Andy Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Good morning, it’s Wednesday, May 17, 2017. On this date in 1780, a British general named Henry Clinton issued a fateful order to Maj. Gen. Charles Cornwallis. Having captured Charleston three days earlier, Sir Henry instructed Lord Cornwallis to assert the crown’s control over the South Carolina and Georgia backcountry.

This proved to be a fateful gambit. It was part of the first “Southern strategy” ever employed in American politics. After their defeat at Saratoga, the British concentrated their forces in the South, counting on closer affinity between themselves and the local populace.

This dubious theory of how to prosecute the Revolutionary War met reality outside the South Carolina town of Lancaster. The British called what came next The Battle of Waxhaws; the patriots called it the Waxhaws Massacre, owing to the hundreds of Continental Army men and rebel irregulars butchered by the British after surrendering.

That atrocity would increase the fierceness of the fighting, serve as a recruitment tool for the American side, and radicalize a young man whose temperament was already disposed toward fighting. His name was Andrew Jackson.

Later this morning, Laura Bush will speak at the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s estate and presidential library. The event is billed as Spring Outing, and in 2017 it’s been folded into the Tennessee historical site’s year-long celebration of Jackson’s 250th birthday. Jackson was born on March 15, 1767, and President Trump visited the place on that date this year.

For a president who once boasted that he’d never read a biography of one his predecessors, it was a good sign. Trump toured the estate, laid a wreath on Jackson’s grave, gave a 10-minute speech in which he called Andy Jackson “the people’s president,” and peppered Howard J. Kittell, CEO of the Hermitage, with questions about “Old Hickory,” the seventh U.S. president.

The visit apparently stoked President Trump’s revisionist historical impulses.

Six weeks later, he was ruminating aloud about his impressions of Jackson and in an unusual context: the outbreak of the Civil War. “People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War?” Trump told journalist Salena Zito. “Why could that one not have been worked out?”

The president then answered his own question: because Andy Jackson was no longer around. “He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War,” Trump said of a man who died in 1845. “He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.'”

Trump added that if Jackson had been president “a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.”

Historians and pundits had fun with that one, understandably so, but what Trump was musing about was that Jackson considered himself a nationalist first, not a Southerner. This is not fake news, and it brings us back to the Jackson family’s encounters with the British in the Revolutionary War.

Andrew Jackson’s father, mother, and two brothers had emigrated from Ireland. Andy was the first one born here. His father died shortly before he was born, and his brothers and his mother were soon drawn inexorably into the crucible of the Revolutionary War.

The oldest brother, Hugh Jackson, died of heat stroke following the 1779 Battle of Stono Ferry. In 1781, Robert and Andrew Jackson were taken prisoner by the British and held in horrific conditions: fed little, they contracted smallpox. Both boys were eventually released to their mother, but Robert was so weakened that he died shortly thereafter. Andrew Jackson recovered from smallpox, but the rest of his life he bore a scar across his face inflicted by a British saber wielded by an officer upset that Andy Jackson had refused to polish his boots. Jackson was 13 years old at the time. Months later, his mother volunteered to nurse injured soldiers. Working on a hospital ship in Charleston harbor, she contracted cholera and died.

At 14, Andrew Jackson was an orphan who’d also lost his two brothers. He carried that rage with him into the next war with the British, routing them in the Battle of New Orleans, and took the big chip on his shoulder into elective politics.

So Donald Trump is hardly the first visitor to the Hermitage to ask the docents and historians there what Jackson’s sympathies might have been had he been alive when the guns of Fort Sumter erupted.

“One of the questions we get asked repeatedly,” Howard Kittell told reporters, is “Had Jackson been alive at the time of the Civil War — if he lived another 16 years — would he have supported the Union or the Confederacy? The general opinion is he would have supported the Union because he was so staunchly a Unionist.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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