What-if scenarios regarding history can be appealing. Change one butterfly fluttering its wings, and you can’t be sure how the rest of the world will react. This becomes particularly poignant on the level of presidential politics, which is one reason Alternate History has become something of its own sub-genre in recent years, attracting such luminaries as Philip Roth, Michael Chabon, and Stephen King. Personally, I’m still waiting on the great novel where Sandra Day O’Connor bumps her head on Thanksgiving 2000, and Al Gore is President during 9/11. Should be a humdinger.
But none of that excuses Donald Trump’s reckless rhetoric today. Trump seems enamored of the 7th President; he hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office, he went to Jackson’s childhood home, and he visited the graves of Jackson and his wife. Jackson might be considered the first populist president; he certainly moved power from elites, especially bankers, to less powerful Americans. Jackson expanded voting rights to less affluent Americans. When Jackson left office, the U.S. had no national debt. These were admirable accomplishments. Sadly, Trump seems determined to admire the worst parts of Jackson’s legacy.
Today the 45th President said:
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…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?
Wouldn’t have had the Civil War? Categorically? It’s one thing to say that if Teddy Roosevelt hadn’t become President, the National Park System wouldn’t have been created the way it was. But this is something else, and it’s something very dangerous. It minimizes both historical racism and historical authoritarianism.
Lifelong slaveholder Andrew Jackson became famous for winning the Battle of New Orleans, and he deserves all kudos for that. Jackson then staged a serious of illegal incursions into Spanish Florida, which we now call the “First Seminole War.” President Monroe had ordered Jackson to “terminate the conflict,” not extend it into foreign territory. Basically, Jackson was a warmonger, imperialist, and bully, so can we really expect that he would have behaved differently after, say, John Brown attacked Harper’s Ferry?
Shortly after the Seminole War, with Jackson now a hero to at least half the republic, America faced its first real threat of secession as it prepared to admit Missouri to the Union. Most of the country’s prominent minds weighed in to forge the Missouri Compromise of 1820 – most, that is, except Andrew Jackson. If he was such a Civil War preventer, why didn’t he help out then?
In late 1832, just before the start of Jackson’s second term in the White House, Senator John Calhoun and South Carolina very seriously threatened to secede in what became known as the “nullification crisis.” To Jackson’s credit, his threats (and mobilizing army) motivated Calhoun to back down. Perhaps President Trump has inferred that Jackson might have done something similar to Fort Sumter in 1860? And that South Carolina would have meekly backed down?
The largest problem with this analogy is that 1860 was not 1832…in large part because of Andrew Jackson. Make no mistake, Jackson was the country’s most influential leader between the Presidencies of Jefferson and Lincoln. While in office, as mentioned, he “destroyed” (his term) the U.S. Bank. He also uprooted thousands of Native Americans from their Georgia homes and “walked” them to Oklahoma, creating the “Trail of Tears” (not his term). Jackson left office to his hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren. Jackson’s party lost the next Presidential election, in 1840, but 40 days into his Presidency, William Henry Harrison became the first President to die in office, and his Vice-President, John Tyler, turned out to be closer to Jackson’s politics. By 1844, Jackson was quite ill of health, but managed to live long enough to compel his voters to turn out, and they managed to elect James Polk. All accounts say Jackson “cheered from the Hermitage” shortly before dying in early 1845. (The lifelong slaveholder didn’t free his slaves upon his death, as Washington had.)
If you care about the roots of the Civil War, you know 1844 was a fateful election. If Henry Clay had won (as the pundits predicted; sound familiar?), Clay would have avoided war with Mexico and bent over backwards to preserve the Union. (Clay had both led the Missouri Compromise and founded the American Colonization Society which basically created Liberia. Although starting new nations in Africa wasn’t a perfect solution, it goes to show how far Clay would have gone to keep the United States whole. Setting a future date for emancipation?) Polk, with Jackson’s blessing (no surprise, given Jackson’s history of racism and authoritarianism), declared war on Mexico, pretty much because he could. America’s victory over Mexico immediately created the problem of slavery expansion. The arguments over slavery in the well of the Senate from 1848 to 1850 made the 1820 arguments look like child’s play.
After the Compromise of 1820, it was possible for many whites to believe, however provisionally, that life had “returned to normal” in America. No one thought such a thing after the Compromise of 1850. Much had changed just in the 17 years since the nullification crisis. “Abolitionism” was now a term on everyone’s lips; its newspapers were everywhere. Frederick Douglass and the Underground Railroad were now known quantities. And in 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, forcing Northerners to return escaped slaves, ensured that the slavery question would hardly be ignored as it had been when Jackson was elected President in 1828.
By 1850, newly pious religious Northerners were highly attuned to Southerners who were also highly attuned to people objecting to their racist insistence on owning African-Americans as though they were chattel. Each side waged a zero-sum game against the other. If “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was good for one, it was bad for the other. If the Dred Scott decision was good for one, it was bad for the other. The 1820s and the 1830s weren’t like that.
Trump said today, “Why could that one not have been worked out?” A better question is “How?” Sending slaves to Africa? Slaveholders like Jackson always objected to such confiscation of “their property.” Paying slaveholders for their slaves’ freedom? I doubt the man obsessed against U.S. debt would have gone for that. Threatening South Carolina as he did in 1832-33?
Such an authoritarian solution would not have been tolerated by highly attuned slaveholders who’d lived through the Mexican War and the mini-Civil War in Kansas. What if Jackson made the opposite choice: a slave-holding union, maintained by force if necessary? That authoritarian solution would have hardly satisfied either the millions living in bondage or the millions in the North who wanted them to be free.
President Trump’s inaugural speech, given about 100 days ago, had hints of the delusion he promoted today. In the wake of civil unrest and Trump’s history of prejudice as well as his extremely divisive campaign, many were looking for Trump to offer some sort of statement about inclusiveness and pluralism. All he wound up saying was:
At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.
Basically, Trump thinks that by declaring “total allegiance” to our country, we can forget about all our other problems – as though patriotism, uh, trumps racism. (I won’t even bring up the argument that African-Americans are actually more patriotic than most whites, considering what they’ve been through.) It doesn’t work that way. The white and black heroes of the 1820s, 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s who spoke out against racism weren’t speaking against their country. No slaveholding Indian-killer/Indian-exiler could paper over his moral failings by wearing a flag. No would-be tyrant sitting in the White House could solve America’s racism by telling everyone to be more loyal to America. Not then, not now, not ever.