It took Dan Rather to force me into this quagmire.
As you may have heard by now, the President was being interviewed and the topic of Andrew Jackson came up, the great, flawed, fascinating man who was the first populist President and who reshaped the Presidency and the American political system. Donald Trump quite logically identifies with Jackson, and if he can show half the governing skill and leadership abilities of Old Hickory, the U.S. will be ever in his debt. at one point, Trump said…
As we have seen again and again, if Donald Trump said that the sky was blue, pundits and journalist would erupt with indignation and mockery about the statement, because everyone knows that the sky isn’t blue, it just looks blue. This is the Left and “the resistance” telegraphing their complete abandonment of fairness, good will and proportion regarding the President of the United States. It is transparent, it is intellectually dishonest, and it is now boring and annoying, since it began more than a year ago. In this case, talking heads who know virtually nothing about Andrew Jackson were screaming on CNN about how “stupid” Trump’s statement was. At The Washington Post, Aaron Blake wrote in his essay, “Trump’s totally bizarre claim about avoiding the Civil War”:
Historians with more academic experience than Trump have indeed asked this question about the Civil War often… It’s generally assumed that a deal to avert the Civil War would have included concessions to Southern states having to do with their right to own slaves — the central dispute of the Civil War. Is Trump saying he would have been okay with a more partial or gradual phasing out of slavery? Was there really a deal to be cut on that front? Or does he think Jackson, a slave owner himself, would have convinced the South to abandon slavery immediately, somehow?
Ann Althouse nailed this one: if Trump’s question about the Civil War is so “bizarre,” how come historians have asked the question “often”?
The simple and ugly answer is to much of Left and the news media, what Trump says is presumptively stupid or sinister, even if others saying the exact same thing would be ruled reasonable and benign. (See: Loyalty Day)
But I am so tired of this game. Until a friend posted an attack on Trump’s statement by Dan Rather, I had decided to let this round pass. After Dan’s ignorant and biased take, I couldn’t stay on the sidelines.
He wrote on Facebook, the only forum regularly available to him because no legitimate news organization would sully its credibility by having a journalist who tried to influence a Presidential election by representing a forged document as authentic, and who still won’t admit that there was anything wrong with that…
I wanted to let this story go. I really did. I don’t want to be distracted from all the important things taking place. Where are we on the Russia investigation again?
But the sheer craziness of this obsession by Donald Trump with Andrew Jackson and the Civil War is a carnival act unlike anything I have ever seen at the White House. And not to let something drop, there is Mr. Trump on Twitter just recently pouring gasoline on the fires of his ignorance.
Never mind that Mr. Trump’s knowledge of American history seems below that of most gradeschoolers. Never mind that in many people’s view, Jackson is not exactly the kind of president, or man, you would want to hold up as an example. And never mind that there is an implicit criticism of arguably our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. (It reminds me of his slam against John McCain and how war heroes aren’t captured. Apparently great presidents don’t wage a war to keep the Union together).
These are the rantings of someone who really should be focused on the job of governing. Should we not conclude that he approaches policy decisions with the same half-baked conspiracies with which he apparently approaches history?
To be President of the United States is to part of the great American story. To not understand that story is to not understand the presidency. Maybe Frederick Douglass can give Mr. Trump some advice. Apparently, he’s “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more.”
This is a post that demonstrates Rather’s ignorance and poor reasoning, not President Trump’s.
Whether the Civil War could have been averted is an especially germane question for Trump to consider, given that the “resistance” is trying to divide the nation and to defy the rule of law and our institutions to such an extent that a second civil war looms as a possibility. Was Dan unaware of the violent protests yesterday in multiple U.S. cities, a continuation of the riots that occurred in D.C. during the President’s inauguration? The bitterly divided political climate leading up to the Civil War is very much worth considering today, and any other President who noted this publicly would be praised as thoughtful.
Whether or not Lincoln was correct in opposing the Confederacy by force has never stopped being a contested historical issue, notwithstanding Rather’s ridiculous assertion that daring to question Lincoln’s magnificence is like casting aspersions on prisoners of war. Only in hindsight was Lincoln’s fateful decision the right one according to conventional wisdom. This was pure moral luck: if the South had won, and as historian James McPherson has noted, it could have if any of a number of random decisions and strokes of fate been different than they were, Lincoln would be regarded as a failure.
To be fair and accurate, and Rather has no interest in either, Lincoln was not involved in the issue Trump raised at all. The South seceded almost the second Lincoln became President, and Abe’s election had been assured by the intentional split in the Democratic Party to force secession; this is why the Democratic Convention in Charleston is known as “the Secession Convention.” Lincoln couldn’t have stopped the Civil War except by refusing to fight it, allowing the nation to split in two. He made the necessary but risky decision to oppose the South’s exit with force, something he probably didn’t have explicit authority to do, but that doesn’t mean that before it came to that dire point averting the war would not have been the better course. 2% of the population, an estimated 620,000 men, lost their lives in the Civil War. Another half million were wounded. The scars of the war are not healed yet. Is it “stupid” to ask, in hindsight, whether a series of compromises that allowed the nation to remain united, avoid war, and wait for slavery to die a natural death—which it would have, just as it did in Western Europe– would have been preferable, better outcome? Perhaps it is a futile question in the sense that it is all hindsight speculation, but it is not a useless one not according to the purposes of historical analysis. What are the lessons of the Civil War? They may be useful to Trump, as he tries to govern despite national divisions nearly as bitter and desperate as those of the 1850s.
As for President Jackson, Trump’s assessment is more historically astute than his current day critics who reflexively mouth the political correctness cant that Jackson’s one terrible policy choice, the brutal treatment of Native American peoples, outweighs all of his other major accomplishments. Jackson stopped the Union from disintegrating decades earlier, by opposing the Nullification principle and making the national government and Presidency far stronger than it had been before him. Unlike Lincoln, Jackson kept the nation together without getting over a million men killed or wounded.
Could Andrew Jackson have found a way to avert the Civil War? I don’t know, but I do know that among our Presidents, he is among only a handful who had the intelligence, fortitude, popularity and skill to do so. I guarantee that Barack Obama, to give one obvious counter example, would NOT have opposed secession, and would not have stood up to the South in the 1830s, as Jackson did. (Barack didn’t do confrontation. Oh, he might have said that firing on Fort Sumter would be a red line...) Neither would most of the Presidents between Jackson and Lincoln except Polk; Harrison and Taylor died too quickly for us to even make an informed guess.
As always, Trump’s off the cuff rhetoric was inept and garbled, and if you are willing to assume that he thinks Jackson lived to observe and regret the Civil War—I’m not—you concentrate on his questionable syntax rather than his meaning. I agree with Althouse that “with regard to the Civil War” means “with regard to the conditions that led to the Civil War.” Jackson was very familiar with those, for the dominated his entire administration. Ah, but where President Trump is concerned, the game is to make sure that whatever he says is interpreted in the way that will make him look the worst, and provide his critics with the easiest target.
I have studied Jackson and his Presidency, however, and like virtually everyone who has, I know that he is the right President before Lincoln to focus upon if one is exploring a national approach that might have averted the Civil War catastrophe. Could Andy have pulled it off? I doubt it. Would JFK have escalated the war in Vietnam? Would Ike have blundered into the Cuban Missile Crisis? Would Taft have kept us out of The Great War? It we don’t return to these questions, we fail to learn the lessons of history…and you know what that means. Apparently, so does President Trump.