John Kelly, retired Marine General and current White House Chief of Staff, wandered into No Man’s Land the other day without his helmet. Holding court on the roots of the Civil War, he chalked up the conflagration to a failure of the parties to compromise. Please General, , put down your pencil and close your blue book.
Before 1861 the civilized world had rejected slavery as immoral. Racist views remained, as they do today, and colonialism continued to foster those views, but legal and social lines had been drawn. Our country could not come to grips slavery, putting economic interest ahead of principle. Even Russia freed all of its serfs in 1861, and nobody was mistaking Tsarist Russia for a democracy.
At the constitutional convention of 1787 the founders haggled over counting people, The size of a state’s congressional delegation is determined by the size of its population, which included non-voters, such as women and indentured servants, and non-property owners; excluded Indians not being taxed. The slave states originally endorsed equal counting for slaves until they realized that by doing so they would be recognizing equality. They were happy to compromise if it left the rationale for slavery intact
Hence, the odious three-fifths rule, the first of several ante-bellum compromises, treating each “other person” as counting for three-fifths. Still, counting a slave as a partial person is a cynical sort of compromise. After all, General, what marching orders would you assign to three-fifths of a soldier?
The three-fifths rule preserved the precarious balance for the original thirteen states. As a new state joined, it declared itself slave or free depending on its pre-statehood laws. In 1820, with 22 states evenly split, Missouri, a slave-owning territory, was presented for statehood. Seeking to preserve a balance between free and slave states, Congress admitted Maine, a free state, at the same time as Missouri, a slave state. The other part of this law, known as the Missouri Compromise, barred slavery in the portion of the Louisiana Purchase north of the 36’ 30” parallel. This line skitters along what became the north boundaries of North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, all slave states. Another unholy compromise that only deferred correction of the structural defect baked into the Constitution.
Onward our sordid history did advance. The Compromise of 1850 strengthened the reach of the fugitive slave law while abolishing slavery in the nation’s capital. Still, the waters continued to roil. Each new state’s admission presented the country with the quandary of maintaining the status quo in Congress between slave and free states until 1861. The center did not hold, and war broke out.
When John Kelly said that the Civil War was caused by a failure of compromise, he can only have meant another deal that would perpetuate slavery in the United States. Each compromise that failed to recognize African-Americans as people, not property, was immoral. General, if you are going to be on the wrong side of history, stay on the other end of the microphone.