Ta-Nahesi Coates Puts His Foot in His Mouth on the Civil War

We have, as the basis for the latest skirmish in the perpetual relevance of America’s Civil War, the appearance by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on the October 30th debut of the newest Fox News show, The Ingraham Angle, hosted by Laura Ingraham, who is already well-known as a long-time talk radio host that supports Donald Trump. In response to Ingraham asking Kelly what his views are about Confederate monuments, he said, among other things, that “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 also said that Confederate Army commander Robert E Lee “was an honorable man.”

These comments quickly drew ire throughout the internet, prominently from the indignant black intellectual, Ta-Nahesi Coates. Coates tweeted that the “notion that Civil War resulted from a lack of compromise is belied by all the compromises made on enslavement from America’s founding.” Coates let us know that, “I mean, like, it’s called The three fifths compromise for a reason,” and also mentioned the Missouri Compromise & Kansas-Nebraska Act (don’t worry: the Huffington Post reminded him of the Compromise of 1850). From there, Coates’ indignation only escalated, making several comments like, “This is really basic stuff–easily accessible, not tucked away in archives somewhere.”

It is sad that the ignorance of Coates’ comments surpasses his indignation. It isn’t that any of the facts he cites are wrong—it’s that he hasn’t really thought through what he is talking about. The Civil War was the result of an inability on both sides to compromise. It is quite strange to think about why Coates supposes that a compromise from as early as 1787 is relevant to and contradicts Kelly’s comment about the cause of the Civil War. The American tradition of compromises on slavery were intended to resolve sectional conflicts at the time they were made. As it happened, there were efforts to continue this tradition on the eve of the Civil War, and these efforts failed.

The South passed over at least two significant opportunities for compromise. First, at the April, 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina, the Democrats failed to nominate the moderate Senator Stephen Douglas from Illinois. As the longtime chairman of the Committee on Territories, Douglas took an interest in resolving the conflict between the North and the South. He was the Democrat candidate that had a chance in the North and the South, and therefore a chance to win the Electoral College. But, the South wouldn’t compromise and accept his moderate position on slavery, which was that slavery in the territories should be left to a popular vote. The failure to nominate Douglas ultimately resulted in the election of Lincoln, and the secession of the Southern states.

Second, in the winter of 1860-61, during the lame duck session, there was an effort in Congress to continue the American tradition of compromising on slavery. Throughout the 19th century, Representative Henry Clay of Kentucky had been the central figure in negotiating these compromises, and Kentucky had come to think of itself as a neutral state that mediated negotiations between the North and South. Senator John J. Crittenden, also of Kentucky, felt it was Kentucky’s role to continue the tradition. Some of the biggest names attended—Douglas, William Seward and future Confederate President Jefferson Davis—and the proposal made serious concessions on slavery and drew some interest from Republicans. But the Southern states were already preparing to secede and they took little interest in the proposal, which was squashed anyway by the President-elect, Abraham Lincoln, who wrote to the Republicans that the one-sided compromise on slavery “would lose us everything gained by the election.”

Coates refers to Lincoln’s compromise-oriented agenda as further evidence that Kelly is mistaken. But, as much as Lincoln compromised (especially, to keep border slave states in the Union), he never compromised with regard to preserving the Union. In a June 1862 letter to his Secretary of State, William Seward, Lincoln bluntly wrote that he expects “to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me.” The playing out of the Civil War depended on Lincoln not compromising on this—otherwise there wouldn’t have been a Civil War. The South would have become an independent country and attempted to expand its slave empire south and westward.

Of course, the trickier issue is Coates’s objection to Kelly saying that Robert E Lee “was an honorable man.” Kelly said to Ingraham that “we make a mistake… when we take what is today accepted as right and wrong” and apply that to hundreds of years ago. Coates tweeted that this comment is racist because it “implies only white, slave-holding, opinions matter.”

But Kelly’s comments don’t really entail that American slavery wasn’t evil. This becomes obvious when we consider the difference between owning black slaves in the South in the current year, versus having done it in the Antebellum era. Actually, one wonders how Coates thinks people came to support slavery. Does he think that at some point in their lives, they were blank slates, presented with dispassionate representations of the various lifestyles available to them?

I am reminded of something I’ve read from Coates—an account of his having grown up in Baltimore. In The Atlantic, he wrote that “it defies logic to think that any group, in a generationaly entrenched position, would not develop codes and mores for how to survive in that position… If you are a young person living in an environment where violence is frequent and random, the willingness to meet any hint of violence with yet more violence is a shield. Some people take to this lesson easier than others. As a kid, I hated fighting–not simply the incurring of pain, but the actual dishing it out. (If you follow my style of argument, you can actually see that that’s still true.) But once I learned the lesson, once I was acculturated to the notion that often the quickest way to forestall more fighting, is to fight, I was a believer. And maybe it’s wrong to say this, but it made my the rest of my time in Baltimore a lot easier, because the willingness to fight isn’t just about yourself, it’s a signal to your peer group.”

Put simply, Coates has taken 2Pac’s line, “I didn’t choose the thug life, the thug life chose me,” and turned it into a general principle. The harshness with which slaves were treated and disciplined, and the commitment to minimizing the evils of slavery, were the “codes and mores” that Southerners had to adopt in order to “survive” in their “generationaly entrenched position.” Life is complex enough to be able to judge someone in relation to their society and also suppose that their society was evil. What Coates has done is dehumanize the slaveholders and, of course, we have sympathy for him since he identifies with the victims of the evil they perpetrated—but dehumanization nonetheless leads to poor social analysis.

What is really strange is that Coates and his fans are so passionate about disagreeing that the Civil War followed from failure by the North and South to compromise. It is more understandable that they are hostile to saying that Lee “was an honorable man,” since that at least seems to downplay the evils of slavery. But it seems as though what Kelly said about the cause of the Civil War only downplays the evils of slavery if we suppose that Kelly is unfamiliar with the famous tradition of American compromises on the slavery issue. It is strange to think that someone would really believe that this tradition is unknown to Kelly. Really, though, the important point is that slavery was the issue on which the North and South weren’t able to compromise, and so referring to their failure to do so really puts an emphasis on the South’s commitment to its peculiar institution. I would suggest that the reason Coates has such a difficult time thinking clearly about this issue—in spite of not really getting any of his facts wrong—is that fighting isn’t the only lifestyle that he didn’t choose while growing up in Baltimore.

Categories: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply