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John Kelly and Misplaced Loyalty

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is in hot water over his controversial claims Monday about the Civil War. The specific phrase that upset most people was his assertion that the Civil War was caused by a "lack of an ability to compromise."

They are rightly upset, because this claim is simply false. If anything, the national leaders prior to Lincoln compromised too much.

The Missouri Compromise, in 1820, admitted Missouri to the union as a slave state; in exchange, it admitted Maine as a free state and barred slavery in most parts of the Louisiana Purchase territory north of a specified latitude. The Compromise of 1850 eliminated the slave trade from Washington, D.C., but also required citizens of free states to aid in the capture of fugitive slaves. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which replaced the Missouri Compromise in 1854, let citizens of Kansas and Nebraska decide whether to allow slavery.

And, of course, there was the compromise that aided the very passage of the Constitution: the Three-Fifths Compromise, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of congressional districting.

The Civil War was preceded by compromise after compromise, and not once did compromise alleviate the problem.

But Kelly's broader statement, forming a background to the "lack of compromise" quote, reveals a much more dangerous mindset.

I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. 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.

I want to focus on the phrase I've highlighted, "It was always loyalty to state first back in those days." It was this loyalty to the state that makes Robert E. Lee an honorable man in Kelly's eyes. But I would say this is precisely the reason General Lee was not an honorable man.

Now I'm not going to argue that Lee should have had more loyalty to his country than to his state. That would be the same mistake with a different civil authority.

Loyalty to any organization—whether government, employer, union, service organization, religion, or whatever—should always be conditional. If my state advocates buying and selling of humans as property, I must oppose it. If my federal government advocates bombing and military sanctions against other countries—as it has done continually for most of my life—I must question it. If my church taught that it was OK to discriminate against people because of their skin color, ethnic origin, gender, orientation, or economic status, I would have to find a different church.

Those in power must be held accountable, not only for their actions, but for the values they promote. The easiest way to resist the clutches of authoritarianism is to refrain from giving our unconditional loyalty to an authority in the first place.


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