Would Jackson have stopped the Civil War? Yes and No: History is Complicated.

It’s hard to keep up with the current President’s wild historic thoughts, so I finally have the time to dig in on this now moldy tweet about Andrew Jackson stopping the Civil War…

trump jackson

At first blush, it’s no surprise that Trump would have an affinity for Jackson.  He had visited Jackson’s home six weeks earlier than his tweet.  It is oft reported that the last things in POTUS’s head contribute greatly to his positions, often contradicting those he had earlier or those of his staff moments before the change of direction.

But Jackson was also a supposed “man of the people” and was a populist elected into the White House, stuff that Trump thinks of himself.  In a flip to the current narrative though, Jackson won the popular vote in 1824, but was denied the White House thanks to the House of Representatives selecting John Quincy Adams when no candidate received the majority of Electoral votes.  Jackson has the distinction of being only one of three presidents ever to have won the popular vote in three different elections (the others being Grover Cleveland, who lost one of those elections in the Electoral College, and FDR who won four straight).

Where Trump likes to run off and hold rallies to try and stay in touch with the people, Jackson instead hosted the now-infamous “Big Block of Cheese” day.  It was a day for the commoners to visit the White House with the chance to meet with Executive Branch officials.  This attempt to connect with the people runs strong through both gentlemen.

Jackson was certainly rough around the edges — and like Trump was familiar with controversy.  Trump is twice divorced but Jackson’s wife may — or may not — have been legally divorced from her first husband.  This was a topic only a brave soul would broach with Jackson, who had a penchant for dueling. Indeed, one duelist was gobsmacked to have aimed true but apparently missed as Jackson stood steadfast. He had not missed, Jackson withstood the lead ball burying itself in his chest to then calmly return fire and hit his mark 191 years ago tomorrow (May 30th).  While it hard to believe Donald Trump has the testosterone to put his life on the line (he took FIVE deferments to being drafted during the Vietnam era) and duel, he does like to verbally parry with the media and his opponents.

But what of President Trump’s dubious claim that the strong-willed Jackson would have prevented a Civil War?  As the kids like to say these days, “he’s not wrong.”  But he’s also not right either.  Jackson could have prevented a Civil War while he was president, but it would have happened at some point afterwards.  This is complex historical contextualizing, so hang on longer than the current President would here…

Jackson was pro-slavery. Jackson was from Tennessee, and a slave-holder himself.  And as you read each seceding southern state’s proclamation of secession, the fear that maintaining a slave culture was the chief reason for taking their ball and going home.  To counter the nay-sayers, just go to this handy page with the declaration of causes for secession from five southern states, then search the term “slave” on the page.  There are 83 instances of the word against only 16 where the word “rights” is invoked. The phrase “states rights” comes up not once.

Had Jackson been POTUS, there would have been no fear from the Executive Branch on this matter whereas Lincoln had clearly drawn a line that he was against the existence and growth of slavery with his series of speeches with Stephen Douglas across Illinois in his losing bid for the U.S. Senate in 1858.  Jackson also demonstrated that he was independent of Congressional influence, and it is unlikely they could have bullied him into an anti-slavery position.

A bigger question might be how would President Jackson handle the events of the late 1850s had he been the Chief Executive?  How would he have reacted to the emergence of Abraham Lincoln with the Lincoln-Douglas debates had the two been in their prime of life at the same time and even contenders for the White House as 1860 approached? How would have Jackson responded to the John Brown raid on Harper’s Ferry had he been President?  Would he have pressured Congress and re-assured the south that Slavery was not going anywhere?  It is likely the factions around him would have continued the rhetoric and violence, even on the Senate floor, over slavery regardless of his tenure.

It begs to ask, could the Civil War narrative actually been flipped had Jackson been president in 1861 and watched the northern states secede to oppose slavery?  Washington, DC is centered in between the slave states of Virginia and Maryland and would have had a pro-slavery president in Jackson. Secession was not new, and in fact it was New England that first talked of secession as the War of 1812 brewed on the horizon. So it is not unfathomable to think of a Northern exodus from the Union.

I’m not sure how Donald Trump states in his tweet that Jackson “saw it coming” 16 years earlier?  If he is somehow referring to the Nullification Crisis, where secession came up again as South Carolina during Jackson’s term raised hackles over the Tariff of Abominations.  There was a belief that when the southerner Jackson was elected he would end the Tariff of Abominations, a promise similar to several candidate Trump made during his campaign. But Jackson did not terminate the tariff, just as Trump has reversed himself on a number of pre-election promises through his 100th day.

Despite the threat by South Carolina, the battle-tested Jackson did not escalate the situation by sending troops towards Columbia.  Congress, though, was ready to rumble and initiated legislation to authorize the use of force against a seceding state — something, interestingly, that did not occur in 1860 as southern states were bolting for the exits on Lincoln.

But one, perhaps, can understand a President with less than a layman’s grasp of a History having his Man Crush. Jackson dismantled an unpopular National Bank, foisted upon the people under dubious grounds in what might be the Obamacare of its day.

Jackson also handled a dangerous group of domestic terrorists, removing these undocumented citizens from the situation that impeded white American’s progress.  Problem is, the event in question, the Trail of Tears, generally draws a comparison of Jackson to Adolph Hitler.  And as the nation moves to a more accepting place on ethnic diversity it is likely the reason why Jackson has slipped in Historian’s eyes from a top 10 presidency to now a middle-of-the-pack guy.

It would be interesting for a reporter to ask a follow-up on Trump’s Jacksonian Bro-mance: Since Jackson was the first Democratic Party president, and Lincoln the first GOP president, is the current president saying the Democrats would have prevented a Civil War where the Republicans could not?

History is sophisticated, often with unrelated twists and turns and about-faces on policy.  A neophyte’s understanding of History would make the response to a reporter’s question something to watch with popcorn in hand.

It is unlikely, and sad, that the current president has the patience to sit and read about the complex history of the events surrounding President Jackson’s time in office and those of a very different time 16 years later when the nation erupted in war due to a House Divided.  Who knew history was so complicated?


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