Monday, May 01, 2017

Why the Civil War? Here's Why.

"People don't realize, you know the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don't ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not been worked out?"

"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.  He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, 'There's no reason for this.' "

                                               Historian in Chief Donald J. Trump

It's fun to the play the "what if" game.  My guy friends tend to all be big sports fans and every now and again we will waste the breath God hath lent us pondering such weighty issues as whether Pete Maravich could play in today's NBA.  Or whether Pete Rose was overrated.  The "what if" game is fun when confined to sports.  Because it doesn't much matter.  

And I suppose it doesn't much matter when you do it with history.  Except that we expect certain people to be reasonably conversant with historical facts before they play the "what if" game.  Like maybe the President of the United States.  

It is hard to parse Trump's stream of consciousness verbage at times.  Indeed, the more I listen to Trump speak off the cuff about just about anything more complicated than what he is having for lunch, the more George W. Bush's mangled speech begins to sound like unto Winston Churchill.  But this is what I think Trump is trying to say.  I think he is trying to say that had his idol Old Hickory been in charge instead of Lincoln we "wouldn't have had the Civil War."

This is, of course, nonsense. Here's the Reader's Digest condensed version of why we "had" the Civil War. It was the inability of the political and legal system of the young country to deal with the expansion of slavery into the western territories.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was the attempt on the part of the Congress to preserve the Union by kicking the question of expansion of slavery into the west down the road a little for someone else to deal with it. Which is an irresponsible tactic completely unheard of in our present and more enlightened day.

It agreed to let Missouri in as a slave state while Maine could come in as a "free" state thereby maintaining the status quo in the Senate at 50-50 on the issue. The compromise also implied a little too strongly for the fire eaters in the south that expansion of slavery was subject to regulation by what passed for a national government at that time.  

What happens next in the run-up to war?  The decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Dred Scott v. Sanford.  Mr. Scott, a slave owned by an Army surgeon had the temerity to sue for his freedom.  His theory (basically) was that  the two years (as I recall) that he was with his owner in a "free" state meant that he was emancipated as a matter of law. 

The SCOTUS did not agree.  It ruled that Mr. Scott did not (basically) have standing to sue as a former slave because he was not part of the original class of citizens contemplated by the Founding Fathers.  Or some shit.  But the Court also ruled that Congress did not have the authority to regulate the expansion of slavery into the west.  So much for the Missouri Compromise.  

As I told the history boys, the decision in Dred Scott (considered by sane legal scholars to be the worst decision ever rendered by SCOTUS) meant that the United States government had completely failed, on every level, to peacefully resolve the most burning issue of the day.  An issue upon which an entire region's financial system was based.  

So what the hell does Andrew Jackson have to do with this?  Not much.  Except that in 1830 or so Jackson threatened to send troops into South Carolina (why is it always South Carolina?) after it based a law "nullifying" a federal law imposing a tariff.  Look it up.  It's boring.  Also, just for fun look up "nullification" as a legal theory.  The solons in the Texas legislature are trying what South Carolina attempted way back when. Old times there are not forgotten either after all.

So, Jackson was a stout Unionist, and one who also recognized that the Jeffersonian-agrarian model of governance in the south was an "alarm bell" representing trouble down the road.  He was also a southerner who owned slaves.  And he displaced entire tribes of Native-Americans to the west along the "Trail of Tears."

Sometimes historical interpretation is a matter of nuance.  Trump doesn't do nuance.  But to me the better question, since we are playing the "what if" game, is whether ardent Unionist Andrew Jackson, who made at least part of his considerable fortune from the sweat of the brows of men he owned, would have either supported the Missouri Compromise or would have gone to war to preserve the Union against former states that formed their own nation and fired upon a Union fort.  

Who knows?  But I think I know this.  Andrew Jackson was not a super-hero who would have magically "made a deal" to preserve a Union that even Mr. Lincoln said that he would have fought to hold together even if it meant not freeing the slaves. It was complicated.  History is complicated.  The election of 2016 proved that.

As for me, I am confining my "what if" fantasies to sports.  The fantasies of the Historian in Chief in which he fancies himself as some kind of heir apparent to an Andrew Jackson that did not exist in history, on the other hand, might not be.