Andrew Jackson on the plot to destroy the Union

April 15, 2010

Abraham Lincoln breathed his last in the early morning of April 15, 1865. He was mourned throughout the North as the savior of the Union, and many a Southerner knew that the South had lost its best friend on the Union side.

On the Lincoln Memorial, dedicated in 1923, it says, “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” That generation recognized that Lincoln was a great man who saved our country from disunion and freed it from having to continue to drag the anchor of slavery. Who would have thought that this great man’s reputation was not safe forever? But now it is under attack once again. It is time, perhaps, to bring the seventh President to the defense of the sixteenth.

The Internet is full of people saying that he caused the war. That he caused it by invading the South. That he made war in order to free the slaves. That he made war for some darker purpose, because he could have ended slavery by offering compensated emancipation. Each of these statements is so obviously, ridiculously untrue, to anyone who knows the history of the situation, that there should be no need for rebuttal. The facts ought to be enough:

* Between December 1860 and February 1861, seven of the Union’s 15 slave States seceded. This was after Lincoln was elected, but before he took office.

* In April 1861 Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the rebellion, and announced that he was going to re-provision Fort Sumter. Four more slave States seceded. (The remaining four – Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri – never did secede.)

* Far from setting out to destroy slavery, Lincoln resisted calls for abolition for more than a year. His purpose, as he said repeatedly, was to save the Union, regardless whether this required freeing all the slaves, or none of them, or freeing some and not others.

* Not one of the 15 slave states ever took him up on his repeated advice that they should offer compensated emancipation. As late as the Winter of 1865, he offered compensated emancipation to the seceded states, and was rebuffed.

None of these facts seem to be enough to stop people from believing what they want to believe. “The winners write history,” they say, although it seems to me that more often it is the losers who do so, attempting to whitewash their mistakes, excuse their own errors, and condemn those whom history favored.

All right, if they won’t accept the evidence of what did happen, perhaps they will accept the evidence of what was predicted to happen. The prediction came two dozen years earlier, from a slave-holding president from a slave-holding state, and was recorded in print by a slave-holding ex-senator from a second slave-holding state. From the farewell address of President Andrew Jackson, delivered in 1837, quoted by Senator Thomas Hart Benton in his monumental work, Thirty Years’ View.

“We behold systematic efforts publicly made to sow the seeds of discord between different parts of the United States, and to place party divisions directly upon geographical distinctions; to excite the South against the North, and the North against the South, and to force into the controversy the most delicate and exciting topics — topics upon which it is impossible that a large portion of the Union can ever speak without strong emotion. Appeals, too, are constantly made to sectional interests, in order to influence the election of the Chief Magistrate, as if it were desired that he should favor a particular quarter of the country, instead of fulfilling the duties of his station with impartial justice to all; and the possible dissolution of the Union has at length become an ordinary and familiar subject of discussion. Has the warning voice of Washington been forgotten? Or have designs already been formed to sever the Union? Let it not be supposed that I impute to all of those who have taken an active part in these unwise and unprofitable discussions, a want of patriotism or of public virtue. The honorable feelings of Sate pride, and local attachments, find a place in the bosoms of the most enlightened and pure. But while such men are conscious of their own integrity and honesty of purpose, they ought never to forget that the citizens of other States are their political brethren; and that, however mistaken they may be in their views, the great body of them are equally honest and upright with themselves. Mutual suspicions and reproaches may in time create mutual hostility; and artful and designing men will always be found, who are ready to foment these fatal divisions, and to inflame the natural jealousies of different sections of the country! The history of the world is full of such examples, and especially the history of republics.

“What have you to gain by division and dissension? Delude not yourselves with the belief, that a breach, once made, may be afterwards repaired. If the Union is once severed, the line of separation will grow wider and wider; and the controversies which are now debated and settled in the halls of legislation, will then be tried in fields of battle, and determined by the sword. Neither should you deceive yourselves with a hope, that the first line of separation would be the permanent one, and that nothing but harmony and concord would be found in the new associations formed upon the dissolution of this Union. Local interests would still be found there, and unchastened ambition. And if the recollection of common dangers, in which the people of these United States stood side-by-side against a common foe — the memory of victories won by their united valor; the prosperity and happiness they have enjoyed under the present Constitution; the proud name they bear as citizens of this great republic — if all these recollections and proofs of common interests are not strong enough to bind us together as one people, what tie will hold united the new divisions of empire, when these bonds have been broken and this Union dissevered? The first line of separation would not last for a single generation; new fragments would be torn off; new leaders would spring up; and this great and glorious republic would soon be broken into a multitude of petty states, without commerce, without credit; jealous of one another; armed for mutual aggressions; loaded with taxes to pay armies and leaders; seeking aid against each other from foreign powers; insulted and trampled upon by the nations of Europe; until, harassed with conflicts, and humbled and debased in spirit, they would be ready to submit to the absolute dominion of any military adventurer, and to surrender their liberty for the sake of repose. It is impossible to look on the consequences that would inevitably follow the destruction of this government, and not feel indignant when we hear cold calculations about the value of the Union, and have so consistently before us a line of conduct so well calculated to weaken its ties.”

Senator Benton, after citing this passage, added, “nothing but the deepest conviction of an actual danger could have induced General Jackson, in this solemn manner, and with such a pointed reference and obvious application [meaning, in context, John C. Calhoun’s repeated efforts to find a pretext to destroy the Union], to have given this warning to his countrymen, at that last moment, when he was quitting office, and returning to his home to die. He was, indeed, firmly impressed with a sense of that danger — as much so as Mr. Madison was — and with the same “pain” of feeling, and presentiment of great calamities to our country. What has since taken place has shown that their apprehensions were not groundless — that the danger was deep-seated, and widespread; and the and not yet.”

This was written in the 1850s. Within a decade, 600,000 men would have paid the price. The insane pride and fears that motivated Calhoun deepened and spread and, as Jackson had warned, deepened and embittered sectional divisions. Fears and pride produced a form of insanity in our national life that grew in intensity from year to year, until it resulted in Civil War. Nor was that the end. Although we were spared the worst — the division of the Union and the predictable descent into anarchy and tyranny that President Jackson warned against — still we got the evils of Reconstruction, the tyranny of large corporations that had fattened on the profits of the war, and the legacy of hatred that has lasted among some to this day. Some of that hatred has always been aimed at Lincoln, and now it seems to be the fashion to do so again. I can’t tell you how sad it makes me.


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