Was the Civil War Necessary?

Trump supposedly stepped in it. Again.

In an interview that aired Monday with Salena Zito, he wondered aloud that if better leadership could have prevented the Civil War [sic].

Trump thought that Andrew Jackson would have prevailed in a showdown between the North and the South. After all, he did it before in the 1830s. Trump then said this: “He [Jackson] was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, ‘There’s no reason for this.'”

Trump followed up by committing the most heinous of all heinous acts. He questioned if the Civil War [sic] was necessary!

The leftist media immediately pounced, with several openly mocking Trump for believing that Andrew Jackson was alive in 1861.

Time to buy old US gold coins

A USA Today headline read: “Note to Donald Trump: Andrew Jackson wasn’t alive for the Civil War.”

The LA Times: “Trump makes puzzling claim about Andrew Jackson, Civil War.” The Chicago Tribune ran the same headline (groupthink) as did a number of other “news” outlets.

Social media trolls ran post after post criticizing Trump’s “revisionist” history, lambasting him for not knowing when Jackson was alive, or that he dared to buck modern historical interpretation. The snarky liberal establishment dimwit historian Kevin Kruse Tweeted “When the Civil War came, Andrew Jackson had been dead fifteen years.”

Zing! You nailed him Dr. Kevin. How bright! How engaging! Only a Princeton prof could have come up with that one.

The congratulatory remarks rolled in from his “esteemed” colleagues.

And then The Atlantic staff lowered the boom. At least that is what they thought.

In only a matter of hours, this “news” magazine published two pieces on Trump’s supposed gaffe.

Young leftist twit David Graham published a piece titled “Trump’s Peculiar Understanding of the Civil War” in which he made a number of “peculiar” claims himself.

Graham suggested that: 1) “nullification” is unconstitutional because the federal courts say so. 2) “The Civil War [sic] was fought over slavery, and the insistence of Southern states that they be allowed to keep it.” 3) The Civil War [sic] wasn’t tragic because the “great thinker” Ta-Nehisi Coates said so in 2011. 4) War was inevitable because of the “Confederate states’ commitment to slavery.” 5) If Trump had read great history like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln biography Team of Rivals, he would have a different position on the War—this position is hysterical.

Graham also dusted off the “Dunning school” pejorative in order to show his supposed intellectual superiority to the sitting president. After all, Graham insisted that Trump can’t be blamed for being such a dunderhead because even though he attended great schools, “Many Americans are still taught, incorrectly, that the war was essentially a conflict over state’s rights, with abolition as a byproduct of the war. This revisionist view flourished after the war, and though gradually being displaced, is common across the country.”

This is the revisionist calling traditional history revisionism.

The Atlantic followed up just over an hour later with a piece by Yoni Applebaum titled “Why There Was a Civil War.” The revisionist hits just kept coming.

Applebaum didn’t berate Trump for suggesting that historians don’t ask if the Civil War [sic] could have been avoided—he proved that this has been done for years by going through about a century of American historiography on the issue—but for claiming that the War could have been avoided and by “the omission of a critical word: slavery.” To Applebaum, the question of the War begins and ends with slavery and nothing but slavery. He provided one quote from Lincoln to prove his point and as most shallow Lincoln apologists do today, several quotes from the Southern States’ declaration of causes that seem to prove unequivocally that slavery and only slavery led to the War.

He concluded his article with a strange application of moral causation to the War, a moral causation that the vast majority of Americans missed in both 1860 and 1861 when the question of war or peace was still on the table. “There are some conflicts,” he wrote, “that a leader cannot suppress, no matter how strong he may be; some deals that should not be struck, no matter how alluring they may seem. This was the great moral truth on which the Republican Party was founded.”

If only it were that simple. And if only Lincoln was the great leader that both Graham and Applebaum believe him to be.

It seems both Graham and Applebaum fell asleep in class or at the very least have swallowed the Lincoln myth so thoroughly that no evidence to the contrary could persuade them of their folly or their revisionism.

Certainly, Trump is no scholar and his reverence for Jackson is troubling, for it was Jackson who provided the blueprint for Lincoln’s heavy handed tactics toward the South in 1861. To suggest that he would have worked out a compromise is a stretch, though he did support the deal Henry Clay brokered with South Carolina in 1832, a deal that resulted in the people of South Carolina nullifying the Force Bill and then heading home.

That is often lost in the story. Nullification worked and contrary to what Graham suggested, the federal court system has never had the final say on the constitutionality of nullification. That was always the point. States don’t ask permission from the federal courts to nullify unconstitutional legislation, and as every proponent of the Constitution swore in 1787 and 1788, including Alexander Hamilton and James Wilson, laws contrary to the Constitution would be void. Jefferson and Madison made it clear the States could void them.

The real problem with both pieces in The Atlantic, however, is the insistence that the War was inevitable and some moral conflict over slavery caused the shooting.

Applebaum understood that the entire fabric of early American history was built on compromise, but Graham seemed to miss that.

Based on the history of the United States, there was never an “irrepressible conflict” until the North decided to fabricate one.

The South, in fact, was willing to compromise in 1860 and 1861, as it had been for the eighty years prior. Jefferson Davis insisted that any compromise placed before the special Committee of 13 established to handle the crisis needed the support of both Republican and Democratic members. He could get the Democrats to support several. But the Republicans, at the insistence of president-elect Lincoln, said no to every single one. Is that the work of a leader?

That led six other Southern States out of the Union in early 1861. Lincoln could still have saved the Union through compromise at this juncture, but chose not to do so. As Senator James Bayard of Delaware stated in 1861, the Union still existed even with seven States missing. The government, banking houses, and infrastructure remained. It seems that the “Confederate States insistence on slavery” had nothing to do with War. War and secession are separate issues. Secession didn’t mean war was inevitable. Most Americans hoped otherwise, even in the South where President Davis insisted that the South simply wanted to be left alone. To think the opposite is to assume the posture of the British in 1776. That is un-American.

There were still six other slave States in the Union as late as April 1861, over a month after Lincoln took office, six slave States that had already rejected secession. Lincoln was not worried about slavery at this point. He supported a proposed thirteenth amendment which would have protected slavery indefinitely in the States where it already existed. He promised never to interfere with the institution in the South. Lincoln’s objective in March 1861 was to “preserve the Union” at all costs, and by “preserving the Union” Lincoln meant preserving the Republican Party and his fledgling administration. Letting the South go would have certainly made him a one term president. He received less than forty percent of the popular vote in 1860.

Applebaum is correct that letting the South go would have ensured the existence of slavery both within the Union and out for the near future (every other power abolished slavery by 1880), but this was not a moral question for most Americans. Lincoln received thunderous applause across the North in 1860 when he made promises to leave the institution alone. Racism was an American institution and Lincoln never challenged the prevailing attitudes on blacks. He embraced them. The Republican Party didn’t dabble in “moral truths.” Their objective was always political. Bottle the South up, ensure that the Whig economic agenda could be ascendant, and control the spoils.

This still doesn’t take away from the tragedy of the War. Contrary to what the “great scholar” Coates had to say—and he has as much claim to being a great scholar as David Barton, which isn’t much—the loss of one million men, the best blood in America, to a war for Union as Lincoln insisted was unnecessary at best and diabolical at worst. The elimination of slavery was for much of the war an afterthought. Lincoln considered it nothing more than a war measure to “best subdue the enemy.”

The simple fact is that Lincoln wanted war. He had the chance to save the Union without war before he took office. He had the chance to save the Union without war in March 1861. He rejected attempts to peacefully purchase federal property and began polling his cabinet about provisioning Sumter less than a week after taking office knowing full well it would cause war. As he later told a political ally, his decision to provision Fort Sumter had the desired outcome, meaning armed conflict. Nothing can sugarcoat Lincoln’s headlong rush into the bloodiest war in American history.

Trump may have been on to something here. Better leadership could have avoided the carnage. But saying that is now considered sacrilege. How closed minded of the “liberal” historical profession and establishment gatekeepers of acceptable truth.

But who cares. No one really reads The Atlantic anymore, anyway.