John Davidson’s Bad Faith Defense of General Kelly

John Daniel Davidson in The Federalist (a more apt name might The Confederalist or The CON-Federalist) rises to the defense of General Kelly’s infamous remarks to Laura Ingraham about Robert E. Lee and the Civil War. General Kelly called Robert E. Lee “an honorable man,” as if fighting to ensure the perpetual enslavement of millions of human beings counts for nothing in an assessment of a person’s character, and further opined that the Civil War was caused by “a lack of an ability to compromise,” as if the lack of an ability to compromise were a genetic incapacity rather than a choice, and as if it were an incapacity with which both sides in the Civil War were equally afflicted. Following that well-known doctrine of verbal conflict that the best defense is a good offense, Davidson quickly turns his defense of General Kelly into an all-out assault on Ta-Nehisi Coates who delivered a widely read Twitter storm demolishing General Kelly’s tendentious characterization of the cause of the Civil War.

In transitioning from a defense of General Kelly to an attack on Coates, Davidson relies greatly on the authority of Shelby Foote, the Southern novelist and author of an acclaimed 3-volume history of the Civil War, who was featured extensively in Ken Burns’s award-winning PBS series on the Civil War in 1990. Invoking Foote’s narrative history — “a masterpiece” and “a triumph of American history and literature” – Davidson scorns Jonathan Chait for daring to question the historical veracity of Foote’s work and of Burns’s remarkable documentary. Davidson offers an extended paean to Foote’s achievement:

The volumes, published between 1958 and 1974, were almost immediately hailed as a seminal contribution to American letters. Writing in the New Republic, literary scholar and critic Louis D. Rubin Jr. said Foote’s trilogy “is a model of what military history can be.” The New York Times Book Review called it “a remarkable achievement, prodigiously researched, vigorous, detailed, absorbing.” (Presumably by today’s standards these reviewers would be upbraided for praising Foote.)

Davidson might have been less inclined to insert his snide parenthetical remark had he taken the trouble to identify Louis D. Rubin Jr. as a prominent Southern literary figure and the unnamed Times reviewer (Nash K. Burger) as a native Mississippian, who despite a long tenure as an editor of the New York Times Book Review, was unabashed in avowing his Confederate ideology. Despite their emotional attachments to the South, neither reviewer was a racist or a blindly pro-Confederate partisans, but neither was a professional historian, and their praise of Foote’s work owed at least as much to its literary merits as to its historical analytical merits.

So even if one grants that Foote wrote a splendid book on the Civil War, his evaluation of Lee’s character and the role played by “the lack of an ability to compromise” can hardly be accepted as authoritative. I am not a historian, so I am not going to try to pass judgment on Foote’s magnum opus or on Burns’s classic documentary. But facts are facts, and Shelby Foote’s high opinion of him notwithstanding, the facts about Lee are:

(1) that he fought to defend the enslavement of millions of human beings and to ensure that the enslavement would continue in perpetuity,

(2) that he approved the capture and enslavement of free black citizens of the United States by his invading army,

(3) that he refused to allow black Union soldiers captured by the Confederate army to be exchanged for captured Confederate soldiers.

None of those facts supports a claim that Lee was an honorable man.

But Davidson is just getting warmed up:

[N]oting that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Kelly’s comments by citing the Burns documentary, Chait writes that Burns relies heavily on Foote, and “Foote presented Lee and other Confederate fighters as largely driven by motives other than preserving human property, and bemoaned the failure of the North and South to compromise (a compromise that would inevitably have preserved slavery).”

This should be dismissed as a simple case of historical ignorance. . . . Even someone with a cursory knowledge of the Civil War should know that the war came about, as all wars do, because of a failure to compromise.

Instead of making a historical argument, Davidson repeats a truism. Obviously, a compromise on some terms could avoid any war. In the context of the Civil War, however, the relevant question is who was — and who was not — willing to compromise. The answer is clear. The Union was, and always was, willing to make a compromise by allowing those states in which slavery had been legal upon entry into the Union to continue to enforce the rights of slave-holders . The long list of compromises is well-known and in most instances they involved concessions to Southern slave-holding interests. In the run-up to the Civil War, Republicans, so demonized by the South, never threatened to terminate slavery in states in which it remained legal, advocating only that a line be drawn beyond which the extension of slavery be would forbidden, leaving it to the discretion of slave states to decide when, or whether, to terminate that social evil within their own borders. But that compromise was rejected by the South. Of course, Confederate partisans, in characteristic confusion or bad faith, cite the willingness of Lincoln and the Republicans to compromise over slavery to avoid a Civil War as evidence that the Civil War was not really about slavery.

Here is how Lincoln described the prospects for compromise with the South in his Cooper Union speech in February 1860, a speech that Mr. Davidson, if he has a smidgen of intellectual honesty, could read with profit.

It is exceedingly desirable that all parts of this great Confederacy [i.e., the Union] shall be at peace, and in harmony, one with another. Let us Republicans do our part to have it so. Even though much provoked, let us do nothing through passion and ill temper. Even though the southern people will not so much as listen to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can. Judging by all they say and do, and by the subject and nature of their controversy with us, let us determine, if we can, what will satisfy them.

Will they be satisfied if the Territories be unconditionally surrendered to them? We know they will not. In all their present complaints against us, the Territories are scarcely mentioned. Invasions and insurrections are the rage now. Will it satisfy them, if, in the future, we have nothing to do with invasions and insurrections? We know it will not. We so know, because we know we never had anything to do with invasions and insurrections; and yet this total abstaining does not exempt us from the charge and the denunciation.

The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.

These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly – done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated – we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas’ new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.

I am quite aware they do not state their case precisely in this way. Most of them would probably say to us, “Let us alone, do nothing to us, and say what you please about slavery.” But we do let them alone – have never disturbed them – so that, after all, it is what we say, which dissatisfies them. They will continue to accuse us of doing, until we cease saying.

But Davidson holds a rather different view of the situation in 1861 from that of Lincoln of the situation in 1861

In our case, the entire history of the United States prior to outbreak of war in 1861 was full of compromises on the question of slavery. It began with the Three-Fifths Compromise written into the U.S. Constitution and was followed by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which prohibited slavery north of the 36°30’ parallel, excluding Missouri), the Compromise of 1850, then the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and eventually led to the election of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent secession of the southern states. Through all this, we inched toward emancipation, albeit slowly.

Really? What is the evidence of slow inching toward emancipation detected by Davidson? The Dred Scott decision (unmentioned by Davidson for obvious reasons)? The Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act were clearly major steps in the opposite direction, so Davidson’s assertion of progress toward emancipation is refuted by his own examples and omissions. Any inching toward emancipation served only to inflame Southern recalcitrance and extremism on slavery. Unwilling or unable to offer a shred of evidence that the South was prepared to compromise in 1861, Davidson attacks Kelly’s critics for being opposed to compromise on principle, accusing Ta-Nehisi Coates of hating America because of the earlier compromises that preserved slavery and the Union, as if opposition to compromise were not characteristic of only one side in the Civil War.

The breakdown of all those decades of compromise did indeed lead to the Civil War. This is a point that Foote and other historians have made many times and that Kelly tried his best to paraphrase. Compromising on slavery had been part of how American stayed together, and staved off war, from the beginning. No historian disputes this.

What is the “this” that Davidson believes is not disputed? That until 1861 the Union had been preserved through compromise, almost all being concession to placate Southern slave-holding interests? But in 1861, as Lincoln made so devastatingly clear, the South was dead-set against any further compromises of the sort that had kept the Union together. The South flatly refused to tolerate the election of a Republican President who said explicitly that slavery was wrong, even though he disclaimed any intention to emancipate a single slave legally held under the laws of any sovereign state. Unable to abide an honest statement of moral disapprobation of slavery by the newly elected President, the South chose Civil War as a preemptive measure, because the South refused to coexist in a Union whose chief executive took seriously the proposition that all men are created equal. The Southern idea of compromise was simply: give me whatever I want or I will dissolve the Union.

Neither General Kelly nor Mr. Davidson will tell us exactly what further compromise they think could or should have prevented the War and preserved the Union. They won’t, because to do so they would have to acknowledge that the Civil War came, because the South would never be satisfied unless their view of slavery was adopted and enshrined in the US Constitution. Again read Lincoln’s words:

I am also aware they have not, as yet, in terms, demanded the overthrow of our Free-State Constitutions. Yet those Constitutions declare the wrong of slavery, with more solemn emphasis, than do all other sayings against it; and when all these other sayings shall have been silenced, the overthrow of these Constitutions will be demanded, and nothing be left to resist the demand. It is nothing to the contrary, that they do not demand the whole of this just now. Demanding what they do, and for the reason they do, they can voluntarily stop nowhere short of this consummation. Holding, as they do, that slavery is morally right, and socially elevating, they cannot cease to demand a full national recognition of it, as a legal right, and a social blessing.

Nor can we justifiably withhold this, on any ground save our conviction that slavery is wrong. If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws, and constitutions against it, are themselves wrong, and should be silenced, and swept away. If it is right, we cannot justly object to its nationality – its universality; if it is wrong, they cannot justly insist upon its extension – its enlargement. All they ask, we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask, they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy. Thinking it right, as they do, they are not to blame for desiring its full recognition, as being right; but, thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield to them? Can we cast our votes with their view, and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this?

Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored – contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man – such as a policy of “don’t care” on a question about which all true men do care – such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance – such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.

Davidson describes Coates as anti-American because he decries the compromises that were made to preserve the Union literally on the backs of brutally oppressed black slaves (see the picture above).

For Coates and his ilk, the entire idea of America is indefensible. Our original sin of slavery can never be extirpated—not by the Civil War, not by the civil rights movement, not even by the remarkable fact that a black man became president of the United States, even as he has become one of the most celebrated and influential writers in America. Coates’ entire project is fundamentally anti-American. To speak of compromises that could have prevented or delayed the war is to speak of a great crime—slavery—for which there is no suitable punishment, except maybe extinction.

In Coates’ reading of history, even Lincoln is culpable. “Lincoln’s own platform was a compromise,” he writes. “Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He proposed to limit slavery’s expansion, not end it.”

And the South chose secession because they would not tolerate his platform of compromise!

Of course, Coates is wrong in a larger sense about Lincoln’s view of the matter. In his famous 1858 House Divided speech, Lincoln said the United States “cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”

Davidson obviously believes that he is having a gotcha moment here by finding that Coates believes slavery to be a great crime for which there is no suitable punishment, a crime in which Lincoln himself was complicit. Even if that is what Coates really believes – and Davidson is projecting views onto Coates, not quoting him directly — how different would that belief be from what Lincoln himself said in his Second Inaugural address?

The Almighty has his own purposes.  “Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”  If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him?  Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” [My emphasis]

Was there ever a more eloquent, more devastating indictment of the crime of American slavery — a crime for which, Lincoln clearly states, both sides in the War bore their share of blame and moral culpability?

Davidson goes onto quote Foote’s opposition to taking down monuments to the Confederacy as if Foote’s views on the preservation of history provide moral justification for preserving the public displays of monuments celebrating Confederate war heroes as a sort of historical imperative. Evidently insensitive to how insipid Foote sounds in the interviews, Davidson is unembarrassed to quote Foote’s cringe-worthy comparisons of war memorials erected by white Southerners celebrating Confederate war heroes to Jewish religious and ritual commemorations of their deliverance from Egyptian bondage and to memorials documenting the atrocities perpetrated against Jews in the Holocaust. If preserving the historical record is the object, then the picture above is worth a thousand Confederate statues.


9 Responses to “John Davidson’s Bad Faith Defense of General Kelly”

  1. 1 Benjamin Cole November 5, 2017 at 7:57 pm

    Egads, Lincoln towers above his contemporary Southerners like Mt. Everest to a dunghill.

    Robert E. Lee was no hero. Slavery is indefensible, and many contemporaries of Lincoln and Lee knew it. Lee did not. There was no glory in the South’s fight.

    Lincoln could even be criticized for trying to find peace with slavery for too long.

    Should Lincoln have been so beneficent after the War To Crush Slavery?

    Perhaps not. Millions died, lives ruined, all for an abomination. Maybe statues should have been erected extolling the virtues of Northern soldiers all through the South.

  2. 2 Lorenzo from Oz November 6, 2017 at 4:28 pm

    Not sure the implication that no one who fought for a slave state could be a honourable man is tenable. That Lee had a racist conception of honour is clear, but that does not make him not an honourable man, just one in a limited sense.

    Lincoln’s election indicated that the Southern Interest had lost control over all three element of federal executive and legislative power (House of Representatives first, Senate second, Presidency third). Which is why the South fought — because slavery was imperilled if the South became a permanent minority in federal politics.

    That folk had effectively run out of compromises which would “guarantee” the future of slavery was why war happened, which is on the South. Which is a failure to compromise in a sense, but one which flowed from the South refusing to budge on slavery. And the North was never going to offer to “buy out” the Southern interest in slavery–a serious such offer might have further divided the South but would have still been unacceptable in States where slaves were a sufficiently high proportion of the population. But taxing the working folk of the North to buy out the richest folk in the Union was no sort of political goer. Hence 600,000 dead.

  3. 3 David Glasner November 6, 2017 at 5:11 pm

    Benjamin, Yes, Lincoln was truly a man of genius, with a superior analytical mind combined with a magnificent command of the English language. He wrote his own speeches.

    Lorenzo, If you look again at what I wrote, you will see that I said that his fighting to ensure the perpetual slavery of millions of human beings does not support a claim that he was an honorable man. I did not flatly say that he was not an honorable man. Whether he was would depend on an evaluation of his entire career. But his having fought to ensure the perpetual slavery of millions of human beings surely must count against a claim that he was an honorable man even if it does not, by itself, settle the issue. Of course, it is possible to define “honorable” so narrowly — to be one who always tells the truth and keeps his promises — that other aspects of his conduct would be irrelevant to deciding whether he was honorable. I take it that when General Kelly called him “an honorable man” he had some broader definition in mind, but perhaps he did not. Most likely, he really wasn’t thinking very deeply about what he meant when he called Lee “an honorable man.”

    The problem with speculating about other possible means by which slavery could have been abolished is that we are comparing “possible, but imagined, states of the world” with the actual state of the world, with no ability to assess what the people who were making decisions at the time were thinking about the likely outcomes of those alternative scenarios.

  4. 4 Henry Rech November 6, 2017 at 5:31 pm

    “Republicans, so demonized by the South, never threatened to terminate slavery in states in which it remained legal, advocating only that a line be drawn beyond which the extension of slavery be would forbidden, leaving it to the discretion of slave states to decide when, or whether, to terminate that social evil within their own borders.”

    I find this very puzzling.

    The Unionists weren’t interested necessarily in ending slavery. They were willing to maintain existing slavery laws so as to preserve the integrity of the nation.

    So the Civil War was not about slavery but holding the United States of America together?

  5. 5 David Glasner November 6, 2017 at 5:48 pm

    Henry, The question that was at issue was slavery. Lincoln was against slavery, but he was not in favor of making war on the South just to abolish it. The South would not stay in the Union because they felt that the future of slavery would be jeopardized as their political influence waned, so they wanted out to preserve slavery. Lincoln would not allow the breakup of the Union, so the South went to war. So, it was all about slavery. What part of that don’t you understand?

  6. 6 Henry Rech November 7, 2017 at 2:48 am

    “The Southern idea of compromise was simply: give me whatever I want or I will dissolve the Union.”

    By going to war, the Confederate states put everything at risk, did they not? If they lost the war, they lost everything. If they staved off war they could continue their way of life until “external” pressures became unbearable, and undoubtably the external pressure would continue. At least they could buy time. It seems to me going to war was a extremely high risk strategy. Or it almost seems as if they were given no choice or it was mad foolishness?

  7. 7 David Glasner November 7, 2017 at 9:34 am

    Well, they actually came close to winning their bet. Neither side imagined how costly the war would be. That’s true of many, perhaps most, wars.

  8. 8 Henry Rech November 7, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    The point I am trying to make is that Lincoln and the Unionists are being put on the high moral ground – that is, their purpose was to end slavery. This may have been the case but it would seem that they were at least equally determined to preserve the Union, North with South. And much is made of Lincoln’s willingness to compromise (i.e. allow the Confederate states to maintain slavery). This doesn’t entirely ring true with the possibility that the South was putting everything at risk in choosing to go to war, and unnecessarily, given the compromise offered. It almost seems they were cornered and forced to war by the Unionists who were not willing to compromise on the notion of the South splitting from the North and jeopardizing the Union.

    Hence my suggestion that the war was more about preserving the Union rather than abolishing slavery.

    I know very little detail of US history and all of the above is pure speculation and based on what is offered in your post. I would imagine the time context (that is what had been the probable long(?) history of the conflict prior to the commencement of hostilities) of the Civil War is very important in understanding the progression to war. I have no knowledge of this.


  9. 9 David Glasner November 7, 2017 at 6:24 pm

    Henry, The South, for complex political and psychological reasons, was driven to embrace an ideology of white supremacy and the moral justness of slavery that enabled them to defend slavery and argue for its perpetuation. Lincoln would not yield to the psychological and political blackmail that the South was attempting to which the South was trying to subject him and the Union. In holding his ground and refusing to yield to Southern blackmail, you might say that Lincoln was displaying what Mark Twain called the calm confidence of a Christian holding four aces, but he was offering the South the only compromise to which they had any remotely plausible political or moral claim. And they refused it. The fact that they were attempting to extort terms from Lincoln for which they had no legal, moral or political justification does not make them the aggrieved party. Lincoln had no legal or political right to abolish slavery on his own, but he did a the legal and political right to resist the South in its attempt to perpetuate slavery for an indefinite, if not everlasting, period.

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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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