In the news today, President Trump said that Andrew Jackson could have prevented the Civil War from happening, had he lived a bit later in time. And twitter freaked out and was convinced he was a moron.
What he said, specifically, was this:
I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart . . . He was really angry that he saw what was happening 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?
And, as it turns out, Jackson was president during a precursor incident, the Nullification Crisis (see wikipedia as well as a PJ Media article by Tyler O’Neil), in which South Carolina asserted that it nullified federal tariffs that it opposed. Jackson responded by sending warships to South Carolina, rejecting the notion that a state had the ability to nullify a federal law as tantamount to treason, and worked to get Congress to pass a bill authorizing military force to enforce the tariffs, while at the same time, compromising by reducing the tariff itself, and South Carolina backed down.
In May 1833, Jackson wrote that “the tariff was only the pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object. The next pretext will be the negro, or slavery question.”
These words are quite frankly stunning. In 1861, South Carolina would again nullify federal law, formally seceding from the Union, mentioning the slavery question. A later president, Abraham Lincoln, would also argue that if states can nullify laws or leave the Union, the U.S. is not a nation.
Chillingly, the Civil War started in that same Charleston harbor, as Confederate troops fired on the Union outpost of Fort Sumter, and the rest is history.
Trump is correct — Jackson condemned the movement which later birthed the Confederacy and the Civil War. He even took two of the exact same actions Abraham Lincoln would later take — defending Charleston harbor and declaring that nullification/secession is a cause for military force against the South.
Jackson was able to bring about a compromise that averted the Civil War in 1833. It is impossible to know if he would have been able to achieve this in 1861.
Now, to be sure, it’s possible that Trump really had no idea what he was talking about. It’s likely that he only heard a broad statement rather than knowing particularly many details, and whether Trump thought Jackson was alive, just retired from politics at the time of the Civil War, or whether he misspoke and was thinking of the prior crisis, we don’t know. After this flew through Twitter, Trump himself tweeted what seems to be a clarification of this latter item, or at least a claim of such:
President Andrew Jackson, who died 16 years before the Civil War started, saw it coming and was angry. Would never have let it happen!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 2, 2017
But his detractors are gleeful. They think he didn’t know the cause of the Civil War:
Trump asks why the Civil War started.
Because folks that would have eagerly voted for Trump didn't wanna give up their slaves.
— Tea Pain (@TeaPainUSA) May 1, 2017
<) )╯The Civil War
( (> was 100%
<) )> about slavery.
— went so left (@C_GraceT) May 1, 2017
Because people wanted to keep owning other people, you absolute vapid moron.
— John Pavlovitz (@johnpavlovitz) May 1, 2017
And so on.
But why did the North/South divide on slavery come to a head in 1861? Was it inevitable that a war would be fought? Certainly, slavery was a root cause, but was it the proximate cause? It’s not as if the North, due to a majority in Congress, had outlawed slavery, or declared its intention to do so. It is not unreasonable to suggest that a different set of actions would have produced a different outcome. Was a war inevitably set in motion when Lincoln was elected? Could a Nullification Crisis-like response have avoided secession, or brought those states back in without a war?
And the U.S. was not the only slaveowning country; some abolished slavery sooner, others later, but the U.S. was, to my knowledge, the only country that ended slavery as a result of a war.
Now, we can debate whether the Civil War was “worth it” – worth the casualties, that is: 620,000 dead, 476,000 wounded, for the final outcome of the end of slavery sooner than otherwise. We can discuss the contrafactual of “when would slavery have ended, if not due to the Civil War?” Or we could even take the position that the Civil War was unavoidable.
But, of all the foolish things that Trump has said, this one just doesn’t seem to qualify as meriting the hysteria.
Image: Civil War re-enactors. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACivil_war_reenactment_1.jpg; By Daniel Schwen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons