In an interview with conservative journalist Salena Zito airing on Sirius XM on Monday, Donald Trump, the president of the United States, asked: "Why was there the Civil War?" This was part of an extended riff on Andrew Jackson, who Trump loves and who Trump thinks could have stopped the Civil War had he been born a little later. According to Trump, "[Jackson] was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, 'There no reason for this.' People don't realize you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why?"
This is a good question! To help Trump sort it out, I contacted eight historians and history teachers—people who have thought about it—and asked them Trump's question: "Why was there a civil war?"
Here are their responses:
Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University: "Two societies based on different systems of labor had developed within our single political system, and the leaders of each believed that expansion into the West was essential for their society's prosperity. Abraham's Lincoln's election convinced Southern leaders that their region was fated to become a permanent minority, which would put its future prospects—based on slavery—in jeopardy and that therefore they should create their own nation, while Northerners were not willing to see the country broken up. The result was civil war."
Sarah, an eighth grade history teacher in New York City: "There was a civil war in the United States over the issue of the Southern states dependency on the labor of enslaved people, and the increasing unpopularity of that system in the Northern part of the United States. The Southern states had spent the decades preceding the outbreak of war attempting to secure their 'states' rights' to maintain and spread slavery as the country admitted new states, using tactics such as attempting to nullify federal law. The South in some ways viewed themselves as being exploited by Northern industrial power, while also fearing a severe blow to their economic and political power should slavery end. The election of Abraham Lincoln triggered the South to follow through on their threats of secession. Then they fired on Fort Sumter."
Jane Cranz, adjunct history professor at Tarrant County College and Weatherford College in Texas: "The answer is complicated and includes everything from slavery, economics, states' rights, and regionalism just to name a few reasons. There is no single cause for the Civil War."
Amanda Lanigan, a high school history teacher in Massachusetts: "What's most interesting to me about the causes of the Civil War are the parallels to today. You had a society in a state of political and social division of issues that allow for no compromise. Prior to the Civil War people were asked to compromise on issues of fundamental human rights, state power, and the very definition of humanity when dealing with the issue of slavery… Larger economic developments such as industrialization and increased concentration of wealth in the North and South also played a background role. The issue of slavery drew out background conflicts regarding states rights and the true founding principles of the US. When Lincoln was elected, the South largely felt they had lost their voice in government as NO southern states and cast a vote for him… Most historians agree that the Civil War was unavoidable, and certainly Andrew Jackson, who was hot-headed and stubborn would not have been the president to prevent it, as he essentially started a war just to gain territory using a blatant false flag."
Shauna Devine, assistant professor in the department of medical history at the Schulich School of Medicine at Western University: "The causes of the Civil War is one of the most debated questions in Civil War history. Lincoln noted in his second inaugural address that slavery was likely "somehow" involved in the cause of the war, and there is consensus among historians that slavery and freedom, more than any other issue divided the north and south—but that is only a starting point to begin asking questions about what that meant. In the historiography there are many interpretive schools—progressive, revisionists, fundamentalists, modernists, etc., that have variously looked at the role of slavery and states rights, economics (especially tariffs); politics the fall of the Whigs and rise of the Republican party; secession; race; souther sectionalism; northern unionism."
Stephanie McCurry, R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History at Columbia: "There was a Civil War because divisions in the country around the political economy and morality of slavery had become so profound that 11 slave states seceded rather than accept the legitimacy of a Republican (and explicitly anti-slavery) president. Political elites in the South were so wedded to property in persons—human enslavement—they risked war to perpetuate it."
Justin Cerenzia, history department chair and assistant dean of faculty at St. George's School in Rhode Island: "The chronology issues aside of mentioning Jackson in this context (Jackson was dead in 1845), the central debate that caused the war was over slavery. It shouldn't really be a debate at all. The increase of sectional tensions and the breakdown of federal-state relations and the evolving nature of political parties in the era and economics of the time, etc. etc. all relate back to the slavery issue. Particularly because this all led to war."
David Blight, professor of American history at Yale University: "He really said this about Jackson and the Civil War? All I can say to you is that from day one I have believed that Donald Trump's greatest threat to our society and to our democracy is not necessarily his authoritarianism, but his essential ignorance—of history, of policy, of political process, of the Constitution. Saying that if Jackson had been around we might not have had the Civil War is like saying that one strong, aggressive leader can shape, prevent, move history however they wish. This is simply a fifth-grade understanding of history or worse. And this comes from the president of the United States! Under normal circumstances if a real estate tycoon weighed in on the nature of American history from such ignorance and twisted understanding we would simply ignore or laugh at him. But since this man lives in the historic White House and wields the constitutional powers of the presidency and the commander in chief we have to pay attention. Trump's "learning" of American history must have stopped even before the fifth grade. I wish I could say this is funny and not deeply disturbing. My profession should petition the President to take a one- or two-month leave of absence, VP Pence steps in for that interim, and Trump goes on a retreat in one of his resorts for forced reeducation. It could be a new tradition called the presidential education leave. Or perhaps in New Deal tradition, an 'ignorance relief' period. This alone might gain the United States again some confidence and respect around the world. God help us."
Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.