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On Trump, Jackson and the Civil War

On Trump, Jackson and the Civil War
REUTERS/Carlos Barria
President Donald Trump thinks things are simple until he discovers are they aren’t and then he assumes he is the first to discover as much.

The New York Times Tuesday morning roundup of the news, with wry, hilarious understatement, put it this way:

The president’s comments about the Civil War underlined what seems to be a tenuous understanding of the events that preceded his ascension to power.

“Events that preceded [Donald Trump’s] ascension to power” is a snotty way of saying “all of U.S. history.” That’s the thing, or at least one of the things, about which the current incumbent has “what seems to be a tenuous understanding.” That’s “tenuous,” which the dictionary defines as: ”lacking a sound basis, unsubstantiated, weak.”

Trump thinks things are simple until he discovers are they aren’t and then he assumes he is the first to discover as much, as in his famous remark that until February when he discovered it: “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”

The president can’t stop flaunting his ignorance. But since he flaunted it repeatedly during the campaign, in ways that our pre-Trump understanding of the unwritten rules of U.S. politics would have meant that he had disqualified himself to be president, this is just one more demonstration that those rules were not only unwritten, they were tenuous, bordering on nonexistent.

Trump's bizarre ramble about the Civil War intermingled with his man-crush on Andrew Jackson who, in Trump’s understanding, could have prevented the Civil War and even had laid a plan to do so. (Although Jackson died in 1845, 16 years before the secession crisis, he was president during the so-called “nullification” crisis, when South Carolina asserted the right of states to nullify, within their borders, the application of federal laws with which a state might disagree.)

'Jackson was really angry'

Jackson disagreed with that theory and succeeded in defeating nullificationism, which is certainly not the same as secessionism. If Trump actually had anything in mind when he said that Jackson – who as I just mentioned died 16 years before the Civil War – had a plan for preventing the Civil war, Trump may have had the nullification crisis in mind. But there is no basis for Trump’s ignorant and bizarre statement: “Jackson was really angry when he saw what was happening with the Civil War.”

Trump has occasionally made favorable remarks about the most beloved figure in U.S. history, Abraham Lincoln. If he were a little swifter in the brain, he might have realized that in claiming that Jackson would have averted the war, he is essentially blaming Lincoln for not doing the smart things that Jackson would have done to prevent it.

The current incumbent began his latest display of ignorance by noting that no one ever asks why the Civil War occurred. Really? Really? Here’s the quote:

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 a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?

Omg. Lots and lots of people, many of them brilliant scholars, have devoted volumes to why the Civil War occurred. There are a few theories, some more complicated than others, but the overwhelming consensus on the cause of the Civil War can be summarized in one word: slavery.

So, for the record, Trump was right about something. The Civil War would not have occurred if Andrew Jackson had been president. That’s not because Jackson was smarter or tougher or a better dealmaker than Lincoln. It’s because Jackson was both a southerner and a slaveholder and, as long as he was president, the South would not have felt its “peculiar institution” faced extinction.

Ten presidents owned slaves at some point

Ten of the 15 presidents who preceded Lincoln had been slaveowners at some point in their lives. Eight of those 10 owned slaves during their presidencies. The legality of U.S. slavery had not been seriously challenged, although slavery and participation in the slave trade had been outlawed in most of the rest of the world. (Even “serfdom,” in Russia, was abolished in 1861.)

But slavery had never faced a serious threat of abolition in the United States. It was actually protected by the Constitution (although the framers managed to insert those protections without actually mentioning the word “slavery.”)

Perhaps the thing that “people don’t realize,” to paraphrase Trump, is that Lincoln ran for president in 1860 promising the South that he had no plan to directly threaten slavery in the states where it then existed.

Lincoln was not an abolitionist. Abolitionism, which certainly existed, was still viewed in 1860 as a fairly radical movement, and no abolitionist could have been a major party nominee nor elected as president in 1860.

Republicans were also generally not abolitionists, but the party coalesced around the idea that, although slavery could not be ended in any fixed or short time frame, it could be set on a path toward “ultimate extinction.” Putting slavery on that path was the Republican mantra in that era. And that was Lincoln’s position.

Lincoln’s big idea in 1860 was to guarantee the rights of slaveholders in the states where slavery then existed (perhaps because, to do otherwise, would cause a Civil War) but prevent the further spread of slavery into new states as the nation continued its westward expansion. A lot of new territory, acquired in the war with Mexico, had not yet been organized into states. The Lincoln/Republican position was that slavery must be tolerated where it then existed, but that no new slave states should be admitted.

If that plan had worked out over the next years, the predominance of free states might even have reached the point at which a constitutional amendment ending slavery could be imagined. Certainly, southern slave owners could imagine it and were determined not to go down that path.

Some of these considerations fed the impulse to secede, to form a new nation where the right of slave owning would be guaranteed. And secede they did.

Lincoln's position

Lincoln took the position that since the Constitution made no mention of any right to secede (although it made no mention to the contrary either), secession was impossible and that he simply wouldn’t recognize it. But he took no immediate military steps to enforce that view. That led to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, off the coast of South Carolina, and that ended any chance that the issue could be worked out without a war.

I suspect you already knew much of that. Apparently our president doesn’t, which led to his ridiculous statements about Jackson and how he could have prevented the war through superior deal-making prowess.

If you find the history of Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery over his lifetime interesting, I did a full piece on it back in 2013 based on the great work of historian Eric Foner. Thanks to the miracle of the worldwide web, you (and Trump, if he has any interest) can access that piece here.

Oh, and by the way. After his initial remark, which implied that he was unaware of Jackson’s death before the Civil War started, our president took to his favorite medium to indicate that he was well aware of when Jackson died. He tweeted: “President Andrew Jackson, who died 16 years before the Civil War started, saw it coming and was angry. Would never have let it happen!”

Trump has not yet attempted to back up either his belief that Jackson saw the Civil War coming (which no historian I have found agrees with) or that Jackson had a plan to prevent the Civil War if he had seen it coming.  

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Comments (26)

Abysmal Ignorance

I'm willing to grant, for the sake of discussion, that President Trump was referring to the Nullification Crisis and not the actual Civil War/Treason in Defense of Slavery. The man is not known for his nuanced thinking, but whatever.

What is appalling is the notion that some kind of "deal" could have been brokered to avert the war at all. Many such "deals" were attempted, but none came even close to being put in place. There is also the moral repugnance of a "deal" in that context. Any kind of "deal" would have had the result of allowing slavery to continue indefinitely, and perhaps even allowed or encouraged to expand. The question of the right to own human chattel should not be something that is subject to negotiation.

There is also the ahistorical idea that President Jackson could have prevented the war by negotiation. He was a man of many enemies, and one of his most bitter enmities was towards Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser.

The question is

whether such a 'deal' (we are not talking about a business negotiation here where compromise are typically made in dollars) would have lasted more than 20 years, given the competing belief systems ('God-given rights') dividing the two sides.
Imagine a Civil War twenty years later, with large numbers of machine guns on both sides. The slaughter would have been even greater.

History

The way I look at that period of history is that it is one of nearly constant negotiation and dealmaking starting with the drafting of the constitution. We were all taught about those deals, in high school history. It's why people like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, even that guy the lake is named after, are famous in American history. What that period of history teaches us is that you can paper over irreconcilable conflict for just so long. For me the question about the constitutional system created by the founders was not why it crashed when it did, but rather how did it manage to survive for so long?

Amen to both

…Mr. Holbrook and Mr. Brandon. That the Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in our history is widely known outside the Trump White House, and Mr. Brandon's comment is trenchant in that context. Think World War I without aircraft or (we would hope) poison gas. Instead of 600,000 dead we might have had deaths in the millions, and the total collapse of American society in the process, including any remaining sentiment toward democratic government. Meanwhile, "compromise" seems unlikely given the increasing influence of abolitionist sentiment in the north and the increasing denial of the basis for abolitionism in the south.

George Fitzhugh and Hinton Helper were writing in the mid-1850s, only a few years before Fort Sumter, that slavery was a "positive good" (Fitzhugh) and that the industrial north was essentially making slaves of its factory-employed citizens (Helper). The popularity of their works in the southern states suggests that, even leaving the morality of slavery out of it altogether (which seems unlikely, since that was a primary theme of abolitionists), the chances for compromise wavered between slim and none.

And I'm inclined toward Holbrook's assertion about Jackson, as well. Jackson was a badly-educated, insecure southerner who was neither subtle nor mild-mannered, so perhaps Trump thinks of him as a kindred spirit. In any case, and granted that we'll never know, I'm not persuaded that Jackson would somehow have managed to broker a compromise that would have averted civil war. His expulsion of the Cherokee from Georgia and North Carolina suggests that his sympathies for people of color were nonexistent, and, as a slaveholder himself, it's unlikely that he'd have been on board with abolition, no matter how gradual its pace or the compensation that might be paid by the government to slaveholders should it be abolished. Compromise, as even the nullification issue illustrates, was not something Jackson usually regarded as a good thing.

And beyond all the factual and academic arguments, I have to admit that I love the NYT's use of "tenuous understanding." I had 16-year-olds in class who knew more about our society than the current occupant of the Oval Office. Sad.

Jackson and Compromise

"In any case, and granted that we'll never know, I'm not persuaded that Jackson would somehow have managed to broker a compromise that would have averted civil war." There would have been no need for him to do so. The southern states attempted secession because they thought the Lincoln Presidency was the beginning of the end for slavery. No one would ever have thought that about a Jackson Presidency.

I have seen some quotations from letters by Jackson in which he purportedly expresses his misgivings about slavery, and how it would lead to an insurrection someday. Any misgivings did not prevent him from becoming one of the largest slaveholders in Tennessee.

I am terrified that ....

TRex Potus is implying that if the Civil War were to have occurred despite any efforts by Jackson that slavery was not the cause. He is of course minimizing the cruel condition of human bondage for the sake of money. That is the understanding of what slavery is to anyone with any kind of human sensitivity. This is outrage that drove us to war-some wanting to protect their money making connected to holding other humans in chains to preform labor that they would keep for themselves while others were outraged by holding another human captive. To minimize slavery could soon lead to blaming the victims of slavery for causing the Civil War. There are still those who would hold that slavery was a benevolent institution that worked to the benefit of it's victims. These are dangerous times. Trump as we have already discovered exhibits dangerous thinking. I am waiting for him to be asked in this current discussion if he thinks that slavery worked to the good of those who were slaves. I am afraid of what is answer would be.

Another interesting article . . .

Thank you, Mr. Black, for yet another interesting, informative article. I love history (although I didn't much back when I was in school, wonder why?) and I've just read some interesting pieces regarding the civil war in the last two weeks, so this article was so . . . timely.

I always enjoy reading what you have to say, and I sincerely hope our President gets to read your article here as well, although, I'm sure he's too busy tweeting to get a chance to.

Keep up the good work. Knowledge is power.

A couple points

“Trump has occasionally made favorable remarks about the most beloved figure in U.S. history, Abraham Lincoln. If he were a little swifter in the brain, he might have realized that in claiming that Jackson would have averted the war, he is essentially blaming Lincoln for not doing the smart things that Jackson would have done to prevent it.” Strictly speaking, the fact that Lincoln could not prevent the Civil War in 1861 doesn’t logically mean that Jackson could not have found the ways to prevent it by doing something 10 years earlier, were he alive and a President at that time… By the way, this is purely an exercise in logic, not in history’s “what if,” just to point out that Trump’s statement about Jackson should not necessarily be construed as blaming Lincoln…

“There are a few theories, some more complicated than others, but the overwhelming consensus on the cause of the Civil War can be summarized in one word: slavery.” I am actually not sure that this is correct even though it may be possible to track it down to that. The Southern slave-owners were not evil racists who wanted to torture blacks (even though this interpretation is very popular). Nor were the Northerners all knights in shining armor whose main goal was to free the salves. Slaves were the means of production in the South, just like horses, and, in Southerners’ minds, abolishing slavery meant total economic collapse and poverty for them. (Imagine what would have happened if the government at that time contemplated banning the use of horses in agriculture and transportation…) So the cause of the Civil War was actually the economy, which was, in the South, based on slavery… In other words, if technology were introduced at that time that would have replaced slaves and were cheaper, I am not sure the Civil War would have happened… By the way, this is not by any means a defense of slavery as an institution or racism, in case this clarification is necessary…

About Those Slaveholders

Where to begin?

"The Southern slave-owners were not evil racists who wanted to torture blacks (even though this interpretation is very popular)." There is the inherent evil in owning another human being as a means of production. That's a hard one to get around. As far as racism, that's a chicken and egg question. Slavery was once a common way of subjugating conquered people. The phony racial "theorizing" came after the fact, to justify what even slaveholders had to suspect was not a very nice thing.

"Wanted to torture blacks." Again, the inherent evil of slavery should make any talk about physical abuse irrelevant.Nevertheless, even though there were laws on the books prohibiting the maltreatment of slaves (big government interfering with freedom again), those laws were rarely enforced.

"Nor were the Northerners all knights in shining armor whose main goal was to free the salves." True enough. For all the revisionism that holds abolitionists up as heroes, at the time, they were regarded as dangerous radicals.

"laves were the means of production in the South, just like horses . . ." Never mind human dignity, y'all. Why this is not evil is something I cannot understand.

"In other words, if technology were introduced at that time that would have replaced slaves and were cheaper . . ." Two big ifs. Cotton farming-the staple of the southern economy-was not mechanized until the 1930s. Slave farming was also a major source of income for many planters, so they had an economic interest in mechanization not arriving.

I thought I made it clear

I thought I made it clear that slavery is evil and so is racism... Now, let’s get to real stuff. Cannibalism was once a common thing AND we all look at this practice now as evil; that doesn’t mean that all cannibals long ago were evil. Let’s try to separate our moral values from those in the times long ago… What we consider evil now was not so in those times so we cannot apply our moral judgment to people who lived then. There were white slaves in America and many slave owners had close relations with their slaves… We should be honest about the past and neither whiten nor blacken it to serve our immediate perceptions.

Real Reality--Really!

"What we consider evil now was not so in those times so we cannot apply our moral judgment to people who lived then." There was always an ambivalence about slavery in the United States. Jefferson believed it was wrong, on some level, but freeing his slaves would have meant an end to his patrician idylls. In the Jacksonian era, there was an abolitionist movement that the President attempted to suppress. The morality of slavery was far from unanimous.

"There were white slaves in America . . ." Are you referring to the discredited argument that the Irish were enslaved in the United States? Or do you mean indentured servants, who were nothing like slaves? Student loan borrowers, perhaps?

'[A]nd many slave owners had close relations with their slaves… " Just ask the Hemings family, out Virginia way. The "close relations" were still between an owner and his chattel.

Big difference

“There was always an ambivalence about slavery in the United States. Jefferson believed it was wrong, on some level…” Sure, wrong on some level… not evil – big difference.

White slaves: https://www.amazon.com/White-Cargo-Forgotten-History-Britains/dp/0814742963, https://www.amazon.com/They-Were-White-Slaves-Enslavement/dp/0929903056. I didn’t read these books and don’t know how correct they are but there should be something about that… Let alone that there were plenty of white slaves in Africa (Barbary Coast). And there were also black slave owners, I believe. All I am trying to say is that “slavery” doesn’t equal “racism” the way we understand it now. Plus, slavery is an ancient institution, when races were pretty much irrelevant.

White Slavery

(That heading brings to mind lurid silent films, but never mind.)

There is a legitimate dispute about whether indentured servants are legitimately regarded as "slaves." I would note that indentured servants had a real possibility of freedom, and were not denied rights based on their race after their indentures were completed.

"Let alone that there were plenty of white slaves in Africa (Barbary Coast)." Yes. And? The Barbary Coast has never been a part of the United States.

"And there were also black slave owners, I believe." In 1830, roughly 13,000 out of a total of 2 million slaves (less than 1%) were owned by free people of color (fewer than 3800, out of 320,000 free blacks). Many, if not most, of the owned slaves had some kind of familial attachment to the owner (a free man might buy his wife). Paradoxically, the black slave owners were not allowed to vote, or pursue many professions.

"All I am trying to say is that “slavery” doesn’t equal “racism” the way we understand it now. Plus, slavery is an ancient institution, when races were pretty much irrelevant." This is a chicken and egg thing. The racial theorizing that was used to justify slavery (and later, Jim Crow laws) came after slavery had already been established. It was meant to provide a moral cover for slaveowners who could not shake the Enlightenment rhetoric about the equality of men.

Races seem to be relevant now. However you choose to look at slavery now, there is no denying that its legacy affects our society, our politics, and our culture today.

Yes, race seems to be very

Yes, race seems to be very relevant now, to the point that everything is tied to it, even things that have absolutely nothing to do with it. Slavery is probably thousands and thousands years old while racism is just a few hundred years old (less than anti-Semitism, for sure). White slaves and black slave owners are just a proof that slavery and racism may exist independently. So can we just agree that now we all view slavery and racism (separately) as evil but this moral approach was not always the case because human morality evolved over time, at least in this aspect? And we cannot accuse people of the past (long ago past) of not following our moral standards – it is just illogical, the same as accusing them of not knowing nuclear physics.

You are right

to the extent that slavery was less of a root issue than racism.
The South (with the inevitable exceptions) was less interested in the institution of slavery than it was in the concept that blacks were a separate and inferior race to be exploited for the benefit of whites. That's why the status of sharecroppers after the war was little better (and sometimes worse) than that of slaves.
Since the South was mainly agricultural (King Cotton) and mechanism was a long ways away, this is not a real issue. In the North, manufacturing was already becoming mechanized since the necessary technology did exist.
The other factor is that slaves were a major economic investment. Even if machines were available to replace them, the economic value of slaves would have made their replacement by mechanization a huge economic loss to slave owners.

“The South (with the

“The South (with the inevitable exceptions) was less interested in the institution of slavery than it was in the concept that blacks were a separate and inferior race to be exploited for the benefit of whites.” Not at all. Economy governs everything and slaves were a good investment (as you admitted) – in America and in Brazil, for example, which, by the way, had more salves and for longer. Justification of racism came later and a loss in the Civil War made it worse; hence, bad treatment of blacks after slavery ended. But if cheap reliable low maintenance machines were available, sure they would have been used instead of salve labor…

Ilya, Ilya, Ilya ...

You seem to disagree, then agree with the statement you seek to disprove. You seem to say that slaves were a good investment; there was no racism involved. That basically supports the statement that white slave owners believed blacks were inferior; which is exactly what you're disagreeing with. You really make no sense whatsoever when it comes down to it. Just defending in some ludicrous way the institution of slavery.

You, sir, insult the memory of my great-grandfather, Frederick Gunther, who fought for the Union in the Pennsylvania 3rd Cavalry, most notably on the battlefield of Gettysburg. I advise you to stop defending the indefensible.

Please explain

Can you please explain to me how saying that slaves were good investment supports that the white slave owner thought that blacks were inferior? I don’t see any logical connection here… And what did the black slave owners think? Or what did the white slave owners think about white slaves? Slaves were machines so no one thought of their inferiority – that came later. So no, I do not defend slavery any more than I defend cannibalism. I am just saying that this was the way people lived then and we should not judge them from now…

Alexander Stephens, Vice

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, in his Cornerstone speech of 1861:

"Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."

OK, Alexander Stephens was a

OK, Alexander Stephens was a racist…and quite possible many others in the South… but not all. Not even all slave owners and not all fighting for the South.

I knew it ....

would happen. Someone would minimize the under laying content of Potus bizzare remarks. The subjection of human beings for the dollar is evil. Period. You just cannot cut it any other way. The southern states were racist/ fascist. There was with an elite barony running the show. Was the north holy and the south not. It is not that simple. And apparently the ideas the southern states held seem to be winning the civil discourse. Blaming the victim seems to be our way of life.

What do you mean?

“The subjection of human beings for the dollar is evil. Period. You just cannot cut it any other way.” I didn’t, just reread what I said. “The southern states were racist/ fascist.” Totally different and not true. Again, just reread my post. “Blaming the victim seems to be our way of life.” Who is blaming who?

"This is not

a defense of slavery." Well, it sure sounds like one. The vast majority of historians and people who read (who aren't "southern apologists") know that the root cause of the Civil War was slavery, and the attempt to perpetuate it. You can say a lot of stuff about "the North was no angel," but it still doesn't change that fact. Virtually all the secession states said so at the time.

You're twisting logic to defend some truly idiotic statements by our president. In the process, you're engaging in the same "what if's" he used to say how "awesome" Jackson was. Nice try, but sad.

Imagine

“The vast majority of historians and people who read (who aren't "southern apologists") know that the root cause of the Civil War was slavery, and the attempt to perpetuate it.” If you reread my post, you will find that I said that it is possible to track it down to slavery… but slavery was just an engine for southern economy and that was the real root cause. In other words, they didn’t defend slavery for the sake of slavery but for the sake of their livelihood. If tomorrow Trump demands that all computers in California be destroyed, what do you think would happen?

Technology!

I had to chuckle at the thought that, if only technology had advanced enough and been cheap enough, the Civil War would not have happened because there would be no need for slaves!

Tell me, what machinery can reproduce itself and operate itself for pretty close to free and without any mechanical knowledge once you've paid for it (or inherited it)?

Southern whites felt entitled to superiority over their black slaves, as well as being able to sit on their European laurels to perpetuate their moral and financial superiority. The thought that they might actually have to innovate added insult to injury when faced with the threat of losing their slaveholder status. After all, the Industrial Revolution had already pretty much wrapped up by the time the Civil War broke out. If the Southern slaveholders just needed technology, you'd think they'd have had ample opportunity.

Economy rules

“Tell me, what machinery can reproduce itself and operate itself for pretty close to free and without any mechanical knowledge once you've paid for it.” OK, can you tell me why the slave ownership societies of the ancient world were replaced with medieval feudal system? Definitely, not because people started thinking that slave owning was immoral… Slave labor is not efficient and mankind grew out of that economically 1,500 or so ago… After that, it was used only in several specific fields and areas in the world once in a while...

"Southern whites felt entitled to superiority over their black slaves, as well as being able to sit on their European laurels..." Again, what about black slave owners?