Historians react to Trump’s Civil War comments: ‘That’s entirely wrong in every respect’

Christopher Wilson
Editor

Historians Monday valiantly tried, and mostly failed, to understand and interpret President Trump’s remarks about President Andrew Jackson. Among other comments, Trump seemed to assert that Jackson, who died in 1845, could have prevented the Civil War, which began in 1861, and that the causes of the bloodiest conflict in the nation’s history have not been addressed or discussed.

“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War,” said Trump in an interview with the Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito. “He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart, and 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?”

The comments, published Monday morning and broadcast on SiriusXM Radio, led to confusion over Trump’s understanding of Jackson’s beliefs and general American history.

“First of all, historians have actually talked about the reasons for the Civil War quite a bit,” said Kevin Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton, in an email to Yahoo News. “Second, there’s an overwhelming consensus among historians that the Civil War came about because of slavery. Simply put, the war came because the southern states seceded, and they seceded — as they quite clearly said themselves at the time, over and over again — because of slavery. Mississippi’s secession declaration, to take just one, is quite direct here: ‘Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.’”

“The question of why the Civil War should have happened is not only central to the study of U.S. history but to our entire national mythology,” said Eric Rauchway, a professor of history at UC Davis, in an interview with Yahoo News, “and Lincoln’s answer to that question is literally chiseled on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial about a mile’s walk from the White House.”

“Historians of the U.S. were surprised to learn that nobody asks why the Civil War happened, as it’s one of the central questions of American history,” said Nicole Hemmer, assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, to Yahoo News. “It’s even featured on the test for American citizenship. But when Donald Trump marvels at the ignorance or incuriosity of the masses, what he’s really doing is expressing his own ignorance and incuriosity. He’s saying that he’s never asked about the origins of the Civil War.”

Jon Meacham, author of “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House,” attempted to parse Trump’s historical commentary.

“The president seems to be conflating two things,” said Meacham in an email to Yahoo News. “The first is Andrew Jackson’s determined stand for the Union against South Carolina nullifiers in 1832-33; Old Hickory believed in the primacy of his federal government and faced down John C. Calhoun and others over the supremacy of federal law. The second is Trump’s thought — one he first expressed to me in an interview for Time last year — that perhaps a deal of some kind could have averted the Civil War.”

“The problem with the latter,” added Meacham, “is that any accommodation with the South would have to have ratified the continued existence of slavery in the old slaveholding states — which, to be fair, was a mainstream possibility in the prewar days. What finally drove secession was Lincoln’s refusal to allow the expansion of slavery westward. All fascinating, complicated stuff — but one has to wonder why the 45th president, who has plenty to do, is blithely relitigating what Shelby Foote called ‘the crossroads of our being.'”

Rauchway also suggested  that Trump might have been thinking about Jackson’s actions against former Vice President Calhoun.

“To give the president the benefit of the doubt,” said Rauchway, “I imagine he is thinking there of the Nullification Crisis where Jackson faced down John C. Calhoun over the South Carolinian attempts to nullify a federal tariff law and that therefore Jackson is sometimes referred to as being a strong Unionist, which I suppose is fair enough. But at that point the issue of slavery wasn’t directly at issue or its expansion wasn’t directly an issue, and I don’t think Jackson would have been effective in dealing with that issue in any way.”

There was also pushback against Trump’s musings that Jackson could have prevented the Civil War and his suggestion that the seventh president — whose Indian Removal Act essentially legalized genocide — had a “big heart.”

“Andrew Jackson himself was a slaveholder and the Jacksonians were slaveholders and they despised the abolitionists,” said Rauchway, “so it’s hard for me to believe that they would have been able to prevent the Civil War. And actually it was Jacksonian policies – particularly those of James K. Polk, who styled himself as Young Hickory, as a direct heir to Andrew Jackson – which precipitated the Civil War. That’s entirely wrong in every respect.”

“Jackson had a big heart for white farmers,” said Hemmer, “Less so for the American Indians he slaughtered and the African-Americans he enslaved. Given Trump’s own focus on white Americans over nonwhite Americans, it’s not surprising that he would fail to see the limits of Jackson’s big-heartedness.”

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