Historians have (correctly) savaged President Trump’s recent query: “Why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?” As any educated fifth-grader knows, there was a war from 1861 to 1865 because Southern slaveholders insisted that they had the right to spread slavery across the nation, and Northerners, who thought that American society must be based on the compensated labor of free people, disagreed.
But there is more to Trump’s question than ignorance, and it lies in the idea that the root causes of the war could somehow have been “worked out.” His view of government as a broker of bargains rather than an expression of democratic will is nothing new. In fact, it’s been a common feature of oligarchic politics for nearly all of American history. In the light of the oligarchs of the past, Trump’s insistence that some deal could have prevented the Civil War has plenty in common with the anti-democratic wheeling and dealing of big bankers and slaveholders, and their fate bodes ill for the Trump administration.
“Why could that one not have been worked out?” sounds a lot like banking mogul J.P. Morgan’s comment to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902, when Morgan found out that the government was about to slap his giant railroad conglomerate with an antitrust suit. “If we have done anything wrong,” the astonished Morgan said to Roosevelt, “send your man to my man and they can fix it up.”
In Morgan’s day, government officials built or changed the nation’s laws to suit industrialists. It was an arrangement that made sense to both the lawmakers and the businessmen who benefited from it. They were all wealthy, educated and well connected. They figured they were rich because they were better than most men (and all women). They thought they had a deeper knowledge of the world than regular workers, and a much better idea of how to keep the country moving forward. Progress, they thought, could only be achieved if laws favored them, because they were the nation’s best-suited leaders. Anything that shared money or power with their inferiors would weaken their ability to run the country effectively. Thus, Roosevelt’s suggestion that Morgan wielded too much power in a democracy left Morgan incredulous.
The beliefs of Morgan and his ilk, in turn, echoed those of a previous group of wealthy businessmen. Fifty years before Morgan told Roosevelt that their men could “fix it up” between the government and industry, Southern slaveholders also thought that they could fix things up between themselves and their friends in the White House, Congress and Supreme Court. Like the later industrialists, slave owners pointed to their extraordinary wealth as proof that they had figured out the best social system in the world. Most people were stupid, South Carolina Sen. James Henry Hammond explained, good only for menial labor. The work of those drudges supported the educated, well-connected wealthy men of society, the ones who led “progress, civilization, and refinement.” And, like Morgan after them, slave owners argued that the government must work for them. It must protect their slave system not only in the South, but also in new Western territories, and even in the free North — even if the vast majority of Americans disagreed.
Trump’s administration looks a great deal like those of the 1850s and the 1890s, with business and government so intertwined that they cannot be disentangled. It makes sense that he would think it should have been easy for the nation’s elite leaders to “work out” the tensions that caused the Civil War: Easy solutions arranged by strong, elite leaders have been Trump’s go-to solution all along, on health care, taxes, immigration, the Islamic State, even the Arab-Israeli conflict. So why not the Civil War?
The answer is: Because America is not an oligarchy in which the wealthy hammer out their own rules among themselves; it is a democracy.
Morgan and slave owners miscalculated. They were so blinded by their worldview that they did not reckon with the possibility that it might be wrong — that they were not superior nor especially well suited to govern, but rather particularly skilled at gaming their way into outsized wealth. And the rest of society was not full of dimwits who were happy to serve their betters. In fact, when they saw an elite cabal take power, regular Americans in both eras came together to take a stand. They demanded that the government treat everyone equally, rather than working only for the very rich. Once Americans began to articulate that core principle of democracy, they put into office leaders who took the government back for the people.
In 1902, Roosevelt declined Morgan’s offer. “We don’t want to fix it up,” his attorney general explained. “We want to stop it.” Roosevelt’s stand against a government stacked in favor of industrialists launched the Progressive Era, in which the government stopped protecting big business and instead promoted equality of opportunity for all.
Fifty years before, the fight to reclaim democracy was bloodier. In 1861, the nation descended into four years of war that cost the equivalent of more than $5 billion dollars and left more than 600,000 people dead or wounded. And maybe Trump doesn’t realize it, but they did it for a reason — because Americans thought it was important to guarantee, as President Abraham Lincoln said, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”