John Kelly says US Civil War was prompted by inability to compromise


In Fox interview White House chief of staff describes Confederate general Robert E Lee as ‘an honorable man’

John Kelly said it was ‘dangerous’ to remove historical markers like statues. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

White House chief of staff John Kelly has waded into the debate over Confederate statues, stating that the Civil War was prompted by an inability to compromise while suggesting both sides acted in “good faith”.

Speaking with Fox News in a rare interview, Kelly described Confederate general Robert E Lee as “an honorable man” while discussing the recent push to remove monuments and symbols memorializing the pro-slavery Confederacy.

“There are certain things in history that were good, and other things that were not so good,” Kelly told new Fox News host Laura Ingraham.

“I think we make a mistake as a society, and certainly as individuals, when we take what is accepted as right and wrong, and go back 100, 200, 300 years or more and say, ‘What Christopher Columbus did was wrong.’”

Kelly then went on to say Lee, the general of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, “was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state”.

“It was always loyalty to state first back in those days,” said Kelly, while adding: “But the 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 to make their stand.”

Kelly’s comments echoed those made by Donald Trump in the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, when a white supremacist drove his car into counter protesters, leaving one woman dead and several others injured. The president sparked controversy in the days that followed by blaming violence “on both sides”, appearing to put neo-Nazis and white supremacists on equal footing with demonstrators from the left.

What happened in Charlottesville on 12 August?

White nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest against a plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s top general in the American civil war.

Demonstrators chanted racist statements, carried antisemitic placards and held torches during the  “Unite the Right” rally, which was organised by white nationalist Jason Kessler.

The march was met by anti-fascist demonstrators, and some skirmishes broke out before James Fields, 20, allegedly ploughed a car into a group of counter-demonstrators. 

Civil rights activist Heather Heyer, 32, died and others were injured. Fields has been charged with murder. 

White supremacist protesters have sought to use Lee as a symbol of their movement, while government officials across the country have called for dozens of Confederate-linked monuments to be removed from public grounds.

Kelly, a retired general who was named Trump’s chief of staff in August, argued it was “dangerous” to take down historical markers simply because they were being viewed in a different light.

“It shows you … a lack of appreciation of history and what history is,” Kelly said.

By framing the Civil War as an issue of states’ rights, Kelly perpetuated a popular claim on the right that downplays the role of slavery as central to the conflict. But while declaring their right to secede from the Federal Union, delegates from Confederate states cited the future of slavery as fundamental to their cause.

Delegates in South Carolina referred to “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery” in their secession declaration, while Mississippi proclaimed in its own secession declaration that slavery was “the greatest material interest of the world”.

And while there was little doubt that President Abraham Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery, he initially pursued a centrist approach toward slaveholders in the South and their opponents in the North. Lincoln did, however, campaign vigorously against the expansion of slavery into new states and territories.

Kelly did not say in his interview with Fox News what compromise would have been feasible to prevent the Civil War.

During his appearance, Kelly also declined to walk back his attacks on Representative Frederica Wilson, a Democratic congresswoman who made public details of Trump’s phone call with the widow of a US soldier killed in the ambush in Niger.

Kelly sharply criticized Wilson at a White House press briefing earlier this month as an “empty barrel” and falsely stated the congresswoman had bragged in a speech he attended about securing funding for a building dedicated to two fallen FBI agents. Video footage of Wilson’s speech showed she did not make comments matching Kelly’s characterization.

Asked by Ingraham if he felt the need to apologize, Kelly said he would “never” do so.

“Well, I’ll apologize if I need to. But for something like that, absolutely not,” he said. “I stand by my comments.”

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