Compromise & Harmony: Lincoln on Peacekeeping

By Duane Soubirous

“Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser–in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man.”

Today’s quote comes from a lecture Abraham Lincoln delivered to lawyers, but you don’t have to be a lawyer to heed Lincoln’s advice.

In today’s political climate, it’s easy to get trapped in a bubble, whether that is on social media or in real life. People tend to consume news that reinforces their already held beliefs. With a screen as a shield, they will defend these beliefs tooth and nail. Lincoln, albeit long before the Twitter era, warned that self-righteousness and stubbornness can bring about costly litigation or resentment. Is it not better to concede how the other person might be misunderstood and offer a compromise, than to declare your righteousness and demand the other party concede everything?

In between Lincoln’s election and inauguration, many states in the Deep South seceded and seized control of federal property, with no objections whatsoever from President Buchanan. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln had to choose between stating that he would reclaim property already lost, or that he would only defend property still controlled by the government.

Lincoln would have been constitutionally correct if he affirmed his right to reclaim stolen assets, but his advisors worried that taking an offensive stance would immediately unite the Upper South with the Deep South against the Union. In the end, he proclaimed during his inaugural that he would “hold, occupy, and possess” federal property, not reclaim it.

Lincoln took a conciliatory tone again when he addressed the president’s unilateral authority to appoint federal officers. If locals objected to Lincoln’s appointees, he said he would not force those “obnoxious strangers” upon the locals.

Stephen A. Douglas

The inaugural address worked, if only temporarily. Stephen A. Douglas, a candidate in the 1860 presidential election whose platform called for national unity over slavery restrictions, thought the speech “would do much to restore harmony to the country.”

To criticism from abolitionist hard-liners that Lincoln was conceding too much to secessionists, Lincoln wrote that it “was sometimes better for a man to pay a debt he did not owe, or to lose a demand which was a just one, than to go to law about it.” Even in deeply divided times, Lincoln sought the middle road. He wanted to unite the country, and aimed to ease, not exacerbate, the growing tensions. 

The Presidency & the Power of Nature

When considering the power of the presidency in the conservation of nature, Theodore Roosevelt is often the first name that comes to mind. Rightly so. After touring the Grand Canyon in 1903, during a national debate over preserving the land or using it to mine precious medals, he insisted:

“Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it…Keep it for your children, your children’s children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American should see.”

He said it would be a tragedy to cut down the great redwoods of California to make decks or porches. To those who advocated progress over preservation, he stated that:

“There is nothing more practical, in the end, than the preservation of beauty, than the preservation of anything that appeals to the higher emotions in mankind.”

TR GC
Roosevelt at the Grand Canyon

Yet we would be remiss to forget Lady Bird Johnson’s legacy of conservation. Although it’s largely a given today that first spouses will work on projects of their own, Lady Bird was the first person to put this into practice. She decided to pursue something that made her “heart sing.” As a little girl, Lady Bird had grown to deeply love the outdoors, and especially the flowers from her native Texas.

Although she’d never particularly liked the term, thinking it too indicative of cosmetics, the project became known as beautification. Writing in her journal in 1965, Lady Bird explained why she thought the project so important: “All the threads are interwoven– recreation and pollution and mental health, and the crime rate, and rapid transit, and highway beautification, and the war on poverty, and parks — national, state and local. It is hard to hitch the conversation into one straight line, because everything leads to something else.”

Lady Bird believed, simply, that people would be happiest surrounded by trees and flowers and greenery (she was right). Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson took the project national with the Highway Beautification Act–an attempt to clean up the nation’s highways, and take down the billboards. Although watered down, the bill did pass. Lady Bird also focused much of her efforts on cleaning up Washington D.C.

Lady Bird
Lady Bird at the Wildflower Center

After LBJ’s presidency had ended, and after he had died, Lady Bird continued to work on the project. In 1982, Lady Bird started the National Wildflower Researcher Center in Austin, which was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on her eighty-fifth birthday. Although it started with Lady Bird’s donation of sixty acres, the Center now stretches across 284 acres and contains more than 800 kinds of native Texas plants.

Preserving nature and protecting federal lands wasn’t always a partisan issue. Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican. Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson were Democrats. Richard Nixon, whose administration created the EPA, was a Republican. Given that Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, which gave the executive the power to protect federal land as a monument, and Lady Bird believed so strongly in the importance of beauty and nature, one has to wonder what they would think about the Trump administration’s decision to reduce the Bear’s Ear Monument by eighty-five percent. Trump, no stranger to unprecedented moments, is the first president to seek to modify a natural monument since the signing of the Antiquities Act in 1906.

Special thanks to Betty Boyd Caroli’s “Lady Bird & Lyndon” and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpt: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism” for providing the background for this post.

Moderation in a Splintering Society: Lincoln on the Power of Listening

By Duane Soubirous

1840s Abe
Abraham Lincoln circa 1840, pre-beard

This post is the first of many dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. Unless otherwise noted, the quotes come from Michael Burlingame’s two-volume biography titled Abraham Lincoln: A Life. In the Author’s Note, Burlingame wrote that Lincoln’s character “can be profitably emulated by all.” To spare History First visitors from reading the entire biography (but if you have the time, I can’t recommend the books highly enough!), I have picked quotes and added commentary that will illustrate Lincoln’s political views and personal advice.

Here’s a quote from the 1840s, before he was elected to his sole term in the House of Representatives.

“It is an old and true maxim, that a ‘drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.’ So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.”

While abolitionists employed fiery rhetoric against slaveowners and called for the immediate emancipation of all slaves, Lincoln spoke with moderation. He said that Northerners and Southerners were different only in the circumstances of their upbringing: had Northerners been born into slaveholding families, they too would fiercely defend slavery.

Lincoln ran for president on an antislavery, not abolitionist, platform. He denounced the institution of slavery without demonizing slaveholders. He advocated for a gradual extinction of slavery and supported a plan where the government would compensate slaveholders for emancipation, angering abolitionists who believed the government shouldn’t fund the evil institution of slavery. Lincoln told crowds that he was committed only to executing the first step: stopping slavery from expanding, containing it to states where it was already legal.

William Lloyd Garrison's
William Lloyd Garrison’s “The Liberator”

Given that states began seceding before Lincoln was even inaugurated, it would seem that Lincoln might as well have echoed abolitionist newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison, who wrote, “NO COMPROMISE WITH SLAVERY! NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS.” Lincoln’s strategy may have worked today, where voters can pull out smartphones and watch candidates’ speeches anywhere. Presidential candidates in Lincoln’s time relied on newspapers to spread their message, and the Southern press heavily distorted Lincoln’s message. They sounded the alarm that a President Lincoln would call on slaves to kill their masters, impregnate white women, and turn America into nation of mulattos.

Lincoln held firm to his belief that slavery was morally wrong, but he also recognized the importance of discussing its eradication with abolitionists and slaveowners, neither of which he aligned with. In the midst of the secession crisis he even signaled that he was open to compromise in his stance against the expansion of slavery. That wasn’t enough for slaveowners, and by refusing to concede a little, they ended up losing a lot.

 

Roy Moore, Grover Cleveland, and Morality in American Politics

In 2014, the French president François Hollande was photographed visiting his mistresshollande via scooter. The French barely blinked. In the 1990s, when Bill Clinton faced accusations of adultery while in office, the affair consumed the country. For Americans, the private lives of politicians and public officials are often important indications of their character.

Over the past few months, a dam has been breached in American culture and politics concerning sexual harassment, outing powerful figures like Roger Ailes, Kevin Spacey, and Louis C.K. Roy Moore, running for Senate in Alabama, and Al Franken, the current Senator from Minnesota, are the latest public figures to face accusations of sexual impropriety.

While the others can dip out of the spotlight, or “seek treatment,” as many of them have, Moore is facing an election in less than a month. Out of these men, he is the only one who Americans have a chance to judge. For many Alabamans, the choice between Roy Moore, accused by several women of inappropriate behavior when they were children, and Doug Jones, a Democrat, is a choice with no easy out. Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama stated (while being stubbornly pursued by a reporter) that he would still vote for Roy Moore because, “Democrats will do great damage to our country.”
mo brooks.gif
When in history has a candidate’s morality become an issue in an election?

One good example is the campaign of Grover Cleveland in 1884. Cleveland faced accusations of having a baby out of wedlock with a woman named Maria Halpin. When the baby was born, it was put up for adoption and Halpin was committed to a mental asylum–despite doctors there finding nothing especially wrong with her. Halpin said that their encounter had not been consensual, that he’d put the baby up for adoption, and forced her into the hospital.

Ma_ma_wheres_my_paCleveland claimed that the paternity was uncertain; his supporters dismissed the allegations as “boys being boys” although in 1884, Cleveland was 47 years old. Republicans reveled in this, and would gather to chant “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” at Cleveland rallies.

But the Republicans had problems of their own. Although Cleveland was morally problematic, his opponent, Republican James Blaine, had been roasted over the public coals for his corruption concerning the nation’s railroads. The choice, then, was whether the voters wanted a man who had corrupt morals, or one who was just corrupt.

Cleveland narrowly defeated Blaine, becoming the first Democrat since the Civil War to be elected president. Victorious Democrats answered Republican’s taunts with, “Off to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”

There’s no evidence that Doug Jones is corrupt as Blaine was, but the anecdote does suggest that a candidate, even one as problematic as Moore, could be elected. Especially if some voters in Alabama see electing a Democrat as just as bad, if not worse, than someone accused of sexually harassing young girls.

Veep 2020

Joe Biden is back in the news this week, raising two questions. One, will he run in 2020? Two, if he had run in 2016, would he have won?

Vice presidents have had mixed luck in seeking the office themselves. If Biden had run in 2016 and won, he would have joined a somewhat exclusive club of men who were elected president directly after being vice president. Not counting those who became president after a death, only four men have served as vice president and then directly ascended to the vice presidency. John Adams succeeded George Washington in 1786; Thomas Jefferson succeeded John Adams in 1800; Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew hw and rrJackson in 1836. This feat would not be repeated until 152 years later, when George H.W. Bush became president after serving as Ronald Reagan’s VP for eight years.

In recent history, the country has seen vice presidents fail at achieving the presidency–Al Gore attempted to succeed Bill Clinton in 2000 and lost to George W. Bush and Hubert Humphrey attempted to succeeded LBJ in 1968, but lost to Richard Nixon.

So, if history is any indication, it would have been a challenge for Biden to ascend to the presidency in 2016 after serving two terms as Barack Obama’s vice president. But following that logic, it would be statistically even less likely for Biden to become president after waiting out a term. Only Richard Nixon has done so–he ran for president after serving as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president but lost to John Kennedy in 1960. It wasn’t until 1968 that Nixon was elected president. Surprisingly, he’s the only vice president to have followed this particular path.

Indeed, the vice presidency doesn’t seem to at all guarantee an easy road to the presidency. The most direct path from vice president to the presidency seems to be the jfk lbjdeath of the incumbent–eight vice presidents became president this way, including Calvin Coolidge, Teddy Roosevelt, and LBJ, who once eerily remarked before Kennedy’s inauguration that he’d accepted the number two spot because, statistically, there was a one in four chance Kennedy could die in office.

Vice presidents face a myriad of challenges when running, especially when attempting to run for president directly after being vice president. For one thing, presidential elections often seem to inspire a desire for change among the electorate (especially after eight years). It’s a juggling act for any candidate of the same party of the incumbent, as they must define themselves apart from the president, and respond to criticism of the president without damaging his legacy. Al Gore faced this challenge when struggling to decide if he should campaign more with Bill Clinton–Clinton fatigue was in the air, so Gore decided against it. But in such a close election, Clinton’s support could have helped.

Presidents are also generally protective of their legacy. Vice presidents, especially when trying to make the leap from VP to POTUS, need to embrace the accomplishments of their administration. Yet it can be hard to define exactly what a vice president accomplished during office, whereas most big accomplishments are claimed by the president. A stark example of this came out in the 1960 election, when Eisenhower was asked to name a decision that Nixon had made during his two terms as Ike’s VP. Despite Nixon’s loyalty to Eisenhower, his work as a liaison between the White House and Congress, and his successful trips abroad, Eisenhower stumbled on the question. He gave the infamous answer: “Give me a week, I might think of something,” providing plenty of fodder for the Democrats defending their candidate (Kennedy) from accusations of youth and inexperience.

If Biden were to run in 2020, it could be an uphill battle. He could embrace Obama’s legacy, but would need to define himself outside of it. Like Nixon, Biden would likely benefit from his time out of office. If Trump’s first year in office is any indication, 2020 could wrap up a volatile four years–Americans may seek familiarity and the “insider” credentials that Biden possesses. Then again, the electorate is fickle, and it may continue its search for the next, new candidate.

Voodoo Economics & the Myth of the Reagan Tax Cuts

Sometimes, it seems that the lure of tax cuts is all that is keeping the Republican party going. The House Speaker, Paul Ryan, has consistently tuned out the political storm around him–Russia! Collusion! Roy Moore!–holding instead a feverish focus on his goal of cutting taxes, half-joking that it’s what he wanted to do since he was drinking from kegs.

Ryan duly follows the Reagan era wisdom that a tax cut, largely benefitting the richest Americans, will drive economic growth for all. In his plan, 80% of the benefits would go to the top 1%. The average tax cut of the top tenth of the top 1% would be $1 million dollars annually. The plan would additionally slash the corporate tax rate, even though corporate profits are at an all time high. Although there is some feeble insistence from the White House that this is a tax cut for the middle class, it clearly has its roots in ideology from 1980s.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan ran on the idea of a large tax cut in order to spur economic growth after a lagging decade. His opponent in the primaries (and future vice president) George H.W. Bush, labeled this idea “voodoo economics” during a debate at Carnegie Mellon University. As a candidate for vice president, Bush had to backtrack. He later got in trouble himself when, as president, he promised to not raise taxes (the infamous “read my lips” statement), but felt so strongly that they were necessary that he went back on his word.

After the Reagan tax cuts were passed in 1981, the U.S. government developed huge deficits. In fact, one of Reagan’s advisors and an architect on the 1981 tax cut recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post to warn that tax cuts do not equal growth.

In addition, the country can look to Kansas as a canary in a coal mine. Similar trickle-down tax cuts in that state slowed growth, produced less than expected revenue, and forced cuts to government programs.

The GOP–desperate for a legislative win–seems determined to push the cuts through. Democrats are united against the plan, but would need Republican support to stop their passage. Until then, it would be prudent for President Trump to look to history, to a living member of his exclusive club, to see just how tricky voodoo economics can be.

Remember Him?: Legacy and Historical Memory

Last week, President Bush gave a speech defending traditional American values, which many interpreted as a veiled attack on President Trump. The twittersphere was full of comments and memes about how Bush was no longer the worst president, how he had “joined the resistance”, and that, compared to the daily twists and turns of the Trump administration, Bush’s was almost idyllic.

It’s a strange thing, since Bush left office in 2009 with an approval rating in the mid 30s.

johnson & truman
Johnson & Truman

Still, Bush is not alone. Aside from Richard Nixon, whose legacy continues to suffer, most presidents who leave office as unpopular figures see their approval rating climb as the nation moves on. In 2017, Bush now has an approval rating of 59%. Harry Truman also left office with an approval rating in the mid-30s. Yet today he often finds himself in the top ten of lists of the best presidents. Lyndon Johnson, likewise, decided that he would not run for reelection in 1968 because of his deep unpopularity and his failure to end the war in Vietnam. Yet today he is lauded for his work on the Great Society and civil rights, and also often ranks high among the “best” presidents.

In this era of immediate news it seems society is expected to form opinions as fast as possible. Still, it’s worth noting that legacy is something alive, something that can change with time and perspective. It’s difficult to see how actions today can alter the events of tomorrow. Trump is currently one of the most unpopular presidents of all time, especially so early in his term. He does not seem to have the capacity or desire to change the course he’s on–yet it’s impossible to say whether this unpopularity will endure or whether Trump’s legacy, whatever that is, will be given the same, gentle treatment of his modern predecessors.

Then again, he might join universally acknowledge duds–duds like James Buchanan and Warren Harding, who through their ineffectiveness and corruption consistently find themselves at the bottom of presidential rankings.