Last week White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.”
That’s true . . . although it wasn’t for want of trying. There was the Missouri Compromise in 1820, which admitted Missouri as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and prohibited slavery in the northern Louisiana Territory. Later there was the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California as a free state, abolished slavery in the nation’s capital, and sharpened the teeth of the Fugitive Slave Law. Even before those were the compromises in our Constitution itself: the clause that counted each slave as three-fifths of a person and the one that forbade Congress from prohibiting the importation of slaves until 1808.
Every one of those compromises failed. Congress repealed the Missouri Compromise in 1854. Three years later the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in Dred Scott v. Sanford, calling “the negro . . . an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic.” Four years after that, Confederate artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter. The failure to compromise, as General Kelly observed, had led to the Civil War.
But why had it failed? Note that every attempted compromise focused on one issue: slavery. And slavery, like all its later manifestations – Jim Crow, sharecropping, lynch law, segregation, the new Jim Crow – contradicts the most sacred words of the American creed:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Maybe those words are too important to compromise.