In an interview with Salena Zito for the Washington Examiner that aired on Sirius XM on Monday afternoon, President Trump expressed his continued admiration for President Andrew Jackson with a remark that struck many as surprising, to say the least.
“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little 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,'” Trump said. “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?”
On the one hand, though Andrew Jackson died in 1845 — nearly two decades before the Civil War began — Trump’s belief that Jackson would have prevented the war from happening, while impossible to prove, does have some connection to the real events that happened during Jackson’s presidency. Specifically, Jackson was President during the nullification crisis between South Carolina and the federal government over the question of tariffs. During that episode, South Carolina asserted the state’s right to void federal law, a preview of the Confederate view that those states could withdraw from the Union.
Jackson responded in 1832 with a proclamation that explained his view that for South Carolina to take up arms to back up that position would be treasonous, and Congress authorized him to use the military to enforce the tariff in question. As Jackson put it, “Our Federal Union—it must be preserved.”
The federal government also, however, compromised on the tax to which South Carolina had objected. South Carolina backed off and no use of force proved necessary. Jackson, then, did express his anger over this particular matter that would come to a head in the Civil War, as Trump put it, and his complicated legacy does include getting credit for heading off an earlier armed conflict.
But the question of “why was there the Civil War” is one that people have in fact been thinking about for more than 150 years.
While a nullification dispute over taxes could be solved without war by the president and Congress, the dispute over slavery could not. And yes, even Andrew Jackson, in the 1830s, could see that coming. It wasn’t “worked out,” as Trump put it, because the South was too invested in the continued existence of slavery to let it be.
The difference between those two situations was explained by none other than Abraham Lincoln himself, in 1865, when he delivered his second inaugural address as the war continued to rage. He dedicated his extremely brief address to exactly that question. Here’s the portion of that speech that contains his answer, with emphasis added:
Though Lincoln had a personal stake in this analysis and many people have disagreed about it over the years, historians today generally agree that he was right from the beginning: the short answer is that slavery (of which Jackson was a defender) was why there was the Civil War.
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