In defending the honor of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on Monday said it was “lack of an ability to compromise” that led to the Civil War. The comments sparked widespread outrage—and history lessons via Twitter thread by writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. But Kelly’s position is far from unique in today’s GOP; former Sen. Tom Coburn expressed similar sentiments in a book published this year.
As I noted in an article for Political Research Associates’ The Public Eye magazine, Coburn is advocating for a “convention of states” to propose constitutional amendments that would radically upend our current constitutional order and replace it with one focused on states’ rights. In “Smashing the DC Monopoly: Using Article V to Restore Freedom and Stop Runaway Government,” Coburn:
…cites Jefferson Davis lamenting in his memoirs that the Civil War might have been avoided had a convention of states been assembled “to consider the relations of the various States and the Government of the Union”–in other words, he believed war could have been avoided if states had approved a constitutional amendment preserving chattel slavery in southern states and allowed its expansion in southwestern territories.
Other political leaders at the time agreed, says Coburn, adding, “If their assessment was correct, then the events of the time show us that there can be far greater risks in failing to call a convention than in calling one.”
Whether or not you agree with Coburn—and, apparently, John Kelly—depends on whether you think a constitutional compromise that would have explicitly allowed continued slavery in the South, with expansion in the Southwest—known as the Crittenden compromise—would have been an outcome preferable to war.
Kelly’s comments are the latest reminder that Donald Trump and his allies at Breitbart have energized white nationalists and white supremacists, boosted their ability to recruit, and given them a damaging and divisive public spotlight that will poison our political culture for years to come.