Yesterday, those of us who study 19th century U.S. history had one of those days. The president’s comments on Andrew Jackson, his “swashbuckling” nature, how he would have prevented the Civil War, and why no one has ever thought about this before were breathtaking in their historical arrogance, as Chris noted.
There’s lots in the statement to unpack, well beyond the issue of whether or not Trump was aware Jackson was dead at the time of the war. There’s also Trump’s idealization of the dealmaker, who comes in and gets things done. The best dealmakers, of course, are the ones who get their way and convince everyone else it’s for the best, a belief clearly evidenced by his support for people like Putin, Duterte, and Erdoğan.
The art of the deal in 19th century politics, however, was the art of the compromise. It was also the art of kicking the can down the road. When you think about it, most of the “compromises” you can name off the top of your head are from the period between the founding and the Civil War, and they all deal with issues of federal vs. state power, representation, the imperial expansion of the nation, and slavery: the 3/5ths Compromise, the Connecticut Compromise, the Missouri Compromise, and the Compromise of 1850. Republican voters elected Lincoln not on a platform of abolition, but on a platform that sought further compromise – a way to limit the expansion of slavery without eliminating it, to the benefit of white slaveholder and white free male farmers and industrial workers alike.
(If you are in any doubt about this, read Lincoln’s First Inaugural, delivered after secession had begun, which is basically “I am not going to take away your slaves and I brought receipts. Please come back.”)
A compromise involves both sides giving something up to get something, but when we’re talking about 19th century America, it’s important to remember that these compromises also involved some people – enslaved people and native people, people who were not part of the negotiations – having things taken away from them. They didn’t give something up to get something, they were just compromised.
A generous reading of Trump’s admiration for Jackson – a reading that presumed the president had a working knowledge of the American past – might tie it to Jackson’s willingness to use federal power to enforce the tariff in South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis. It might presume that Trump saw these previous compromises as weak, and that he believed a real dealmaker would have come in and sorted things out, once and for all.
Let’s get things sorted, boffins!
Setting aside the practical impossibility of all of this, it’s instructive to consider what deal Trump thinks Jackson would have made. I wish I could presume that the president understood the central compromise of 19th century America – that enslaved black Americans could be both people and property at the same time – but I can’t, and I’ve never heard him talk meaningfully about slavery. But I also can’t imagine that he doesn’t know Jackson was a slaveowner.
To that end, I actually cannot imagine what deal he thinks could have been worked out. I cannot conceive of it, and I’m not sure I want to know. What is worse, that our president honestly thinks maybe Jackson – JACKSON, of all people – could have and would have worked out a deal that ended slavery and made everyone happy, or that he honestly thinks Jackson could have worked out a deal that permanently enshrined a slave system in a way that made “everyone” happy because he doesn’t think of enslaved people as people at all?