A Different View of History and John Kelly–A Reply To Noah Rothman

I’m a big fan of Commentary magazine, a faithful subscriber. My remarks below pertain to one of my favorite Commentary writers, Noah Rothman and his recent article entitled, “General Kelly’s Disastrous Interview.” If you haven’t read it, click https://www.commentarymagazine.com/american-society/john-kelly-bad-ideas/  before proceeding with my post. I offer my thoughts as a fan might at a football game, the guy in the cheap seats with an overpriced hotdog and beer. It seems to me that Rothman fumbled, a rarity for one of the best players on the Commentary team. That’s my call of it from the upper deck.

I agree with Rothman’s general point on John Kelly. No question about it, Kelly is becoming more visible in the week-to-week media coverage of the White House. This observation clashes with the stated approach of Kelly as chief of staff, to bring order to a chaotic White House. It also clashes with something else, President Trump’s dislike of sharing the spotlight with anyone else. The media is casting its light far more frequently of late on Kelly than might be advisable for him. So, as I indicated, overall, I agree with Rothman.

My criticisms pertain to his own critiques of Kelly’s use of history. Maybe I’m being pedantic. Fair enough. But I do feel an urge to point out what I see as flaws in Rothman’s analysis.

Rothman blasts Kelly for stating that the American states had more prominence than the American nation during the mid-19th century. According to Rothman, it’s “hogwash” to assert that such prominence extended to anything beyond “affections” and the bonds people felt toward their respective states. Stop right there. I’m sorry, but many people, including not only Lee but his mentor Winfield Scott, agonized over emotional ties at least as much as they did over governmental structures and constitutional arrangements. These “affections” were powerful forces in the lives of mid-19th century Americans. Beyond Scott and Lee, dozens of Union Army soldiers and officers wrote about the unusual men from the “western regions”, meaning anywhere beyond the Alleghenies. Their state was their home, while those from other states were strangers who had lived far, far away. Most of these soldiers, Lee included, experienced nation first and foremost through the filter of their individual state. Small wonder, then, that prior to the Civil War the common reference was to “these” United States and only afterward to “the” United States.

I’m not a military guy but I wonder if Rothman fails to account for the state-based spirit that can still be found in the modern American military. In Kelly’s modern world of West Point, the nominations of new cadets are done on a state-by-state basis. The states were living and breathing cultural entities in the 1800s and, to a great extent in the conservatism celebrated by Commentary, they still are. This is the spirit of Kelly’s remark about the states. It’s not unjust for him to assert that states had a deep hold on 19th century Americans.

I agree with Rothman’s emphasis on the supremacy of the federal government prior to the Civil War. Absolutely: the supremacy emerges in various constitutional cases and political frameworks. That’s the scaffolding depicted in the documents. And yes, Kelly’s comments fail to reflect it. Nevertheless, culturally, the position of states was just as vital as anything regarding a federal or national attitude. I’d have advised Kelly he would be on firmer ground if he simply said that states-based identity was still a powerful force in mid-19th century American life. Case closed.

Moving to my second point, I’m also uncomfortable with Rothman’s invocation of Hamilton, Madison, and “the Founders” to reinforce his condemnation of Kelly. Without directly saying so, Rothman hints that Lee committed treason and thus deserves no charity from Kelly. Worse yet, Rothman suggests Kelly endorses the sinister and manufactured image of Lee as Hero of the Lost Cause. Rothman’s evidence is a narrow reading of the past. He maintains that a clear connection exists between his citation of the June 1783 event and the supremacy of the federal government. The event he cited, however, belongs far more appropriately to a potential military coup and the story of Newburgh earlier in 1783 as well as the Circular Letter authored by Hamilton and Washington, also in that year. That’s the connection historically—to the threat of a military takeover of the civilian government—not to nearly a decade later and the crafting of the District of Columbia in the room where it happened. And don’t forget, the federal-oriented Madison will help Jefferson write the state-oriented Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions before the end of the 1700s. It could be said that Madison by 1799 would have endorsed Kelly’s understanding on the vitality of the states in that era.

One other thing about Madison’s Federalist 43 cited in Rothman’s post. If read closely, Madison’s essay pertains to one person committing treason. His understanding of treason was shaped by Benedict Arnold. Madison does note that “new artificial” means of treason are always under development. A 21st century American might attempt to stretch his thought to include a Lee-like enemy general in a subsequent civil war. Still, I don’t think he’d be inclined to infer that a subsequent fellow Virginian such as Lee would have been viewed by Madison as the equivalent of Arnold.

That’s because of a fundamental difference between the two despite their shared involvement in a civil war. Arnold engaged in spycraft, in skullduggery to quote a term of the day, even to the point of indirectly assisting in the enemy’s attempted capture of Washington. Lee does the opposite—almost as an antebellum version of Don Quixote—he stands up, raises his hand, puts his family at open and declared risk, and marches off, sadly and stiffly, to join the other side. He acts brutally as an enemy general, to be sure, and is a key figure on the Confederate side, but his act against the Union wasn’t the violation Arnold had committed. I believe Kelly thinks he is defending this Lee, not the Lee of the Lost Cause, a creation not of his own doing.

Rothman fumbles again in his excoriation of Kelly for discussing compromise in the run-up to the Civil War. Admittedly, Kelly opened himself to critics when he mimicked Trump’s comments from several weeks ago on how the Civil War could have been avoided with a “deal.” Kelly was just asking to get pounded and he can take the lumps. I can’t help but think, though, that Rothman does a disservice historically when he blasts Kelly for considering the role of compromise during the years up to the Civil War. Yes, many compromises were attempted and many compromises failed. But what Rothman overlooks is that compromise didn’t end with the start of the war. Lincoln pursued compromises of his own in waging the war—hoping to end the war with this bargain or that inducement. He wrote his famous letter to Horace Greeley in August 1862 with the avowed declaration that he was open to a variety of techniques to end the war and deal with slavery, including the allowance of slavery to continue. Whole sections of the US military were commanded by generals and field officers who supported compromise and negotiation. I know that Kelly was referencing compromise pre-April 1861. My point is this: that the concept of compromise and its many variations played a significant role all the way down to April 1865. Compromise wasn’t as clear-cut in its disappearance as Rothman implies.

Like Rothman, I cringed at Kelly’s remarks. Like Rothman, I fear Kelly is slipping down Trump slope. But unlike Rothman, I’m willing to state that there are other plausible readings of the past that allow for Kelly to express himself as he did on the mid-19th century and the Civil War. Happily, I’ll continue to enjoy the work of Rothman and his Commentary colleagues and their efforts to fight the good fight.