Trump’s comments about the Civil War are mocked when they should be discussed

Summary: Liberals loudly condemned Trump’s remarks about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War. They should have thought instead of talked. We can learn much from looking at our long struggle with slavery, obscured as it is by centuries of myth-making. Trump was correct. The role of Andrew Jackson provides a useful perspective on this, with lessons for us today.

“To spend our time …scolding {our ancestors} for not having the exquisite social consciences we have acquired over the last 40 years is nothing but a form of self-congratulation – the characteristic mode of liberal thinking in our time.”
—  James Bowman in “Ken Burns’s War“ in The New Criterion, 30 November 2007.

President Jackson
President “Make my day” Jackson, by Thomas Sully.

 

An interview of President Trump

by Salena Zito of the Washington Examiner.

Trump made three statements about the Civil War in this interview. The Left went berserk. Journalists, professors, political columnists — screaming ignorant, false, wrong! In fact, Trump’s statements had an element of truth in them. The questions he raise are important and usually ignored.

He {Jackson} was really angry that he saw with regard to the Civil War, he said ‘There’s no reason for this.’

Of course that Trump did not mean this in a literal sense, as his following words show (Jackson died in 1845). But Jackson understood that the political crises of his time were driven by those who sought to break the Union (see his statements shown below).

We cannot know which side Jackson would have taken in the Civil War (he owned slaves and opposed the abolitionist movement). But Jackson had a deep love for the Union and hatred of those who would rip it apart. Unlike many in the antebellum South, his loyalty was to the Union — not to his region (Tennessee joined the Confederacy). This was clearly seen during the Nullification Crisis of 1832-1837, a trial run for the Civil War.

“Tell them from me that they can talk and write resolutions and print threats to their hearts’ consent. But if a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man of them I can lay my hand upon the first tree I can reach.”

— Message from Jackson to the people of South Carolina, July 1832. Versions vary.

South Carolina Senator Robert Hayne expressed doubt that Jackson would really hang anyone. Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benson replied, “When Jackson begins to talk about hanging, they can begin to look for ropes.” With this incentive, a compromise was found.

“To say that any State may at pleasure secede from the Union, is to say that the United States are not a nation because it would be a solecism to contend that any part of a nation might dissolve its connection with the other parts, to their injury or ruin, without committing any offense. Secession, like any other revolutionary act, may be morally justified by the extremity of oppression; but to call it a constitutional right, is confounding the meaning of terms…”
— “President Jackson’s Proclamation against the Nullification Ordinance of South Carolina“, 11 December 1832.

Heman’s gallows ought to be the fate of all such ambitious men who would involve their country in civil wars”
— Letter to Andrew I. Crawford regarding the Nullification Crisis, 1 May 1833.

Jackson foresaw what was to come in a letter to Reverend A.J. Crawford on 1 May 1833: “the tariff was only a pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object. The next pretext will be the negro, or slavery question.” That does not suggest someone willing to destroy the Union over slavery, but is an insufficient basis to draw strong conclusions either way.

Had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.

By Lincoln’s time the war was probably unavoidable. What about the presidents before Lincoln? Trump said “a little bit earlier” than 1865, not what if Jackson had been president in 1860. The last probable opportunity to avoid the war came 20 years after Jackson — during the time of President James Buchanan (1857-1861). But Buchanan’s actions (and inactions) made it both inevitable and severe.

Buchanan did little to prevent the War during his term. He acted ineffectually after South Carolina seceded on 20 December 1860 (followed by 6 others during his term). He allowed his Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, to distribute Union army equipment from the St. Louis arsenal to future Confederate States. He did little to reinforce Fort Sumter after that battle began on 12 April 1861, nor did he act when the future Confederate states seized forts, arsenals, lighthouses, mints, post offices, and ships.

Perhaps strong action during 1857-1861 might have prevented the war, or mitigated it. We can only guess about such things. Everyone gets their own opinion. For more about this, see American faux history: could we have avoided the Civil War?

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?

This is a serious question, which Americans should ponder. So, of course, Trump was loudly mocked for it. After all, Americans are exceptional. If we fought a long bloody war over slavery, then it must have been unavoidable. But not only did countries free their slaves (and serfs) before America, but did so peacefully (or as an integral part of their wars of liberation). We could have done so too, but we were exceptionally stupid. Rather than casting stones at the dead, realistic comparisons of our history to that of other people might deflate our egos — and make us a better and more effective people.

He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart.

Here liberals show us the core of their rage at Jackson. He fails to measure up to their levels of moral wonderfulness, defended only by the feeble excuse that he was born 250 years ago. It’s fun to watch liberals flutter across the intertubes, virtue signaling, like fireflies.

What about Jackson’s racism? Wasn’t he especially evil? Unfortunately not. Racism is a sin baked into our national soul at the Founding. Wilson was a racist. FDR expelled hundreds of thousands of Mexicans from America (including American citizens). And even today overt racism has become trendy.

What about Jackson’s wars on on Native Americans (e.g., forcible removal on the Trail of Tears)? That was just the warm-up for America’s 19th century history of stealing their land, with frequent bouts of genocidal violence.

But we do not get to feel superior to our ancestors. We stand on their shoulders. Any moral superiority we have vs. them results less from our awesomeness than their work — slow hard-won progress over many generations. Rather than pointlessly making moral scorecards of the dead. let’s work so that our descendents have a better world than ours.

Update: Trump did not say that the Civil War was not about slavery

A favorite tactic of the Left is to lie about an opponent’s statements, then give a rebuttal to their lie. It generates cheers by their flock.  It discredits them with anyone else paying attention. Such tactics are why they have lost so much political influence during the past two generations.

Twenty Dollar Bill

Conclusions

Self-righteous virtue-signaling is fun but a waste of time. Instead let’s evaluate Jackson as a man of his time and see what he did for us. It is a long list. To mention just a few, President Jackson deferred the civil war for a generation. He struck a blow against America’s rapacious bankers (which we’ve been unable to do). He paid off the national debt (the only president ever to do so). He improved America’s relationships with other nations, leading to a large rise in exports. It’s one of the more impressive records of any president, warts and all.

We should look at the horrific aspects of his era as evidence of the progress we have made — and as an antidote to the pernicious myth of American exceptionalism. Unlike the flaws of the dead, our hubris has ill effects and is something we can change.

“I ask students who their heroes are. There is usually silence, and most frequently nothing follows. Why should anyone have heroes?”

— Allan Bloom in Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987).

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more about this see all posts about populism, about Reforming America: steps to new politics, and especially these…

For more about the origin of populism…

…see “Andrew Jackson’s Shifting Legacy” by Daniel Feller (Prof History at U Tenn) at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. He is also the author of The Jacksonian Promise: America, 1815 to 1840 (1995). From the publisher…

The Jacksonian Promise
Available at Amazon.

“In Jacksonian Promise historian Daniel Feller offers a fresh look at the United States in the tumultuous Age of Jackson. Viewing the era through the eyes of people who lived in it, Feller’s account captures the optimism and energy that filled America after the War of 1812. His emphasis on Americans’ confidence in the future and faith in improvement challenges historians who depict the Jacksonian temperament in terms of anxiety and foreboding.

Jacksonian Promise opens with the Jubilee anniversary of Independence in 1826, when Americans celebrated their national birthright of liberty and opportunity. Blessed with abundant resources and what they held to be the best government on earth, citizens believed they could accomplish nearly anything. They felt it in their power to remake themselves, their country, and the world.

“Feller traces the influence of this enterprising spirit across a broad range of Jacksonian activity. Experiment and innovation flourished as Americans built canals and factories, founded unions and utopias, staged religious revivals and moral crusades, and campaigned to eradicate social ills and to purify law and politics. Yet despite their common source, competing programs of progress soon clashed with each other. As citizens organized to pursue their hopes for America’s future, divisions arose among that pointed ultimately toward civil war.”

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20 thoughts on “Trump’s comments about the Civil War are mocked when they should be discussed

  1. I think part of the problem is that the primary people who talk much about the Civil War – other than regional enthusiasts – are usually pushing a line that in fact it was not about slavery, that the Confederacy was in the right, and by the way did you know that Lincoln didn’t actually free the slaves?

    Of course even cursory research can disprove the first point – the second is a complex question of law which in a sense was averted – and the last is a fatuous point; but then, declaring your love for the Confederacy is its own form of “virtue signalling.”

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    1. The war was over secession.

      Secession was in large part but not singularly about slavery.

      Sectionalism has always driven America. It drove the War between the States as well.

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    2. Dagwood,

      Thank you for the sermon. Next time please read the post and attempt to make a relevant comment.

      “Sectionalism has always driven America. It drove the War between the States as well.”

      First, that “always” is quite false. Sectionalism has been a declining force force in US politics for generations (more powerful factors are racial, gender, & rural-urban). Second, if you had read the post you’d see that Jackson (like many American leaders) fought sectionalism.

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    3. Dana,

      “that in fact it was not about slavery”

      Absolutely true. But lies about history are a remarkably ineffective antidote to lies about history.

      There is a broader point here. Since the rise of Trump, the Left (broadly speaking, in terms of binary left-right) has responded not by a laser-like focus on Trump’s long list of flaws — but by imagining many false things about them, and responding to those.

      That’s their modus operandi these days in almost all issues. As their drastic loss of political influence shows, that doesn’t work well. Perhaps they should consider using more reality-based tactics — while they retain any influence at all.

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  2. Lincoln did not free the slaves. The American people fought a war that resulted in the abolition of slavery.

    The People of the United States of America through their representatives in the Congress of the United States of America abolished slavery with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.

    Lincoln could have done nothing on his own.

    “The Thirteenth Amendment (Amendment XIII) to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. In Congress, it was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, and by the House on January 31, 1865. The amendment was ratified by the required number of states on December 6, 1865. On December 18, 1865, Secretary of State William H. Seward proclaimed its adoption. It was the first of the three Reconstruction Amendments adopted following the American Civil War.”

    Giving Lincoln sole credit for “freeing the slaves” is akin to giving FDR credit for defeating the Nazis. Abraham Lincoln was a President. He was not a God King. He could issue no decrees from on high abolishing the enslavement of the African Slave in America.

    This is the United States of America. It is not the Yuan Dynasty of Mongol China.

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  3. Found a typo: “South Carolina succeeded on 20 December 1860” should be “South Carolina seceded on 20 December 1860.”

    I am an amateur military historian who long focused on the Civil War and my initial response was similar to the Trump’s comments was incredulity, much like the Liberals. But I gave the matter some thought and it was an interesting mental exercise, Trump’s comments are not without merit.

    I eventually concluded that some sort of conflict was inevitable because the North and South had become too different. However Jackson was, to put it mildly, not a passive personality, and would have made Buchanan’s inaction much more politically costly and Jackson could well have converted the conflict to a more political (and potentially an early precursor to 4GW) and less military conflict. This would have save hundreds of thousands of lives in the short run but had the risk of making the conflict considerably longer. The situation after the conflict ended is impossible to predict because there are far too many variables. It could have ended amicably or be even more poisonous than the historical conclusion.

    The only predictable outcome is that Lincoln would not have been President because Jackson’s actions would likely have held the Democrats together long enough to keep the Republicans a fringe party for at least another 10-20 years.

    But, as you say, Trump’s comments are not as dumb as the Liberals have made them sound.

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    1. Dagwood,

      “Lincoln could have done nothing on his own.”

      Like your previous comment, that’s weird. First, the post explicitly says “By Lincoln’s time the war was probably unavoidable.” Also, seven states had left when he moved into the White House. Think of what else you might learn by reading the post!

      Second, it is quite nuts to say that a president “could have done nothing on his own.” US presidents have taken many bold and sometimes unconstitutional actions “on their own”. Jefferson’s Louisiana purchase. Lincoln’s suspension of suspend habeas corpus (without Congressional authorization), FDR’s support of England in defiance of the Neutrality Acts — it’s a long list.

      “This is the United States of America. It is not the Yuan Dynasty of Mongol China.”

      That is the reasoning of a child. The president can either “do nothing on his own” or is an all-powerful emperor. Are you in grade-school or are your trolling us?

      “Giving Lincoln sole credit for “freeing the slaves” ”

      There is nothing in the post saying that. You’re trolling us. I’m moderating future comments. Anything rational will be posted.

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    2. pluto,

      “I eventually concluded that some sort of conflict was inevitable because the North and South had become too different.”

      That’s missing the key factor. You say “inevitable” but don’t say by “when”. I said “By Lincoln’s time the war was probably unavoidable.” I believe almost every historian studying the era agrees with me.

      Could the Founders’ have made changes that would have gradually changed the path of America, avoiding the war? Could Jackson? Fillmore? Pierce? Buchanan? Trump said “Had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.“ That implies the possibility of avoiding the war by presidential action during the decades after 1837. We can’t answer counterfactuals, but I suspect Trump is correct.

      (2) Thanks for catching the typo!

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  4. Both Lincoln and Davis had reasons for making the war not about slavery. For Davis, slave owners were basically the 1% of the South. These were people who would not be sending their children to fight, or they would go as officers. The cannon fodder would be those too poor to own slaves. They might fight to preserve their independence, but not to enrich the rich.

    For Lincoln he had to perform a balancing act between abolitionists and still keep the border states in the fold, as they were pivotal to success. They were willing to fight to preserve the union, but not to free slaves. So what was the civil war about? It depends on who you ask.

    Jon.

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    1. Jon,

      “Lincoln he had to perform …”

      You are misinterpreting Trump’s remarks. He said “Had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.“ A little bit later than 1835. That’s not remotely the same as saying that “If Jackson had been President in 1860”.

      “So what was the civil war about? It depends on who you ask.”

      Yes, it matters if you look at what the people said at the time — or if you ask Southerners after the war and modern conservatives (indoctrinated in faux history). Unlike you comment, advocates of the Confederacy were explicit that the primary driver was preservation of slavery. This has been documented to an extreme degree. But obviously not enough to stop the lies.

      The Union — from Lincoln down to individual soldiers — fought to preserve the Union.

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  5. Interesting read. Thanks. I grew up in Texas and was taught in school that the Civil War was the “war of northern agression”. Now I live in Montana, and the people here were taught it was the was to free the slaves. This is a many faceted issue.

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  6. Hi! First time viewer! I’m what you call “Left”. I suppose maybe I’m “Left Conservative”. Anyway, I wanted to chime in. So first, I like this article. I totally agree that plenty of folks are shrieking about this, and its just not helpful, for the reasons you stated. All those jibes necessarily take Trump in the least charitable way possible, and you have shown–fairly well I think–that you can certainly take his comments as being well informed, or at least not inconsistent with history. I’m leaning toward only being ‘consistent’, but I’m perfectly amenable to being wrong.

    So this is not an argument so much an explanation of aggravation toward the Trump. I think the least defensible statement by Trump, and therefore in the article, regards the ‘why’ of the Civil War. I haven’t actually run into anybody who thought it was inevitable. The weirdness stems from his proclamation that ‘nobody’ asks the question as to why it had to happen. But I’m not really aware of anybody who thinks this way. I even remember having discussions in US history back in middle school about the ‘why’s’ of the Civil War, and there’s lot of literature regarding it. I think the best way to take it is just as one of Trump strangely phrased off the cuff remarks, or perhaps chalk it up to his propensity to self-aggrandize, ie. I’m having this great thought, nobody has had it before.

    Anyway, thanks a lot for the perspective, and I’m going to definitely share this.

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    1. Ack, here I was talking about Trump, when in reality I feel like the most important topic isn’t Trump, its Jackson (and the lack of understanding and intellectual curiosity surrounding him). Anyway, thanks again for working so hard

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    2. Jake,

      (1) “when in reality I feel like the most important topic isn’t Trump”

      (a) So you believe that to discuss anything but Trump means that “Trump isn’t the most important topic”? That logically implies we should discuss nothing but Trump. You must be fun at dinner and parties.

      (b) You imply that the most important topic is Trump — not overpopulation, climate change, world poverty, the risks of another world war (perhaps nuclear)? Do you believe the other 8 billion people in the world share your obsession?

      (2) “and the lack of understanding and intellectual curiosity surrounding him.”

      (a) Americans tend to know little about our history. We’re a people who live in the now, which (of course) has advantages and disadvantages. So a post discussing our history can be useful.

      (b) Where in the post does it discuss a “lack of intellectual curiosity”? Do you believe the average Joe or Jane should have intellectual curiosity about a president 180 years ago? If so, why?

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    3. Jake,

      Thanks for your reply! One quick note.

      “I haven’t actually run into anybody who thought it was inevitable.”

      There are many historians who responded to Trump by saying it was inevitable. This shows their bias — and the lack of imprecision endemic among historians. Saying “inevitable” means nothing unless you anchor that in a date. Inevitable when Christ was born? Probably not. When Lincoln took the oath of office in 1861? Sure, since 7 states had already left — and Fort Sumter was under attack.

      Trump’s comment was specific about this: he was talking about inevitable a little bit later” than Jackson’s term in office (ended 1837).

      “The weirdness stems from his proclamation that ‘nobody’ asks the question as to why it had to happen. But I’m not really aware of anybody who thinks this way.”

      It is quite common for Americans describe the civil war as inevitable. A google search shows thousands of essays saying so (like this one, at the popular Hankering for History). Few history books for the general public about the civil war discuss (or even mention) how the scores of other nations ended slavery — without waging a war specifically over it (several ended slavery after achieving independence, often after a war for independence).

      “about the ‘why’s’ of the Civil War, and there’s lot of literature regarding it.”

      A discussion of reasons for the civil war does not imply that it was avoidable or inevitable. I can discuss why an apply falls, but that doesn’t mean the fall is optional.

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  7. Fascinating Post. Some great points scored in this game these days,Jackson truly was a fine President and is so sorely denied that place. Why?
    Populism. In 1824 he was passed over after winning an electoral but not popular battle to John Q Adams. Adams the elite blue blood firmly entrenched. He came back and was not then denied.
    Bank of the United States? Read abou it.
    History in our own country? Oh come on….is there really any sense one should reflect on such a thing?
    And surely the liberals today listen to neither themselves nor to anyone else. They can hardly stop blabbering long enough to let their Liberal friends get a confirming chorus out for all to applaud.
    They really are quite hopeless in their ideological cement shoes. Pathology, actually.

    Again some fine things in this short post.

    Like

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