What Trump Got Right About Andrew Jackson
There’s an old saying that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Of course that was pre-digital clocks. Now, a broken clock just stares at you with a blank face. The point is that it’s hard for anyone to be wrong all of the time. And sometimes, when talking about historical figures, what seems right at the time is wrong in hind-sight or vice versa. Exhibit A is the Vietnam War. This country was more divided than I’ve ever seen it (although we’re getting closer to it as I write), and, predictably, most young people were totally opposed to the war. Even though I fought there, I was certain the war was wrong. I served, unlike a lot of today’s political leaders (yes, I’m talking about the Donald), because I believed in the idea of service before self. Because I believed in America and the sacrifices of all those who served before me. From a strategic, political, or moral standpoint, Vietnam was arguably a mistake. But from a tactical and historical view, Vietnam was very beneficial to America.
The proof is in the military we have today. Vietnam broke the military, especially the Army. WWII and Korean War tactics, driven by nuclear weapons and Cold War challenges, had built a military completely unsuited to the limited, quick-striking force needed in today’s world. Without Vietnam, there is no helicopter warfare. And without helicopter warfare, Osama Bin Laden would still be causing trouble instead of pushing up coral. The enlisted personnel were not valued for their expertise in operating and maintaining increasingly complex weaponry. They were treated according to their rank rather than their abilities. Units were made up of soldiers thrown together instead of groups who went through training together and trusted each other accordingly. From a military viewpoint, without the lessons of Vietnam, our successes in Iraq and Afghanistan would not have occurred.
I think a similar case might be made in the future about Trump. Yes, he is a narcissistic, lying, amateur who breaks everything he touches. He is the poster boy for the proverbial bull. But maybe, just maybe, a certain amount of broken china is needed to move the country forward. As a developer, Trump had to knock down a lot of buildings before putting up new ones. Destruction usually precedes creativity. From a long-term historical perspective, it doesn’t matter whether the carnage was an accident or on purpose.
I offer Trump’s comments about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War as an illustrative case. For those who missed it, Trump opined that Andrew Jackson would have prevented the Civil War. He also threw in some nonsense about why did we fight the Civil War and why wasn’t anybody looking into the causes of the conflict. On the one hand, it is an absurd statement since the conflict is the most written about and debated aspect of American history. Many people correctly pointed out that Jackson was dead long before the Civil War broke out. But on the other hand, Trump was actually on to something. There is a case to be made for Jackson having prevented the Civil War from breaking out much sooner than it did.
To understand why, a little nuance is necessary, which is a commodity in short supply these days. We must start with the fact that Trump is not a reader. This is by his own admission and by observation. First, he gets all of his news from TV. Tidbits of info (both true and false) go straight from Fox News to Trump’s Twitter account. But there are also videos of Trump in several court depositions refusing to read aloud parts of legal agreements that he had signed. He gives short summaries rather than reading the text aloud as he is asked to do repeatedly by an off-screen lawyer. I’m not asserting that Trump can’t read, but when one doesn’t practice something, one is not very good at it.
This is where Andrew Jackson comes in. Badgered by a reporter, Trump claimed, during his transition period, that he was reading a biography of Jackson. More likely is that he skimmed part of it. Our seventh president is a controversial figure. Nuance is definitely needed to understand his place in our history. Many people, Native Americans and their supporters in particular, hate Jackson and condemn his actions. And certainly, The Trail of Tears deserves extreme condemnation. But if we look at his actions through the morality and norms of the time, it is more understandable why he was popular enough to become president.
Jackson was personally brave as well as a self-taught lawyer, general, and politician. In all three fields he was very successful. True, he had a temper and was ruthless towards his enemies. He owned slaves and was responsible for atrocities against many Native Americans. But it is also a fact that he treated Blacks and Native Americans who were in his army well. When Congress ordered Jackson to disband his army and refused to pay their way home, Jackson fed the soldiers out of his own pocket (no matter their origin) and led them home. He also expanded the participation in American Democracy from just rich white men to all white men which was an important step towards representative government for everyone. And then there was the banking issue. All of the American government’s money at the time was handled by a private bank run by Nicholas Biddle. Biddle thought that, as America’s banker, he should be able to tell Jackson how to run the country. Bad move. Jackson crushed both Biddle and his bank by moving US funds to other banks and vetoing the recharter of The Second National Bank. During the protracted fight, Biddle enlisted the help of prominent politicians of the time, including Southerners Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun.
Most people don’t know that 1860 was not the first time South Carolina broached the topics of Nullification and Secession. In the late 1820s and early 1830s, the ideas were being seriously discussed in Charleston. Supporters of the movement included the aforementioned Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun who were opposed to the Tariff of 1828 and urged supporters to ignore or “nullify” it. When Jackson, who hated both men, got wind of the discussions about Nullification and possible Secession, he let it be known that he would ride to Charleston and hang from the highest tree anyone who dared pursue such actions. People believed him and with good reason.
So all talk of rebellion was muted for the next few decades. Did Trump really parse this out of the book he claimed to read? I don’t know. But he really wasn’t far off from what actually happened versus what might have happened. If we play the “what if” game, I think most historians would agree that, right or wrong Jackson would have handled the events of 1859 differently than Lincoln did. The point is that whether by accident or deliberation, Trump got something right about American history. For our sake, let’s hope he does the same thing with the rest of his administration. Otherwise, Trump may be just as hated in the future as Jackson is now.