Compromise and Slavery

01 November 2017

I happen to be in the middle of teaching W.E.B. Dubois' amazing work The Souls of Black Folk to Stanford freshmen. It talks a lot about the failures of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow from an on-the-ground perspective. In addition, we’ve just done an episode entitled Race Matters, which got me reading Chris Lebron’s fine book, The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea. If you haven’t read either book, it is worth reading both, but definitely don't miss Dubois since it is essential reading for every American or anyone who wants to understand America. 

I’ve also been thinking a lot recently about remarks made by General John Kelly, President Trump’s Chief of Staff, about the supposed unwillingness of the North and South to compromise over slavery as a leading cause of the Civil War. In light of what I’ve been teaching and reading recently, I’d like to share a few philosophical and historical thoughts with you about compromise and slavery. Kelly actually has it completely backwards.

The seeds of the Civil War were first planted because of compromises between the North and the South over slavery and its perpetuation. Those compromises were designed to make possible a new but fragile union. They infected our politics from the beginning. They implanted the deadly virus of slavery into the very being and soul of this nation. With ever more demanding compromises continually being made, the virus grew and grew. It became more and more malignant and finally exploded into the Civil War.

If you are unfamiliar with the extent to which the North actually compromised with the South over slavery, continuing long after Lincoln's death, check out Ta-Nehisi Coates' long but illuminating Twitter thread on the topic:

The point is that the Civil War became necessary precisely because of initial and ongoing compromises over slavery. It is no mere accident of history that alone among the slave-holding nations of the New World, it took a war, and a total war at that, to eliminate the virus. Even after the war, when some dared hope, however briefly, that the deadly virus was finally eradicated, it turned out that the North was not done compromising with the South. It was another compromise—one that gave the Republican Party the presidency (in another contested presidential election) and gave the South back over to the control of the defeated white plantation class in exchange—that led to the dark era of Jim Crow and the reintroduction of the briefly dormant virus of slavery but by another name.

The undebatable lesson of history is that there are times when compromise is the enemy of the good, the enemy of justice, the enemy of progress. The point is not that compromise is always bad. Sometimes compromise is the only way forward. Practical wisdom, or what Aristotle called phronesis, involves knowing when to compromise and when to stand and fight on principle. Would that our leaders were practically wise enough to know the difference.

Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, November 2, 2017 -- 11:45 AM

I am not too surprised by

I am not too surprised by General Kelly's lack of insight on this topic. He was chosen for his image as a straight shooter (no pun intended) and because his new boss understood the political value that the appointment could afford. I don't imagine that John Kelly has ever been anything but an honorable man. If my assessment is wrong, blame me for a lack of first-hand knowledge. If I am right, consider the following intractable truth: General Kelly knew what he was getting into. He also knew he would be expected to tow the President's line regarding what to say and what not to say about anything, similar to the current Press Secretary. These people are who they are expected to be: political operatives in political jobs. There is no delicate way to frame it. It is sad that they choose to be in these positions, under any circumstances. But, perhaps, especially so under THESE circumstances...