Thoughts on Trump, Jackson, the Civil War, slavery, and autocracy

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Oh, Donald.

As I am sure you are aware by now, the so-called president opened his mouth again about American history, and demonstrated his utter and total ignorance of it.  In case you’ve not seen it yet, here is what he said:

“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And 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?”

Just for fun, let’s break down how every sentence in that diatribe reveals ignorance in more ways than one.

1. “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.” This shows that, unlike what others have been saying, Trump does know that Jackson was not around for the Civil War, so let’s be fair to him in this regard. However, the problem is the suggestion that the Civil War could have been averted by a stronger leader. So this means that:  a) Trump thinks Jackson was a better president than Lincoln, and B) that a strong leader would have been able to forge a compromise. The first point needs no comment, because it’s so patently absurd (and I doubt that even the people at The Hermitage would agree with Trump on that score). On the second point, it is not altogether clear what Jackson would have done about secession in 1861. On the one hand, in the Nullification Crisis he did make it clear that he felt that secession was the essence of anarchy, because democracy could not work if secession was a legitimate recourse for the minority when the majority ruled against them. This was precisely Lincoln’s stance on it, and is why he decided he could not let the South go when they seceded. Thus, the Civil War. On the other hand, Jackson’s wealth and elite status was dependent on slavery, so he might have decided that, like the South’s leaders, the preservation of slavery required secession. and thus, the Civil War. So whichever way Jackson went on it, you still get the Civil War.

Oh, but perhaps Trump meant that Jackson would have been able to forge a compromise. An entire generation of better politicians than Jackson repeatedly forged compromises on the slave issue, but eventually the Republican Party was born from the stance that compromise on the issue of slavery’s expansion was no longer desirable, lest the “slave power” take over the government and the country. But even after they won the presidency on that platform (you know, with Lincoln, the guy Trump thinks most people don’t realize was a Republican), efforts at compromise continued in Congress (with Lincoln’s blessings), all failing to avert war. What makes Trump think Jackson could have worked something out when better men than him failed? Jackson is not exactly a man that is renowned for his ability to compromise, hence his defiance of the system of checks and balances in regards to Indian removal, and his killing of the national bank. Oh, and his proposed solution for the Nullification Crisis (more on that later), was to hang a U.S. Senator by the neck until dead. Yes, he had just the temperament the country needed in the volatile secession crisis.

2. “He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart.”  Yes, indeed he was a very tough person, surviving wars, duels, and a bullet lodged in his back. But a big heart? Oh, so many ways we could smash this assertion, but I’ll settle on the two most obvious. 1) The Cherokee Indians helped Jackson win his first major victory at Horseshoe Bend in Alabama, and he even had an adopted Cherokee son. Yet he betrayed them (in defiance of the Supreme Court), by forcefully removing them from their lands via a military process that led to the death of thousands. 2) His hunting down of runaway slaves and fondness for the lash are well documented. Wow, what a tender sweetheart.

3. “And he was really angry that — he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.'” The main way that this statement has been attacked is by pointing out that Jackson could not have seen what was happening in regards to the Civil War, because he was not around by then. But, as indicated above, I think Trump knows that. So he must be referring to one of two things here, or both: 1) the growing sectionalism of the country even during Jackson’s time, or 2) the Nullification Crisis. In either case, Jackson’s presidency and temperament in fact inflamed both situations.  Again, there are many ways to attack this, but I will stick to just two. First, by alienating the previously nationalistic John C. Calhoun from his administration, Jackson in many ways created the sectionalized John C. Calhoun that worked to unite Southerners in defense of their own best interest. The Nullification Crisis was one product of this and was indeed a precursor to the Civil War. It ended via a compromise that prevented a war against the state of South Carolina. Perhaps this is why Trump believes Jackson could have prevented a Civil War. But think about this second point: Had Jackson refused to allow a compromise, and had stomped South Carolina into submission when it threatened secession, perhaps the South would have never threatened secession later over the slave issue. It was Calhoun’s argument and demonstration of the effectiveness of the secession threat that proved its power to force federal concessions. So does Jackson’s handling of the Nullification Crisis not actually in some way play a role in the South’s later secession that led to the Civil War? Hmm, maybe a stretch, but things to consider, Donald.

4. “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?” Well, actually, if Donald would go down to the Library of Congress (or maybe just look around the White House, I am sure there are some good history books laying around), he might find that more books have written about this, and more historians have worked on this, than just about any other American history topic. It is also a question that students all across the country are confronted with in their basic US history classes from elementary school until college. In fact, I dare say many of them wrote essays on it just today on final exams (mine did). So this one statement shows that Trump is clueless about what historians do and of what gets taught in schools. He could just ask his son, I bet he just studied the Civil War this year in that expensive Manhattan private school that Trump is keeping him in at the expense of millions of dollars each day to the American taxpayer (in security costs). But that’s another topic.

5. “Why could that one not have been worked out?” I could go into a whole lecture here about the causes of the Civil War, but the funny thing about this is that it comes from a man that has just recently admitted he thought the job of president was going to be easier than it is, and who has expressed frustration that he has not been able to even work his legislation through a Congress controlled by his own party.  Oh, and how about that North Korea thing? You tell me, Donald, why is it so hard to work things out?

But there are two bigger things to consider here.

Let’s say that Jackson did work it out, and there was no Civil War. Guess what Donald, that means that slavery would not have been destroyed (because any compromise would have had to ensure the survival of slavery in the southern states at the very least). That means that four million people would have remained in bondage (subject to the brutalization of southern slave masters like Andrew Jackson). Trump has recently praised Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass. Perhaps he should consider what their thoughts would be on a compromised settlement that would have averted the Civil War, leaving slavery intact. (Maybe he could call Douglass and asks, since he seems to think he is still alive). Was there really “no reason for this?”

And then there is this:  These statements from the president are not just ignorant and funny, they are frightening from several different perspectives. We have a man that repeatedly demonstrates he is absolutely clueless about his own nation’s history. Which is scary enough, considering how important history is for understanding our world and for making crucial decisions while leading it. Almost all of our presidents have been history buffs, and some of them, like Theodore Roosevelt, were historians themselves.  But this is also a man that has recently asserted that congressional rules are “archaic” because they require so many check and balance hoops to navigate (which protect the minority from majority tyranny), and who also seems to be considering a proposed challenge to the 1st amendment. Couple those things with these new statements about Jackson which reveal Trump (who’s presidential hero is a man that defied the system of checks and balances) thinks that powerful leaders can somehow singlehandledly bend events to their will, and this all once again points to the fact that the so-called president apparently fantasizes about autocracy.

THAT is what is scary about this Jackson/Civil War statement. And what we can’t let get lost as we continue to laugh at, criticize, and defy this presidency.

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