General Kelly, the White House Chief of Staff, in a recent interview has suggested that a key reason for the US Civil War was the inability to compromise. I have some sympathy with the General as he seems to be in the middle of a polarized debate every day of the week. You can feel his desperate need for peace. And part of the argument about compromise hangs on the view that there were honourable people on both sides of the war.
There are, however, several problems with this ‘diagnosis’:
- First, simply because there were good people of both sides does not make their moral position equivalent. There were good people in Nazi Germany but this did make their position a cause for compromise.
- Second, honour is a tricky word; as reading Shakespeare will tell you. When Mark Anthony speaks to the crowd over the body of Caesar his speech is peppered with recognition that ‘Brutus is an honourable man’. By the end of the speech the crowd begins to turn against Brutus and the conspirators, not because Mark Anthony had questioned his honour, but because he had invited them to reflect on the life of Caesar. By extension, this questions the judgement of the honourable man. This means that you can be an ‘honourable’ person with lousy judgement and poor eyesight. Brutus could not see the merits of Caesar or that Cassius was manipulating his sense of honour.
- It is fair to say that Robert E. Lee, the object of Kelly’s argument, believed what he was doing was honourable, but that he was short sighted, politically and morally. He could not see the consequences for the USA and he could not see the humanity of the slaves he fought over.
Shakespeare develops this theme in Henry IV part 1 and 2. At the two extremes we see Falstaff, prepared to imitate honourable behaviour for his own ends, and Hotspur whose thirst for honour was meant he could not see the consequences of settling scores against his honour. In the middle of these two is Henry V who learns the meaning of honour as shared by all and based in equal respect; ‘we band of brothers’.
So, when you begin to open your eyes to the Civil War, you see several things which come as a surprise to many:
- First in January 1808, just over forty years after the War of Independence, Jefferson got the abolition of the slave trade into law; that was a few months before the UK abolition.
- Second, however, whilst the Quaker inspired work kept going to the abolition of slavery itself in 1833, the US became bogged down in the attempt to keep the Union together in series of compromises. In response to the third of these Lincoln returns to politics and his argument is partly that you cannot govern if you haven’t worked through the meaning and practice of the founding vision, in this case,
‘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’
You cannot hold the principle of human equality whilst you are buying, selling and killing human beings with impunity, and it took the US another fifty odd years to address this and more than a further century to work at what it meant to be equal and different. This was not a matter of compromise, it was a matter of integrity; the willingness to stand up for big values and the willingness to keep looking critically at what we do and to challenge each other.
If they had not gone through that they could not have governed the USA. The same is true, albeit much less complex, of the governance of any organization. The big ideas demand regular reflection and compromise, in calling out abuse or injustice, will not do.