History Lessons
Trumpsplaining the Civil War

Pundits are pearl-clutching over the president’s recent ruminations about the Civil War, transcribed here in the Washington Post, in which he suggests (in his typically disjointed manner) that if Andrew Jackson were President in the run-up to the secession crisis, the breakout of war might have been avoided. This is supposedly evidence that Trump is historically illiterate, or even that he sympathizes with the Confederacy.

But whether Trump knows it or not, there is a good historical parallel here: Andrew Jackson defused the Nullification Crisis with South Carolina by sending in federal troops and making his resolution clear. Had President James Buchanan showed this kind of fortitude—resupplying and reinforcing federal forces in the South and projecting his determination to hold the Union together in 1860—things might have gone very differently in 1861. Many observers made this point at the time; Buchanan’s feckless ineptitude, often contrasted with Jackson’s forthright resolution, is one of the main reasons Old Buck is considered the Worst President Ever.

It’s also worth noting that Lincoln’s position in 1860-61 was that his election didn’t have to mean Civil War—that he wanted to “find a way to work this all out” and was ready to compromise bigly to avoid hostilities. Had he been alive during the war, Jackson would likely have been an anti-Lincoln, pro-Union Democrat like Stephen Douglas—Lincoln’s defeated opponent who supported Lincoln against the secessionists.

Civil War counterfactuals can and will be debated forever. But in this particular case, Trump has stumbled into a historically defensible position by highlighting the fact that presidential weakness in the late 1850s made federal dissolution more likely—and, predictably, is being dumped on for it by any-stick-is-good-enough, faux-outrage critics.

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