Donald Trump, Andrew Jackson, the Civil War, and counterfactual speculation


A few days ago, Donald Trump whipped up a storm with remarks about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War:

In an interview with the Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito, Trump compared himself to President Andrew Jackson and said Jackson, if he was born later, could have helped avoid the Civil War.

And then, in comments that whipped Washington into frenzy Monday morning, Trump said he didn’t understand why the Civil War had to be fought.

“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War,” he said. “He was a very tough person but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw with regard to the Civil War, he said ‘There’s no reason for this.'”

“People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

This link is to the full Examiner report of the interview.

Later, Trump tweeted:

Journalists and historians are trying to make sense of these remarks, a fool’s errand in my opinion. The ones I’ve read begin with the premise that Trump had some sensible ideas in mind, but that he is inarticulate, leading to his typically garbled statements. My opinion, but I only know what I read about Trump and what I’ve seen watching the debates, is that Trump is invincibly ignorant and unjustifiably confident about his knowledge and thought. Thus the journalists’ and historians’ premise is likely wrong. Trump does not have coherent ideas, and his incoherent ones are confused, ignorant, or false. Or all three.

Trump’s idea that people don’t and haven’t thought and discussed the causes of the Civil War and considered if it might have been avoided is foolish and ignorant. Literally thousands of books and many more college lectures argue these matters. It does illustrate his habit of thought that if he doesn’t know something, then no one knows it, and when he learns something, no one knew it before.

This is from a March speech Trump gave at a Republican National Committee dinner:

“Great president. Most people don’t even know he was a Republican,” Trump said while addressing attendees at the National Republican Congressional Committee Dinner. “Does anyone know? Lot of people don’t know that.”

Trump then said Republicans need to spread the word that Lincoln was a Republican, appearing to be unaware of the fact that the GOP is commonly referred to as the “party of Lincoln.”

“Let’s take an ad, let’s use one of those PACs,” he said.

Trump says that Jackson, a slave-owner and slave trader, who was a key force in the United States successful effort to wipe out native American people east of the Mississippi, had “a big heart.” ???

As Trump says, let’s suppose that Jackson had been born later and died later and let’s imagine some counter-factual history.

Let’s suppose that the Democrat Andrew Jackson, a war hero and slave-owning Tennessee Democrat had won the presidential election of 1860 instead of Abraham Lincoln. In that case, I must say that Trump is correct. South Carolina, and the other deep south slave states would not have seceded. South Carolina militiamen would not have fired on Ft. Sumter. Voila! No Civil War.

Let’s suppose that Jackson had been president instead of Democrat James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860. In those days, the election was in November and the Inauguration in March. In those four months South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas declared that they had left the United States. Armed southern white men took control of United States forts and arsenals. Perhaps Trump has in mind that Andrew Jackson, a slave-owner himself, would have ordered United States forces to resist this treasonous attack on the United States.

In the Nullification Crisis of 1828, South Carolina, again, passed a law “nullifying” a federal tariff. Jackson credibly threatened to send troops, Congress modified the offending tariff, and South Carolina backed down. Does Trump think that this would have worked out the same way in the winter of 1860-61? It turns out that even though we are engaging in counter-factual history, we know what would have happened because President Buchanan sent supplies and the South Carolinians fired on the ships, driving them away. Presumably, if Jackson had ordered the same re-supply, the white southern militias would have done the same.

Then Abraham Lincoln, now in office, attempted to re-supply the besieged garrison of Ft. Sumter with unarmed ships (known to be unarmed by the Carolinians), South Carolina Gov. Pickering ordered now C. S. A. General P. T. G. Beauregard to open fire, the first shots of the Civil War. This led President Lincoln, in accord with his Constitutional oath of office, to call for soldiers to put down an armed rebellion against the United States. This led four more slave-owning states, Virginia (less its western counties), Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas seceded in response. Furthermore, during this time, both in the final months of the Buchanan administration and in the first months of Lincoln’s, frantic efforts to negotiate a solution took place.

The conflict between southern white plantation and slave owners and northerners had been a part of American history throughout the life of the United States and had produced intense, vicious fights, such as the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This last led to “Bleeding Kansas” a bloody guerrilla war between Free Soil men and pro-slavery forces. Not only is it hard to see what Jackson might have done that would have made a difference, given the election of Lincoln.

Trump, in his vague way, does not tell us what he thinks was the outcome of what he thinks was an unnecessary war. Modern scholars believe that slavery was the cause of the war, and the abolition of slavery and the preservation of the Union were its chief results. White southerners and modern neo-Confederates assert that state’s rights were the cause of the war, not the right to secede but the right to decide for themselves to keep slaves (but not the right of northern states to abolish slavery). According to this school of thought, Lost Cause thinking or the Dunning school, white Southerners only took up arms to defend themselves against a Northern invasion. If Trump is reasoning that Jackson solved the Nullification Crisis, so he could have solved the Secession Crisis, but if Jackson were president instead of Lincoln, he wouldn’t have been trying to limit the spread of slavery and the South wouldn’t have seceded. Slavery would not have come to an end.

How does Trump think Jackson could have brought an end to slavery? Would he have wanted to?

Trump is thinking of the strong man school of leadership. Strong leaders accomplish their goals through force of will. Thus, it seems to Trump, that Jackson could have forced something or other short of war because he was a dominant leader, as Trump aspires and admires. This is likely the muddle that underlies Trump’s interview answer. All these ideas about leadership, Andrew Jackson, the Civil War, leadership, lie in a heap within Trump’s mind. None of the details logically correct, some are wrong, but Trump’s expression of these ideas reminds us that, to him, everything is about him. Andrew Jackson could have solved that terrible crisis, and today, “Only I can solve our problems.”

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Filed under Civil War, Politics, Slavery

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