Apparently you're not allowed to indulge in "What If?" history if you're the President of the United States. The current President is enduring a fresh round of mockery for his assertion, in an interview published today, that the Civil War might not have happened had Andrew Jackson been President at the time. Trump sees himself as a sort of 21st century Jacksonian; others may agree or disagree depending on their opinion of Old Hickory. In the interview, the President describes visiting the grave of Rachel Jackson, who didn't live to see her husband inaugurated and whose death is sometimes blamed on vicious slanders, by the standards of the time, that were made against her and her husband during the 1828 presidential campaign. Specifically, because of some bureaucratic bungling Rachel, a divorcee, technically was a bigamist when she married Jackson. Needless to say, Trump can empathize with both the slandered lady and the enraged widower, whom he also sees, presumably, as a model for cleaning the "swamp" of the Washington D.C. establishment. As a historian by vocation, I know what Trump is talking about on the subject of sectional conflict. His handicap, however, is an inability to express concepts more sophisticated than the simplicities of his stump speeches or his tweets. One of his bad habits is to inflate sentences with empty generalities, expressed with a limited vocabulary, until it seems like the more he says, the less he seems to know. He tripped himself up during the interview by saying that Jackson "was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War." Critics and haters pounced immediately: stupid Trump must have thought Jackson, who died in 1845, was still alive when the war started in 1861! This, I think, is one of those times when you were supposed to take the President seriously but not literally. I feel certain that he meant to say that Jackson was angry at increasing sectional tensions that were already apparent before his death, but for some reason he doesn't know how to say it right.
To the extent that Trump's actual argument is being criticized, here are two points in Trump's defense. That is, there are at least two reasons to believe that a civil war would not have happened had Jackson been President in 1860. The most obvious reason is that with a southern slaveholding Democrat like Old Hickory as President, the southern fire-eaters of 1860 would have had no reason to believe, as they did when the Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected, that slavery had been put on what Lincoln called "the course of ultimate extinction." Because of their determination to keep slavery out of the territories conquered from Mexico, the Republicans were seen as an existential threat to the Slave Power that Jackson never would have been. And yet, even if the fire-eaters found an excuse to secede or threaten secession, Trump most likely sees Jackson's treatment of the South Carolina Nullifiers of 1832 as a model for what he might have done in 1860. Jackson himself thought he hadn't really done enough in his own time, reportedly citing as one of his great regrets that he did not have John C. Calhoun, his first-term Vice President who became the intellectual leader of the Nullifiers in his home state, hanged for treason. Yet Trump's point today, I presume, is that Jackson resolved the Nullification crisis -- in short, South Carolina refused to allow federal officials to collect tariffs at high rates recently approved by Congress, claiming a state's right to nullify laws they deemed unconstitutional and tariffs they deemed unfair -- without hanging Calhoun or slaughtering South Carolinians. Jackson did this by combining a credible threat of force, including congressional authorization to send troops into South Carolina, with negotiations on the tariff issue. It may be Trump's opinion that Lincoln's passive provocation of the secessionists, designed to make them fire the first shot, as they finally did in South Carolina, was the wrong approach, and that a more intimidating show of force, albeit short of invasion, earlier in the game may have made the fire-eaters more willing to discuss terms for renouncing secession.
On the other hand, Jackson himself probably has a small share of blame for hastening the war because of his advocacy, before his death, of the annexation of the Republic of Texas, a move that arguably made the Mexican War inevitable and also threatened to tip the balance of sectional power further in favor of the slaveholding states. Because Old Hickory was a hard-core slaveholder who hated abolitionists, the idea that he might have prevented civil war probably disgusts people today who assume that slaves would have paid the price for sectional peace. Some of Trump's critics no doubt assume that his imagining a history without the Civil War shows his indifference toward the historic plight of black people in America. Some no doubt regard the Civil War as inevitable and necessary, if only for the purpose of freeing the slaves. These people may well know that for nearly half the war Lincoln was willing to win or end the conflict without emancipating anybody, but since military necessity finally inspired the Emancipation Proclamation, they may feel that the war had to happen -- presuming also, most likely, that ingrained southern racism made any fantasy of gradual or compensated emancipation literally fantastical. For this school of thought, imagining a different history is automatically suspect. But let's not read too much into Trump's historical speculations. His question, "Why was there the Civil War," is not a wrong question for any American to ask. If anything, it's an essential question for everyone to ask if they want to understand the history of this country.