Politics

What Trump Got Right and Wrong About Andrew Jackson

Yes, the seventh U.S. president might have saved the Union. But he would have destroyed the American experiment.

Frozen in time.

Photographer: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Lost in all the snickering about President Donald Trump’s remarks about the Civil War is what was really wrong with them.

Trump said that Andrew Jackson had been “really angry” about the Civil War. As many people then pointed out, Jackson died 16 years before the war started. On Twitter, Trump said he knew that all along. Jackson “saw it coming and was angry. Would never have let it happen!”

I appear to be in the minority of journalists who find Trump’s explanation of what he meant plausible. Some of his other initial remarks back me up: “Had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn't have had the Civil War. ... He was really angry that he saw 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?"

A lot of Trump’s premises here aren’t wrong! It’s not crazy to think that the conflict between North and South could have been “worked out” without a war. Jackson did see that conflict brewing -- every sentient American of his era did. He did want to stop it: He was a famously vehement supporter of the Union. And maybe he would have succeeded had he come later.

But for Jackson, the only way to have “worked out” the conflict, if it could have been worked out at all, would have been to acquiesce in the Southern view that slavery was a positive good. There was no shortage of Northerners willing to do just that, precisely to avoid a conflict. Jackson, had he been president, would have had no moral qualms about placating the South on slavery. He was, after all, himself a Southerner, a slaveholder and generally an ally of the “slave power.”

The Civil War happened when it did because the country elected a president who was none of those things. In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln perfectly summed up the division that had led to the war: “To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest” -- that is, slavery -- “was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.”

The government could have renounced that right, but only at the cost of abandoning everything that was good about the American experiment. Trump prides himself on being a deal-maker. What Lincoln saw, what apparently still needs seeing, is that some moral principles can’t be dealt away.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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