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Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Trump on the Civil War



Old Hickory in old age.

The latest nonsense from the press is a criticism of Trump for saying Andrew Jackson might have prevented the US Civil War.

One can disagree with Trump on this. But it is a perfectly reasonable suggestion.

Yet all the coverage is along the lines of “Trump is ignorant of history”; “Trump does not understand the Civil War”; “Trump gets it wrong.” Please.

CNN: “Trump gets Andrew Jackson and Civil War totally wrong”
The Guardian: “Trump voices confusion over US history: ‘Why was there a Civil War?’”
New York Times: “With Civil War remark, a president who does not go by the (history) book.”
Washington Post: “Trump’s totally bizarre claim about avoiding the Civil War.”

Here, so far as I can tell, is exactly what Trump 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 the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?"

The mainstream media’s objections:

1. Andrew Jackson died fourteen years before the Civil War.

Does anyone really believe Trump was saying Jackson was in charge during the war? It was a hypothetical.

Jackson was certainly aware of the tensions between north and south, since they had been around since before the War of Independence.

2. Andrew Jackson did not have a big heart. He was a slaveowner and made the Cherokee Indians move to Oklahoma.

While we may find these policies heartless, it is also true that Jackson had a reputation as a kind commander and a generous slaveholder. When one of his slaves was apparently beaten to death by an overseer, he pressed hard to have the man charged with murder. “Big heart” can also mean courageous, and Jackson certainly had a reputation for that.

It seems to me a bit unfair to condemn anyone running a plantation in the US South for owning slaves. The problem was systemic. If you owned a plantation and did not keep slaves, given that others would, you would soon go bankrupt. You could not compete, given your higher labour costs.

The Anaconda Plan. Basically the North's war strategy.

3. The reason for the Civil War is well known. It was to abolish slavery.

This presupposes that the only way to abolish slavery is through war. An odd claim. Yet the British Empire abolished slavery many years before the US, with no war. In fact, slavery is abolished everywhere, and it seemingly never required a war anywhere but the US. Why is it unreasonable then to think war could have been avoided?

As to slavery being the cause of the Civil War, even this is debatable. Abraham Lincoln, for one, denied it. He said that it was to preserve the union. He said that if he could have kept the union together by endorsing slavery, he would have done so. And the South abolished slavery themselves before the war ended. It seems more as though slavery was a symbol to the South of their right to self-rule.

4. The Civil War was inevitable, and no leader could have prevented it.

This seems at base a Marxist view of history: dialectical materialism produces historical inevitability, leading of course in the end to the dictatorship of the proletariat and the communist utopia at the end of time. The school of history that believes people actually have free will also has some intellectual credibility. Did Churchill not matter? Gandhi? Martin Luther King? Lincoln? Washington? Newton? Aristotle?

In fact, Jackson faced a southern attempt to leave the union during his presidency—the South Carolina nullification crisis—and managed to nip it in the bud. This seems reasonable grounds for presuming he could have handed it the next time around.

5. Andrew Jackson would not have prevented the Civil War, because he was a slaveholder.

This is a non sequitur. It makes no more sense than arguing that Lincoln could not have fought the Civil War because he owned no slaves. Being a slaveholder himself might have given Jackson the credibility to get the South to compromise.

What compromise? How about what the British did: financial compensation to slave owners for their loss of property.

Note that US Grant, top Union general during the Civil War, himself owned slaves, or at least one slave. Robert E. Lee, top general for the South, opposed slavery. This did not seem to make their tasks impossible.

It may not be that the world has gone crazy, but certainly the press has. What they print has no necessary relation to objective fact.




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