President Trump made some weird statements about the Civil War recently, trying to tie it into his kindred spirit Andrew Jackson. He stated, in a somewhat contradictory manner, that Jackson was both too early to stop the Civil War, yet somehow still mad about it while it was happening, and that he could’ve stopped it.
Well, the thing is, Trump shouldn’t put so much faith in Jackson’s ability to stop the Civil War, because he actually did face a proto-American Civil War. In 1833, Andrew Jackson faced off against a rebellious state that claimed it had the right to ignore federal laws, using the threat of military action to bring it back into line, and while a compromise was reached, it didn’t do much of anything to stifle the calls for secession and war. But before we talk about crisis, let’s discuss the idea of ‘nullification’ and how that almost started the Civil War 30 years early.
See, back before they were presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves, where they discussed the idea that states could ‘nullify’ federal laws they found unconstitutional. This was done in response to President Adams’s Alien and Sedition Acts, and argued that the United States Constitution was really only a set of agreements between the states.
You may recognize the argument as the basis for a lot of “state’s rights” activism, and you’d be right in assuming that many Americans liked the concept of that. One of these Americans was Senator John C. Calhoun, who wrote in 1828 the South Carolina Exposition and Protest. Railing against the Tariff of 1828, which he felt unfairly hurt Southern states, he brought up again the idea that a state like South Carolina could simply ignore federal laws that they did not approve of. He, like many Southerners, also believed that the government was overextending its authority by imposing a non-revenue raising tariff (The 1828 tariff was protectionist and hurt the Southern states who sold a lot of their cotton overseas)
He did have to write this anonymously, though, because he had just become the Vice President. His Commander in Chief? Andrew Jackson. But that anonymity did not stop the growing and dangerous sentiment that states should be able to claim federal laws as null and void, eventually creating a nullification crisis when a specially convened South Carolina convention nullified the Tariff of 1832, which did not do away with enough of the protectionist ideas of the 1828 version. They were prepared to secede from the Union to prove their point, and elected Calhoun to the Senate to state their case. Jackson, who already disapproved of Calhoun because of shenanigans involving his military career and his wife’s treatment of Peggy Eaton, prepared for a confrontation.
He immediately declared that nullification was unconstitutional and that “disunion by armed force is treason” and had Congress pass the Force Bill, which would allow him to use the military act against any treasonous state. With the threat of military action against the state, Henry Clay helped pass the Clay Compromise Tariff of 1833, which alleviated enough of the concerns of the South Carolinians to get them to back off, but not before, purportedly, they nullified the Force Bill. Even though the Nullification Crisis had been averted, President Jackson knew it would not be the last time the issue would come up, writing that he knew eventually, slavery would be the issue that the states were willing to nullify and fight for.
So, what is there to learn from this? The lesson to take away from this is that yes, Jackson did face a potential Civil War-like crisis during his lifetime, even if he did die 16 years before the war actually began. We can see the response he would’ve had, saying the states couldn’t secede and then send the military to keep them in line, all while a compromise of some sort was being worked on. But we can also see that states like South Carolina, who became the leader of the secessionist movement 30 years later, still claimed their supposed independence from the federal government when it came to their economy. Another compromise, like the dozen or so that had been enacted over the past half-century about slavery’s expansion, hadn’t settled anything. When slavery, the largest measurement of their economy, would eventually come into play, they would fight for it. And they did. Any hypothetical action Jackson would’ve taken in 1860 couldn’t have stopped it, because the actual actions he took in 1833 didn’t stop it. They didn’t stop the Compromise of 1850, nor the Kansas-Nebraska Act, nor the Dredd Scott Decision, nor the raid on Harper’s Ferry.
While Trump may be enamored with a fellow populist president, he should at least learn what exactly Jackson did during his presidency that made him remembered for centuries after his death. You know, besides owning slaves and killing thousands of Native Americans.