Last month, I had the privilege of sitting down with C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb and being interviewed for his show, Q&A. It was a heady and nerve-wracking experience, not the least because I had been sick for a couple of days before I flew to D.C. (Remember that when you watch the interview.) We talked about Andrew Jackson, Southerner and spent a lot of time on the Trump-Jackson comparisons. It was a great experience, and I want to thank Brian and Q&A producer Nik Raval for asking me to do the interview.
Yesterday, 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.”
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 Part of his motivation came from his military service, which engendered in him a strong nationalism that (often) superseded his inclinations toward a less powerful national government.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.”
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.
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.
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.” 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.” 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.
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. 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. Or Jackson could have referred, as Lincoln did, to his own Nullification Proclamation and decided to use military force.
- AJ to Andrew J. Donelson, 16 April 1820, in Papers of Andrew Jackson, 4:367.
- AJ to William B. Lewis, 25 August 1830, in Papers of Andrew Jackson, 8:500.
- Fourth annual message, 4 December 1832.
- Nullification Proclamation, 10 December 1832.
- AJ to William B. Lewis, 28 August 1832, in Papers of Andrew Jackson, 10:477.
- AJ to Joel R. Poinsett, 2 December 1832, in Papers of Andrew Jackson, 10:630.
- AJ to Lewis Cass, 17 December 1832.
- Sam Houston, Address at the Union Mass Meeting, Austin, Texas, on the 22d of September, 1860.”
- Andrew J. Donelson to Mary Emily Donelson Wilcox, 24 May 1861, Andrew Jackson Donelson Papers, Library of Congress.
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.
I had the good fortune of spending a couple of days at The Hermitage this week. On Tuesday evening, the Andrew Jackson Foundation premiered its new visitor film. It is a much more visually exciting film than the previous version, and it generally treats Old Hickory positively.
On Wednesday, I returned to the site to witness President Donald Trump’s speech. The crowd was overwhelmingly pro-Trump, which was not surprising since almost every Republican member of the General Assembly attended. Several men, young and old, dressed in suits wore the now-famous red Trump hats.
I’ve shared my thoughts on the Jackson-Trump comparison several times, so I won’t rehash them here. Interestingly, the president, who mostly read from a prepared speech*, alluded to the comparisons, saying that he knew how Jackson felt about being criticized. While standing in line for the restroom afterwards, two gentlemen behind me were commenting on Trump’s love of Jackson. One of them boldly (and wrongly, according to Jon Meacham and good old common sense) proclaimed that Trump always loved Jackson and had been studying him for years, long before the 2016 campaign.
The speech accurately recounted biographical details of Jackson’s life, although my friend and fellow Jacksonian historian, Dan Feller, and I exchanged puzzled looks when Trump mentioned Jackson passing tariffs to protect American consumers. The president also said that Jackson was a flawed human being who was a product of his time, which surprised me, as did his comment that his administration was working to bring equality to all Americans. What didn’t surprise me was Trump’s assertion that both he and Jackson fought the “arrogant elite.”
I was surprised that Trump sounded tired and old. My colleague, Rick Bell, observed that it may be because of the small crowd (media estimates were 400, which seems high #fakenews) and the venue (open-air seating on the front lawn in front of the main house). Trump seems to feed off of the energy from larger crowds in larger venues; his speech at the evening rally in Nashville was much more enthusiastic and passionate.
Since the speech was fairly banal, there’s not much more to say about it. Trump’s visit to The Hermitage and Nashville elicited a number of responses to his supposed similarities to Jackson, though. Betsy Phillips doesn’t think that Jackson would care much for Trump. Members of the Cherokee Nation denounced the visit, while others have stated that Jackson, a “monster,” should not have been honored, even by a president such as Trump.
Given Trump’s controversial political choices and his embrace, however superficial, of Jackson, it appears that Old Hickory’s life and legacy will continue to be a point of interest over the coming years. Whatever I think of President Trump, I suppose I should be grateful for that.
* My thanks to Marsha Mullin for sending me a link to the full text.
I’ve written about the Trump-Jackson comparison several times (here, here, and here), so when I was asked to contribute a piece on it to the OAH‘s The American Historian, I took the opportunity to bring together my thoughts into something more coherent than a blog post.
You can read the entire American Historian piece, but here’s the last part of it:
Ultimately, the comparisons fail because the current president-elect is outside of the bounds of traditional American political culture. Whatever we think of Jackson today, he was a military hero who served his country in combat and a politician who (generally) placed the nation’s best interests over his own. Not so with Trump, who will become the nation’s first president without military or political experience and who has repeatedly demonstrated that he cares more about himself than about the American people and what is best for the nation’s future. If history has judged Jackson harshly, it will likely treat Trump with contempt.
Planning a holiday road trip? Flying across the country to surprise your parents on Christmas morning? Tired of listening to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer?”
Two years ago, I had the opportunity to present a paper at a symposium commemorating the bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans. The papers from that symposium have now been published in a new book, The Battle of New Orleans in History and Memory (LSU Press).
The table of contents gives you some idea of the variety of topics covered by the essays:
Introduction by Laura Lyons McLemore
- “What We Know That Ain’t So”: Myths of the War of 1812 (Donald R. Hickey)
- “I Owe to Britain a Debt of Retaliatory Vengeance”: Assessing Andrew Jackson’s Hatred of the British (Mark R. Cheathem)
- “The Dreams of Empire”: The War of 1812 in an International Context (Alexander Mikaberidze)
- Objects of Scorn: Remembering African Americans and the War of 1812 (Gene Allen Smith)
- In Defense of Liberty: The Battalion d’Orleans and Its Battle for New Orleans (Paul Gelpi)
- Lessons Learned from the War of 1812 for the US Military in the Twenty-First Century (Blake Dunnavent)
- One Hundred Years of Hickory and Cotton Bales: The Battle of New Orleans Centennial Celebration (Joseph F. Stoltz III)
- Continually Heroic: Portraying Andrew Jackson through Classical and Contemporary Heroic Devices (Leslie Gregory Gruesbeck)
- The Battle of New Orleans in Popular Music and Culture (Tracey E. W. Laird)
My own contribution examines the commonly held idea that Jackson possessed a lifelong hatred of the British. In the essay, I traced the historiographical and popular development of this claim, then examined the historical evidence, including Jackson’s own writings. Like most history, the idea that Old Hickory saw red when he thought about the British seems to be mostly myth, with some truth mixed in.
A recent correspondent sent me a link to a post on a possible African-American descendant of President Andrew Jackson. I have never heard of the enslaved family from which the correspondent is descended, but in their response to his query, Prof. Henry Lous Gates, Jr., and Katrina Fahy do a good job of examining the available evidence and suggesting further avenues of research.
The claim of being descended from Andrew Jackson isn’t unusual. I’ve written previously about Hannah, an enslaved woman at Jackson’s Hermitage plantation. Some of Hannah’s descendants claim that Jackson fathered at least one of her children, as I noted in this article. It’s a disputed topic that deserves further exploration. That historians haven’t done more work on it is disappointing. I’ve previously attributed much of that inattention to John Spencer Bassett’s influence, but as Dan Feller and the editorial team at the Jackson Papers proceed quickly through Old Hickory’s presidency, it becomes less about Bassett and more about the profession’s unwillingness to grapple with Jackson as anything other than a one-dimensional caricature.
Here is the Tennessean editorial I wrote on the change to the $20 bill. Comments on the Jacksonian American Facebook page already reflect exactly what I was arguing against: We Americans can’t seem to find a way to understand our nation’s past without either vilifying or valorizing those who lived in it.
I’ve watched with keen interest the discussion about the $20 bill that has taken place over the last week or so. Most commentators seem to support the decision to move Andrew Jackson to the back of the bill and place Harriet Tubman on the front. I may have a published piece on this topic coming out soon, so I’m refraining from public comment for now.
In the meantime, though, there’s been some bad history in some of the reaction pieces that I’ve read. One of the most egregious is Suzanne Fields‘. A short list of the factual inaccuracies and distorted interpretations in her piece includes:
“He was the first president whose identity was forged outside the original 13 colonies.” (Jackson was actually 21 when he moved to what became Tennessee and was 29 when it became a state, so arguing that his identity was “forged” in his 20s is a stretch.)
“He was a self-made man in Tennessee” (Jackson owed much of his success to his kinship and political networks, including his wife Rachel’s family.)
“he diversified and democratized politics, blazing the way for any boy born in poverty to dream of rising as high as the Oval Office.” (Most scholars would agree that Jackson benefitted from political democratization more than he contributed to it. Also, his immediate family wasn’t wealthy, but poverty doesn’t describe its socioeconomic status, either.)
“He fought in that war with guerilla tactics in the remote Carolina backcountry, maturing in later years into a skilled dueler on behalf of the honor of his beloved wife Rachel, who was denounced as a bigamist because her lawyer had not properly tidied up her divorce proceedings.” (Jackson’s military service during the Revolution was as a courier. This description of Rachel’s divorce is virtually disconnected from any historical reality.)
“Jackson was . . . a fierce defender of democratic values” (This depended on the issue.)
“He even adopted an orphaned Native American baby as his son.” (This “fact” is so overused and misrepresented that I can only roll my eyes. Update: Fortuitously, Slate just interviewed Dawn Peterson, who has a new book coming out on Indian “adoptions.” )
Fields makes the point that Jackson is being treated differently from Washington and Jefferson, who held many of his same views and took many of the same actions that he did. That’s a reasonable argument to make, but much of the rest of her piece is ahistorical claptrap.