Had Trump been President in 1860, Would He have Prevented the Civil War, or Caused It?
Although I’ve been doing my best to take a break from this blog (as much as I enjoy it) while on sabbatical at Wheaton, the headlines announcing that President Trump had speculated about the causes of the Civil War in a recent interview were too much to ignore. If you missed it, here is what Trump had to say in an interview with the Washington Examiner released just this morning:
“I mean 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. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’ People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”
The president’s liberal critics have been quick to jump on his remarks, extracting his rhetorical question about why the Civil War occurred as evidence that he is utterly clueless about it. (You can read a sampling here.) There have been countless condescending tweets suggesting that the president should read up on something called slavery and figure out what the rest of the world already knows.
I’m convinced that President Trump is largely clueless about U. S. history (ask Frederick Douglass, if you don’t believe me), but these particular jibes are unfair. In context, what the president was really getting at was the question not of the causes of the Civil War but of its inevitability. Might the war have been avoided? Could more effective political leadership have addressed the national blight of slavery while avoiding the bloodiest war in the nation’s history? This is a much harder question to answer, and one that academic experts on the conflict continue to debate to this day. It’s not a stupid question.
Having defended President Trump on this point, I have to say that his observations about Andrew Jackson’s concern for “what was happening with regard to the Civil War” are just ridiculous. As others have pointed out, Jackson died sixteen years before the war erupted. Less patently absurd is the president’s speculation that, had Jackson served as president some years later, he might have successfully averted the war during his administration, at least.
This is what historians call a counterfactual hypothesis–speculation about the likely consequences of a set of historical circumstances that never existed. By definition, a counterfactual hypothesis cannot be proved correct, so academic historians almost always avoid them, but they can be intriguing, and they sometimes can lead to fruitful insight.
Not in this case, however.
While southern politicians were convinced that Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 posed a direct threat to the preservation of slavery–and so responded by advocating disunion–slaveholders had nothing to fear from a Jackson presidency. While Lincoln’s Republican Party denounced slavery as a moral wrong and called for its eventual demise, Jackson’s party took the position that it was no business of the federal government to interfere with slavery. While Lincoln denounced slavery as a “moral, social, and political wrong,” the slaveholding Jackson was outspoken in his condemnation of northern abolitionists and, as president, even allowed southern postmasters to confiscate and destroy abolitionist literature. In sum, it seems highly unlikely that the South would have attempted to secede under Andrew Jackson’s watch, but not because of Jackson’s strong leadership or skill at negotiation.
But as long as we’re playing the counterfactual game, let’s not stop here. President Trump has repeatedly compared himself with Andrew Jackson (whose portrait he had installed in the Oval Office), and his suggestion that Jackson could have avoided the Civil War is, in this sense, a backhanded self-compliment, i.e., “the president who most resembles me is the one who could have saved the nation’s from its bloodiest war.” Is there any reason to think that the nation might have fared better in 1861 with Donald Trump, and not Abraham Lincoln, in the White House?
Lincoln Would have Seen Donald Trump as Part of the Problem
Although it is inconceivable to imagine the Civil War occurring had the institution of slavery not existed on American soil, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Civil War was inevitable or that, even if it was inevitable, that it had to break out at the time and in the manner that it did. The Civil War, if it signified anything, was a blaring testimony to the failure of the American political system. Historians believe that the system failed, in large part, because of a massive crisis of popular confidence in the nation’s political institutions.
One of the great ironies of the Civil War is that both the North and the South believed that they were under attack by the other. As I stress to students when we wrestle with the coming of the Civil War, by the close of the 1850s common folk in both regions could ironically agree on two things: 1) the other region was committed to an agenda that would undermine their way of life, and 2) the political process was powerless to protect them from the threat. The moral controversy over slavery had something to do with this, but so did politicians on both sides who regularly exaggerated the threat posed by the other region because of the partisan benefits that resulted when their constituents were afraid.
Nearly a quarter-century before the first cannon boomed at Fort Sumter, a young Abraham Lincoln had warned about precisely this kind of political danger. In his 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln, then an Illinois state congressman, told his audience that the most serious threat to America’s political institutions did not come from a foreign invader. “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?” he asked. “If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln warned, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Lincoln went on to make three key points: First, the “strongest bulwark” of our democratic form of government is “the attachment of the People.” Second, free government is never more vulnerable than when the public has concluded it cannot, or will not, protect them and champion their interests. In such an environment, the majority may eventually conclude—recklessly, emotionally—that any change is better than no change since “they imagine they have nothing to lose.” And third, what should we look for when a people driven by passion lose faith in their government? Danger.
What is the solution? Key to Lincoln’s prescription was his realization that popular attachment to the government is not just something that happens when government does its job. Lincoln insisted instead that attachment to the government is a political quality that the American people must constantly, consciously cultivate. “How shall we fortify against” the loss of faith in government, Lincoln asked? We do so, he maintained, by promoting respect for the rule of law and by replacing passion in the public square with reason.
How would a President Trump have acted during the run-up to the American Civil War? We’ll never know, of course, but anyone who listened to his speech in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania just two days ago heard a president who excels in doing precisely what Lincoln warned against: fueling popular contempt for government while channeling our darkest passions.