Jamelle Bouie writes: From Missouri to Nullification to the fierce battles over the Mexican War and the strife of the 1850s and last-ditch efforts to avoid conflict, slavery was the defining domestic concern of the antebellum United States, the dilemma that consumed the energy of the nation’s most able lawmakers and statesman, up until tensions exploded in open warfare. Donald Trump is apparently ignorant of all of this, but his alt-history musings aren’t necessarily unreasonable. Given what we know, what would Andrew Jackson have done in 1860 and 1861? Could it all have been “worked out,” to borrow the president’s words?
If you believe that slavery constituted an irrepressible moral and political conflict in the United States, then a war of some sort was likely inevitable. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been postponed. There’s a case to make that a President Jackson in 1861 could have done just that, by bolstering the planter class and its search for new territories and new markets. This, in fact, was a live option in the timeline as it exists; unionist Democrats like Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s chief opponent in the 1860 election, sought to preserve the United States through alliance with slaveholders and maintenance of a pro-slavery status quo. As chairman of the Senate committee on territories, Douglas helped craft the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which effectively undid a key provision of the Missouri Compromise (banning slavery in territories north of that state’s southern border) and organized two new territories—Kansas and Nebraska—that could choose to be slave or free. An almost unambiguous win for Southern slaveholders, Kansas-Nebraska would help push the sectional crisis to its breaking point. Likewise, as a presidential candidate, Douglas stood against Lincoln’s talk of a “house divided.” To talk about the end of slavery, he argued, was “revolutionary and destructive to the existence of this Government.” As Douglas declared in one debate, “I would not endanger the perpetuity of this Union. I would not blot out the great inalienable rights of the white men for all the negroes that ever existed.”
It is easy to imagine a President Jackson in 1860 who followed Douglas’ path. Who, in keeping with his sympathies and beliefs about Americans democracy, forestalled war by advancing the interests of slaveholders and Southern elites even further than Douglas proposed, opening new territories to the expansion of slavery, and organizing the nation’s foreign policy around new markets and opportunities for slave-produced commodities. Jackson may well have prevented the war, at the cost of 4 million black Americans, held in bondage.
That gets to the rub of it all. Trump isn’t wrong to think there was a deal that could have prevented the Civil War. There was. But the price of that deal was the maintenance of slavery; in fact, the strengthening of a monstrous system of violence and exploitation.
That this wasn’t obvious to President Trump—that, judging from his continued tweets on the issue, it still isn’t—is as revealing as it is troubling. It suggests a worldview in which everything can be resolved by deals, where there are no moral stakes or irreconcilable differences, where there aren’t battles that have to be fought for the sake of the nation and its soul. Slavery had to be eradicated, and war was the only option. Any deal that was achievable would have been an immoral maintenance of an abominable status quo.
Likewise, Trump seems to see presidential leadership as a game of dealmaking, where the best and most effective presidents are those that make the most “deals.” But this just isn’t true. Dealmaking and negotiation are part of the job of the presidency, but they have to happen with a purpose in mind; with an idea of the good within reach. [Continue reading…]