The president’s chief of staff, retired general John Kelly, was right: the American Civil War resulted because of an inability of both sides to reach a compromise regarding the abolition of slavery. The knee-jerk reaction of some of those who have criticized Kelly assumes some compromise would have meant slavery to continue indefinitely and reflects a lack of insight into the history of slavery in the Americas.
The abolition of slavery in the American colonies began in 1787 in England with the encouragement of Quakers, and the evangelical Christian political leader William Wilberforce. Eventually, the British Empire abolished the slave trade in 1807, and slavery itself in 1834. The British recognized that an orderly transition was necessary to protect the interests of everyone, and established a period of 4 or more years of apprenticeship before full freedom. Thus, slavery ended in Barbados and elsewhere in the British Caribbean without war, and 30 years before the end of slavery in the United States. And slavery ended there with a better outcome than it would in the United States. Why did we not follow that successful example?
Unfortunately for us, both North and South were so polarized that any similar kind of gradual emancipation was impossible. The result was more than 500,000 dead soldiers, a completely devastated Southern economy, and both black and white poverty for multiple generations. The transition from a slave economy to a paid free-worker economy was a catastrophe, and the bitterness after a failed Reconstruction affects our country still. The Northern radical abolitionists wanted to punish the South for the undeniable evil that was slavery, so stubbornly refused to consider dealing “with the devil.” The South, whose financial system depended so heavily upon slavery, felt threatened and reacted defensively rather than suggesting the example of Barbados and other British colonies.
Our history would have been much different if reasonable men had sought compromise. The South which depended almost entirely on agriculture, imported high-priced manufactured goods, weighed down with tariffs protecting Northern manufacturers and merchants. Southern planters’ investments were primarily in enslaved workers, and liquidating those investments without financial compensation would have resulted in widespread bankruptcies. A reasonable compromise could have allowed the South to import goods without tariffs during a period of transition to a free labor economy, and the opportunity for the South to develop some manufacturing of its own. All Americans would be better off today if we had.
We should learn from that past polarization as we witness our increasingly polarized country today. If we continue to see each other's political beliefs as evil beyond redemption we risk further decline in our system of government.