in your duffel bag.
The Civil War was fought over slavery, and to pretend otherwise is to aggressively ignore the facts, as well as the actual language used by the Confederacy.
Here are a few excerpts from the Constitution of the Confederate States:
Article I, Section 9, Clause 4:
“No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”
In other words, the federal government of the Confederacy has no right to restrict its citizens from owning slaves.
Article IV, Section 2, Clause 1:
“The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States; and shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired.
This clause basically destroys the states rights argument entirely because it prohibits states within the Confederacy from enacting laws that would in any way challenge the right to legally own slaves. The states of the Confederacy cared deeply for state’s rights when it concerned the preservation of slavery, but for anything else, not so much.
Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3:
“No slave or other person held to service or labor in any State or Territory of the Confederate States, under the laws thereof, escaping or lawfully carried into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor; but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such slave belongs,. or to whom such service or labor may be due.”
If a slave escapes to a state outside of the Confederacy, that slave is not in any way exempt from the laws of the Confederate states and is to be returned to “the party to whom such slave belongs.” In other words, within the Confederate states, there would be no escaping slavery.
Article IV, Section 3, Clause 3:
“The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several States; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form States to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.”
Essentially this clause states that the Confederacy’s slavery laws would extend to any territory they conquered in the future. So, if the Confederacy moved into a region, they have the “right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate State.”
Just to drive it home, here’s the second line (the first is an introductory sentence) of Mississippi’s secession declaration:
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery ― the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.”
Here’s the second line of Georgia’s:
“For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.”
And South Carolina:
“The people of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, A.D., 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union; but in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States, she forbore at that time to exercise this right.”
South Carolina pretends to frame it around state’s rights, but they make it clear at the end that the state’s right they were concerned with has to exclusively do with slavery.
“She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery― the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits― a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”
Slavery in perpetuity.
″...and the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.”
THE CIVIL WAR WAS FOUGHT OVER SLAVERY.
Now, back to the “honorable man” who was mentioned at the jump: Robert E. Lee. It’s pretty simple really: the Confederacy was fighting to maintain their slavery-centered status quo, and Lee was the most prominent general in the Confederate army—ipso facto, he wasn’t honorable. He was a man who killed people, and ordered others to kill people in order to preserve the institution of slavery. This image of Lee as a wise, conflicted, rebel-patriot who never cared much for slavery is generally centered around his appearance (with his gray hair and beard, he looks straight out of noble, white soldier central casting), his apparent opposition to secession (who cares, he seceded and took up arms despite his alleged trepidation) and a single quote from a letter he wrote to his wife in 1856:
“In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any Country.”
Defenders of Lee intentionally cut the passage off right there, but the next few sentences fully illuminate his stance:
“It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, and while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, and I hope will prepare and lead them to better things.”
So Lee thinks slavery is evil, but it’s a “greater evil” to white people than to black people. I guess owning, selling, trading, beating and working human beings must’ve been a real hassle. Then he then goes ultra-paternalist and says that slavery is really for the moral, social and physical benefit of African Americans and asserts that it will “prepare and lead them to better things.” Prepare and lead them to better things? They’re slaves, what kind of “better things” did you have in mind, General Lee?
Robert E. Lee took up arms against his own country for the right to own slaves, and an estimated 620,000 people were killed in that war. Lee owned slaves himself, and as the AP reported citing historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor, he encouraged savage beatings if any slaves attempted to escape and responded to demands for freedom by breaking up families.
Lee may not have spoken much publicly about his support for slavery, but he never spoke out against it either and his actions spoke far louder than his lack of words. This particular brand of revisionism aimed at Lee, and the Civil War in general, is dangerous because it stomps all over the inhumane barbarism of slavery in order to humanize a man who does not deserve to be humanized.
As the incomparable W.E.B. DuBois put in a 1928 essay recently republished by In These Times:
“Each year on the 19th of January, there is renewed effort to canonize Robert E. Lee, the greatest confederate general. His personal comeliness, his aristocratic birth, and his military prowess all call for the verdict of greatness and genius. But one thing ― one terrible fact ― militates against this, and that is the inescapable truth that Robert E. Lee led a bloody war to perpetuate slavery.”
If we retroactively lionize the oppressors, we’re continuing a legacy of dehumanizing and ignoring the oppressed. Robert E. Lee was a white supremacist, and he killed for the right to own people. This man should not be admired in any capacity, ever.
And as for Kelly’s claim that a “lack of compromise led to the Civil War,” there were plenty of compromises (the three-fifths compromise, most notably), only none them came from southern states regarding slavery; they were all centered around the north attempting to appease the south. Lincoln’s initial proposal was for a slow emancipation of slaves and compensation for slave owners, it was the Henry Clay model. It was only when that compromise was refused that Lincoln proposed immediate emancipation and zero compensation. Ta-Nehisi Coates beautifully articulated this point in a Twitter rant last week.
General Kelly isn’t the first, and he certainly won’t be the last person to attempt to reframe the atrocities of American slavery thereby tempering its impact and marginalizing the vicious brutality of life as a slave. We see it every day in the fights occurring across the country over Confederate monuments. “State pride” is mentioned, people say moving statues is erasing history. Keep in mind the “history” in question is the period of slavery and war over slavery, and the people who want it preserved are generally sympathetic to the slavers over the slaves.
Taking down statues and monuments does not erase history ― ask any descendants of slaves ― but it is symbolic in showing that, as a society, we do not feel it’s a good idea to glorify and honor (which is what nearly all of these statues and monuments aim to do) the prominent monsters of the past.
Let’s not let this propaganda win.
Robert Edward Lee was not honorable, and the Civil War was about slavery.
Previously published on The Overgrown.
Art by Adam Maria