We all live downstream of 1861.
Recently, Donald Trump said that Andrew Jackson could have averted the Civil War. His critics have been quick to disparage his view, while at the same time attempting to buttress their own view that the Civil War was necessary.
History is a study fraught with mistakes. I have studied the Civil War a great deal and delved more and more into the antebellum era in recent years, but I even made the error of thinking Andrew Jackson to have played at least a minor role in the Compromise Tariff of 1833 which defused the Nullification Crisis, when he did not. Mistakes are easy.
That being said, there is difference between mistakes in the study of history, which everyone makes, and ignorance, which characterizes Donald Trump’s understanding of history, and willful ignorance, which characterizes the “consensus” of professional historians today.
If we want to examine whether Trump is right about Andrew Jackson averting a civil war, we must look at the executive actions in common with Jackson in 1832–33 and Abraham Lincoln in 1861. We can break it down by whether each president would have utilized compromise or threat of force to achieve the end that they wanted, which in both cases was the preservation of the Union’s status quo.
Compromise: Tariff = no; Slavery = not applicable
Threat: Tariff = yes (see Force Bill); Slavery = not applicable
“[W]henever the President of the United States shall be officially informed … that, within the limits of such state, any law or laws of the United States, or the execution thereof, or of any process from the courts of the United States, is obstructed … it shall be lawful for him, the President of the United States, forthwith to issue his proclamation, declaring such fact or information, and requiring all such military and other force forthwith to disperse; and if at any time after issuing such proclamation, any such opposition or obstruction shall be made, in the manner or by the means aforesaid, the President shall be, and hereby is, authorized, promptly to employ such means to suppress the same, and to cause the said laws or process to be duly executed.” — Force Bill
Compromise: Tariff = no; Slavery = yes (see Corwin Amendment)
“I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution — which amendment, however, I have not seen — has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service … holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.” — Abraham Lincoln
Threat: Slavery = no; Tariff = yes (see First Inaugural Address)
“The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.” — Abraham Lincoln
The only common condition between the two situations is the tariff. In each case, neither Jackson nor Lincoln would have compromised. From this standpoint, be it 1833 or 1861, civil war would not have been averted.
Civil war was averted during the Nullification Crisis because Congress was willing to compromise on the tariff.
Civil war was not averted in 1861 because Congress did not compromise on the tariff because seven Southern states seceded, leaving less opposition in Congress to the tariff (but not, ironically, to the Corwin Amendment and the constitutional protection of slavery).
Whether or not the first seven Southern states seceded in 1860–61 because of slavery is not material to the question of whether war could have been averted. Slavery was undoubtedly one of several reasons stated for secession, but the glaring fact is that the Corwin Amendment compromise on slavery, endorsed by Lincoln, did not induce them to remain in the Union. On the other hand, there was no compromise on the tariff in 1861, unlike in 1833. Had there been, even without the Corwin Amendment, secession and civil war would have been averted.
Neither are Lincoln’s views on slavery later in the war material to this argument. Whether his belated efforts at emancipation were sincere or calculated to reframe the justification for the war in order to drum up flagging support, is matter for a different argument, one which I think fails the sincerity test. But clearly they are not relevant to determining why war actually broke out.
In the case of either Jackson or Lincoln being president in 1861, there would have been civil war resulting from either secession or nullification over the tariff. Jackson would have used the same force as Lincoln. The latter president was more circumspect than Jackson, for in saying “beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force,” Lincoln masked his threat of force with an appearance of no variation in a tranquil status quo unless the opposition undertook extreme measures, shifting the onus of responsibility away from himself. But the point of a federal bayonet was the threat in either case.
Compromise avoids secession and civil war. The threat of unlimited federal force results in civil war if there is no compromise.
So Trump is wrong, clearly. Yet if this means there are similarities between 1833 and 1861, Trump’s critics will not admit that compromise defused conflict in 1833 and thus could have achieved the same in 1861. This is because they want the Civil War to have been necessary. They need for it to have been a war to end slavery, but here they are being willfully ignorant. They have all the facts, more than most other Americans. Yet they conflate the antebellum sectional tensions over slavery and Lincoln’s belated efforts at emancipation (done despite much domestic Northern opposition) with the cause of the war itself. They are ignoring inconvenient facts because they want a certain end (the end of slavery) and the only way they conceive it to be possible is through war. This is why they have come down on Trump, but with a rather uncertain note to their criticisms, because they have been put in the position of defending the morality of a bloody war with a logic that is as lacking as Trump’s own awareness of American history. And Trump’s own supporters have come out with their own even more ill-informed justification of his comments, not because they want the truth, but because they want to club Trump’s critics.
The irony is that this subjection of the truth to an ideological telos by both the left and the right is an consequence of the Civil War. It was history’s first modern war, replete with the propaganda, disinformation, censorship, and suppression of dissent that has become a staple of all wars and national crises since. The question is, if we cannot be honest about what causes civil wars, can we expect to avert one in the future, considering that the very thing which caused it, the absolutism of the federal executive, is now common to all our presidents, be they Obama or Trump?