Is Donald Trump Right About Andrew Jackson and the Civil War?

In an interview with Salena Zito airing today, President Donald Trump makes a couple of curious observations about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War. As others have observed, Trump has trouble with verb tenses, and his grasp of history is rudimentary and often grossly inaccurate (here, here, and here). Both of these weaknesses are apparent in this interview.

First, Trump, as he has done on occasion, acts as if he is sharing what I would consider a well-known historical fact with an audience ignorant of its existence.

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

A lot of people have asked that question, and unlike Jenna Abrams, most knowledgable people know that the war’s causes centered on southern states’ desire to protect slavery. (And it definitely was not caused by tariffs.)

Second, Trump doesn’t seem to understand the basic chronology of the Early Republic.

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

I assume Trump is referring to Jackson’s reaction to the nullification crisis of 1832-33, since Old Hickory died in 1845, sixteen years before the Civil War.

Trump also claims that

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’m not sure about the relevancy of the latter sentence to the former, but the question of whether Jackson would have prevented the Civil War is one that frequently comes up at my talks on Jackson. Typically, it is phrased, “would Jackson have supported secession?”

There’s no way to know for sure what Jackson would have done, but my answer reflects the two main probabilities. One, Jackson would have thrown in his lot with many other Tennessee plantation owners and supported secession following Fort Sumter. He was a nationalist and a Unionist, but he was also someone whose wealth depended upon enslaved labor. Without it, he never would have risen to become a member of the southern gentry. Two, Jackson might have followed his own example set during the nullification crisis and decided that secession was treason. It would have meant going against his own socioeconomic class and personal financial interests, but it’s possible that he might have made that choice. As Aaron Crawford showed in an article published several years ago, both pro- and anti-secession Americans in 1860-61 thought Jackson would have been on their side.

I would love to hear Trump’s reasoning for why he thinks Jackson would have prevented the Civil War; however, I don’t expect an explanation to be forthcoming. That’s unfortunate, because President Trump needs to consider carefully the chief executive with whom he most closely identifies himself.

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8 Replies to “Is Donald Trump Right About Andrew Jackson and the Civil War?”

  1. I took Trump’s comments to mean that had Jackson been President in the 1850s, the outcome might have been different, which is plausible. I’ll give the “devil his due” on that score but for the record, most of his other comments re why was there a civil war, etc. etc. are fair game for ridicule.

    1. Fair enough. I’ve read and heard enough of his comments that I’m not sure he has a grasp of U.S. history, so it’s hard for me to give him the benefit of the doubt. Still, that’s minor compared to the rest of the comments that were released.

      1. The rest of it is a train wreck (no one’s asked why he had a Civil War, etc). I think you’d need to read the entire segment (I’m not sure what the question that provoked the comments were to be entirely honest) to understand exactly what he was TRYING to say, but what he actually said was an unambiguous mess).

        There are some arguing for example that his assertion that Jackson could have altered the outcome as “5th grade” historical thinking that one strong, aggressive leader can shape, prevent, move history.”

        But that in itself presupposes that it didn’t matter that James Buchanan was President during the succession crisis. If that’s true, we’d probably need to let him off the hook. Maybe my disdain for him and the other dough faces leads me to believe that the history leading up to the Civil War, like that leading up to WWII, was too contingent?

        I guess that’s my question. Could a leader with Jackson’s determination, decisiveness and reputation for violence have taken steps militarily to keep SC in line? Had a strong federal response at key steps have prevented succession in the winter of 1860? Hard to say yes for sure, but I’m not as sure as some historians that the answer is unambiguously no, either.

  2. Considering he stood up to Calhoun during the Nullification Crisis, I favor the second option. There were other Southerners who risked (and, in many cases endured) being cast out by their families for continuing to support the Union and entire slave states that refused to join the rebellion.

    OTOH, I can’t be sure either. Aside from the fact that, if he had lived, Jackson would have been 94 years old, I’m not sure how au courant he would have been. Furthermore, a lot happened in the time between 1845 and 1861 regarding slavery, including Bleeding Kansas and John Brown’s Raid. There’s simply no way of knowing how these events would have affected Jackson’s views.

    Finally, do you have the slightest idea what Trump meant when he said that Jackson had a big heart? I understand the toughness description and there’s no doubt that he was fiercely loyal even when it wasn’t politically wise, but a big heart? As for those two characteristics being enough to stop the war, I don’t think there’s any doubt Lincoln had both and he went out of his way to try to reassure but not appease the slave states. But, as he later said, “the war came”.

    1. If by big heart, he meant Jackson was emotional and governed himself accordingly (not only his wife but consider the impact of the Peggy Eaton affair on his relationships with politicians) I guess that’s fair. But he certainly wasn’t a generally “big hearted” person so far as I can tell so much as “governed by passions.”

      I think you have to make two assumptions re Jackson in the 50s. First, we’re projecting him forward in time. If he’s 94 he’s not doing much of anything. Second, he’s President. I think his response to SC was in part because he took their actions personally as President. So it’s “what would Jackson have done had he been President and in his prime” during the succession crisis? I think THAT’s a fair question unless you think that there was nothing to be done at any step along the way. We generally castigate Buchanan, which is unfair of we conclude that was the case.

      1. “Governed by passions” is probably more accurate than “big-hearted”. As for Buchanan, he actually could have been worse in the last months of his administration (actually recognizing the rebel government or ordering Anderson to abandon Ft. Sumter), but he has a lot to be castigated for.

        Of course, we have to look at Buchanan’s entire presidency, including his influence on the Dred Scott decision and the entire Kansas situation, not just the last months in terms of what effect a Jackson as he was when president might have had on whether or not a Civil War would have resulted.

        Ultimately, of course, it can’t be determined if a Jacksonian style presidency before 1860 could have prevented the Civil War. There are just so many variables involved.

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