Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“When was Andrew Jackson?”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on May 3, 2017

I’m sure you’ve heard about the comments that the president made recently about Andrew Jackson, and how he might have prevented the Civil War from happening. A reporter at Vice, Eve Peyser, called several historians in different specialties the other day and asked what they thought about the president’s comments. One of them was David Blight, the Yale professor who, as much as anyone, has shaped Civil War historiography over the past couple of decades. Blight apparently hadn’t heard about the president’s comments before the Peyser contacted him. He replied, somewhat incredulously:

He really said this about Jackson and the Civil War? All I can say to you is that from day one I have believed that Donald Trump’s greatest threat to our society and to our democracy is not necessarily his authoritarianism, but his essential ignorance—of history, of policy, of political process, of the Constitution. Saying that if Jackson had been around we might not have had the Civil War is like saying that one strong, aggressive leader can shape, prevent, move history however they wish. This is simply a fifth-grade understanding of history or worse. And this comes from the president of the United States! Under normal circumstances if a real estate tycoon weighed in on the nature of American history from such ignorance and twisted understanding we would simply ignore or laugh at him. But since this man lives in the historic White House and wields the constitutional powers of the presidency and the commander in chief we have to pay attention. Trump’s “learning” of American history must have stopped even before the fifth grade. I wish I could say this is funny and not deeply disturbing. My profession should petition the President to take a one- or two-month leave of absence, VP Pence steps in for that interim, and Trump goes on a retreat in one of his resorts for forced reeducation. It could be a new tradition called the presidential education leave. Or perhaps in New Deal tradition, an ‘ignorance relief’ period. This alone might gain the United States again some confidence and respect around the world. God help us.

The only thing I can add is that, if you have any doubt about Trump’s ignorance of the most basic knowledge of Old Hickory — who’s represented in the Oval Office by both a sculpture and a portrait in places of prominence — know that in his own telling of the story, Trump had to ask, “when was Andrew Jackson?


h/t Erik Loomis.


10 Responses

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  1. J. B. Richman said, on May 3, 2017 at 9:13 pm

    “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?”

    Donald Trump

    Well, every man is a product of his times. The nullification crisis that I believe Trump is alluding to in this somewhat mangled stream of consciousness pitted two different Southern interests against each other. A Southerner could get elected President if he supported wholeheartedly the Union. And most did. John Calhoun was the outlier. Trump was imagining that a man with Jackson’s life experience and views could have stopped the Civil War. But the real question is “could he have won the election?” None of the political parties that fielded candidates that won electoral votes would have nominated him (with the possible doubtful exception of the Northern Democrats who came in last in the electoral vote). One Jacksonian who was still around at the start of the Civil War was Sam Houston. He opposed secession, but was forced to leave the Governor’s office. If Sam Houston, who was there (and one tough hombre) couldn’t stop it, how could Andrew Jackson who wasn’t stop it? One could say that a Democratic Party that nominated men with backbone (like Jackson) in the 1850s would’ve made a difference. But they didn’t do that precisely because one couldn’t win the nomination. When one looked like he was going to win (Douglas), the party fell apart.

  2. bob carey said, on May 4, 2017 at 1:02 am

    It appears to me that Prof. Blight has been itching to answer a question about Trump. His answer is well thought out and doesn’t seem to be off the cuff. I can only hope that the push back currently being employed by real historians will have a positive effect on some of the Presidents more moderate supporters. His hard line support is a lost cause.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 4, 2017 at 11:12 am

      Probably so. Lots of folks have been watching this new administration with disbelief — not on specific terms of its policies, but simply its tendency to just make it all up as they go along, without any apparent understanding of history, process, or legal framework.

  3. Msb said, on May 4, 2017 at 5:53 am

    No good trying to educate anybody against their will, sadly. “It’s like they’re proud of being ignorant.”

  4. Craig L. said, on May 5, 2017 at 6:30 am

    Maybe someone should give him a copy of Daniel Ward Howe’s ‘What Hath God Wrought’? He could read it on his weekly flights to and from Maralago. Chapter11 on ‘Jacksonian Democracy and the Rule of Law’ is only thirty-five pages. He could read it in one sitting.

  5. Craig L. said, on May 5, 2017 at 5:29 pm

    The real question. Did any president contribute more to the inevitability of the Civil War than Andrew Jackson?

    • J. B. Richman said, on May 6, 2017 at 2:55 pm

      I’d give doughfaces Pierce and Buchanan a way bigger share than Jackson. Jackson squelched the first attempt by the South to threaten secession when they didn’t get their way. (See nullification crisis above.)

  6. Michael J Schau said, on May 24, 2017 at 8:10 am

    Sigh why can’t I just find and follow a blog that is not affected by left wing idiots and Trump haters.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 24, 2017 at 8:27 am

      I feel the same way about drive-by commenters. It happens. Have a nice day.

    • J. B. Richman said, on May 29, 2017 at 10:51 pm

      I’m not a Trump hater. I think that Trump was musing about political history in his rather disjointed tweet style. While I agree that Andrew Jackson had prevented a secession crisis in his time, he would have been a fish out of water in the 1860s. Trump is descended entirely from relatively recent immigrants. His earliest ancestor in America came in 1885. He can read history books, but he has no old family oral history dating back to the Civil War era. He is in no way a neo-confederate. Somehow, he has developed a man-crush on Andrew Jackson (who was Southern but never a Confederate). Bill Clinton had in the past a bit of a crush on Andrew Johnson (the impeachment thing).

      I am an admirer of Unionists, North and South. And I don’t like to see the kind of mindless partisan attacks we are now getting. After the Civil War, many of the vanquished Confederate leaders put the good of the country ahead of their personal grievances. That does not seem to be happening in the aftermath of our last election at all.

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