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Story highlights

Eminent historians weigh in on President Trump's comments about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War. Their unanimous conclusion? You're wrong, Mr. President.

(CNN) —  

President Donald Trump generated headlines this week when he discussed the origins of the Civil War in an interview with Washington Examiner columnist and CNN contributor Salena Zito. The president asked: “Why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

Trump compared his 2016 presidential campaign to that of President Andrew Jackson, whose home and grave he visited earlier this year. “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War….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.’”

CNN Opinion asked expert historians to weigh in and they responded. The views expressed below are those of the authors.

Amy Greenberg: Mr. President, a fifth grader could have answered your question

Amy S. Greenberg
Amy S. Greenberg
PHOTO: University Publications

What most dismays – okay, angers – me about President Trump’s statements on Andrew Jackson being able to prevent the Civil War is his profound historical ignorance. Ask any fifth grader, “Why did the Civil War happen?” That child can give you an answer. That answer may vary depending on the section of the country where you ask the question, but he or she will have a clear answer.

How dare Donald Trump state that, “People don’t ask that question – but why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?” Historians have been asking this since 1861. Elementary school classes debate it.

One person who never asked this question, of course, was Andrew Jackson, because he died in 1845. Nor is there any evidence, whatsoever, that he “saw it coming.” Indeed in 1844 he pushed to have the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Martin Van Buren, dropped from the ticket after Van Buren opposed annexing Texas out of a belief that it would exacerbate sectional tensions. Jackson preferred James K. Polk, an avid expansionist, and like himself, a slave holder. Had Jackson seen the Civil War coming, would he have deliberately made tensions between the North and South worse?

Amy S. Greenberg is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History at Penn State University. An award-winning author of four books, including “A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln and the 1846 US Invasion of Mexico” (Vintage Books, 2013), she is writing a biography of First Lady Sarah Childress Polk, to be published by Knopf in 2018.

David Reynolds: Andrew Jackson would have defended slavery’s expansion, Mr. President

David S. Reynolds
David S. Reynolds
PHOTO: Picasa 2.7

Andrew Jackson, a Tennessee slaveholder who sent thousands of Native Americans to the West on the Trail of Tears, refused to take a moral position on slavery expansion, which in the 1850s led to plans for a U. S.-controlled slave empire to include Cuba and parts of Central and South America. Had Jackson, who died in 1845, been around in the 1850s, doubtless he would have defended slavery’s expansion. The only deal Andrew Jackson might have offered the South to prevent the war would have been to allow slavery to persist and spread.

It took the firm-principled Abraham Lincoln, who was antislavery to the core, to accept civil war rather than allow the spread of slavery. When Lincoln assumed the presidency in 1861, seven southern states had left the Union; four more soon followed. Lincoln knew that to tolerate secession spelled the end of the United States—”the last best hope on earth,” as he called it.

He carefully studied how national crises had been handled by previous presidents, including Andrew Jackson, who had once successfully used negotiation and threats of force to prevent South Carolina from seceding over a tariff issue. Lincoln used Jackson’s carrot-and-stick technique—and much more, including offers of big money–to appease the South, but slavery was so deeply entrenched that Lincoln was sucked into a four-year civil war. The deaths of 750,000 Americans was the tragic price of abolishing slavery and opening the way to civil rights.

David S. Reynolds is a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author or editor of 15 books, including “Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson.”

Peniel Joseph: No one man, elected official, or historical event could have prevented the Civil War

Peniel Joseph
Peniel Joseph
PHOTO: Kelvin Ma/Tufts University/Kelvin Ma/Tufts University

President Trump’s assertion that Andrew Jackson, the ornery and uncompromising soldier-statesman who opened the White House to ordinary white male suffrage and made a reputation as a pacifier of Native American populations through extraordinary campaigns of violence, is as incredible as it is ahistorical.

Jackson died almost sixteen years before the outbreak of the Civil War. But in truth, no one man, elected official, or historical event could have prevented the bloodiest war in American history.

The Civil War’s origins were rooted in the political and economic consequences of racial slavery, a system that produced horrific human costs even as it offered undreamed of wealth for a young nation. The war exploded after decades of sectional disputes, legal battles, and full-blown national crises over the fate of both enslaved blacks and American democracy.

President Trump’s political hero, Andrew Jackson, possessed neither the temperament nor ability to stop a war that, for all its carnage, immeasurably transformed the nation and brought us toward a more perfect union. This is not only wishful thinking on his part, but dangerous in its distortion of the signal most enduring conflict in our nation’s history and in its willful ignorance about American history.

Peniel Joseph is 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, where he is also a professor of history.

Julian Zelizer: Our president has shown no interest in the history of our nation, or his own office

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

The Civil War was not a result of the nation lacking smart dealmakers – it was a product of the poisonous slave-holding economy in the South. It is unclear that any president could have prevented this war.

Not only did Jackson die long before Civil War started, which makes the entire debate purely speculative, but as a slave-holder, it is also likely that by 1861 Jackson could have been on the wrong side of history and stood with the Confederacy. In addition, Trump overlooked what else might never have happened if the war had been avoided: the end of slavery. As the historian Jim Grossman said, “If one sees the Civil War as a war of liberation, which it was, then it shouldn’t have been avoided.”

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Even more troublesome is the simple fact that President Trump has shown no interest in the history of our nation, including the presidency. It is too late for him to start taking a deep dive into historiographic debates. He has consistently played fast and loose with the facts, shown no interest in the past, and he has seriously misrepresented some pretty basic issues, such as voter fraud.

While there is always room for speculation about counter-factuals, it should surprise no one that many historians are not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he is seriously thinking through these questions.

More likely, this is part of a continued appeal to his base by using President Jackson, a favorite for conservative populists – appealing to white working class voters with this famous strongman. This move is particularly loaded when clumsily connected to the question of who or what could have “saved” the nation from the Civil War.

Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and New America fellow, is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast.