Photo Credit: Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
When President Trump mused in an interview with SiriusXM radio that “People don’t ask [the] question, but why was there the Civil War?” the internet choir answered in unison: “because of slavery,” followed by the observation that there are few questions that have been asked more often by historians.
Trump has answered his own question by saying, “had Andrew Jackson been around, you wouldn’t have had a civil war.” That isn’t convincing many people. Even Breitbart News found it “puzzling.”
But the counterargument that conflict over slavery caused the Civil War is incomplete at best, because it doesn’t explain why the differences could not be resolved peacefully.
“Some issues aren’t amenable to deal-making,” argues Yoni Appelbaum at the Atlantic. “Some principles don’t lend themselves to compromise.”
But there were literally millions of people who wanted compromise on the slavery issue 25 years before the Civil War. They were, for the most part, the people who wanted to abolish slavery by peaceful and legislative means. They were dubbed “abolitionists” and they were amenable to peaceful change. Their opponents were not.
The truth is that Americans went to war over slavery in 1861 because those who sought a peaceful solution had been systematically suppressed for decades by leaders in Washington—starting with President Andrew Jackson.
Such historical polemics are not important because they reveal Trump’s limited understanding of Jackson, his favorite president. They matter because Trump’s answer, intentionally or unintentionally, glosses over Jackson’s attack on American democratic norms in the 1830s, just as Trump seeks to gloss over his own today.
‘Land of the Free’
Trump, like most Americans, is largely ignorant of Jackson’s unconstitutional suppression of the anti-slavery movement in the 1830s. The story seems unknown even to writers at the Atlantic, a magazine founded in the anti-slavery principles in the 1850s.
The anti-slavery movement emerged as a potent political force in 1833 with the creation of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Originally consisting of 10 chapters in Massachusetts, the society grew to 200 chapters nationwide two years later. Jackson used every tool at his command to blunt this burgeoning movement, which was the first mass membership interest group in American politics.
As Jackson began his second term in 1833, he appointed Francis Scott Key, the famous author of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” as the District Attorney for the City of Washington. Jackson wanted to deploy Key’s patriotic celebrity in service of pro-slavery law enforcement.
One of his Key’s first actions was to indict an itinerant editor named Benjamin Lundy and his young assistant, William Lloyd Garrison. They dared to publish Lundy’s anti-slavery magazine, The Genius of Universal Emancipation, in the District of Columbia. Facing the constant threat of assault by enraged slave traders and the prospect of Key’s persecution, Lundy and Garrison had to retreat to the safety of the Northern states. Key also indicted Thomas Cary, a black barber on Pennsylvania Avenue, who distributed anti-slavery material to his customers. Cary moved to Toronto, Canada.
Key, the man who celebrated “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” had no problem with enforcing white supremacy at the behest of Jackson.
Jackson did not let the law get in his way. When the abolitionists launched a mass mailing of anti-slavery literature in the summer of 1835, a white mob in Charleston, South Carolina, trashed the post office to prevent their delivery. With Jackson’s blessing, Postmaster General Amos Kendall sanctioned this attack on the freedom of the mail, and Jackson urged Congress to pass legislation outlawing anti-slavery publications. While the legislation did not pass, postmasters in the South and North felt free not to deliver anti-slavery material, even to those who wanted it.
Jackson’s action “may well have been the largest peacetime violation of civil liberty in U.S. history,” writes historian Daniel Walker Howe.
The conflict over slavery only grew. In December 1835, the anti-slavery societies of the North started petitioning Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Within a few months, hundreds of petitions had arrived in Washington, and pro-slavery congressmen were apoplectic. With Jackson’s uncompromising support, they changed the rules of Congress to bar consideration of and debate about the petitions. The so-called “gag rule” stifled all debate in Congress about the legality of slavery for the next 25 years.
The abolitionists’ agenda was almost entirely peaceful. As evangelical Christians, the anti-slavery activists were pacifists. Even the most militant among them, including the soon-to-be famous William Lloyd Garrison, rejected a violent response to slavery. Garrison argued that slave rebellions were inevitable but unwise. Only moral suasion, he said, would convince the sinning slave owner to repent.
The anti-slavery societies advocated peaceful resolution of the slavery issue by immediate or gradual emancipation of two million African Americans then living in bondage. Only many years later did John Brown and a handful of militant abolitionists, black and white, advocate violent resistance to slavery.
The abolitionists were open to compromise. The tens of thousands of Americans who petitioned Congress in the 1830s did not seek to abolish slavery in the Southern states, only in the nation’s capital. They wanted to set an example for the slaveholding states, not impose their emancipationist interpretation of the Declaration of Independence on others.
Even that was too much for the slave masters. Jackson and Co. did not seek to rebut the moral, religious, and practical arguments against slavery. They sought to silence them with the threat of violence or prison.
Supreme Court Appointee
To enforce the suppression of free speech, Jackson looked to the Supreme Court. With the death of Chief Justice John Marshall in 1835, Jackson had a vacancy to fill. He named one of his closest confidants, Roger Taney, to the court. (Taney, incidentally, was brother-in-law and best friend of Francis Scott Key.)
Jackson especially liked Taney’s views on slavery. In 1833, Taney wrote in legal opinion for Jackson, “The African race in the United States even when free are everywhere a degraded class, and exercise no political influence. The privileges they are allowed to enjoy are a matter of kindness and benevolence rather than right.”
Taney would go on a three-decade-long career on the Supreme Court, culminating in his notorious decision in the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Taney ruled with the majority that Scott, a freed slave living in Minnesota, had to be returned to the family that claimed ownership of him. By then Jackson was dead, but there is no reason to think he would have disagreed with Taney’s decision.
Trump’s musings, while uninformed, are a reminder that the conflict over slavery might have been resolved peacefully if American democracy had allowed the public debate that the abolitionists sought.
Slavery was not universally popular, as the slave masters knew full well. A proposal for compensated emancipation of slaves nearly passed the Virginia legislature in 1834. By that time, the anti-slavery bloc in Congress, led by former President John Quincy Adams, held about 20 percent of the seats on Capitol Hill. The proposal to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia might have inspired action elsewhere. For a passing moment in the 1830s, peaceful change on the slavery issue could have been possible.
The Southern states, led by Andrew Jackson, were not merely uninterested. They were violently opposed. Jackson, who owned 100 people himself, hated the abolitionists with characteristic fury. He loathed the idea of emancipation for black people, compensated or not. He despised all those who challenged the white man’s constitutional right to own property in people. And he used the Congress, the courts and the press to demonize and suppress those who disagreed with him.
Trump’s belief there would have been no Civil War if Jackson had been president in 1860 depends on believing that a tough but big-hearted president who stood firm against Southern secession could have prevented the war.
But the United States did have a tough but big-hearted president who did just that. His name was Abraham Lincoln, and all he got for his trouble was war. Jackson would have received the same.
Trump’s vision of Andrew Jackson is a historical fantasy. In reality, Jackson, as much as any other president, killed the possibility of peaceful change and paved the road to the Civil War.