Trump’s Ignorance Is Radicalizing U.S. HistoriansBreaking News
Amy Greenberg didn’t want to weigh in on Donald Trump. Ever since the president’s election, which she found stunning and demoralizing, the Penn State professor and historian of antebellum America has tried to keep her head down. She gives her lectures. She does her research. She works on her forthcoming biography of former first lady Sarah Childress Polk. But then, on Monday, Trump said, “People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War?” He followed that up with a tweet claiming President Andrew Jackson, who died 16 years before the war started, “saw it coming” and would “never have let it happen!”
Greenberg couldn’t hold back. Prompted by an inquiry from CNN, she fired off a statement slamming Trump for “profound historical ignorance.” “Ask any fifth grader, ‘Why did the Civil War happen?’ That child can give you an answer,” Greenberg wrote on Tuesday. (Earlier in the morning, she’d queried her own fifth-grade daughter, just to make sure.) “How dare Donald Trump state that, ‘People don’t ask that question—but why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?’ Historians have been asking this since 1861.” Nor, she added, was there any evidence that slave-holding Jackson saw the conflict coming.
Such public criticism is new for Greenberg. “I haven’t critiqued a sitting president before,” she told me on Tuesday. “I’m a historian.” But now, precisely because she’s a historian, she says she’s “speaking out in favor of elected officials knowing basic, elementary level U.S. history.” “If we had an undergrad who wrote what Trump said in an essay, that student would not pass that exam,” she said. “That student would fail.”