Andrew Jackson Was Dead, But the Democrats Still Mattered to Civil War Causation

Andrew Jackson Was Dead, But the Democrats Still Mattered to Civil War Causation

We hope this short blog series reflecting on past issues of the journal has been a useful reminder of the excellent scholarship being produced on the causes and background of the Civil War. Today we end the series with a post by Nicole Etcheson, but the conversation over these questions can (and will) continue on social media. To access past issues, please visit Project Muse. And, don’t forget to follow us on Twitter (@JCWE1) and like our Facebook page.


In remarks to the Washington Examiner, President Donald Trump compared his campaign to Andrew Jackson’s and concluded by wondering, “the Civil War, you think about it, why?”[1] The President thus linked Jackson’s Democratic party, and the Second Party System, to the Civil War.

Trump’s connection is not a new one. Nineteenth-century Northerners remembered that President Jackson had stood up to the South Carolina nullifiers and, well aware that Jackson was dead, they longed for their politicians to show similar resolution. Abraham Lincoln hung a portrait of Jackson in his White House office. Until recently, however, historians had emphasized the emergence of the Republican party rather than the collapse of the Democratic one. James L. Huston, in “The Illinois Political Realignment of 1844-1860: Revisiting the Analysis” (in the December 2011 issue) challenges received wisdom about the realignment that destroyed the Second Party System and created President Trump’s party, the Republicans, by returning historians’ attention to the Democrats.[2]

Huston focuses on Illinois, one of the politically crucial Midwestern states of the antebellum era (the Midwest was also important to Trump’s 2016 election). He reminds historians of the need for quantitative analysis. He assesses the reigning interpretations of the realignment that produced the third party system: the slavery extension issue, the importance of ethnocultural issues such as religion and temperance to party choice, and the nativity of voters—the hypothesis that Illinoians of New England ancestry voted Whig/Republican and those of Southern ancestry voted Democratic.[3]

Huston argues that ethnocultural ties and birthplace prove poor predictors of Democrats’ votes. Instead Illinois Democrats moved to the Republicans or chose not to vote based on their fear that the territories would be closed to non-slaveowning settlers. Moreover, Huston argues that historians need to widen their chronological scope, focusing not solely on the 1850s but on voting patterns from the 1840s to the Civil War’s outbreak to capture realignment’s ebb and flow.[4]

Modern commentators on the 2016 election have weighed some of these same factors, including religion and ethnicity or race. Huston reminds us that issues are crucial to political change. Realignments occur over a long period, not just one or two election cycles.

To paraphrase President Trump’s comments on health care, “Now, I have to tell you, Civil War causation is an unbelievably complex subject.”[5] But while no one evidently knew how complicated health care is, Jim Huston knows about the complications that brought on the Civil War. Revisiting his essay renews our attention to the difficulties of understanding causation and the necessity of paying attention to all the actors involved in an historic event.

[1] “Trump Quotes about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War,” New York Times, accessed May 1, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2017/05/01/us/politics/ap-us-trump-andrew-jackson-quotes.html?_r=0.

[2] James L. Huston, “The Illinois Political Realignment of 1844-1860: Revisiting the Analysis” The Journal of the Civil War Era 1, no. 4 (December 2011): 506-535.

[3] Huston, 507. For some of the major works on Civil War causation, see David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper, 1976); Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York: Wiley, 1978); William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[4] Huston, 512, 519-27.

[5] Kevin Liptak, “Trump: ‘Nobody Knew Health Care Could Be So Complicated,” Accessed February 28, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/27/politics/trump-health-care-complicated/.

Nicole Etcheson

Nicole Etcheson is the Alexander M. Bracken Professor of History at Ball State University, where she teaches courses on the sectional crisis, Civil War, and Reconstruction. Her most recent book, A Generation at War: The Civil War Era in a Northern Community (2011), won the 2012 Avery O. Craven Award from the Organization of American Historians. She can be reached at netcheson@bsu.edu.

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