Historians Respond to the President

I’m sure you recall President Trump’s comments about Andrew Jackson being able to prevent the Civil War from happening if he had been in office.

Historians have been responding to this claim.

J. M. Opal of McGill University submits “Why the Donald Trump-Andrew Jackson bromance is bad for America: Our current President’s ignorance about the past is painful.” He tells us, “Trump’s quasi-history hurts us in two ways. First, it glosses over the terrible fact of slavery. To hear it from Trump, Jackson had nothing to do with slavery, which is a bit like saying that Donald Trump has nothing do with real-estate or casinos. And when we forget about slavery, we overlook the terrible effects it had not just on black Americans but also on the overall development of our democracy. Second, Trump’s version of history only allows men like him to make a difference. Only strongmen matter. Only they can make America great again. That was not true in the mid-1800s, and it is not true now. Slavery was finally destroyed in our country because of the combined efforts of white abolitionists, black rebels, devout Christians, Yankee trouble-makers, and the Union Army. Abraham Lincoln was pushed to action by people less powerful and more radical than he was. As for Andrew Jackson, he was on the wrong side of history, just like the President who idolizes him.”

Daniel Feller of the University of Tennessee gives an interview in “Would Andrew Jackson Have Prevented the Civil War? Trump Says Yes. A Jackson Scholar Says No.” Professor Feller tells us, “At best this is airy speculation. What’s missing is any recognition by the president of what the Civil War was about. It makes it sound like being tough or having a big heart was going to solve this problem. The problem was slavery.”

John Fea of Messiah College put together a collection of historians’ accounts in “Historians Weigh-In on Trump’s Civil War Comments.” They’re all worth considering for students of the war and history. He has another post, “Trump’s Remarks Are Drawing Historians Out of the Ivory Tower.”

A journalist speaks with Eric Foner of Columbia University in “Trump on Civil War: Why Couldn’t They Have Worked That Out?” He says, “Slavery was the root cause of the Civil War. It was not the only cause, but it was the underlying cause. As a historian, I would prefer the president had a better handle on American history.” In the story, Foner continues, “Even Andrew Jackson, were he alive, could not have solved the problem. The situation in 1861 was far more dire than in the 1830s during the Nullification Crisis.”

Louis Masur of Rutgers University wrote, “Donald Trump Is a Civil War Revisionist.” In it, he links Trump’s comments to the “Revisionist” school of historians of the early 1900s. “Such a view claiming that the war was avoidable is not mere innocent counterfactual speculation. It is a view that dates back to the aftermath of World War I, when historians questioned the conflict’s inevitability. Scholars such as Avery O. Craven, Charles W. Ramsdell, and James G. Randall saw the Civil War as a tragedy that might have been prevented. They blamed it on a breakdown in democracy and the actions of fanatical abolitionists. They portrayed slavery as a benign but unprofitable institution and assumed it would have died out, probably in the near future. According to them, the war was irrational, needless, brought on by a ‘blundering generation.’ This interpretation of the war came to be known as ‘revisionist,’ revising the nationalist perspective that viewed the war as justly fought to save the union and abolish slavery.”

Manisha Sinha of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst extends the commentary on the Revisionist School in “Civil War Revisionism Still Shames America.”If nothing else, President Trump and the Republicans are making Civil War revisionism great again. A couple of weeks ago, North Carolina GOP state Rep. Larry Pittman argued that Abraham Lincoln was ‘the same sort (of) tyrant’ as Adolf Hitler, and was ‘personally responsible’ for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in an ‘unnecessary and unconstitutional’ war. This line of reasoning, which posits that the Civil War was a needless and illegal conflict, goes back to Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy. Writing in the aftermath of the war, Stephens, who had proclaimed that the Confederacy’s ‘cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not the equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition,’ indulged in a bit of historical revisionism himself.” She continues, “This school of revisionist historians not only downplayed the sectional conflict over slavery, but also argued that a blundering generation of politicians had led the country down the path of war. Trump claims that Andrew Jackson, had he lived long enough, or perhaps a man of Trump’s own alleged deal-making prowess, might have saved the day. This sort of counterfactual history is false at best. At worst, it is callous, as it calls for a compromise over the enslavement of 4 million human beings and their descendants. As most abolitionists or those who fought against slavery realized, slavery itself was a state of war against the slaves. To ignore their travail and emphasize instead the war dead (many of whom, it must be noted, were black Union Army soldiers) is the underlying historical reason for a movement like Black Lives Matter today.”

Sociologist James W. Loewen also has something to say, in “ ‘Why Was There the Civil War?’ Here’s Your Answer.” In it, he says, “Trump’s conclusion about Jackson places him in a camp of 1930s historians who called it a “needless war,” in the words of James G. Randall, brought about by a ‘blundering generation.’ That view is a product of its time, and that time is now known as the Nadir of Race Relations. The Nadir began at the end of 1890 and began to ease around 1940. It was marked by lynchings, the eugenics movement and the spread of sundown towns across the North. Neo-Confederates put up triumphant Confederate monuments from Helena, Mont., to Key West, Fla., obfuscating why the Southern states seceded. They claimed it was about tariffs or states’ rights — anything but slavery. Earlier, everyone knew better. In 1858, William Seward, a Republican senator from New York, gave a famous speech titled ‘The Irrepressible Conflict,’ referring to the struggle between ‘slave labor’ and ‘voluntary labor.’ When Mississippi seceded, it emphasized the same point: ‘Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.’ Simply to recognize this material interest renders improbable the ‘needless war’ notion. Mississippi was right: Slavery was the greatest material interest in the United States, if not the world. Slaves made up an investment greater than all manufacturing companies and railroads in the nation. Never has an elite given up such a stake voluntarily. The North went to war to hold the nation together, not to emancipate anyone. But the Civil War did end slavery. When might that have happened otherwise? Today, when slavery has no state sanction anywhere, it seems obvious that the institution could not have survived to the 21st century. But if the South had prevailed, cotton would have resumed its role as ‘the largest and most important portions of the commerce of the earth,’ to quote Mississippi’s secession document. The Confederacy might have replaced France as the colonial ruler in Mexico and Spain in Cuba. Eyeing such a strong economic and military model, Brazil might never have abandoned slavery. There is one more layer on this onion: The South did not quite secede for slavery, but for slavery as the mechanism to ensure white supremacy. On many occasions, its leaders made this clear. Trying to persuade fellow Texans to secede, John Marshall wrote in his Austin State Gazette in 1861: ‘It is essential to the honor and safety of every poor white man to keep the negro in his present state of subordination and discipline.’ In 1863, William Thompson, founder of the Savannah Morning News, proposed a new, mostly white national flag for the Confederacy: ‘As a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.’ The government agreed and adopted his flag. Late in the war, trying to persuade Confederates to persevere, the Richmond Daily Enquirer asked, ‘What are we fighting for? We are fighting for the idea of race.’ ”

In “Civil War Historians Take On Trump,” the BBC assembles a panel of distinguished historians to discuss Trump’s assertions. One historian says, “He starts from the wrong premise – the premise that the Civil War should somehow have been avoided, and that someone more skilled on the White House could have avoided it. If one sees the Civil War as a war of liberation, which is what it was, then it shouldn’t have been avoided. Had you compromised out the differences between the government and the confederacy, or between anti-slavery forces and southern slaveholders, the victims would have been the enslaved people of the south. If the president has the notion that it would be desirable to compromise that out, without emancipation, it is frightening.” Another says, “If it reflects anything, it reflects a kind of great man idea of history, that if you just have the right man with the right strength you can change the course of history. And that is plain nonsense.” A third says, “I think it shows that he continues to be tone-deaf about contemporary racial issues. And I think it shows that he’s selling a version of history that is useful for what he’s trying to do today. But he might not have spent a huge amount of time on it.”

Students of the war can profit greatly by taking in the views of these historians.

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4 comments

  1. Wow! Thanks for collecting these all in one place.

  2. Al, we cannot insist that our presidents be historians as well as politicians. However, I genuinely believe that most of our presidents have wrestled with the history of our country and investigated the development of our institutions over the course of their pre-presidential lives. Many sought advice from academic historians once they were in office. I just don’t see any depth of understanding by President Trump of our country’s history. I think that is partially to explain for his seeming distain for the sorts of constitutional and institutional restraints that other presidents, of the the left or right, simply felt in their bones.

    Trumps remarks on the Civil War are a symptom of this lack of historical background. I always felt that Santayana’s famous quote was a little trite, but now we have a president who will test its limits. We are now living in a pastless present.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Pat. My observation has been that one cannot trust any politician to give you an accurate take on history. With very few exceptions, they all tend to bend it to their particular agendas. But I think we’re seeing something different and worse with this president, and I think you’ve hit on it.

      1. bob carey · · Reply

        Al,
        I believe the main problem with Trump and history is that history offers no bottom line. Being well versed in history requires a passion, Trumps’ passions lie in the business world and marketing himself. Somewhere along the line he heard that Andy Jackson was a tough guy and he considers himself a tough guy so therefore he thinks Jackson could solve any problem by being tough and he thinks he can do the same. Unfortunately for the country being tough and being in the right are different things. Out of respect for you and civility I will not write my true feelings about the President.

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