If there’s a silver lining to the Trump administration, it’s that it provides some teachable moments for historians and students. Just days after the inauguration, Trump commented at a celebration of Black History Month, “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” Enter the historians, who quickly reminded us that the great abolitionist, orator and writer had died back in 1895. There’s no present tense here, only past.
I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart, and he was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why?
Historians were quick to point out that Jackson ended his presidency in 1837 and died in 1845–respectively, 24 and 16 years before the start of the Civil War. How Jackson would have handled the lead up to the Civil War is pure speculation. Just as it would be speculation to say how FDR or Truman would have dealt with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
So 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 he wishes. This is simply 5th grade understanding of history or worse.
Today, as with the past, Trump seems to be figuring out (the hard way) that one person can’t change the course of a nation by force of will–not when there are so many other forces and players that shape things. A lot of hubris and inflated rhetoric came into White House in January. Whether Trump is actually learning the physics of politics remains to be seen.
But here’s one thing you don’t have to wait for. David Blight has made available a free course on the Civil War. In 27 lectures, his course “explores the causes, course, and consequences of the American Civil War, from the 1840s to 1877,” looking at how the United States was transformed on multiple levels: racially, socially, politically, constitutionally and morally. You can access the 27 free lectures, presented in audio and video, via YouTube, iTunes, and the Yale web site (plus a syllabus). We also have it on the list of our Free History Courses, a subset of our collection 1,500 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.
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