Yesterday in Donald Trump-land, the man who calls himself our president or Orange Hitler as I prefer to call him, embarrassingly decides to re-litigate why the Civil War happened, insisting that had Andrew Jackson still been president in 1861 he might have been able to prevent it with his “big heart” and that he [Andrew Jackson] was very angry about the War Between the States. This is despite the fact that Andrew Jackson died in 1845 and was a virulent racist who owned as many as 300 slaves and forcibly removed over 125,000 Native Americans from the land they’d lived on for centuries in the southeastern United States.
Interesting this happens as I’m researching the Civil War and the American War of Independence for my memoir. I’ve been a history nerd since the day I could read, majored in History in college but American history pre-WWI is one of my least favorite subjects. Nevertheless, I’ve always been uncomfortable with Americans’ lack of knowledge about our own history even as themes from over 100 years ago reappear today. I remember being a college junior, taking an upper division class on American history “From Progressivism to Global War”, a class covering the US from the 1880s to 1945. This was in early 2008 when the financial crisis just happened, politicians debated our loss of international prestige following President Bush’s war in Iraq, and Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama battled each other for the Democratic nomination for president [I was also taking a class on US Foreign Policy.] Not two classes in, my classmates and I pointed out that the problems and concerns of the country in the 1890s were uncannily similar to the concerns of the country nearly 130 years later. But I digress…
Nothing surprises me about Donald Trump anymore. This isn’t the first time he’s made a serious blunder about American history. I’m more disturbed by the reactions of those condemning him. My US history college professors always pointed out how we [Americans] do not know our own history to where immigrants know US history better than native-borns. I’ll take it a step further and say of the little history we do know, it’s very white-washed, watered-down and distorted to prop us up and make us feel good about ourselves. Donald Trump’s lack of basic understanding of history, of simple dates is problematic but so is the ignorance of those defending him.
Donald Trump said that if Andrew Jackson had still been president, he could’ve prevented the Civil War. Imagining how a slave owner and murderer of Native Americans would’ve reconciled the North and South is horrifying. If it was up to him, slavery would’ve continued on instead of ending with my great-great-grandparents’ generation. News pundits who favor Trump tend to justify looking back to Andrew Jackson and, George Washington, to connect them to American politics today while ignoring the fact that these men were racist and owned and profited off slaves.
Unfortunately children are taught watered down, white-washed versions of early American history. I remember the stark difference between my elementary school textbooks and in university and what I’ve learned since then. So I’m more interested in our response to Donald Trump re-litigating the Civil War because that reveals more about where we are as a nation. So far what I see is some people turning the Civil War and President Lincoln into a moralistic cause and figure when it was not. President Lincoln even wrote in a letter in 1862 that if he could preserve the Union without freeing a single slave, he would do it. And slavery or no, Abraham Lincoln also said he did not believe African-Americans would ever be as equal as whites. So yes, slavery was the ultimate issue in the Civil War but it was an economic issue not a moralistic one.
It is no coincidence that Donald Trump brings up the Civil War at a time when the nation arguably has never been more divided. Social media is rife with comments with fears that we’re headed toward another civil war. The thing about history is the same themes repeat themselves. That’s why we should remember it, but remember it as it actually happened.