Research

Would Andrew Jackson Have Prevented the Civil War? Trump Says Yes. A Jackson Scholar Says No.

May 02, 2017

Courtesy of Daniel Feller
Daniel Feller, a professor of history at the U. of Tennessee at Knoxville: "At best this is airy speculation. What’s missing is any recognition by the president of what the Civil War was about. It makes it sound like being tough or having a big heart was going to solve this problem. The problem was slavery."
President Trump, a noted fan of Andrew Jackson, has some unresolved questions about problems that followed the seventh president’s leadership: like the Civil War. Why was there a Civil War in the first place?

In a recent interview with the Washington Examiner, Mr. Trump asked why the country had fought the Civil War when talking about Jackson’s legacy. "People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?"

When a screenshot and audio clip of the interview made its rounds on social media, many commentators debated some of Mr. Trump’s claims about the former two-term president, known as a war hero, an Indian fighter, and the first populist in the White House.

 

 

In a tweet on Monday evening, Mr. Trump repeated his claim that Jackson foresaw and would have stopped the war.

 

 

Daniel M. Feller, a professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and editor and director of The Papers of Andrew Jackson, spoke with The Chronicle about Mr. Trump’s dip into American history and what his fascination with Jackson may mean.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Let’s talk about what Mr. Trump said in the interview. He said Jackson would have prevented the Civil War. What do you think about that?

A. First we are in the area of things that would have happened or might have happened. At best this is airy speculation. What’s missing is any recognition by the president of what the Civil War was about. It makes it sound like being tough or having a big heart was going to solve this problem. The problem was slavery.

“The idea that somehow Jackson's personality would have prevented secession and disunion and Civil War is, let's say, a bit of a stretch.”
There were a lot of tough people and people with big hearts who had been trying to solve that crisis for generations, and none of them succeeded, and that includes Jackson. The idea that somehow Jackson’s personality would have prevented secession and disunion and Civil War is, let’s say, a bit of a stretch. In fact, tensions over slavery had been building for literally half a century before the Civil War. Those tensions did not in any way decrease during Jackson’s own administration. They very much increased during Jackson’s administration.

If Jackson’s personality, or Jackson’s temperament or character, was in any way going to resolve the issue of slavery, he had plenty of time to do that during eight years as president, and he didn’t. And I’m not criticizing him or saying that because neither did anybody else.

We are in an area not only of speculation of what would have happened, but about things that we can say are highly improbable. You can’t talk about what would have prevented the Civil War or what would have forestalled the Civil War without talking about the issue of slavery, and I don’t see any recognition in this quote that I’m looking at on my computer screen that the president knows what the Civil War was about.

Q. Andrew Jackson had "a big heart." As the director and editor of The Papers of Andrew Jackson, how true is that?

A. Tell me what it means, and I’ll tell you how true it is.

Q. I don’t think that Mr. Trump was talking about his anatomical heart.

A. Was he a generous man? Yes, in some circumstances, but not in others. Was he a forgiving man? Not in particular. As a matter of fact, rather particularly not. Did he have a grand vision for the United States? Was he a thoroughgoing patriot? Yes, but you could say that of any number of other people.

“The idea that somebody's temperament was going to resolve the issue of slavery is, on its face, nonsense.”

The problem — I’m sorry, I’m not trying to play gotcha with you — but to say he was a very tough person but he had a big heart says nothing. If we’re talking about how you’re going to deal with a political issue, having a big heart out of context, saying that out of context, without reference to any particular facts, is saying nothing.

A lot of people think that Jackson, in fact, did not have a big heart. A lot of people think that in his dealings with the Indians, he showed rather the opposite of a big heart, but I would say that this is irrelevant. The idea that somebody’s temperament was going to resolve the issue of slavery is, on its face, nonsense.

Q. Do you think that Mr. Trump was saying this because his campaign has been compared to Jackson’s, and he was saying this to soften that comparison?

A. When we’re talking about people who compare Trump to Jackson, most of the people are from the Trump camp. It’s true that a bunch of people from the other side, people critical of Trump, have invoked the comparison or that analogy for negative reasons. Trump has basically said, "I’m just like Andrew Jackson, a great popular hero despised by the elites in Washington." And some of his critics have said, "Yeah, you’re just like Andrew Jackson, racist bigot."

“Trump loves Andrew Jackson, or he loves this version of Andrew Jackson.”

Based upon what I’m looking at here, Trump loves Andrew Jackson, or he loves this version of Andrew Jackson, which is a hazy historical construct. He doesn’t know very much about Andrew Jackson — that was plain when he was at the Hermitage [Jackson’s estate in Tennessee, which Mr. Trump visited in March]. And since Trump seems to think that Jackson’s political importance is largely a function of his character, his big heart, and his toughness, put that together with apparently knowing nothing whatsoever with what caused the Civil War, and you can say what he said.

Q. Mr. Trump also said Jackson was angry with what was happening in regards to the Civil War.

A. A number of people on Twitter have pointed out that Jackson died in 1845. He was certainly angry at Southern extremism, as manifested in the nullification crisis. He didn’t say there’s no reason for this. He said, "Disunion by armed force is treason," which is a little bit more specific.

"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?" As has been noted, the president has a way of talking about what "people say," meaning what he thinks. There are plenty people out there who think about what caused the Civil War. The question "Why was there a Civil War?" says that people don’t ask that question. That is, I would say, the most often asked question of American historians, period.

“There is not a well-informed historian in the country -- I'm tempted to say, there's not a well-informed history student in the country -- who doesn't know that it was about slavery.”
"Why could that one not have been worked out?" If you don’t know that it was about slavery, you can wonder what it was about. There is not a well-informed historian in the country — I’m tempted to say, there’s not a well-informed history student in the country — who doesn’t know that it was about slavery.

If you want to extrapolate to the Civil War, which Trump was trying to do, the question you might ask, and it’s an interesting speculative question, is: If Andrew Jackson had been alive in 1860, not if he had been president, what side would he have come down on? Andrew Jackson himself was a slaveholder. He was a resident of a slave-holding state, and in fact a Confederate state.

On the other hand, he was also, and he showed this in the nullification crisis, a very strong and fervent believer in a permanent, indivisible, national union. My own read of Jackson’s character is that Jackson’s unionism was part of a core fiber of his being. I think that Jackson was enough of a principled man that in 1860 he would have sided with the union against the confederacy. I have reason for thinking that, but we’re speculating here.

Q. We’ve talked about Mr. Trump’s comparison to Andrew Jackson on both sides of the aisle. Jackson is having a moment. Why?

A. Well, we’ve seen it before, periodically. Jackson’s popularity comes and goes. More than any other president, he’s viewed in different lights because he’s such a large figure and is important in so many ways.

Library of Congress/Getty Images
Andrew Jackson, president from 1829 to 1837, in about 1844, a year before his death. For generations, says Daniel Feller, a U. of Tennessee historian, he was known as "a fighter for the little guy, the common man, the ordinary working fellow, against the bankers, against the corporations, against the elites." Later he became known primarily as a slaveholder and "Indian exterminator."
For instance, for generations, until the first half of the 20th century basically, the Democratic Party embraced Andrew Jackson as a fighter for the little guy, the common man, the ordinary working fellow, against the bankers, against the corporations, against the elites. For a later part of the 20th century, the image of Andrew Jackson as the prototypical New Dealer was replaced with Andrew Jackson the Indian exterminator.

Up until this recent election, the Jackson that most Americans thought they knew was the Andrew Jackson who brought on the Trail of Tears. I was somewhat surprised that President Trump embraced Andrew Jackson, but then the version he’s embracing is a different version of Andrew Jackson. It’s Andrew Jackson, the spokesman for the common man against the elites, with all of its economic content taken out of it.

Before Democrats were populists, the actual People’s Party in the 1890s — when those people embraced Jackson’s legacy, they meant in particular not just some kind of nebulous idea that he stood for the common man, but very specifically that he opposed the influence in government of corporations and banks — banks, most particularly.

Donald Trump has embraced Andrew Jackson as the fighter for the ordinary, the forgotten, the common, and against the elites, but I see no indication that by elites he means bankers.

Correction (5/2/2017, 9:53 a.m.): A previous version of this article mistakenly quoted Andrew Jackson as saying, "This union by armed force is treason." The correct quotation is "Disunion by armed force is treason." The article has been updated to reflect this correction.

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a breaking-news reporter. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.