“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.”
US President Donald Trump
AMERICAN history is a grand sprawling canvas. Scholars spent their lives writing about the Civil War. But Trump has given us a whole new window on it. He clarified that we needed a tough Southern slave plantation owner to hold things together. President Jackson has become his north star in a sea of ignorance.
After visiting the National Archives on the National Mall, where Trump’s tweets will join the Emancipation Proclamation, my father asked me, “How many of these Smithsonian museums do you think he’s visited?”
Only a few, I said, in his hundred days. What a fresh out-of-towner’s question. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum hosted Trump during the Days of Remembrance in April. Good job, Mr. President.
The spring sun and wind fell on the sculpture garden as the Mall stretched out before us. Free culture, true stories, enlightenment, even the real Star-Spangled Banner a Baltimore woman made, for all. The new National Museum of African American History and Culture, made of bronze lattice, rises near the obelisk Washington Monument. It says: We were here on the American journey; make room in the national narrative.
The collection speaks of slavery, but not only slavery. It celebrates landmark moments in music, sports, the military, preaching, marching for freedom over lifetimes of oppression.
The gown which contralto Marian Anderson wore when she sang on Easter Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial, summons her spirit. She sang after the Daughters of the American Revolution snubbed her. That was a shimmering hour in 1939, a harbinger of the civil rights movement. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood in that same place and delivered his mighty “Dream” speech.
George Washington was a rich Virginia planter with many slaves; he freed them in his will. It’s fitting that the NMAAHC is located in dialogue with his monument. And Trump got there in February, Black History Month.
Maybe to make up for praising the late great abolitionist Frederick Douglass as “somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more” that same month.
In conversation as the Civil War raged, Douglass appealed to Lincoln to bring black soldiers into the Union Army. Lincoln listened and did it.
The President’s generation has its own memory on the Mall. The Vietnam War Memorial is a somber reflective wall with 58,000 names etched into it. Easy to miss for Trump, because it lies low to the ground, without bombast. It is a healing place to grieve for the lost and mourn the nation’s only “lost” war, which never should have been fought. America’s innocence was lost because our leaders lied to us.
Trump, class of 1968, never served in Vietnam because he got five deferments for college and bone spurs. Maybe he’ll visit on Memorial Day, to pay his respects.
So many lessons to learn, within walking distance of the White House. If only the President would get out more and watch cable less. Right now, Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot, is staging an exuberant “Ragtime” which celebrates a nation of immigrants teeming with famous characters, class and racial tensions set a century ago.
Back to Jackson: beloved general, frontier lawyer and master of “The Hermitage.” To his credit, he was a true Union man. He left office in 1837 and died in 1845. Lincoln became President in March 1861. The nation went to war with itself in April.
The trouble started in South Carolina. Jackson’s vice president, John C. Calhoun, came from that rebellious state and set the stage for the Civil War. Calhoun authored doctrines such as states’ rights, secession and nullification, which asserted state power over the federal government. His lifework was defending slavery. And Jackson came to hate him. He later said he regretted not having Calhoun hanged.
Jackson was right, but not for the right reason. He cursed Calhoun’s defiance of the Union. But he championed slavery—and “Indian removal.” The Trail of Tears traces to him.
Trump’s hero was a Southern white supremacist with a common touch. As George Santayana said, those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.