Why President Trump Might Accidentally Have Been Right About Andrew Jackson

May 1st 2017

Mike Rothschild

In a comment made during an interview with Sirius XM, President Trump was asked about the intensely bitter presidential campaign of 1828, which saw Andrew Jackson win the presidency and avenge his disputed loss to John Quincy Adams in the previous election. The president responded with praise for Jackson and 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 a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?

The comment was roundly mocked on social media, and at first glance, seems to betray a fundamental lack of understanding about American history. 

For starters, Jackson died in 1845, 16 years before the Civil War broke out. Jackson also never gave any particular indication that he was conflicted over the issue of slavery; he owned slaves and opposed emancipation, writing in an 1844 letter that abolition threatened the "safety of our country, commerce, and our revenue." 

But ATTN: spoke to two historians who had a more generous interpretation of Trump's comment. To them, it's not that Trump was, in a nebulous and ahistorical way, saying Jackson would have prevented the Civil War, but that he was someone who took a stand against one state's potential rebellion during the long, torturous path to Southern secession.  

"There's actually more substance to Trump's comment than meets the eye," Gettysburg College Director of Civil War Era Studies professor Allen Guelzo said. He said that whether or not Trump was reflecting something he believes, or something someone else told him, he drew a "bright line" between Jackson's actions and the delaying of the Civil War.

"Jackson presided over what you might call the dress rehearsal for the Civil War," Guelzo explained.  This took place in 1832, almost 30 years before the first shots of the Civil War, and became known as the "Nullification Crisis."

During the crisis, South Carolina prepared to fight, by force if necessary, the "Tariff of Abominations" and prevent the government from collecting any import duties from what it saw as an unfair and oppressive law.

"Jackson opposed South Carolina's attempt to “nullify” a federal tariff law, believing that tariffs represented an unconstitutional extension of national power," UCLA history professor Joan Waugh said. 

Gulezo believes that Jackson read the situation as South Carolina's attempt to protect its right to keep slaves. "If the federal government [couldn't] tell the states what to do on an economic issue like tariffs," Guelzo said, "then it certainly won't be in a position to tell the states what to do about something like slavery."

Despite his dual stances as both a slave holder and proponent of state's rights, Jackson stood firm in his refusal to let one state nullify federal law. "Jackson’s famous utterance at the 1830 Jefferson Banquet Dinner summed up his thoughts: 'Our Federal Union. It must be preserved,'" Waugh said.

Unambiguously declaring that “disunion by armed force is treason," Jackson "faced down the state of South Carolina, threatened to march federal troops in, and by and large, the people of South Carolina buckled," Guelzo said.  

Trump's ascension to power, despite being an iconoclastic outsider, has often been compared to Jackson's anti-establishment populist persona. Many of these comparisons came from Trump acolytes, including Steve Bannon, Newt Gingrich, and Rudy Giuilani; all of whom saw Trump as Jackson's heir to building a new party of the people, not beholden to the wealthy elite.

In response, Trump embraced the comparison, by including hanging a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office, and laying a wreath at Jackson's tomb in March. But as Gulezo puts it, Trump's not the first president to hang Old Hickory's visage looking for inspiration.

When the Civil War finally broke out in 1861, "many people invoked the spirit of Andrew Jackson as justification for dealing militarily with South Carolina," he said. "Abraham Lincoln hung a portrait of Jackson in his office, and people often said that what they wanted to hear from Lincoln is what they heard from Jackson in 1832, that we weren't going to put up with this."

As to whether Trump made the comparison on purpose, or accidentally made a historically cogent point remains unclear from the interview snippet.

"I have no idea," Gulezo said when asked. "I don't know if this is something he'd read, or something a staffer brought him up to speed on. But there really is a bright line between what happens with Nullification in 1832 and what happens with seccession."