Our philosopher-king regurgitates what he learned in high school

jackson schlesingerWhen Don John of Astoria, a.k.a. Donald John Trump, was in high school in the early 1960s, one of the dominant schools of thought among American historians was that embodied by Arthur M. Schlesinger, junior, author of The Age of Jackson (1945.) Schlesinger de-emphasized Andrew Jackson’s career-long focus on promoting the expansion of slavery to turn his focus on Jackson as a nationalist.

Central to this project was the story of President Jackson’s confrontation with South Carolina when that state attempted to block federal agents from collecting tariffs on goods brought to the Port of Charleston.  The elevation of this incident to a central place in the history of the Jackson presidency, and of the political movement that created that presidency, implied that it had a greater importance not only than did such an event as the genocidal evacuation of the Cherokee nation from their ancestral lands, which historians in Schlesinger’s day tended to overlook, but also the disestablishment of the Bank of the United States, which they most definitely did not overlook.

That implication can be defended only if Jackson’s forceful response had prevented an outbreak of civil war. Indeed, it was commonplace well into the 1980s for high school history teachers in the USA to claim, not only that Jackson prevented war in 1832, but also that the approach he took to the Nullification Crisis might have prevented the war that actually did break out three decades later had his successors been faithful to it. This consensus is reflected, not only in the presence of Jackson’s face on the $20 bill, but in such improbable places as Martin Luther King’s nod to the Nullification Crisis in the “I Have a Dream” speech, when he refers to Alabama governor George Wallace “having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification.”

Since Don John does not seem to have read very much on American history or any other topic since leaving school decades ago, it should not have surprised anyone when he claimed that Andrew Jackson had a formula that could have prevented the Civil War:

ZITO: Oh, that’s right, you were in Tennessee.

TRUMP: And it was amazing. The people of Tennessee are amazing people. Well, they love Andrew Jackson. They love Andrew Jackson in Tennessee.

ZITO: Yeah, he’s a fascinating —

TRUMP: I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart, and he was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why?

ZITO: Yeah —

TRUMP: People don’t ask that question. But why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?

What does still surprise me is that Schlesinger was able to carry his argument as far as he did even in the 1940s. Jackson’s approach to the sectional conflicts stemming from slavery was in fact tried again by at least one of his successors in the antebellum period. President Zachary Taylor, who, though he was elected president as the candidate of the Whig Party that grew up as the opposition to the Jackson administration, said that Jackson was his political lodestar, and responded to the crisis of 1850 in a style entirely modeled on Jackson’s approach to the Nullification Crisis.

And Taylor’s policy was a disaster. As he refused to make any concessions to the Slave Power regarding the Western territories or anything else until the Southern states forswore secession, it became steadily clearer that the South was ready to secede, and the North was not ready to fight to prevent secession. Indeed, even in 1861, after a decade of constant compromise and concession, the North was barely able to muster sufficient forces to stop the South breaking away. Had the war begun in 1850, with no attempt at a compromise peace, it is hard to imagine how the federal government could have mounted even a token opposition, much less saved the Union and written slavery out of the law books.

Taylor’s intransigence, coupled with the fact that he was himself a slave-owner from the Deep South, may lead the suspicious-minded to wonder whether secession and the eternal enshrinement of slavery in a new confederacy was not his true objective all along. At the time he was generally regarded as a fool whose inexperience with politics led him to adopt an insane policy. Perhaps if he had lived to bring the crisis to a head we would have the information needed to make a determination as to his motives. As it happens, Taylor died less than halfway into his term, and his successor, Millard Fillmore, quickly signed the Compromise of 1850. While that bargain is reviled for its inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Act, which was of course a horror, it not only gave the anti-slavery side its way on every other point, but also made it possible for the North eventually to defeat the South and put slavery on the path to extinction. That is one of the reasons why my avatar on many social media platforms is a cartoon image of Millard Fillmore.

Don John seems to identify very strongly with Jackson, and in his ineptitude bids fair to be another Taylor. The people I respect who tried to talk themselves into supporting Don John for president in last year’s election had hoped that he would follow in the footsteps of Fillmore, who, in response to the Crisis of 1850, replaced a policy of confrontation with one of compromise, who, as the author of tariff acts on the model of the one South Carolina tried to nullify in 1832, was a champion of a trade policy that would underpin the industrialization of the USA, and who, as the presidential candidate of the American Party in 1856, was a moderating influence within a movement devoted to a restrictionist policy on immigration.  They hoped that as president, Don John would de-escalate US militarism in favor of a conciliatory policy towards Russia and other powers, that he would revise our long-standing Finance First trade policy, and that he would tighten immigration policy without ravaging the rule of law. In fact, Don John has not shown any of Fillmore’s statesmanship, and those people have not expressed much satisfaction with any of his actions since he took office.

 

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