Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Jackson (Ass) Hole

FINALLY! I get to blog about history again!

Donald Trump said something profoundly dumb once again. I admit that does not quite constitute news. But it touches on topics that really need repeating, and they are mercifully irrelevant to the last presidential election, so I am going to go to town.

In a recent interview, Trump trumpeted his Andrew Jackson enthusiasm once more. He loves Old Hickory about as much as Glenn Beck hates Woodrow Wilson. This time, Trump did so by claiming that Jackson could have stopped the U.S. Civil War. Trump had visited Jackson’s "Hermitage” plantation in Tennessee, you see, so he thought he knew all about it.

The incident was reminiscent of when Sarah Palin visited Paul Revere’s house and spectacularly garbled the story. This spurred historians to clarify things, lest anyone wonder, "What the fuck are they teaching visitors at that hackneyed tourist trap?” Kristin Peszka, Director of Interpretation and Visitor's Services at the Paul Revere House, stressed that Palin made her comments prior to her visit.

Trump’s take was similarly ludicrously dubious, but not quite as dumb as it seems at first blush. Close, but not quite. WARNING: This post uses the word "quite” quite a bit.

For one thing, Trump does indeed seem to realize that Jackson was not around for the Civil War. Trump said "had Jackson been a little later" and the next day he tweeted, "President Andrew Jackson, who died 16 years before the Civil War started, saw it coming and was angry. Would never have let it happen!" So all those anachronistic jokes some folks are making are off the mark. They are fun, but a tad unfair.

Second, Andrew Jackson did face-down a potential Southern insurrection as president - the Nullification Crisis. South Carolina declared federal tariffs null and void in their state and mobilized to resist federal enforcement. Jackson's Vice President, John C. Calhoun, resigned so he could oppose Jackson as a Senator. According to dubious lore, Jackson said he wanted to hang Calhoun. It was the Cuban Missile Crisis of the day – that is, if the "mad bomber” Richard Nixon had won the 1960 election instead of John F. Kennedy.

In this light, Trump’s comment almost sounds informed – or at least, not quite as bad as Caribou Barbie’s.

The problem with Trump’s take is that Jackson was a slave-owner and therefore highly unlikely to end slavery. The word "plantation,” above, might have alerted you to that complication in advance. 

This is significant. For the sake of argument, let’s say Jackson could make the South back down twice. This would not prevent the Civil War insomuch as postpone it. Slavery was the ultimate cause of the Civil War, as every honest historian acknowledges.

For one thing, the South proudly said so in their Articles of Secession. Just as Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence to justify America’s break with England, the Confederate states individually wrote their own proclamations to explain themselves as well. Where Jefferson catalogued the colonists’ varied grievances against old King George III, the southern states railed against Yankee interference with the institution of slavery. As I wrote before, their meaning was as clear as a terrorist martyr video. Each was a defiant, unambiguous, signed confession. Such rhetorical turds cannot possibly be polished now.

For another thing, we had averted civil war over slavery several times before. Everyone always knew slavery was likely to tear the country apart. It was an ever-present threat that the founders fretted about constantly in papers both public and private. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that slavery would be the "knell of the Union" and that "We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go." So Jackson gets no credit for the prediction Trump attributes to him (incongruously, without mentioning slavery). Thus, every subsequent legislative compromise was celebrated as a dodged bullet. There was the Compromise of 1820, also known as the Missouri Compromise, followed by the Compromise of 1850. Each self-congratulatory act kicked the can further down the road. Therefore, the U.S. Civil War could not possibly be prevented – only postponed.  And the number of times that hat-trick could successfully be pulled off was rapidly evaporating.

Trump’ characterization of Jackson as tough but with a "big heart" is odd because it better describes Lincoln who actually was president in 1860. The famously homicidal Jackson was not the "with malice toward none” guy. But on the flip side of Trump’s interesting description, Lincoln was no coward either. Abe tried to avoid war, but he did not shy away from force after the South fired on Fort Sumpter.

Trump is, unsurprisingly, grasping at every facile, desperate, half-assed rationalization to stop thinking about a complicated thing and his fans are doing likewise.

Well, most are. As I explained in my book, today's Republicans are paradoxically trying to be both pro-Confederate and anti-slavery. But as I wrote, you cannot be the "Party of Lincoln” after embracing Jefferson Davis, and I imagine some Southerners feel betrayed. Trump’s strange take simultaneously whitewashes Dixie and threatens it. On the one hand, slavery is taken out of the equation entirely. Trump just doesn’t mention it. On the other, he is essentially celebrating hanging so-called Southern heroes.

Yeah, try not to think about it too hard. Certainly most conservatives don’t.

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