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 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.