This week the President Trump made news when he began talking about ancient history. `‘I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War, ” he said. `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.”
Apart from the blunderous clause in which Trump had Jackson, a newly minted corpse in 1845, angered about something that began in 1861, the president had a legitimate hypothetical point: had Jackson been president in 1860, the Civil War surely would not have happened as it did, and might not have happened at all.
It is important to remember that the south did not secede in unison; the states split off one by one, with the last of them that left, Tennessee and North Carolina, not choosing to depart until after the shooting started. South Carolina, which led secession in December 1860, was always the most radical of the southern states, and most of the states–especially key states like Georgia and especially Virginia–were waiting to see how Washington reacted to South Carolina’s bold gesture. In the event, President Buchanan reacted weakly–he said that South Carolina had no right to secede, but that the federal government had no right to compel them to stay.
Thirty years earlier, during the Nullification Crisis, President jackson reacted much differently. Objecting to a high tariff, South Carolina declared it had the right to nullify any action of Congress. Jackson had no sympathy with that position. “There is nothing that I shudder at more than the idea of a separation of the Union. Should such an event ever happen, which I fervently pray God to avert, from that date I view our liberty gone.”
Responding forcefully, he reinforced the garrisons of Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney in Charleston harbor, sent two armed revenue cutters to Charleston harbor, and ordered General Winfield Scott to prepare for military operations. Like Lincoln three decades later, he said that federal forces must not initiate violence, but warned a South Carolina congressman that ‘if one drop of blood be shed there in defiance of the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man of them I can get my hands on to the first tree I can find.’ When South Carolina Senator Robert Hayne ventured, ‘I don’t believe he would really hang anybody, do you?’ Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton replied, ‘Few people have believed he would hang Arbuthnot and shoot Ambrister [two British subjects who aided the Seminoles] . . . I tell you, Hayne, when Jackson begins to talk about hanging, they can begin to look out for ropes!’ Jackson followed up these orders with a bill seeking Congressional authorization, and he got allies in Congress to lower the tariff to pacify the other southern states and keep South Carolina isolated. And so the crisis passed.
And so I think Trump was right: had Jackson been president, you would not have seen the war, at least not as it happened.
Trump also drew dismay when he added, ‘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?’’
Good question, Mr. President! And for a good answer, you can’t beat And the War Came: Six Months That Tore America Apart. You’ll see how an slaveholders–radical, uncompromising, right wingers–manipulated their states into rebellion and war. It might strike a familiar note.