Author Debunks John Kelly’s Civil War Claim With Powerful Twitter Thread

"Notion that we are putting today's standards on the past is, in itself, racist--implies only white, slave-holding, opinions matter."

On October 31, author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates crafted a lengthy Twitter thread "regarding John Kelly's creationist theorizing on Lee and the Civil War" as a direct response to remarks White House Chief of Staff John Kelly made about the controversial figure in American history and what he stood for.

Per The Washington Post, during an October 30 appearance on conservative pundit Laura Ingraham's new Fox News Channel show, The Ingraham Angle, Kelly praised the actions of Confederate Army leader Robert E. Lee by calling him an "honorable man." 

Kelly made that comment after he was asked about the decision of a church in Alexandria, Virginia to remove plaques honoring George Washington and Lee, and later went into further detail. "He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it's different today," the four-star general said of Lee. "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 them make their stand." 

The Post noted historians have called Kelly's remarks "strange," "highly provocative," and "dangerous," but in his Twitter thread Coates goes even further, arguing Kelly's statements represent a complete misunderstanding of the Civil War, Lee, and all that he embodied. 

"[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 begins, adding even former President Lincoln (who authored the Emancipation Proclamation) wanted to "limit slavery's expansion, not end it."

The "spirit of compromise," Coates argues, reminding us that many compromises about slavery were reached, "led to explicit White Supremacist rule in the South for a century."

That's in part why, according to Coates, these "compromises" are misnamed — they weren't compromises at all because they were still predicated on the notion that whites were the superior race.

Throughout his argument, Coates mentions numerous times that the undisputed information he's unloading about Lee and the Civil War is not difficult for someone to find on their own. As he puts it, "You do not have to sit in a Harvard history colloquium to understand the Civil War."

Still, it's troubling, though not surprising to Coates, that someone in Kelly's position in 2017 could fail to properly understand Lee, the Civil War, and the beliefs that supported it.

The Between the World and Me author also makes the key point that the Civil War had nothing to do with a lack of compromise. It was a battle fought over the very existence of slavery, which Lee and others with similar views wholeheartedly believed in and sought to expand to other territories. In that vein he states, "Praising Bobby Lee as an honorable man is just sad. Like some kid insisting his deadbeat dad is actually a secret agent away on a mission."

In fact, Coates cites sources that described Lee as someone who liked to torture his own slaves and believed Black Americans were meant to be enslaved. In other words, even by 1860s standards when plenty of people knew slavery was "dead wrong," Lee was anything but honorable.

The issue Coates has is that, Kelly, an individual who, "believes a war for slavery was honorable," now occupies one of the most powerful positions in America. As he states near the end of the tread, "You really do see the effect of white supremacy."

Coates' fact-checking in the service of marginalized groups may be difficult for some Americans to come to terms with, but during a time when so much of what we see and read only reaffirms our own possibly flawed beliefs and biases, it's of paramount importance.

Cover image via the Department of Homeland Security.

GET SOME POSITIVITY IN YOUR INBOX

Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest news and exclusive updates.