The Corner

Politics & Policy

‘Our federal Union: it must be preserved!’

Donald Trump mused about Andrew Jackson, had he “come a bit later,” perhaps averting the Civil War. The way he talked about it wasn’t particularly deft, but the wave of mockery and obloquy that has resulted has been a bit much. It’s pretty obvious what Trump was getting at — Jackson had no patience for nullification or secession. To his credit, Steve Inskeep of NPR doesn’t sneer, but explains the background here:

This much is true: Andrew Jackson, who was president from 1829-1837, helped to avert a plausible civil war, generations before the actual one. In the 1830’s, South Carolina insisted on its right to nullify, or ignore, federal law. The South Carolinians objected to taxes — federal tariffs on the imported goods they were buying from Europe.

Jackson insisted that federal law reigned supreme. Through a carefully calibrated mixture of threats (a warship actually appeared in the harbor at Charleston, ready to open fire if need be) and compromises (Congress cut the tariff a little), he persuaded the nullifiers to back down.

But this is also true: Jackson never questioned the underlying, fundamental difference between North and South, which was on slavery. He didn’t actually disagree with his fellow Southern leaders about that issue.

It was much, much harder to compromise as the Civil War broke out in 1861, because the nation was more squarely confronting that issue. Northern votes had just elected Abraham Lincoln, a president from an allegedly radical new party that insisted that slavery was wrong and must be contained to the South.

Southerners saw this as a threat to their property, and tried to secede from the Union. From the very beginning the South tried to obscure what the conflict was truly about, citing state rights, Southern theories of liberty, or the economic oppression of the North; but the Confederate vice president, Alexander H. Stephens, made it plain in a speech: the United States was in “error” to believe in “the equality of the races,” and the Confederacy aimed to build on a different foundation.

People did try, desperately, to “work out” that problem before the shooting started in 1861, but it was in the end an irreconcilable difference.

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

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