The President Wonders Why There Was a Civil War

There are three groups you should never trust to give you accurate history: politicians, journalists, and confederate heritage advocates. Don’t trust politicians because they are usually trying to use history to further their agenda. Don’t trust journalists because their historical knowledge is poor and their sense of history extends only as far as last Tuesday. Don’t trust confederate heritage advocates because they are poorly educated in history, lack logic, don’t tell the truth about history, are not above making things up, and have an agenda to try to fool you regarding history.

In a wide-ranging interview with Washington Examiner reporter Salena Zito, President Trump got onto the topic of the seventh President of the United States, Andrew Jackson. It’s obvious President Trump admires Jackson. While talking about Jackson, Trump delved into the Civil War:

Reaction to this statement has been vociferous. Asked by Mother Jones Magazine for his reaction to this, Yale University historian David Blight said, ” ‘Worked out?’  God!… Well, I just read these postings?  So he really said this about Jackson and the Civil War? All I can say to you is that from day one I have believed that Donald Trump’s greatest threat to our society and to our democracy is not necessarily his authoritarianism, but his essential ignorance—of history, of policy, of political process, of the Constitution. Saying that if Jackson had been around we might not have had the Civil War is like saying that one strong, aggressive leader can shape, prevent, move history however he wishes. This is simply 5th grade understanding of history or worse.  And this comes from the President of the United States! Under normal circumstances if a real estate tycoon weighed in on the nature of American history from such ignorance and twisted understanding we would simply ignore or laugh at him. But since this man lives in the historic White House and wields the constitutional powers of the presidency and the commander in chief we have to pay attention. Trump’s ‘learning’ of American history must have stopped even before the 5th grade.  I wish I could say this is funny and not deeply disturbing. My profession should petition the President to take a one or two month leave of absence, VP Pence steps in for that interim, and Trump goes on a retreat in one of his resorts for forced re-education. It could be a new tradition called the presidential education leave. Or perhaps in New Deal tradition, an ‘ignorance relief’ period.  This alone might gain the United States again some confidence and respect around the world. Hope this helps.  God help us.”

Folks on social media have also seized on his claim that people don’t talk about why there was a civil war:

As you can imagine, this story is burning up the wires. See stories [with the audio from the interview] here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. This story traces the Jackson comments to Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. It includes some analysis such as, “Jackson died years before the American Civil War began, but Trump’s remarks likely reflect the 45th president’s cursory knowledge of Jackson’s administration and legacy, which includes Jackson’s handling of the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s. The outcome of the crisis averted a violent civil conflict that would have occurred decades before Abraham Lincoln set foot in office.” As usual, Kevin Levin is all over this.

Much of the criticism centers around the way Trump refers to Jackson as not approving of the Civil War, even though Jackson had been dead since 1845, with the critics saying Trump didn’t know Jackson wasn’t around for the Civil War. I get that this is a valid interpretation of Trump’s comments, but I think it’s more a function of Trump speaking off the cuff and simply flubbing his phrasing as he was searching for what to say about Jackson.

Another focus of criticism, at least among the journalists, is that Jackson was a slaveowner and a racist, which they believe invalidates Trump’s comments. Here the journalists are wrong. Plenty of slaveowners opposed secession and fought for the Union during the Civil War, and nearly every white person in the United States was a racist at the time, even in 1860.

As already pointed out, another criticism is Trump thinks no one talks about why there was a Civil War. It’s obvious, then, he’s never seen the inside of a college US history classroom. He’s also never paid attention to the public debates about the confederate battle flag or confederate monuments and other confederate iconography around the country.

Finally, he doesn’t seem to know why there was a Civil War. To boil it down to a sound bite, Mr. President, slaveowning states perceived a threat to the continued existence of slavery in the election of an antislavery president, Abraham Lincoln. They sought to create their own slaveholding nation to perpetuate slavery by illegally claiming to have withdrawn from the United States without first getting consent from the rest of the states. The United States defended the Constitution by opposing that illegal action.

So what about Trump’s claim? Would Andrew Jackson in the White House have prevented a Civil War? Let’s consider Andrew Jackson, mutatis mutandis, instead of James Buchanan in the White House when Lincoln is elected. South Carolina claims to have seceded and what does Jackson do? Does it prevent further secessions? Does he bring South Carolina back into the fold? Let’s consider Jackson, mutatis mutandis, elected instead of Lincoln. As a southerner and a slave owner himself, does he trigger secession and ultimately war? Trump, of course, is claiming a strong, authoritative leader in the White House would cowl the secessionists. Put Jackson in the White House instead of Buchanan and we get a situation many in 1860 had hoped for, where someone like Jackson would take a strong action to stop the secessionists in their tracks.

As it happens, historian William Freehling has considered Jackson’s effect on the Civil War and briefly discusses Jackson’s strategy for dealing with a possible secession. Perhaps this video would be instructive:



  1. bob carey · · Reply

    Great post.
    I think there are at least two factors which might shed some light on what Jackson would do if he was President during the 1860 crisis. First, the nullification crisis was about tariffs and not about slavery and second was Jacksons’ support of the Indian removal which opened up fertile farm land for the cultivation of cotton. Jackson’s being a southern aristocrat would have trumped (sorry about the pun) his love of union.

    1. Thanks, Bob.
      Jackson was first of all a Unionist. This can be seen in his letter to A. J. Crawford, in which Jackson wrote, “the Tariff was only the pretext, and Disunion and a Southern Confederacy the real object. The next pretext will be the Negro or Slavery question.” He did see a disunion movement over slavery coming, and the only reading of this letter I see is that he would be against it.

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