There’s been a lot of ignorant commentary lately about Donald Trump’s speculation that Andrew Jackson wouldn’t have let the Civil War happen. Doesn’t Trump know that Jackson died 16 years before Fort Sumter?!?
But Trump was right to point to Jackson’s successful handling of South Carolina’s secessionist movement in the 1830s, which was led by Jackson’s initial vice president, the formidable pro-slavery intellectual John C. Calhoun.
The ostensible subject was South Carolina being anti-tariff, but as Calhoun admitted privately in 1830, the ultimate cause was that South Carolina’s “peculiar domestick institution” had made South Carolina different enough that economic policy that was in the national interest would generally not be in South Carolina’s interest.
The crisis began around 1830 with a famous debate in the U.S. Senate between the southerner Hayne and the New Englander Webster:
The debate presented the fullest articulation of the differences over nullification, and 40,000 copies of Webster’s response, which concluded with “liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable”, were distributed nationwide.
Many people expected the states’ rights Jackson to side with Hayne. However once the debate shifted to secession and nullification, Jackson sided with Webster. On April 13, 1830 at the traditional Democratic Party celebration honoring Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, Jackson chose to make his position clear. In a battle of toasts, Hayne proposed, “The Union of the States, and the Sovereignty of the States.” Jackson’s response, when his turn came, was, “Our Federal Union: It must be preserved.” To those attending, the effect was dramatic. Calhoun would respond with his own toast, in a play on Webster’s closing remarks in the earlier debate, “The Union. Next to our liberty, the most dear.” Finally Martin Van Buren would offer, “Mutual forbearance and reciprocal concession. Through their agency the Union was established. The patriotic spirit from which they emanated will forever sustain it.”
Van Buren wrote in his autobiography of Jackson’s toast, “The veil was rent – the incantations of the night were exposed to the light of day.” Senator Thomas Hart Benton, in his memoirs, stated that the toast “electrified the country.” Jackson would have the final words a few days later when a visitor from South Carolina asked if Jackson had any message he wanted relayed to his friends back in the state. Jackson’s reply was:
“ Yes I have; please give my compliments to my friends in your State and say to them, that if a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man I can lay my hand on engaged in such treasonable conduct, upon the first tree I can reach.
Jackson’s uncompromising stand in favor of Union, and willingness to use federal might on the side of nationalism, combined with his lack of enthusiasm for tariffs, gave him the opportunity to turn what had looked like a national crisis into routine political horse-trading, with tariffs being reduced enough to allow South Carolinians to climb down from the perch they had gotten out on.
Jackson’s proteges, such as Sam Houston who had fought under Jackson during the War of 1812, and gone on to be governor of Tennessee, President of the Republic of Texas, and finally governor of Texas, tended to be exactly the type of pro-Union Southerners that Lincoln needed more of. In 1861, Houston was deposed as governor of Texas by secessionists because he refused to take a loyalty oath to the Confederacy.
Similarly, Lincoln chose Andrew Johnson, a Jackson-like Tennessee Democrat pro-Union man, as his running mate in 1864.
My personal feeling is that a military confrontation between the Union and South Carolina, font of the ideology that a slave owning oligarchy was the highest form of society, was inevitable at some point in the 19th Century. The big question was how many other states would ally with the South Carolina firebreathers?
Jackson had adeptly kept Calhoun’s South Carolina malcontents isolated by focusing on the key issue of Union.
Moreover, the class ideology of Jacksonism tended to be somewhat averse to slavery. Calhounism favored a slave-owning oligarchy that had little need for a flourishing class of white yeomen, except to fight for the oligarchs. The Western-oriented populist Jeffersonian-Jacksonian mindset, however, was largely about small farmers and remained an important force outside of cotton, rice, and sugar country, where black laborers less vulnerable to warm-weather diseases like malaria were crucial.
Cotton plantations worked by slaves were so profitable in the deep South that the six Cotton Belt states followed South Carolina, but further north, the Jefferson/Jackson social matrix was stronger. For example, the furthest north Confederate state, Virginia, suffered secession by its hillbilly northwest into the Union state of West Virginia (another reason why belated secession by Virginia seems like such an avoidable tragedy).
A climate map of the United States shows that the rain-watered cotton belt runs out in East Texas, while independent white farmers raising corn, wheat, and cattle can flourish further west the further north you go because cooler northern latitudes need less rain. Inevitably, a pro-Western policy like Jackson’s was going to be, on net, unenthusiastic about slavery.
When it came to the crisis after the 1860 election, South Carolina seceded first, followed quickly by six deep Southern slave states that largely depended upon King Cotton.
But then nothing happened for months, with the other 8 slave states uncertain what to do. Unfortunately, Lincoln didn’t seem to perceive the significance of the national crisis, devoting much of his energy during his first six weeks in the White House to interviewing Republican volunteers seeking local postmaster jobs.
Lincoln’s unreadiness for the big time drove William Seward, Lincoln’s more experienced secretary of state, crazy. Seward put forward a plan to re-unite the Union by taking exception to how France and Spain were violating the Monroe Doctrine in response to internal American disarray by colonizing Mexico and the Dominican Republic, respectively. But Lincoln saw Seward’s clever idea as a personal diss and shut down all consideration of it.
Eventually, the Union managed to hang on to four slave states, including crucial Kentucky. But after Fort Sumter, it lost four states to the Confederacy, including Jackson’s old state of Tennessee, where much of the Civil War was fought, and, catastrophically, Virginia, which became the main battlefront. Virginia is further north than any other secessionist state, so it should have stayed in the Union with Kentucky and Missouri. But Lincoln’s belated initiatives to hold Virginia, such as offering Robert E. Lee command of the Union Army, didn’t come until after Virginia had finally voted for secession.
What should have been a quick war thus turned into a 4 year long ordeal that killed 750,000 Americans, largely fought in Jackson’s state of Tennessee and heavily Scots-Irish Virginia.
Sherman’s army didn’t penetrate into South Carolina until 1865. They torched everything in their way, seeing the South Carolinians as the cause of the four year war. As soon as Sherman’s army crossed the border into North Carolina, they stopped burning barns, farmhouses, and towns. The Union soldiers saw North Carolinians as worthy foes who had reluctantly made a wrong choice, but who were fundamentally less culpable for the war than the firebreathing South Carolinians.
I laid out this perspective in more detail in Taki’s Magazine on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.