President Donald Trump made a rather curious statement on Monday about the Civil War that had people either confused or enraged. In an interview with the Washington Examiner’s Salena Zico, Trump said that the Civil War was avoidable and could have been prevent if President Andrew Jackson had lived a bit longer. He insisted “There’s no reason for this.” Many people have noted that there were millions of reasons in the form of enslaved blacks and Jackson was hardly the man to call when the question of slavery was raised.
First and foremost, I agree with Trump that there are clear analogies between his victory and the election of Andrew Jackson. Trump stated “My campaign and win was most like Andrew Jackson, with his campaign. And I said, when was Andrew Jackson? It was 1828. That’s a long time ago.” I think that the comparison is a good one historically and politically. Both were populist victories and both presidents credited their victories to the power of the common citizen.
Then, however, it get a bit more twisted. In the interview, Trump discussed how a deal could have been struck to avoid the Civil War. He stated in pertinent part:
“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. 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, 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?”
It is hard to get past the first line:
“I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart.”
I have long been a critic of Jackson who I viewed as man with a lethal temper and shaky allegiance to the rule of law. Jackson was so excessive in his application of martial law in New Orleans during the War of 1812 that he was reprimanded for his denial of basic rights, including denying press freedom. The image of the big hearted Jackson is a bit hard to square with the man who was most responsible for the Trail of Tears where thousands died under the Indian Removal Act. Jackson openly defied the ruling in Worcester v. Georgia (1832) where the Court ruled that Georgia could not assert authority over the Cherokee as opposed to the federal government. Jackson however was less concerned with the Indians than he was avoiding a conflict with the Georgia militia. He refused calls from people like Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams to support the claims of the tribes. Instead, he continued the removal of the Indians.
Of course there is also the obvious problem that Jackson was a slave owner himself and might not be particularly sympathetic to the cause of abolitionists. He owned 150 human beings when he died in 1845. He placed ads to recover runaway slaves. One such ad, entitled “Stop the Runaway,” offered details of a “Mulatto Man Slave, about thirty years old, six feet and an inch high, stout made and active, talks sensible, stoops in his walk, and has a remarkable large foot, broad across the root of the toes — will pass for a free man.…”
It was equally curious to read Trump’s statement that “He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, ‘There’s no reason for this.'”
Once again, Jackson died in 1845 and the war started in 1861. Trump may have been referring to Jackson stopping the secession of South Carolina in the 1830s. However that was part of the “Nullification Crisis” and the insistence of South Carolina that it could void federal tariffs. A compromise was readily available over an individual state’s ability to void federal tariffs. That is nothing like what faced Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s.
This is not the first time that Trump appeared to fold history. Speaking at an African-American history event, he said that 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass “is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”
Trump concluded his remark on Jackson with “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?”