What the Best President Can Teach Us about the Worst

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tags: Lincoln, Trump



James West Davidson is a historian and author of A Little History of the United States, published by Yale University Press.


We expect too much of our presidents. Especially at this season, when we honor the two chiefs universally acknowledged as our finest. The mistake is understandable, for it’s human nature to embrace Thomas Carlyle’s assertion that “the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.” Great men and women there have been; and surely Lincoln stands among them. But he understood all too well the limits of “our poor powers to add or detract,” to borrow a phrase from the fields of Gettysburg. For that reason a certain modesty about his achievements should be our wisdom as well as his. And it may also suggest a way forward in the shadow of one of our worst chiefs of state.

Lincoln, of course, was struck down in the midst of his work, leaving those who followed to ponder what might have happened had he lived. The magnitude of his loss was heightened because Reconstruction proved so contentious. Looming at the center of the process stood Lincoln’s successor, a figure whose ham-handed irascibility nearly cried out for blame. A modest tailor from Tennessee whose reading skills were primitive at best, Andrew Johnson ended up making politics his career. Because he had opposed secession when war broke out, the Republican convention of 1864 anointed him Lincoln’s vice-presidential candidate, in the belief that a southern Democrat was needed to balance their “National Union” ticket. Unfortunately Johnson possessed a short fuse in debate and, when heckled on the campaign trail, did not hesitate to sass right back. (If Twitter had existed, he would have come out thumbs blazing.) Unlike Lincoln, Johnson was deeply racist and disliked African Americans as much as he distrusted the “stuck-up” planters who had so long been their masters. But he needed no electronics to butt heads with Radical Republicans in Congress over their determination to remake the South. In the end, Congress impeached him. The ensuing trial missed conviction by a single vote.

So it would be hard to argue that Lincoln, blessed with political savvy and significantly more empathy, could not have charted a saner course through the process of reunion. The president “had as deep an understanding of the South as of the North," historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has suggested. “You can see it back even in the 1850s when he would give anti-slavery speeches and, unlike other anti-slavery orators who regularly castigated Southerners as evil and un-Christian, he would say that they are what we would be in their situation.” Indeed, when Lincoln was asked only a few days before his death how the conquered South should be treated, he replied, “I’d let ’em up easy. Let ’em up easy.” Author Jay Winik suggested that for “the master politician…flexibility was the watchword”—a flexibility, Winik argued, that might have gained African Americans “a much healthier degree of civil liberties, long before LBJ,” while the South “would have much earlier shed the unhealthy stench of racism.”

But these arguments contain a contradiction. Somehow things would go better, we are asked to believe, if Lincoln had eased up on white Southerners, convincing them to come along, rather than taking the more unyielding course followed by the Radicals. But letting ’em up easy was just what Andrew Johnson did. Though personally tactless, he signed over 13,000 pardons for Confederate leaders and planters, whereas the Radicals stepped in to insist on greater freedom and stronger legal protections for African Americans. The idea that Lincoln’s honeyed words could have transformed the political atmosphere ignores how deeply slavery had entrenched itself in American life, just as the hope that Barack Obama’s calls for civic harmony would prove effective discounted the deep social and economic roots of partisan divisions in today’s republic.

Lincoln was indeed a pragmatist who regularly sought compromise. As president-elect in 1860, he pledged to enforce the Fugitive Slave law and even support a constitutional amendment guaranteeing that slavery would never be abolished in states where it already existed. At first, he supported General George McClellan’s wish to conduct a limited war that did not plunder Southern farms nor free Southern slaves. The president famously told Horace Greeley that his primary goal was to save the Union, not to free the slaves. He met twice with representatives of the Border States, trying vainly to persuade them to pass laws freeing their slaves gradually, over the coming thirty years.

Only when compromise failed did Lincoln issue his Emancipation Proclamation, resolving that “we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” And threw his firm support behind Grant and Sherman, remorseless generals who would no longer fight a limited war. As Sherman marched through Georgia, following Grant’s order to inflict “all the damage you can against their war resources,” the South fought on to the bitter end.

Reconstruction would have manifested the same dynamic—even under Lincoln, for the simple reason that reuniting the nation involved so much more than simply encouraging old adversaries to lay down their swords and reconcile. Reconstruction had to take place not just in the halls of Congress but also in the spaces in which people lived their lives, to an almost literal degree. That was the process underway 150 years ago, although no anniversary oration is likely to commemorate those thousand and one events. Plantation housing had to be reconstructed for freedpeople refused to live in the old slave quarters, shacks crowded together where they could be watched over by their masters. Schools needed to be created in a society that had long outlawed literacy for African Americans; churches had to be established where blacks might worship as they pleased. Not least, the most basic relations of work had to be reconstructed in a region that for centuries had affirmed that discipline could be enforced by the lash and labor could be tied by law to the planter and the land.

Even the simplest of spaces had to be reconstructed. Sidewalks were considered privileged ground by southern whites, where freedpeople had to jump into the muddy street if any white crossed their path. Black veterans led the way in reclaiming these spaces. “They walked four and five abreast and made not the slightest effort to let white women pass,” a white Memphis resident reported in horror. And woe betide if habits of deference toward whites were ignored. Southerners “perceive insolence in a tone, a glance, a gesture, or failure to yield enough by two or three inches in meeting on the sidewalk,” commented one Northern traveler. During an investigation of a lynching, one member of Congress asked a witness, “Let me understand the character of the allegation. You say that he made some insulting proposal to a white lady?” “O, no,” replied the witness. “He had just made some insulting remark. He remarked, ‘How d’ye, sis,’ or something of that kind, as the young lady passed down the road.”

Lincoln could not have miraculously reordered these social relations born of long habit, let alone have prevented the anti-black riots which flared in Norfolk, Charleston, Memphis and New Orleans in 1866. Had he lived, he surely would have continued to seek compromise and peaceful reconciliation. He would not have achieved it. His two full terms in office might then have gone down in history as a procession of groping half-measures by a man who nearly lost the war if not for a few lucky breaks—and who then snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by botching Reconstruction. The assessment may sound harsh, but remove Lincoln’s assassination, which produced an instant martyrdom, and the case is surprisingly plausible.

Paradoxically, the idea that Lincoln might have ameliorated the course of Reconstruction depends less on any dreams of reconciliation than on whether he would have behaved the way he had during the war: energetic efforts at compromise followed, when those failed, by a remorseless determination to uproot the nation’s ingrained habits of inequality. Perhaps he would have helped the Radicals push through their reforms. Unlike Andrew Johnson, Lincoln possessed the moral convictions that would have justified firmness once compromise had failed. In the election of 1864, Lincoln’s opponent George McClellan privately let it be known he was willing to restore slavery in order to save the Union. For Lincoln, that had become a bridge too far. Nearly 130,000 African Americans were in uniform, fighting and dying for the United States. If he agreed to send once-freed slaves back into bondage, he insisted, “I should be damned in time and in eternity for so doing.”

As deaths and casualties mounted, Lincoln fervently prayed that the “mighty scourge of war” might pass away. But he harbored no illusions. Bumbling politicians of the 1850s were not the root cause of the conflict. It was not even a case of opportunities missed over the span of decades following the founding of the Republic. Slavery had grown up over centuries. “The bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil” stretched back to the nation’s first colonies. Even a talented two-term president could not have turned the course of history so sharply.

Indeed, a century and a half later we are still dealing with the aftershocks, from Ferguson to Baltimore, Chicago and beyond. More sobering, the new president is apparently hell-bent on a race to the bottom with Andrew Johnson, in competition for the title of Nation’s Worst. It is tempting to turn Carlyle’s epigram on its head: “The history of what man has destroyed in this world, is at bottom the History of the Malign Men who have wreaked havoc here.” Yet though a single misanthrope can wreak much, as we may soon find to our peril, the lesson of Lincoln and Reconstruction would seem to be that, with or without the aid of great men, the deeper contours of history hold sway. A people and a nation become what they are through the aggregate actions of thousands. History is shaped most decisively by the many, not the few.

Our society needs its own twenty-first century Reconstruction. Trump, with his instinctive grasp of the nation’s vulnerabilities, has opened wounds in any number of places where he must be challenged. But virtually all of these issues involve structural deformities that have grown up over decades and even centuries. Despite the work of the civil rights crusade, we are still dealing with issues of race, as the recent documentary 13th has shown. (The title is a reference, fittingly, to the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, but with an exception for criminal imprisonment, which has been used to build a gigantic system of prisons the equal of no other nation’s, giving new meaning to the concept of American exceptionalism.) The debate over wealth and inequality, which has been with us at least since Mark Twain in 1873 named his era “the Gilded Age,” has returned with a vengeance over the past 40 years. Escalating partisan warfare has laid bare the flaws of our constitutional system, with its gerrymandered “safe” political districts. To be sure, the most dire threat of our times, that of global warming, is new with this generation, but more than any other problem it demands a long game: solutions put into place over decades.

President Trump and his Republican allies now have in hand the levers of power sufficient to unleash great damage in many of these areas. But if we think that a few great leaders might set matters straight, we need only consider how difficult it was for Barack Obama, nearly Trump’s opposite in temperament and ideology, to chart a saner course. If such a conclusion seems defeatist, that’s understandable. But not entirely justified.

Lincoln would have appreciated the words of another leader whose birthday fell a few weeks ago. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Martin Luther King, Jr. preached. Given our present situation, such sentiments may seem almost Panglossian. But in fact, King placed the responsibility for the arc’s bending not on the republic’s great leaders but on its citizens. “Integration is not some lavish dish that the federal government will pass out on a silver platter. We must struggle for it. We must fight for it.” Are we willing? The numbers are on our side: nearly three million more Americans voted for the candidate who opposed Trump, despite her flaws. Will these citizens now sit silent or stand up and challenge the Andrew Johnsons, the Donald Trumps, the Malign Men of history? The future belongs to those who understand the world’s limits and nonetheless keep pushing, even when the curve in the arc is difficult to discern. Don’t wait for another Lincoln. One will emerge if enough people give voice.

© 2017 James West Davidson




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