US & Canada

Civil War historians take on Trump

Donald Trump Andrew Jackson Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Trump has displayed an affinity for Jackson in the past

President Trump has caused controversy with a revisionist riff on Civil War history, telling journalist Salena Zito in an interview that Andrew Jackson could have prevented the war if he'd been president a little later, and that Jackson was "really angry" as he watched it unfold.

Jackson, a slave-owner and strongman who took office in 1829, died 16 years before the war began.

We asked three prominent Civil War historians - David Blight, from Yale; Judith Geisberg, from Villanova University; and Jim Grossman, from the American Historical Association - to parse Trump's comments, line by line.

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Image caption The battlefield at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, after the bloodiest battle of America's Civil war,

TRUMP: [Jackson] was a swashbuckler... They love Andrew Jackson in Tennessee

Giesberg: Trump has a fondness for Jackson. This isn't the first time he's cosied up to him and complimented him. He sees him as a fellow populist, someone who promised to give the White House back to the people.

Grossman: There's a shared notion of what constitutes leadership. Something I think both men would see as very male. It's figuring out how to get what you want by pushing people as much as you can, rather than creating consensus.

Blight: Jackson had a strong approach to the presidency, he invigorated executive power, and I suspect Trump likes that. Jackson was perceived as strong, as a military man. I mean, Trump is not a military man.

Giesberg: Trump loves these kind of figures. They are a good cover for a man with no military experience, and who doesn't understand the military.

Blight: Other than that, it's a real-estate tycoon from New York and a slave-holder general from Tennessee. Not that close.


TRUMP: He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart.

Blight: I have no idea what he means here. A big heart certainly wasn't demonstrated by the Indian Removal Act.

Grossman: American Indians would probably question the size of Jackson's heart, or at least the quality of it. And Jackson was a slaveholder. If he did have a big heart, there were some obvious limits to it.


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TRUMP: I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn't have had the Civil War.

Grossman: He starts from the wrong premise - the premise that the Civil War should somehow have been avoided, and that someone more skilled on the White House could have avoided it.

If one sees the Civil War as a war of liberation, which is what it was, then it shouldn't have been avoided. Had you compromised out the differences between the government and the confederacy, or between anti-slavery forces and southern slaveholders, the victims would have been the enslaved people of the south.

If the president has the notion that it would be desirable to compromise that out, without emancipation, it is frightening.

Blight: If it reflects anything, it reflects a kind of great man idea of history, that if you just have the right man with the right strength you can change the course of history. And that is plain nonsense.

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Image caption Hundreds of people gathered for the official ceremony marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

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

Grossman: Jackson died 16 years before the Civil War began. You can quote me on that.

Blight: He was dead even before the compromise of 1850 for God's sake. He was dead at the time of the Mexican war.

Grossman: I don't know what he means by this. The first Queen Elizabeth once said something about not wanting to draw windows into men's minds. She was a very astute woman.

Giesberg: Maybe he meant Andrew Johnson?

Grossman: It could be he has the wrong Andrew from Tennessee. Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson was from Tennessee, and Trump is actually a lot like Johnson.


TRUMP: People don't realise, you know, the Civil War - if you think about it, why? People don't ask that question, but why was there a Civil War?

Giesberg: People have been asking that question from the moment the war began. There are generations of answers. Historians have come to a consensus that slavery is the reason. We do ask the question, but it's not an answer everyone in America is convinced about.

Grossman: When people say it was about state's rights, in 1861 states had nothing else to defend but slavery. They seceded because they thought the election of Lincoln threatened the institution of slavery. There are people who are not happy with that answer, who would like to see the Civil War as having been about something else.

Giesberg: I think it shows that he continues to be tone-deaf about contemporary racial issues. And I think it shows that he's selling a version of history that is useful for what he's trying to do today. But he might not have spent a huge amount of time on it.

Blight: Jackson had absolutely no vision of any kind of racial egalitarianism. He had no hint of any kind of anti-slavery movement. And if President Trump doesn't understand anything about why we had a civil war, what can he understand about race relations now? Or about our problems with inequality? And he thinks Andrew Jackson would have prevented the war... Where do I start?

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