Monday, May 1, 2017

President Trump: Revisiting Presidents Jackson and Lincoln on their Statesmanship

In an interview in 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump said he wondered why the issues leading to the U.S. Civil War “could not have been worked out” to prevent the republics from exiting the U.S.[1] “People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why?”[2] In particular, “People don’t ask . . . why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”[3] The reigning assumption has been that President Lincoln could not have resolved the dispute short of going to war. Trump then suggested that had President Andrew Jackson been president rather than Lincoln, we “wouldn’t have had the Civil War.”[4] Aside from the point that Jackson was a Southerner, his feat in resolving the Nullification Crisis without a shot being fired suggests that Trump had a point; the war between the C.S.A. and U.S.A. could have been averted. More importantly, the mentality that won the war may not be as salubrious as we suppose.

In 1828, when John Quincy Adams was the federal president, a tariff—a tax on imported manufactured goods that originally went into effect in 1816—was increased even beyond the increase in 1824. The intent was to protect the nascent American manufacturing sector, which was mainly in the Northern states, from cheaper European imports. As a result of the tariff, Southern plantation owners had to pay more for manufactured goods from Europe, and Europeans had fewer dollars with which to buy Southern exports, of which cotton and rice were particularly important to the Southern agrarian economy.
In 1829, Andrew Jackson became the U.S. President and John C. Calhoun became the Vice President. The latter, who was from South Carolina, proposed the doctrine of nullification, wherein a state government could constitutionally nullify any federal law injurious to the state’s interests. Even from the standpoint of a loose federation, or a confederated Union of mostly sovereign republics, the doctrine was specious; for it would eviscerate virtually any federally-agreed-to constraint on the states. The former president John Quincy Adams argued more practically that the U.S. Supreme Court, not the state governments, had the ultimate authority to declare federal law unconstitutional. For his part, President Jackson sided with Adams out of fear that state-nullification could potentially lead to the break-up of the Union.
Meanwhile, South Carolina’s government declared the tariff to be unenforceable in the state. European firms could export their goods to buyers in South Carolina without having to pay the tariff. Hence, the buyers would get the lower prices, and the sellers and their compatriots would have more dollars with which to buy South Carolina rice and cotton. The tariff would remain in effect in the U.S. where the toll on economies was less. Interestingly, Calhoun also argued that the federal government had constitutional authority to use tariffs only as a means to raise revenue for that government, rather than to favor certain economic sectors; such picking and choosing—essentially between states—was going too far, especially as a certain region of states was losing power in Congress as the Union added new states. I submit that South Carolina’s government officials and Calhoun pushed their favored confederal approach or interpretation of American federalism too far in incorporating the nullification doctrine precisely because the plantation economy was becoming less and less, proportionally speaking, of the American economy, and the Southern states, less and less, also proportionately, of the total number of states in the American Union. This dynamic, not its symptom of slavery, was the underlying cause of the war between the C.S.A. and the U.S.A. How this interpretation differs so from the victor’s moralistic, almost apolitical narrative! How bound we are, without even realizing it, to the narrative!—alternatives being deemed nothing short of heresy! Abominations!
President Jackson diffused the changing dynamic—shifting regional power in the Union in the midst of two starkly different preferences of federalism (confederalism and modern federalism, respectively)— by signing tariff legislation in 1832 and again in 1833 that lowered the tariffs even as he stated that South Carolina’s nullification law was null and void and sent federal troops down to the state to enforce the law. The deal, in other words, was a much lower tariff in exchange for the state’s repeal of its nullification law. Because the president pressed Congress to repeal its increased tariff, essentially giving that one to Calhoun’s point on the federal use of tariffs for revenue only, Jackson cannot be said to have been staunchly on the side of the federal government—which is something, considering that Jackson headed one of its three branches! Rather, the president gave something to South Carolina—putting the state’s interests ahead of the other states and the federal government. Yet the state’s government had to pay a price—giving up on its cherished, albeit over-extended, doctrine of nullification.
South Carolina’s legislature had prepared a secession, or “exit,” document—Calhoun himself was involved in crafting it. The same document would be used in 1861 for the “SoCarexit”—to borrow from the E.U. secessionist state’s lexicon. Interestingly, Congress had again just enacted a tariff increase in 1858. It is possible that this old issue, as much as new free states being admitted to the Union, sparked renewed impetus to divorce from the U.S.[5]
The threat to the Southern plantations in 1861 was not the imminent end of slavery there. The threat was indirect and more diffused, coming in the form of new states with different economies being admitted to the Union. The theory of confederalism insists that the enumerated and residual sovereignty of each state is protected—hence the balance of power resides with the states. The Southern fear was that the balance was already shifting in favor of the federal head, and this made the decreasing proportion of the Southern states in the enlarging Union particularly worrisome. In other words, the “nationalist” variant of federalism (modern federalism) was gaining over confederalism, and the interests of the Southern states—political, economic, cultural, religious—were becoming more of a minority in an increasingly heterogeneous, larger empire: the United States. The tariff and slavery were only symptoms.
Jackson’s peaceful resolution of the Nullification Crisis lays in stark contrast to Lincoln’s “take it or leave it” approach to the Southern secessionist states. Whereas Jackson had the federal government retreat voluntarily on its tariff, Lincoln’s approach can be seen as being one-sided because he did not even offer to have the federal government step back at all from its position. When all the political heavy-lifting is put on the other side—for it to do the backing down—it is no wonder that resistance is encountered and a long, bloody war results. I submit that Lincoln could reasonably have compromised and yet save the Union in the sense of retaining all of its existing states.
For example, Lincoln could have assuaged the Southerners’ fears by proposing a qualified majority voting system in the U.S. Senate and perhaps even in the U.S. House of Representatives. Such a system would be designed such that legislation could not pass without at least some Southern support. The federal government would thus not be able to turn on the South—which I submit was the underlying fear. In the E.U., for instance, qualified majority voting in the federal legislative chambers—the European Council and the European Parliament—requires at least 55% of population of the Union and 55% of the states be represented on the yes side of votes for the bills to become law. Lincoln and Congressional leaders could have entertained novel ideas on how to craft such a system. A Council of Regions, for instance, wherein only the major regions of the U.S. were represented—each region having a veto--could have been added as a third legislative chamber, or perhaps even to replace the U.S. Senate! Even beyond Jackson’s fine job in 1832, thinking outside the box in such occasions is invaluable in thwarting violent conflict from engulfing all other possibilities of resolution.
For the slavery-reductionist advocates, I submit that the Southern states were a significant portion of the Union and so were justified politically in wanting to feel that they would not be rolled over in federal chambers—even though the institution of slavery was squalid, especially to our modern sensibility in the twenty-first century. The institution is for us unthinkable, undenkbar, vorbotten even in retrospect (i.e., in a historical context). For us, to think of other human beings as wild animals or property is nothing short of pathological. Even so, we must allow ourselves to admit that because the Emancipation Proclamation did not occur until 1863 (and did not apply to the five slave states that remained with the Union, and had no effect in the rebel states), the immediate point of contention in 1861 was not slavery itself where it existed. The fear was more future-oriented, and generalized, and the anger was informed by political theory—namely, two contending versions of federalism—and declining political power. Accordingly, the conflict at hand could have been resolved short of war without the South having to give up the institution of slavery. The demand that Jackson's approach applied back in 1861 include the abolition of slavery where it then existed is unfair, for not even the new Republican Party was demanding then that the South give up its sordid institution! 
Had Lincoln adopted Jackson’s approach at that time, the South might then have moved years later to put its slavery in play. Perhaps the Southern states would have accepted federal financial help with a new plantation labor system in exchange for a repeal of the 1858 tariff, combined with the region having a veto on federal legislation in a Council of Regions or a stiff qualified-majority voting system in the U.S. Senate—either of which could have been enshrined as a constitutional amendment. To be sure, any of these items could have been used in 1861 to walk back from war. At any rate, ensuing incremental agreements, progress without war, might have been possible once cooler heads could again prevail. My point is that we cannot assume that were Jackson’s approach put in place in 1861, slavery would have endured for decades. But I digress.
Jackson was able to resolve his “either/or” by putting together a deal in which both sides—the federal government and the state—gave something and got something in return. Such an approach is superior to Lincoln’s “my way or the highway” stance—that of making demands of the other side without any accommodation or retreat on his side. Rigidity begets rigidity, and much harm came ensue when two pieces of sandpaper are rubbed against each other. Even beyond Jackson’s paradigm, however, of resolving a seemingly intractable “either/or” within itself is the ability to see a third, fourth, and even fifth alternative that may never be even thought of in holding fiercely onto the typical “either/or” paradigm. In short, I think we make things more difficult than they need be, even in assuming that the Civil War had to be fought. We do not even recognize our own mental cages, so we go on making the same mistakes over and over. To arrest this pattern, revisiting even “sacred cows” can be invaluable.

[1] Jonathan Lemire, “Trump Makes Puzzling Claim About Andrew Jackson, Civil War,” The Sacramento Bee, May 1, 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The use of the term divorce is incorrect as it assumes two equal or equivalent parties. A state is not equivalent to a union of such states, hence the use of the term for the secession of a state involves a category mistake. In the context of “Brexit,” for example, “divorce” can be read as presumptuous for the secessionists.