Magazine | May 29, 2017, Issue

A History Lesson for the President

Trump understands Andrew Jackson better than the Civil War

In an interview with Salena Zito of the Washington Examiner, President Trump offered his thoughts on Andrew Jackson and the Civil War, which gave everyone something to talk about besides North Korea and health care.

Parsing Trump’s remarks is complicated by his stream-of-unconsciousness style. Drilling down, he turns out to have been half right and half wrong. Scholars’ reactions to him were as mixed, in their way, as Trump himself.

This is what Trump said: “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. . . . He was really angry [about what] he saw . . . with regard to the Civil War, he said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’ . . .

“People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

Trump’s most obvious mistake was his math. Jackson left the White House in 1837, the Civil War began in 1861. Twenty-four years is longer than a little later. Trump corrected himself in a tweet: “President Andrew Jackson, who died 16 years before the Civil War started, saw it coming and was angry.” Closer, but no cigar: Sixteen years — four presidential terms — is still a fairly long time.

If Trump’s math was fuzzy, his view of Jackson’s character and opinions was clear and clearly right.

Jackson faced his own proto–Civil War in 1832 when South Carolina, led by his soon-to-be-former vice president John C. Calhoun, announced that it would not collect the tariff of 1828 within its borders. The tariff, Calhoun explained, was protectionist, therefore discriminatory against high-importing states, therefore unconstitutional. He asserted South Carolina’s right to disobey it.

Jackson disagreed. “The Union,” he declared in a public toast — “it must and shall be preserved.” (“The Union,” Calhoun responded — “next to our liberties, most dear.”) Jackson got Congress to pass a bill allowing him to collect the tariff in South Carolina by force, and let it be known he would happily lead the troops himself. South Carolina backed down; in return, the tariff was lowered. Jackson later said that one of his regrets in life was not hanging Calhoun.

Trump’s scholarly critics, knowing Jackson’s record, made a more serious point: Great men do not make history. David Blight, professor of American history at Yale, told Mother Jones that Trump’s remarks were “like saying that one strong, aggressive leader can shape, prevent, move history however he wishes. This is simply [a] 5th grade understanding of history or worse.”

True. But denying the role of strong leaders is simply a grad-school understanding of history or worse. Strong leaders never act as they wish or all alone, and they know it. Jackson had to mobilize support and lead it. One reason he facilitated the expulsion of the Cherokees from Georgia was to keep that state in his corner during his fight with South Carolina.

The crisis of 1860–61 was far more serious than Jackson’s. South Carolina, which seceded in December 1860, was no longer an outlier but a leader, with six more states following it out of the Union by February 1861. Their grievance was not a single law, but the political system itself, which had put Abraham Lincoln, a Republican (and, in their view, an abolitionist), in the White House.

But personality still mattered. The outgoing administration of James Buchanan was weary and inept, the incoming Lincoln administration was slow to find its feet. A determined president of military mien might have made southern fire-eaters revise their calculations. The clash might have been delayed, or brought on more advantageously for the Union.

More disturbing was Trump wondering whether the Civil War might not have been “worked out.”

This was in part businessman’s talk — the kind of thing I have been hearing all my journalistic life from executives, usually Republican, who ask why politicians don’t “do what is reasonable,” “use common sense,” etc., etc. (Politicians don’t because they are moved by ambition, and by different judgments of what is reasonable.) With Trump the sentiment came filtered through the ego of the self-described artist of deal-making.

But Trump’s thoughts about the Civil War, like his thoughts about Andrew Jackson, were not plucked from thin air. They are the natural first reaction of anyone thinking about the carnage of the Civil War. They were also the scholarly consensus of the early and mid 20th century. Couldn’t this have been stopped? we ask, appalled. Yes it could have, said scholars 70 to 90 years ago.

That consensus had a name — the “Repressible Conflict,” inverting William Seward’s incendiary 1858 argument that there was an irrepressible conflict between slavery and liberty. Biographer Albert Beveridge put the consensus view pithily in a letter to economic historian Charles Beard. “The deeper I get into this thing” — Beveridge was working on a biography of Lincoln — “the clearer it becomes to me that the whole wretched mess would have been straightened out . . . if the abolitionists had let matters alone.” Straightened out is almost Trump’s formulation.

One way of avoiding the whole wretched mess would have been if slave owners had agreed that their institution ought to end sometime. A number of prominent slave owners — James Madison, John Marshall, Henry Clay — belonged to the American Colonization Society, which founded Liberia in 1821 as a refuge for freed American slaves, though it only ever harbored a few thousand. Could buy-outs have increased the number? Madison and Thomas Jefferson had come up with figures — $600 million and 900 million, respectively — that seemed prohibitive. I have met cotton determinists who argue that if the whole wretched mess could have been put off for only a few years, when Egyptian cotton came onto the world market, American slave owners would then have been eager to sell. I am not so sure. Slavery was never solely an economic proposition. Owning people is fun, once the initial repugnance is overcome, and Americans are ingenious enough to have thought of other uses for their possessions.

A more likely way of avoiding the whole wretched mess would have been for the country simply to accept slavery’s survival. But slave-state leaders did not want their institution simply to survive — they wanted it to spread to the territories: existing ones like Kansas, and soon-to-be-acquired ones in the Caribbean basin (pro-slavery filibusters tried to take over various parts of Central America and Mexico throughout the 1850s). Influential northern Democrats, most prominently Illinois senator Stephen Douglas, were happy to accept such a trajectory.

That deal was never worked out because enough abolitionists, ex-Democrats, and ex-Whigs formed a new party, the Republican party, to stop it. This is history a Republican president ought to know.

Charles Kesler, professor of government and political science at Claremont McKenna College (and NR veteran), hailed President Trump, in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, for “redirecting Republican policies toward the pre–New Deal, pre–Cold War party of William McKinley and Coolidge, with its roots in the party of Abraham Lincoln.” Which presidents of that Republican party would have asked, with Trump, why the Civil War could not have been “worked out”? Not Lincoln, certainly, nor Grant, nor TR (who called Jefferson Davis “an unhung traitor”). Beveridge, before he turned to biography, was indeed a Republican senator from Indiana. Is that the kind of Republicanism that should be revived and applauded?

Great men have an effect on the world, not least because of what they think about the world. But ordinary men matter too, especially in democratic ages. Last fall, a friend of mine in Wisconsin took me to Ripon, to see the Little White Schoolhouse, which claims to be the birthplace of the Republican party (Michigan also has a contestant). There in 1854 twenty locals met to protest a law, shepherded through Congress by Stephen Douglas, opening Kansas to slavery. It was men such as these, in dozens of places, who made the movement that Lincoln and Seward led.

Figuring out the motivations of masses of men can be daunting. Tocqueville warned that modern historians are tempted to look for a shortcut and find it in some vast, impersonal cause. For them, “it is not enough to show what events have occurred: They wish to show that events could not have occurred otherwise.” But history can jump several ways, because men can. To trace the past we have to follow men’s minds. To act rightly now, we — Trump, professors, all of us — have to be clear in our own.

Richard Brookhiser — Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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