01:59 - Source: CNN
Trump: Why was there a Civil War?

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Trump has heaped praise on Andrew Jackson

But the controversial Nineteenth Century president might not have felt the same way about Trump, according to a biographer

Washington CNN —  

In an interview with SiriusXM’s Salena Zito that aired Monday, President Donald Trump repeatedly made reference to Andrew Jackson as a sort of North Star for his own presidency. He also suggested that Jackson had foreseen the Civil War and could have stopped it. (Jackson died in 1845; the Civil War began in 1861.) I reached out to historian and author Jon Meacham, who wrote “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House,” for some straight answers on Jackson, the Civil War and Trump’s version of history. (As the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman noted, Trump has been reportedly reading Meacham’s Jackson book.) Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Cillizza: Donald Trump said the following over the weekend: “Had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.” How much of the claim – if any – is defensible? Could or would Jackson have worked to prevent the Civil War?

Meacham: I’m with William Seward, who, in 1858, referred to the existential tension between free states and slave states as the “irrepressible conflict.” The Civil War might have been delayed, but not avoided, if the South had agreed to Lincoln’s condition in the winter of 1860-61 that slavery could exist but not expand. But the Slave Power, as it is sometimes called, felt isolated, even bereft, after the rise of the Republican Party and Lincoln’s narrow victory in 1860. And so, as Lincoln would say, the war came.

What would Jackson have done? Impossible to say, of course, but here are two ways to think about it.

The first is that Jackson was fundamentally a man of the Union. His mother and his brothers had died in the Revolutionary War; I think he believed their blood had sanctified the nation — not a section, but a nation. We were, as he put it in 1832, “one great family.” In this light, Jackson would have fought as hard as he possibly could (and that was pretty damned hard) to avert a civil war.

Which, in fact, he did. It was Jackson who had staved off a possible civil war — and certainly civil violence — in the winter of 1832-33 when he successfully managed (with an assist from Henry Clay) the Nullification Crisis with South Carolina.

The second way to think about Jackson and the early 1860s turns on his unapologetic slave-owning. Would he have been willing to sign his own economic, political, and cultural death warrant by opposing secession? By 1860-61, the choice facing the planter class was pretty clear: American slavery was not going to be extended westward (or southward, to the Caribbean), so “the irrepressible conflict” proved to be just that: irrepressible. We don’t know where Jackson would have stood. We are left to ponder his mixed historical legacy: a man who defended the Union, giving us three additional decades in which to form what Lincoln would call the “mystic chords of memory,” and the defiant slave-owner and architect of Native American removal. There was nothing simple about Jackson—nor about the country he led.

Cillizza: Jackson was a slaveholder. Did he ever express doubts about the practice or wonder whether it might cause a broader conflict  in the country?

Meacham: He was not a reflective man, and he accepted the conventions of slavery in much the way many of the people of his time did. There are few sentimental stories — a deathbed moment in which he reassured the gathered family and enslaved people that they would all “meet in Heaven — black and white” — but they are just that: sentimental.

He did anticipate the coming conflict. After the Nullification Crisis, he noted that the tariff had been the pretext this time but that eventually slavery would take center stage as the decisive issue facing the country.

What is difficult but essential is to judge the past not by our own standards but by theirs. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., liked to say, “self-righteousness in retrospect is easy, also cheap.” Abolitionist sentiment in the 1830s was not what it was in the 1850s: we were, as a nation, on a tortuous, overlong journey toward a more perfect union. Even many advanced thinkers on race in Jackson’s presidential days tended to argue for colonization, not the creation of an integrated United States. Such was the sad reality of the day.

Cillizza: Trump said in that same interview that Tennesseans “love Andrew Jackson.” Over time has the perception of Jackson changed in the state in the same way it has changed nationally?

Meacham: Not especially. President Trump was likely drawing on his recollection of a mid-March trip to Nashville, where he visited the Hermitage and held a big rally for his base in a downtown arena.

Like so much else in American life, how you see Jackson depends on where you stand politically. Oddly — such is the topsy-turvy nature of history and memory — Trump voters are much more likely to view Jackson favorably (as a populist, hawkish hero) than Democrats, whose takes on Jackson range from the embarrassed to the (I hope) nuanced.

Cillizza: Trump’s admiration for Jackson is well known. But what would Jackson have thought of Trump?

Meacham: Like Trump, Jackson admired strength and appreciated popularity, so Trump would have intrigued him. (Heck, who isn’t intrigued by Trump?) But Jackson was also a man of experience and a chess player — he liked to think several moves ahead. So I think the 7th president would have found the 45th too volatile — and if you were so volatile that even Jackson might have thought you volatile, God help us all.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The most important lesson Donald Trump can learn from Andrew Jackson is __________.” Now, explain.

Meacham: “…to know your own weaknesses and turn them into assets.” By which I mean: Jackson used his image as a temperamental man of the frontier to manipulate his foes and advance his agenda. He was not all about theatricality or attention-seeking; he wanted to accomplish concrete things. We can hope that Trump might learn at least this lesson from Old Hickory and begin a new chapter.