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Trump says Civil War could have been avoided

JONATHAN LEMIRE | 5/11/2017, 7:46 a.m.
The U.S. president recently attempted to tackle a historical question about America’s Civil War.
Vice President Mike Pence applauds as President Donald Trump arrives in the Kennedy Garden of the White House in Washington, May 1. Evan Vucci

NEW YORK – The U.S. president recently attempted to tackle a historical question about America’s Civil War.

“Why could that one not have been worked out?”

Remarks by Donald Trump, aired May 1, showed presidential uncertainty about the origin and necessity of the Civil War, a defining event in U.S. history with slavery at its core. Trump also declared that President Andrew Jackson was angry about “what was happening” with regard to the war, which started 16 years after his death, and could have stopped it if still in office.

Trump, who has at times shown a shaky grasp of U.S. history, questioned why issues couldn’t have been settled to prevent the war that followed the secession of 11 Southern states from the Union and brought death to more than 600,000 Americans, North and South.

“People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why?” Trump said in an interview with The Washington Examiner that also aired on Sirius XM radio. “People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

In fact, the causes of the Civil War are frequently discussed, from middle school classrooms to university lecture halls and in countless books. Immigrants seeking to become naturalized are sometimes asked to name a cause of the war in their citizenship tests.

Fierce disagreement over the future of slavery was a driving force behind the war, but economic issues and disputes over state rights were also factors.

“Slavery was the root cause of the Civil War. It was not the only cause, but it was the underlying cause,” said Eric Foner, a Columbia University history professor and a leading expert on the war. “As a historian, I would prefer the president had a better handle on American history.”

Trump’s comments about the war came after he lauded Jackson, the populist president whom he and his staff have cited as a role model. He suggested that if Jackson had been president “a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.”

“He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, ‘There’s no reason for this,’” Trump continued.

Jackson died in 1845. The Civil War began in 1861. In a tweet Monday night, Trump revisited the point he was trying to make: “President Andrew Jackson, who died 16 years before the Civil War started, saw it coming and was angry. Would never have let it happen!”

Jackson was a slave-holding plantation owner. Some historians do credit him with preserving the full Union when South Carolina threatened to secede in the 1830s over an individual state’s ability to void federal tariffs. But that controversy, known as the “Nullification Crisis,” was not about slavery, and the eventual compromise that preserved states’ rights did little to alter the nation’s path to the War Between the States.

“Even Andrew Jackson, were he alive, could not have solved the problem,” Foner said. “The situation in 1861 was far more dire than in the 1830s during the Nullification Crisis.”