By Harvey Wasserman, (Originall published by Reader Supported News on May 5, 2017)
onald Trump’s latest insane excursion into US history has been to claim that his great hero, Andrew Jackson, might have prevented the Civil War.
Given his racist, genocidal nature, our seventh president could only have done that by giving up slavery in the South, spreading it into the North or giving the Southwest back to Mexico.
Jackson, of course, would never have given up slavery, which was the cause of the war and the core of his fortune.
As a young man, like a cowboy driving cattle, Jackson personally drove slaves to market. He eventually owned more than a hundred of them, and defended America’s “peculiar institution” at every opportunity.
In addition to their authoritarian temperaments, Jackson and Trump share “accomplishments” such as trashing the Constitution, personally profiting from the presidency, and inciting imperial conquest. Jackson did stand for the Union against South Carolina’s threatened secession, but that was about tariffs, not slavery.
Trump rightly says Jackson was “tough.” In 1806, in one of his fourteen duels, Jackson took a bullet an inch from his heart. He then killed his opponent in a manner considered most unchivalrous, and became a social outcast for many years. The bullet stayed in his chest until his own death four decades later.
Jackson was also a pioneer homophobe. As Sen. James Buchanan of Pennsylvania openly lived with his likely lover, Sen. Rufus King of South Carolina, Jackson loudly referred to him as “Aunt Nancy.” (After King died, Buchanan became our only “bachelor president.”)
But mainstream historians have made a hero of “Old Hickory.” Born to dirt poor Irish immigrants who died early, Jackson’s hardscrabble upbringing was the opposite of Trump’s.
Trump inherited millions from his father, who was a Klan sympathizer (or member), a landlord so cruel that the legendary leftie folksinger Woody Guthrie wrote a song denouncing him.
Andrew Jackson pre-dated the Klan, but would’ve killed for an estate like the one Trump inherited. And he did.
As an orphan, Jackson began his military career at age 13. Rising through the ranks as an Indian killer, he conquered the Chickasaw by recruiting their ancient rivals, the Cherokee. Jackson then turned on the Cherokee as if they had been the enemy. His racism was open, lethal, and proud.
With Trump-style “Common Man” rhetoric, Jackson promised to destroy the National Bank. He then made insider deals with the smaller banks that replaced it, enriching his backers and himself. These and other scams helped buy him his 1000-acre slave plantation in Tennessee.
When he conquered native land for the US, Jackson and his cronies somehow wound up with the best parcels. His 1830 Indian Removal Act ordered all eastern tribes to move west of the Mississippi.
The Appalachian Cherokee had an advanced tribal government, an elected leader (John Ross), a capitol, a written constitution, and much more. Most lived in private homes and ran successful farms. Some (like Ross) owned plantations and slaves. There were seven Cherokee lumber mills.
The Cherokee petitioned for statehood. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Constitution allowed no new state to be created from existing ones (Abraham Lincoln dodged that technicality in 1863 to form West Virginia).
But Marshall also ruled that the Cherokee had sovereignty (a clause later used to site casinos) and a Constitutional right to stay on their ancestral lands.
Jackson replied, Trump-style, that he would ignore the Court. Under Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, federal troops forced some 14,000 Cherokee out of their homes at gunpoint. Through the summer of 1838 they were held in a concentration camp. Then, along the infamous “Trail of Tears,” they were marched hundreds of miles to Oklahoma. About 3,000 died along the way.
Jackson promised the Cherokee and other tribes the right to live in that Oklahoma territory “as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow.” Fifty years later their “excess land” was given to white “Sooners” who raced in on horseback and covered wagons to claim homesteads.
As for the Civil War, its root cause was conflict over Mexican land. Mexico abolished slavery in its 1821 revolution against Spain. But American settlers (many from Tennessee) re-established it in 1836, when (after the Alamo) they made Texas an independent republic.
Jackson died in 1845. The next year his protégé, James K. Polk, provoked a war and took from Mexico what became New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and more. US troops marched all the way into Mexico City, where young soldiers like Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant fought side-by-side. Americans like Abraham Lincoln and Henry Thoreau denounced the conquest as a “poison pill.”
The Civil War broke out when slave owners demanded the right to spread slavery into the West. California’s 1850 statehood gave free states a majority in Congress. War erupted in Kansas, where John Brown and other abolitionists battled slave owners for control.
The only way Jackson’s “art of the deal” might have avoided the Civil War was by persuading northerners to embrace slavery, or southerners to give it up. But both regions were committed to expansion, and neither wanted the other’s economic system. When Lincoln said the nation could not exist “half slave and half free,” he was tragically correct.
Of course, war might have been avoided if Jackson’s progeny had given that land back to Mexico, or restored the Carolinas to the Cherokee, or persuaded the southerners that slavery was never going to work in the West anyway. Cotton does not grow in Kansas or the Southwest, and slavery made no economic sense in the desert, corn or wheat fields.
Without the Jacksonian conquest of Mexico, the “immigrants” Trump now attacks would merely be living on their own land. The wall Trump wants to build tracks a border that did not exist before Polk overran what was once both our southern and our western neighbor.
Sorting through his often insane pronouncements about US history, Trump has seemed surprised to discover that Abraham Lincoln was actually his fellow Republican, while Jackson was a Democrat. Each was the first president from his respective party. Both were “men of the people.” But their views on slavery were, literally, at war with each other.
Trump might also note that when he retired from the presidency in 1837, Jackson found a trusted relative had squandered his wealth. Much of what he’d gouged out of slaughtering Indians and whipping slaves was gone.
Since Trump has joined Jackson in using the presidency to enrich himself, he might want to oversee his sons more carefully.
He might also try doing a better job with the economy. As Trump’s hero left office in 1837, his immediate “legacy” featured a major stock market panic followed by four years of depression.