In perhaps the most bizarre example of ignorance yet on the part of Donald Trump, at least since his nuclear triad debate response (admittedly that one has a more direct bearing on his capabilities as commander-in-chief), he asked why the Civil War could not have been avoided. He posed this gem of a question in an in-depth interview with Salena Zito of The Washington Examiner.
Though the tensions between North and South were inevitably boiling over, a fact obvious in hindsight to anyone remotely familiar with the period, our deal-maker-in-chief apparently thinks that slavery, secession and the irrational reaction to the electoral victory of Abraham Lincoln, et cetera, could all have been worked out.
Stranger still, he stated that, had Andrew Jackson been president, the war never would have happened. Why? I’ll let President Trump explain in his own words:
He [Jackson] 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.”
I would like to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, but it’s difficult here. Jackson died 16 years before the war began. Trump may realize this –hence his initially qualifier “had Andrew Jackson been a little later” — but his distinct speech style makes it tough to be certain.
On the rest, he is unequivocally wrong. Jackson’s supposed “big heart” was shown not to be in the devastating Trail of Tears. And regardless of what Trump or Jackson might say, there were very good reasons for the Civil War.
Perhaps the greatest irony to this episode is that there were numerous attempts to make deals regarding the spreading of slavery and numerous times that compromise was chosen to avoid conflict. In some cases, there were good reasons to put off that fight. Eventually, compromise on America’s greatest moral failing become a doctrine defended as good in itself by such legislators as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, who, among other things, made a name for themselves doing so.
Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of The Declaration of Independence called out Great Britain for bringing slavery to the New World, before later drafts struck this controversial portion to ensure unanimous support from the colonies. The three-fifths representation compromise grew out of the chasm between the two sides of this debate among the new states. James Madison, who continually wrestled with immorality of slavery, postponed the conflict over it in the early years of the United State when it might have been fatal the nascent republic.
Trump ignores the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which was enacted to maintain the legislative and electoral balance between the pro- and anti-slavery states, and thus the status quo. He ignores the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed individual states to decide if slavery would extend there based on popular sovereignty, the democratic choice of its citizens. He ignores all of the examples that the conflict was about to boil over, such as John Brown’s raids and others.
Aside from the historical problems with his remarks, there is the moral issue. Neither slavery nor unjustified secession were something to compromise on indefinitely. Sometimes there are irreconcilable differences and we have to hope and pray that, as President Lincoln said, “right makes might.” Not every problem is an amoral one waiting for shrewd negotiators to resolve or a can to kick down the road, wishfully thinking it will go away.
America found out the hard way, losing 620,000 men in the process. President Trump should learn it from history and avoid the same mistake.