Would Andrew Jackson Have Prevented the Civil War?

File:78yo Andrew Jackson.jpgYesterday, I addressed Donald Trump’s statements about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War. A lot of other historians since then have jumped in to lament Trump’s historical ignorance, a view I sympathize with. Trump wasn’t satisfied to let the criticism go and took to the Twitter machine to reinforce his historical analysis:

Whether Jackson would have let the Civil War happen is speculative, and I outlined what I see as the two probabilities in yesterday’s post. But what about Trump’s other two claims. Did Jackson see the Civil War coming, and was he angry about it?

Like many Americans, Jackson was concerned about sectional conflict. Shortly before Jackson moved to Nashville in 1789, eastern parts of what is now the state of Tennessee separated and formed the State of Franklin, and Jackson naively became wrapped up in Aaron Burr’s attempt to carve off part of what was then the southwestern U.S. (which included Tennessee) in the early 1800s. When Congress addressed the problem of slavery while debating Missouri’s entry into the Union, Jackson observed that the discussion was “the entering wedge to separate the union.”[1]

During his presidency, Jackson took a notable stand against the idea of nullification (i.e., a state’s right to declare a national law unconstitutional) and secession (i.e., a state’s right to voluntarily leave the Union). Part of his motivation came from his military service, which engendered in him a strong nationalism that (often) superseded his inclinations toward a less powerful national government. Part of Jackson’s attitude toward nullification and secession, however, came from his hatred of South Carolinian John C. Calhoun. The history between the two men is too long to recount here; suffice it to say, though, they did not like one another, even if both were elite white southerners. Jackson blamed Calhoun, who served as his first vice president, for encouraging the “nulifying doctrine, which threatens to desolve our happy union.”[2]

When South Carolina representatives decided in November 1832 to nullify the tariffs of 1828 and 1832, Jackson acted decisively. In his fourth annual message to Congress, he wrote:

It is my painful duty to state that in one quarter of the United States opposition to the revenue laws has arisen to a height which threatens to thwart their execution, if not to endanger the integrity of the Union. What ever obstructions may be thrown in the way of the judicial authorities of the General Government, it is hoped they will be able peaceably to overcome them by the prudence of their own officers and the patriotism of the people. But should this reasonable reliance on the moderation and good sense of all portions of our fellow citizens be disappointed, it is believed that the laws themselves are fully adequate to the suppression of such attempts as may be immediately made.[3]

A few days later, Jackson issued an even stronger warning in his famous Nullification Proclamation:

An attempt by force of arms to destroy a government is an offense, by whatever means the constitutional compact may have been formed; and such government has the right, by the law of self-defense, to pass acts for punishing the offender, unless that right is modified, restrained, or resumed by the constitutional act. . . . The laws of the United States must be executed. I have no discretionary power on the subject-my duty is emphatically pronounced in the Constitution. Those who told you that you might peaceably prevent their execution, deceived you-they could not have been deceived themselves. They know that a forcible opposition could alone prevent the execution of the laws, and they know that such opposition must be repelled. Their object is disunion, hut be not deceived by names; disunion, by armed force, is TREASON.[4]

In private, Jackson was just as adamant that he would prevent South Carolina from seceding. In August, he promised William B. Lewis, “I am prepared to act with promptness & energy–and should the laws be resisted, to enforce them with energy & promptness–our Government is sufficiently strong for self preservation, and under my administration, the laws will be duly executed and the union preserved.”[5] In December, Jackson told Joel R. Poinsett, “[Nullification] leads directly to civil war and bloodshed and deserves the execration of every friend of the country. . . . The union must be preserved, and its laws duly executed, but by proper means.”[6] Later that month, the president wrote Lewis Cass, “If I can judge from the signs of the times Nullification, and secession, or in the language of truth, disunion, is gaining strength, we must be prepared to act with promptness, and crush the monster in its cradle before it matures to manhood.” Jackson then asked for a report on military preparedness to take on the South Carolina nullifiers:

We will want three divisions of artillery, each composed of nines, twelves, and Eighteen pounders, one for the East, one for the west, and one for the center divisions. How many of these calibers, are ready for field service How many musketts with their compleat equipments are ready for service. How many swords and pistols and what quantity of fixed ammunition for dragoons, Brass pieces for the field, how many, and what caliber. At as early a day as possible, I wish a report from the ordinance Department, on this subject, stating with precision, how many peaces of artillery of the caliber, are ready for the field, how many good musketts etc. etc., and at what place in deposit.[7]

How does all of this fit with President Trump’s comments? First, I don’t think he knows anything about what I just outlined. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.

Second, Jackson did not see the nullification crisis of 1832-33 through the same lens that Americans saw their nation in 1860-61. A lot happened between 1833 and 1860 that led southerners down the path of supporting secession. Central to that road was the struggle to preserve and expand slavery, as southern leaders said over and over during the years and months leading up to the Civil War. Where Jackson would have wound up by 1860 is unknowable, but he did not view the nullification crisis as a struggle over slavery; rather, he saw it as both a national vs. states’ rights conflict and a personal battle with his nemesis, John C. Calhoun.

To come back to Trump’s comments:

Did Jackson see the Civil War coming? Jackson saw sectional conflict as part of the American experience, and he realized that a civil war was possible. I don’t, however, think he envisioned the Civil War of 1861-65 as we know it.

Was Jackson angry about it? Jackson was angry about Calhoun and South Carolina and their support for nullification and secession but, again, I don’t think he saw THE Civil War coming, so he couldn’t be angry about that set of circumstances.

Would Jackson have let the Civil War happen? As I pointed out, this is unknowable, and any proposition is purely speculative. He could have followed the example of his close friend, Sam Houston, and taken a principled stand against secession while still supporting slavery.[8] He could have followed the course of his nephew, Andrew Jackson Donelson, who opposed secession until Fort Sumter. “Sectional animosity has at last destroyed the Union, and no alternative is left the patriot but the assertion of the rights which belong to a free people,” Donelson wrote his daughter, Mary, in May 1861.[9] Or Jackson could have referred, as Lincoln did, to his own Nullification Proclamation and decided to use military force.

  1. AJ to Andrew J. Donelson, 16 April 1820, in Papers of Andrew Jackson, 4:367.
  2. AJ to William B. Lewis, 25 August 1830, in Papers of Andrew Jackson, 8:500.
  3. Fourth annual message, 4 December 1832.
  4. Nullification Proclamation, 10 December 1832.
  5. AJ to William B. Lewis, 28 August 1832, in Papers of Andrew Jackson, 10:477.
  6. AJ to Joel R. Poinsett, 2 December 1832, in Papers of Andrew Jackson, 10:630.
  7. AJ to Lewis Cass, 17 December 1832.
  8. Sam Houston, Address at the Union Mass Meeting, Austin, Texas, on the 22d of September, 1860.”
  9. Andrew J. Donelson to Mary Emily Donelson Wilcox, 24 May 1861, Andrew Jackson Donelson Papers, Library of Congress.
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