TRUMP: 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, and he was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. There’s no reason for this. People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why?Three aspects of these comments generated controversy. First, Trump implied that Jackson's leadership style could have possibly prevented the Civil War. Second, the latter part of Trump's comments could be interpreted, if one desired, to imply that he did not know that Jackson died (1845) before the Civil War began (1861). Of course, one must willingly ignore the first part of Trump's statement -- "had Jackson been a little later" -- in order to reach this conclusion, but why give the POTUS the benefit of the doubt? Third, Trump suggested that averting the war would have been a desirable outcome, which, as we shall see, is an unacceptably "racist" interpretation.
Were Trump's comments clumsily worded? Yes. Is a lack of polished preparation part of what we have come to expect from Trump? Yes. Is Trump an eloquent orator? No. But, does the content of this interview definitively show that Trump has "no clue" about U.S. history, or that he is promoting a "distorted alternative history," as many have suggested? Not at all.
Trump's comments are perfectly reasonable. Does that offend you? Those taking offense, and purporting to represent "history," are in fact the ones pushing a radical New Left narrative. They describe Jackson only as a racist, genocidal maniac, and the Civil War as an inevitable war of liberation. Any departure from that narrative -- attempts to contextualize, consider nuance, or appreciate the past in all of its complexity -- is derided as supportive of racism, slavery, and, ultimately, the Confederacy. For the New Left, the story of America is only a story of oppression. To depart from this narrative is to commit the ultimate sin -- supporting the historical structures of oppression. It is my contention that the New Left's historical narrative plays a central role in producing the irrational cognitive processes associated with the current "social justice" movement.
Could Andrew Jackson have averted the Civil War, had he been alive? Possibly. Let's consider the Nullification Crisis as a precedent -- after all, Lincoln did.
Historians have routinely pointed out that Jackson's threat of force, combined with a willingness to compromise, played an important role in the resolution of the Nullification Crisis in 1832, when South Carolinian state legislators, amid talk of secession, attempted to nullify the federal tariff. The crisis ended after Jackson threatened to invade South Carolina and hang the leaders of the revolt "from the nearest tree." Despite being a slave owner and states-rights advocate, Jackson's loyalty ultimately rested with the Union. South Carolina's leading men wisely backed down, and undoubtedly knew that Jackson was not one to make idle threats -- the Union was preserved. Trump's statement is not some radical departure from previous inquiry.
Did weak leadership and the breakdown of compromise contribute to the start of the war? Yes.
Historians have also commonly cited weak leadership in the 1850s as a contributing cause of the Civil War. Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan have been consistently ranked as the worst presidents in American history precisely for failing to find an adequate solution to the sectional crisis. By the time Abraham Lincoln took office, the nation was utterly polarized, seven states had seceded, and Lincoln faced a choice between accepting disunion, or war. Lincoln, a moderate Republican, opposed slavery's expansion into the western territories during the election, but as president, Lincoln solemnly led the nation to war to preserve the Union.
Trump implied that avoiding war would have been a desirable outcome. Should he be condemned for that?
Suggesting that Lincoln thought of the war as inevitable or desirable, or that he waged a war of liberation from the outset, are ahistorical claims. It was only mid-war that Lincoln made ending the institution of slavery a wartime goal with the Emancipation Proclamation (1863). Suggesting that the Civil War was either inevitable, or desirable, represents a methodological flaw wedded to a moral judgement. On the one hand, the claim that historical events are somehow inevitable reveals a hopelessly fatalistic and deterministic outlook, but this is not surprising considering that New Left methodology flows from marxist theoretical assumptions -- the inevitable march of socialism.
On the other hand, to suggest that civil war was desirable reveals the belief that the "ends" justify the "means," as calling a war "desirable" is not the same as stating that it was "just." Most -- accepting that slavery was an evil institution -- would agree that the war was just. But desirable? This position represents the application of the inevitability assumption to the moral position that the Civil War was a just war. If one can imagine another way that the institution of slavery could have been eliminated, or that the war could have been averted, or some combination thereof, then civil war represents the failure of American society and its institutions to resolve internal differences without recourse to violence -- hence, the breakdown of compromise thesis.
Civil war embodies the inverse of the Enlightenment project, but then, so does slavery. It's possible that war was the sole catalyst that could have ended Southern slavery, but we'll never know for certain how the story would have played out -- had war been averted. Lest we forget, slavery had been abolished in the Northern states prior to the start of the war. The connection to the market revolution, in this regard, is striking. But, for the moment, let's accept the New Left's assumptions -- that the Civil War was both desirable and inevitable -- as true. What is the lesson? What other systems of oppression must inevitably be overcome through war? Do you see the problem here? It's a programmatic and formulaic lack of imagination. If one accepts the claims of intersectionality, for instance, then one sees structures of oppression everywhere -- racism, bigotry, misogyny. Of course, this raises a host of questions about perception, as many others think the SJW crowd are deluded fanatics. Who is right? Agreeing to basic ground rules of civil discussion and living according to the laws passed by our representatives are at the heart of the constitutional process, yet those claiming systemic oppression are the same ones infringing upon the free speech of those arbitrarily deemed "haters" by the SJW crowd. Where does this process lead?
Civil war is neither an inevitable, nor desirable, means of solving social injustices -- either real (slavery) or perceived. If all history is biography, then we should all find it disturbing that prominent journalists and academics are condemning the POTUS for thinking that civil war should be avoided. Of course, one only need examine the course of twentieth century socialism -- and its 100 million victims -- to understand that radical leftists have often found civil war desirable; unfortunately, societies that have embraced socialism have always found civil war inevitable.
For socialists, theory is a mystical place where history and progress flow together as one -- the details are just window dressing. Socialists do not think of theory in the traditional scientific sense -- a rational step toward a clearer understanding of the world; something to be challenged and reconsidered. Rather, socialists treat theory as the starting block, a guiding premise, and a strategic conversation for achieving and exercising power. For socialists, theory is truth -- and a jealous god.
If Trump's sparse and vague comments -- besides the awkwardly worded sentence noted above -- allude to mainstream historical interpretations (for a brief overview, see here), then what is the source of the left's outrage? Simple -- the left hates Jackson and Trump with equal vigor. But why? Let's consider the legacy of Andrew Jackson.
Not many presidents have such an intensely disputed legacy. Jackson has been the subject of numerous biographies, and, until relatively recently, those biographies gravitated toward either celebrating Jackson's accomplishments, or regurgitating the criticisms of Jackson's enemies. Historians have found many things to celebrate. Jackson served as a teen courier in the American Revolution until he was captured, imprisoned, and slashed across the face with a saber by a British officer as a result of Jackson's refusal to shine the officer's boots. Despite being orphaned by the war, Jackson obtained an education, headed west to Tennessee, and made a career as a horse trader, politician, and military officer. General Jackson was the hero of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, where he led a group of irregulars to victory over the British army, marking the first time an American general defeated a European general without the assistance of a European power. Jackson served in Congress, founded the Democratic Party, expanded the franchise to the common man, preserved the Union, killed the Bank, etc.
Historians have also found many things to dislike about Jackson's legacy: a mercurial temper, the tendency to hold personal vendettas and ruthlessly exact revenge on enemies, an authoritarian style of leadership, a refusal to condemn the institution of slavery, a penchant for making legally questionable choices (he invaded Florida!), and most notoriously, support for the Indian Removal policy. He is also criticized by some as having destabilized the national economy, expanding the scope of the presidency, engaging in demagoguery, and callously allowing the expansion of the institution of slavery westward.
In many ways, Jackson was a "tough person" that had a "big heart." Jackson was an unabashed nationalist -- loved by his friends, feared by his enemies, and respected by all. He was a dueler, brawler, and a military man. He was brave, but vengeful. He could be vulgar, or eloquent. This was a pocked-face, Scots-Irish commoner who won the popular vote in 1824, but lost the election due to a "corrupt bargain" made between establishment elites and their powerful, monied backers. Undeterred, Jackson returned to defeat the aristocratically-reared establishment candidate, John Quincy Adams, in the election of 1828 -- but his victory came at a price. Jackson went to his grave believing that the grief his beloved wife Rachel suffered, due to attacks on her character during the election (widely considered to have been the most vicious election in American history, until recently), resulted in her death just prior to his inauguration.
To focus exclusively on Jackson's flaws is to overlook his substantive contributions -- to throw out the baby with the bath water. In many ways Jackson personifies the best and worst of antebellum American culture. In a global context, his rise from obscurity to prominence -- through force of personality and fierce determination -- stood in stark contrast to the rigid class structures of medieval and early modern Europe -- a point not lost on Alexis de Tocqueville. The emergence of a mass democracy between the mid-1820s and early-1850s has been aptly referred to by historians as the Jacksonian Era. Jackson's political ideals -- empowering the common man -- defined the outlook of generations of Americans and has been rightly labeled Jacksonian democracy. Of course, history is an interpretive exercise. The New Left is free to interpret Jackson's legacy as they do, but not to pretend that their narrative is anything other than a radical departure from previous historiography.
In the twentieth century, Jackson's supporters tended to be aligned with the Democratic Party. Both New Dealers and New Frontiersmen (Kennedy advisor Arthur Schlesinger wrote an Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Jackson) found Jackson's willingness to take on corporate capital inspiring, and they were willing to forgive him for owning slaves and enforcing Indian removal. But over the last decade, New Left historians have focused almost exclusively on Jackson's imperfections. This historiographical shift has moved in tandem with the realigning of the Democrat Party's core values from a worker and union-centered emphasis, to identity politics. This new focus has meant abandoning FDR's New Deal coalition for a coalition of urban elites, women, immigrants, and "oppressed people of color." This shift has signified a leadership change-of-the-guard from holdover vital center Democrats to New Left radicals. Workers and working class issues -- the traditional focus of Old Left marxists -- are too white and too male for the New Left. In fact, the New Left sees white males as the lynchpin of oppression in the modern world. Accordingly, white males must be brought to heel, demonized. That begins by destroying their identity, their connections to the past.
The New Left's loathing of Jackson and Trump converge
By amplifying Jackson's imperfections -- the fact that he owned slaves and signed the Indian Removal Act -- New Left historians have created an unbalanced narrative in which Jackson's accomplishments and contributions to American history have been overshadowed. Regressive leftist historians hate Jackson because they judge him through a presentist lens - he's a racist, genocidal maniac who expanded white male supremacy to include the common white man. Is there anything more despicable to the New Left than a folk hero of the common white American man? For Trump to suggest that Jackson possessed any redeemable qualities, much less that Jackson deserved to be honored with a portrait hanging in the Oval Office and a presidential visit to the Hermitage (the only presidential visit since Reagan), is interpreted by leftists as Tump embracing slavery and genocide. These are the only things that matter concerning Jackson's legacy. Right?
Despite the fact that Jackson has traditionally been one of the most revered presidents in American history (consider the number of cities named after Jackson, see here), or that Democrats claimed Jackson as their party's founder for nearly two centuries, the New Left wants him, and the decedents of his constituency, banished to outer darkness. The left no longer approaches controversial topics with an NPR-like air of objectivity. The New Left's totalizing impulse will allow no "alternative" interpretations of the past! Trump's comments are a "distortion" of Jackson's legacy, and represent a set of "alternative facts" injected into national memory. Jackson's face must be removed from the money. His statue must be removed from New Orleans. His name, along with that of Thomas Jefferson, must be removed from the Democratic Party's annual fundraiser (for an insightful, yet flawed, marxist analysis of the name change, see here). Why? The past must be purified, sanitized, sanctified. The past, like the present, can only be seen as oppressive; the only option is to resist.
Alarmist headlines in response to Trump's recent comments about Jackson reflect "scholarly" concerns that "Trump has a blind spot on black history." Trump's comments reveal a "dark underside," and the "great truth" that "the party of Lincoln has become the party of Jefferson Davis." The Daily Beast suggested that Trump's response was "all Bannon." By now, the echo chamber knows the implication -- white supremacy! Snopes.com, the "impartial" fact-checker, predictably relates the New Left's talking-points on the topic -- Jackson and Trump represent ignorance, racism, and everything wrong with America, past and present. According to the SPLC, the fact that Jackson's portrait now hangs in the Oval Office represents a "signal" that Trump is defending "white identity."
How have New Left historians reacted to Trump's election, and more recently, his comments about Jackson?
Although some of the leading figures of the New Left, such as red-diaper baby and retired Columbia historian Eric Foner, have given measured responses (for interesting primer on Foner, see here), others have attempted to use this moment to capture public attention -- to "resist." According to Yale historian, and author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, David Blight, "before you know it, we may have a new term: history deniers." History deniers! Yes, the cultish denier template has expanded. For Blight, Trump's election signaled that "historians had failed." As a result, Blight insists that historians must become "public spokespeople" who, "in a role similar to climate scientists," must challenge Trump's "historical nonsense" with the "truths of history." Just as "there are truths of science," Blight extolls, "there are truths of history.” For Blight, the only remedy to Trump's "historical nonsense" is for Trump to take a leave of absence for "forced re-education." (Yes, he really said that.) "God help us," Blight pleads. He's subsequently made his course on the Civil War free and available online. Blight isn't the only historian sounding off.
The New Republic insists that "Trump’s Ignorance Is Radicalizing U.S. Historians." Princeton historian Julian Zelizer, author of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society, exclaims that it was the historian's "job" to "knock down what President Trump says." Zelizer complains that the POTUS had shown "no interest in the history of our nation, or his own office." Zelizer also predictably points out that Jackson died "long before Civil War started," but then focuses his criticism by claiming that Jackson would have probably been "on the wrong side of history and stood with the Confederacy." He suggests that Trump overlooked the fact that the Civil War ended slavery, and that Trump's interest in Jackson was simply a "loaded" appeal "to white working class voters with this famous strongman." Of course, Zelizer, a frequent contributor to CNN, also provides regular partisan "progressive" commentary on a host of public policy issues (see this link for his most recent lament about ACA repeal/replace legislation.)
Penn State historian Amy Greenberg, author of A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico, found Trump's election to be "stunning and demoralizing" -- “When they called Pennsylvania for Trump," relates Greenberg, "my world was just cracked open.” It's probably safe to assume that Greenberg was "with Her." Nevertheless, Greenberg cautions that historians must find the "proper tone with which to object to Trump’s positions." As part of a CNN panel criticizing Trump's comments about Jackson and the Civil War, Greenberg uncritically accepts the premise that Trump thinks Jackson was alive in 1860, and dismisses the POTUS's musings about Jackson as something "a fifth grader could have answered," as "Jackson died in 1845." Tone? I've included the following quote from Greenberg's latest gem so that the reader can get a sense of the type of New Left "scholarship" Greenberg is engaged in. Her efforts represent a broader rebranding effort by the New Left to portray the Jacksonian era of westward expansion as a story of conquest driven by misogyny. Do note the application of a presentist lens, the amplification of a perceived fault of antebellum Americans (the evil patriarchy!), and the placement of a theoretical position (new wave feminist theory) as the central theme of the narrative:
Manifest Destiny did not mean the same thing to all Americans. Some Americans, who supported a martial vision of masculinity, advocated an aggressive expansionism that supported territorial acquisitions Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire JPG through force of arms, and particularly through filibustering. Other Americans, advocates of a more restrained vision of manhood. . . . believed America’s Manifest Destiny would best be accomplished through the proliferation of her superior political and religious forms. . . . In other words, competing gender ideals at home shaped very different visions of American expansionism. Gendered visions of women and men abroad, from Latin America to the islands of the Pacific, justified and reinforced particular practices of manhood and womanhood in the United States. . . . Hegemonic American masculinity, this study will attempt to show, was actually made manifest through the process of antebellum territorial expansionism. — Amy S. Greenberg in “Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire”David S. Reynolds, Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, as well as regular contributor to CNN, The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, and the New York Times, also uncritically accepts the premise that Trump didn't know that Jackson died in 1845. Notwithstanding, Reynolds opines that Jackson would have, if anything, promoted the expansion of slavery and therefore contributed to the slide to war. Reynolds juxtaposes the slaveholding Jackson with the "firm-principled Abraham Lincoln, who was antislavery to the core," and was willing to "accept civil war rather than allow the spread of slavery."
Peniel Joseph, professor of history and the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, faults Trump's analysis of Jackson by stressing that nothing could have stopped the Civil War -- it was inevitable. Trump's error, however, wasn't simply "wishful thinking." According to Joseph, Trump's commentary was "dangerous in its distortion" and reflected "willful ignorance." When he isn't criticizing Trump, Joseph is an avid online activist for the Black Lives Matter movement, and a firmly-dedicated Obama partisan.
The BBC also invited historians to do a line-by-line analysis of Trump's comments - David Blight, Jim Grossman, and Judith Geisberg. Grossman, a resident scholar at the American Historical Association, interpreted Trump calling Jackson a "swashbuckler" as indicative of a shared "male" leadership style of "pushing people as much as you can, rather than creating consensus." Vilanova historian Geisberg sees Trump's "swashbuckler" reference as part of a plan to use Jackson's legacy as "cover" for Trump's lack of military experience. What about Trump's claim that Jackson "was a very tough person, but he had a big heart"? Geisberg suggests that the reader try telling that to American Indians and Jackson's slaves. Grossman's analysis of Trump's statement that war may have been averted "had Andrew Jackson been a little later," reveals the crux of the issue addressed in this blog post. Grossman writes:
He starts from the wrong premise - the premise that the Civil War should somehow have been avoided, and that someone more skilled on the White House could have avoided it. If one sees the Civil War as a war of liberation, which is what it was, then it shouldn't have been avoided. Had you compromised out the differences between the government and the confederacy, or between anti-slavery forces and southern slaveholders, the victims would have been the enslaved people of the south. If the president has the notion that it would be desirable to compromise that out, without emancipation, it is frightening.For Grossman, there is only one way to interpret the Civil War -- it was a war of liberation that could not -- should not -- have been avoided. Any other interpretation must be seen as racist support for the continuation of slavery. In this view, even making the argument -- as many past historians have -- that the Civil War was a national calamity with a silver lining of ending slavery and forming a more perfect union, does not meet the purity standards of the New Left. Is it any wonder that our college and university campuses are teeming with uncompromising leftist radicals who are fanatical in their quest for "social justice"? Who interpret speech they do not agree with as "hate speech"? Other narratives must be removed, repressed, destroyed; the symbols of the past must be recast into the totalizing mold of "oppression to be overcome." Give me a break!
This blog entry is hardly exhaustive, but the point is clear -- what is being portrayed by the media as "the truths of history" are actually the talking-points of the New Left's tortured version of American history. We must challenge these lies and half-truths. These contextless and unbalanced interpretations of the past are being used to indoctrinate a generation of young Americans. This vision of the past is designed to induce self-loathing and divide the nation on the basis of race and gender for crass political purposes. It is the weaponization of compassion. Of great importance, however, is that these are not marginalized historians writing from the fringe. These historians are at the top of the field. Their views are dominating the academy. They represent the new normative interpretation of the American past that is being taught to children in primary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions. It is my sincerest hope in writing this that the American public will wake up and smell the coffee, before more children get "woke" by cultural marxists.
This cowboy isn't buying their bull puckey, and neither should you.
- The Cowboy Historian