A Confederate Curriculum

Roundup
tags: Civil War, Confederacy, Confederate Monuments, Mildred Lewis Rutherford, John Kelly Robert E Lee



Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools, which chronicles controversies over school history since the 1890s.

The Civil War was a tragedy. There were good people on both sides of the fight. And all that death and destruction surely could have been avoided if they had been more willing to compromise.

That’s the lie that white people told themselves after the Civil War to mask America’s original sin: the enslavement of African Americans. After a century of that story calcifying into historical memory, it clearly still has legs, as we discovered when Laura Ingraham interviewed White House chief of staff John Kelly on Fox News on October 30.

Confederate general Robert E. Lee was “an honorable man,” Kelly said. He added that “men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand” during the Civil War, and he warned against imposing our own views of “right on wrong” upon the past. And, in the sentence that stuck out most, he attributed the Civil War to “the lack of an ability to compromise.”

But antebellum history is littered with attempts to make a deal over slavery. Witness the Compromise of 1850, the Missouri Compromise in 1820, and—most notoriously—the three-fifths compromise in the U.S. Constitution, declaring that enslaved blacks would be counted as less than full human beings.

John Kelly’s remarks echoed a later compromise about the Civil War itself. Starting in the late nineteenth century, white Southerners and Northerners reached a negotiated historical settlement of the bloody conflict that had divided them. Those in the South conceded that secession had been illegal and that slavery was wrong, even if its evils had been exaggerated by abolitionists. Meanwhile, Northerners embraced the narrative—dramatized later in films like Birth of a Nation—that emancipation had freed blacks to rape and pillage until white rule was reinscribed in (yes) the Compromise of 1877. ...




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