White House Chief of Staff John Kelly described Confederate General Robert E. Lee as an "honorable man" Monday and said the U.S. Civil War was caused by the "lack of an ability to compromise."
Kelly did not expound on how the conflict could have been averted through compromise. His remarks, however, reflected those of President Donald Trump, who has resisted the removal of monuments honoring the Confederacy and Lee, the commander of the Confederate States of America - commonly known as the Confederacy.
The Confederacy originally consisted of Lee's home state of Virginia and six other southern slave-holding states which seceded from the U.S. and whose economies were dependent on a vast plantation system that relied on the labor of African-American slaves.
Although some maintain the Civil War was fought to preserve states' rights, there is general agreement among scholars that slavery was the impetus of the conflict.
In its letter to secede from the U.S., Mississippi, for example, stated, "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery - the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth." The letter further stated, " ... a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization."
Kelly's comments were made on a Fox News show hosted by conservative host Laura Ingraham in response to a question about the recent decision by a Virginia church to remove plaques that revered Lee and George Washington, a statesman, soldier and the first president of the U.S.
"I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” Kelly said. “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. 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.”
Lee himself owned a small number of slaves and adopted a paternalistic approach toward them. But Lee also was known to severely punish his slaves when he felt it was necessary and said very little publicly about the institution of slavery.
"He was not a pro-slavery ideologue," Civil War historian and Columbia University history professor Eric Foner said in an interview with The New York Times. "But I think equally important is that, unlike some white southerners, he never spoke out against slavery."
Kelly's remarks triggered a stream of forceful reactions from liberals on social media.
"Chief of Staff John Kelly's comments are wrong. There is no compromise between slavery and freedom," tweeted the civil rights group Color of Change.
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates noted on Twitter compromises were made prior to the Civil War, including one that resulted in the platform adopted by President Abraham Lincoln — who signed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery in 1865.
"Lincoln's own platform was a compromise. Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He proposed to limit slavery's expansion, not end it," said Coates.
The history of the Civil War resurfaced as an emotional national issue in August after white nationalist rallies protesting the upcoming removal of a statue of Lee turned violent in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Trump said some of the white nationalist protesters and those representing other viewpoints were "very fine people" and the effort to take down Lee's statue would be "changing history" and "changing culture."
The Circuit Court of the city of Charlottesville is reviewing a lawsuit that was filed by those attempting to prevent the removal of Lee's statue. Plaintiffs contend the statue should be considered a war memorial and thus should be allowed to remain in place.