President Trump claimed Monday evening that former president Andrew Jackson, who once threatened to invade South Carolina with federal troops, would have averted the American Civil War were he in office at the time.
"President Andrew Jackson, who died 16 years before the Civil War started, saw it coming and was angry. Would never have let it happen!" Trump said on social media.
President Andrew Jackson, who died 16 years before the Civil War started, saw it coming and was angry. Would never have let it happen!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 2, 2017
The current commander in chief's remarks on Twitter came shortly after the press questioned an interview he gave to the Washington Examiner's Salena Zito in which he asked, "Why was there the Civil War?"
"I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn't have had the Civil War," Trump told Zito. "He was a very tough person but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw 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?" he asked.
Trump's remarks are amusing for a number of reasons.
First, as Trump himself eventually noted Monday evening, Jackson died in 1845, nearly two decades before the outbreak of the Civil War. It's fool's errand speculating about what a leader who held office in the years leading up to a major conflict would've done differently had he kept his office. It's like daydreaming about what former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain would have done differently from his successor, Winston Churchill, during the height of World War II. The problem with this is: The issues Churchill dealt with existed precisely because of Chamberlain. That's the whole nature of conflict. It's about a series of escalations. In America, Jackson's administration was one of the escalations that led eventually to all-out war between the North and the South.
Secondly, if we entertain the notion that Jackson kept office, the idea that he could (or would) have avoided deadly conflict is far from a certainty, especially considering he was both pro-union and pro-slavery.
Jackson loved the Union, but he was also sympathetic to pro-slavery arguments. Maybe he would've conceded to all slavery expansion demands. Then again, if it threatened the Union, maybe he would've fought those demands.
It's anyone's guess how he would've dealt with that situation, but perhaps his handling of the Nullification Crisis, which lasted from 1832 to 1837, can give us a clue. In that particular situation, Jackson was absolutely serious when he threatened to invade South Carolina with federal troops if the state did not accede to a protectionist tariff. A violent clash was ultimately avoided in that scenario, but the suggestion that Jackson was somehow above bloody conflict between the states seems to be an incorrect one.
Lastly, Trump's musings on Andrew Jackson are an implicit trashing of Abraham Lincoln's legacy. The idea that Jackson, with his "tough" and "big heart," could've avoided the Civil War could be taken to imply that Lincoln lacked these qualities.
Trump almost certainly didn't mean to attack "Honest Abe's" legacy, especially considering all of his past praise for the president who oversaw the Civil War. Sadly, this sort of rhetorical stumbling around on the president's part, whether intentional or not, is par for the course for this administration.
Trump and his lieutenants have a bad track record of speaking first and thinking later, especially when it comes to defensive remarks. The president's tweet is clearly meant to defend his earlier interview remarks, but it actually does him no favors. If it's any comfort to Trump, he's not the only one in this White House who has a habit of making things worse with poorly thought defenses. (See: Press secretary Sean Spicer and top adviser Kellyanne Conway.)
The Washington Examiner's editorial board urged the Trump administration in March to do a better job of choosing its words. Based on the president's Andrew Jackson history lesson this week, it doesn't look like anyone is listening.