President Trump has come under particularly harsh fire lately for appearing not to know some basic facts relating to American history, at least some of which—that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, that Frederick Douglass lived in the nineteenth century, or that Andrew Jackson died more than fifteen years before the Civil War began—are generally considered to be more or less common knowledge. But it is also true that at least some of the above gaffes, all of which the White House tried to spin in a less embarrassing way once they were out there burrowing their way through the blogosphere and the online and print media, appear to be legitimately interpretable as mere slips of the tongue rather than proof positive that the President is unfamiliar with even the basic details of our nation’s history.
But one of the President’s recent remarks—his offhand comment the other day in an interview with Selina Zito on Sirius XM that the Civil War could have been avoided had someone of sufficient persuasive force fully trained in the art of the deal, perhaps someone like himself, been available to broker a compromise between the federal government and the states threatening to secede—struck me not only as not entirely wrong, but as something our nation would do well to take seriously and to ponder thoughtfully and maturely. (Just for the record, the notion that the President feels that he personally could have averted the Civil War is not something I came to on my own: in an interview with Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian and author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, President Trump apparently said openly that he believed that he personally could have “done a deal” to prevent the War Between the States from breaking out. To hear Jon Meacham report on that incident, just that click here, and listen carefully about 3.5 minutes into the clip.)
But the topic I wish to broach today is not whether the President’s sense of his own abilities as a negotiator is or isn’t grandiose, nor do I want to return to the topic of the degree to which Donald Trump is legitimately to be seen as a latter-day Andrew Jackson, whom he specifically mentioned in the Selina Zito interview as someone (someone other than himself, apparently) who could have prevented America’s bloodiest war if he had been in office at the time instead of the series of hapless losers who occupied the White House in the decade before Fort Sumter: Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan, Jr. (I wrote about the similarities between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump more than a year ago in the context of then-candidate Trump’s promise to make American great again. Click here to revisit those comments.) Instead, I’d like to focus on the question that lurks behind the President’s comments about the Civil War. Is war ever truly inevitable? Are all wars the result of failed efforts to prevent them? Does every war begin because no sufficiently skilled negotiator rose up before the actual commencement of hostilities to broker the kind of deal capable of bringing the sides to a non-violent solution to their dispute?
We can start with the President’s example, the Civil War, which was preceded by many attempts to find a compromise with which both sides could live. There was the Missouri Compromise of 1820, proposed by Henry Clay and supported by ex-President Thomas Jefferson, that attempted to preserve a permanent balance between slave-states and free-states. There was the Compromise Tariff of 1833, which attempted to mollify the southern states, particularly South Carolina, in the wake of the so-called Nullification Crisis of the mid-1830s. There was the Compromise of 1850, which attempted to deal with the slave/free status of new territories won in the Mexican War of 1846-1848, and which effectively, in the opinion of most historians, did delay the outbreak of hostilities by a full decade. (Just for the record, the single most odious piece of legislation ever passed by our American Congress, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, was part of that package. So compromise does not invariably lead the parties to it down a noble path.) And then there was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, engineered by Stephen A. Douglas, which effectively repealed the Compromise of 1820 by allowing the residents of both Kansas and Nebraska, then territories on their way to becoming states, to vote on whether to allow or forbid slavery within their borders. Those are the best-known examples, but there were also scores of other efforts to avert a war. As every eleventh grader knows, none of these efforts succeeded in the long run. And because no lasting compromise was reached, somewhere between 750,000 and a million Americans died…including more than 50,000 civilians on both sides and more than 80,000 slaves. So the question can be framed even more sharply: if the leaders on both sides had been able somehow to imagine the extent of the coming carnage, would they then have become able to find enough common ground to prevent the conflict?
It feels natural to insist that they could have. The North could have made its peace with the southern states’ right to secede—wasn’t the United States itself founded by people who insisted on their own right to secede from Britain? The South could have made its peace with there being legitimate limits to the rights of individual states in a union of united states. Everybody, had they only been able to see the mountains of cadavers on the ground at Gettysburg or Chickamauga in their magic crystal balls, would surely have understood the necessity of coming to terms without going to war!
But could they really have? When we are talking about territorial disputes relating to borders or property or money, it feels ridiculous to say that compromise is not always be an option. But once we begin to talk about institutions like slavery—an institution that treated human beings like chattel and which subjected people to brutality and violence that even beasts of burden are generally spared—when talking about something like that, is it rational to suppose that compromise could have been achieved? In the end, either slavery was going to be tolerated—perhaps restricted to certain areas or forced to function with limits imposed upon it, but nevertheless allowed to exist—or it wasn’t. When viewed that way, it feels strange to imagine that compromise could ever have been possible: what sort of grey area could possibly exist between legal and illegal?
Ben Winters’ novel, Underground Airlines, which I read last year, imagines a compromise averting the Civil War, but it is not a very realistic one. In the author’s fantasy, Lincoln is assassinated before even taking office and in the context of a traumatized nation in deep mourning a compromise is reached that allows slavery to endure in six states only. Georgia eventually gives up slavery in exchange for some hugely profitable government contracts and the two Carolinas merge into one state, thus yielding four states, the so-called Hard Four, in which slavery has endured into the twenty-first century. And so the book opens with a federal agent, himself a former slave, trying illegally to use his influence to gain his wife’s freedom and almost succeeding. But the book’s premise just does not ring true because, in the end, no one truly committed to the abolition of slavery could ever be party to a “compromise” that does not abolish slavery. When moral issues are involved, there is always a bottom line…and the existence of such a line precludes the possibility of compromise in its regard: like all lines, everything else in the universe has to be on one of its sides or the other!
Applying this idea to other contexts is both frustrating and slightly intoxicating. World War I, fought over issues that even today resist easy description and which yielded to the combatant nations only devastation and death, could surely have been averted by agile, clever diplomats. But could World War II have been averted? The world never tires of mocking the leaders of France, Italy, and Britain for their effort to avert war with Germany through a compromise with Hitler that did not actually involve any of the above-mentioned nations losing any of their own territory or ceding any of their own citizens’ rights. (I’m not sure that it is even legitimate to reference an agreement as a compromise if it doesn’t require the any of the parties to it to give up anything at all. At Munich, the Germans got what they wanted and the others gave up nothing at all except other people’s territory.) Nor was the failure of the Munich Agreement of 1938 end-result-neutral: it also gave the Germans almost a full extra year to prepare for war, which time made victory, at least in the initial German effort to overwhelm nations to the east and west, far more likely.
Could Israel’s endless war with its Arab neighbors have been averted by compromise? That too is a question worth asking…and particularly in the wake of Yom Ha-atzma∙ut, which this week celebrated the sixty-ninth anniversary of Israeli independence. Here too, it’s a matter of what you mean by compromise. The Partition Plan itself was a compromise, of course: the lands under British control east of the Jordan were excluded, and the remaining territory of Mandatory Palestine was to be divided into two new states, one Jewish and one Arab. The yishuv accepted the compromise, but the Arabs did not…and so went to war with the fledgling State of Israel shortly after independence was proclaimed on May 14, 1948. So, yes, compromise could have averted the ensuing bloodshed, but there would have had to be two sides willing to compromise, not just one. From the Arab point of view, no compromise was deemed possible if it led to the permanent establishment of an independent Jewish state in Palestine. And so the answer here too has to be no: once the Arabs rejected a compromise the United Nations itself had formally endorsed, there was no real possibility of averting conflict without the Jewish side giving up their right to exist as an independent people in their own land.
So the President was both right and wrong in his comments about the Civil War. The chances that Andrew Jackson, had he been president in 1860, could have averted the war feel very slim. (The fact that Jackson, like four of his six predecessors in the White House, was himself a slaveowner hardly makes it feel likely that he would have brokered a deal that involved the abolition of slavery.) Nor does it seem particularly likely that even a deal-maker like President Trump himself could have negotiated such a deal successfully: in the end, either the states were going to be more powerful than the union that bound them to each other or it wasn’t…and slavery was going to endure somehow and somewhere, or it wasn’t. Once moral issues are in play—issues that by their nature resist compromise, like slavery or genocide—compromise becomes indistinguishable from acquiescence. And the inverse is also true: acquiescence to evil can never be rebranded as fair-minded compromise, nor can the principled decision to look away from intolerable horror ever be justified with reference to how much better it would be if people just set their issues aside and choose to live in peace by ignoring evil.