Sigh. With friends like these....
Donald Trump’s latest example of counterfactual reasoning places yet another straw on the back of a camel already overburdened by the weight of earlier comments. (See my POST about his fantasy “what ifs” about the election from late November).
As reported in the New York Times (click HERE for the article link), Trump’s comment was made in an interview on SiriusXM Radio and focused on how the Civil War might have been avoided had Andrew Jackson been around. As he put it:
‘I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, “There’s no reason for this.” ’
As plenty of observers have pointed out, Jackson died in 1845 and the Civil War only erupted in 1861. So the comment is inherently ahistorical.
However, it is far from being an entirely illegitimate scenario.
Historians have routinely imagined “fast forward” counterfactuals in which historical figures are imagined as somehow living longer and being present for events they never personally witnessed – all in order to imagine how they would have reacted. Whether imagining Lenin living longer and seeing the Bolshevik Revolution through the crises of the 1920s, JFK living longer to deal with the War in Vietnam, or FDR living longer to deal with the Cold War, these kinds of counterfactuals are quite common.
Trump, in fact, is theoretically on target in musing that Jackson – had he been President in 1861 instead of Lincoln – might have kept the Civil War from happening at that point in time. He was a slave owner, after all, and may well have appeased the Southern planter aristocracy in one way or another. In other words, he might have kept the Civil War from happening when it did in real history.
Interviewed in the New York Times, John Meacham commented:
Had Jackson been alive at the start of the Civil War, Mr. Meacham said, it would be difficult to predict his reaction. It would have brought his commitment to the Union into conflict with his identity as an unapologetic slave owner. Mr. Jackson was from Tennessee, which fought for the Confederacy. Mr. Trump visited his tomb there this year.
But any president would have had to contend with the South’s attempt to expand the institution of slavery into territory newly acquired by the United States. It’s what Mr. Meacham called the unavoidable historical question.
“The expansion of slavery caused the Civil War,” he said. “And you can’t get around that. So what does Trump mean? Would he have let slavery exist but not expand? That’s the counterfactual question you have to ask.”
Needless to say, Trump’s counterfactual suffers from the obvious implausibility of Jackson being on the scene – let alone being President – in 1861. Born in 1867, Jackson would have been 93 in 1860, when he would have theoretically been re-elected to the highest office in the land.
Trump’s reason for making the counterfactual comment remains murky. It seems to have little to do with present-day political issues. Rather, it reflects his identification with Jackson, not to mention his belief that being “tough” and having a big “heart” are somehow sufficient to change the course of history.
Still, historians can take something away from Trump’s gaffe. After all, it is an object lesson in the importance of chronology. My own college students often grumble at the need to know the order of historical facts. There shouldn’t be a need to defend such knowledge. But if nothing else, Trump’s miscue can remind us all that that keeping them straight is one way to avoid public embarrassment.
Oddly enough, Trump’s apparent ignorance that Jackson was already dead before the Civil War strangely echoes his ignorance that Frederick Douglass and Luciano Pavarotti are also dead. (His apparent comments to the contrary received considerable media attention. Click HERE and HERE for links).
Our current President’s historical ignorance is hardly his most serious liability. Hopefully, critics of counterfactual history will not blame the entire genre for his sloppy use of its methodology.