John F. Kelly was right. The Civil War was not about slavery. It was about a lack of ability to compromise — on the issue of slavery. These are completely different things.
This ethically neutral view of the world is lots of fun. Consider some other problems caused by the inability to compromise:
The French Revolution began because there was a lack of ability to compromise about whether Louis XVI’s head should stay attached to his body. (Louis XVI felt very strongly one way, but this was ultimately shortsighted.)
Those students at Kent State wanted both to protest and to remain alive, but they showed a remarkable lack of ability to compromise.
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The Titanic wanted only some parts of the boat to be underwater, but the iceberg did not agree.
Hitler wanted to invade Poland, and Poland displayed a stunning lack of ability to compromise on this simple request.
Definitely Abraham Lincoln’s death was the result of his failure to compromise: He wanted to attend “Our American Cousin” and leave it without being assassinated, which was a pretty big ask.
Also, Lincoln was way, way off when he said that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” or that “this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.” What he should have said was that “a house divided against itself should try to find some compromise about different things.”
There is no moral valence to any of this. There are not certain things that cannot be compromised. As Kelly surely knew, and Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out on Twitter, compromise on whether or not people can be property is an American tradition — from the three-fifths compromise to the Missouri Compromise and beyond. The Confederate states all recognized this, as you can see in their declarations of Intent to Secede.
Georgia complained in its declaration about the fact that the country had elected an anti-slavery party to the White House. So, we can see already that this was not about being pro-slavery. It was about being anti-anti-slavery, a very different stance, distinguishable in almost zero particulars. Also, Georgia wanted to be able to take slaves into a part of the country where slavery was illegal — just one area where compromise failed.
Mississippi said, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.” Which, out of context, sounds like the reason they are seceding has to do with slavery, but if you read more closely, it turns out that they are seceding because they want to preserve their state right to own slaves. Mississippi goes on to say, “There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.” It wasn’t that they were seceding because they were pro-slavery; it was just that they had to leave the union to prevent slavery from being abolished. Again, totally different. And plenty of room for compromise.
Texas said: “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable … that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations.” So this was just about maintaining the servitude of the African race (mutually beneficial to both bond and free) — which, well … this sounds bad, but there must have been room for compromise.
The Civil War was about states’ rights. (Just don’t ask, “States’ rights to do what?” We are trying to avoid the subject of slavery, remember.) After all, the election of Abraham Lincoln, a candidate who opposed the territorial expansion of slavery, was an act of aggression by the North, which was trying to take away property that the South owned. (What kind of property? Please stop doing this! My argument was going so well.) As long as you concede that people can be property, then this was just a question of property rights, which sounds a lot better than a war about slavery. Why, if you’re willing to compromise on this point, you could have avoided the war entirely.
I am glad we cleared this up.
Follow Ms. Petri on Twitter @petridishes.