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.

 

93 years, 166 days

Last week, President George H.W. Bush became the oldest living president in American history, at 93 years, 166 days old.

He’s beaten Gerald Ford, who died at 93 years, 165 days.

Jimmy Carter, also 93, is 111 days younger than H.W.

Ronald Reagan also lived to be 93.

So far, no president has lived to the ripe age of 94. But quite a few have made it into the 90s, starting with John Adams, who died at the age of 90 in 1826 (meaning he witnessed every presidency between George Washington and his own son, John Quincy Adams). Herbert Hoover also lived into his 90s.

5 pres
Well, we got 5 of them (Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush)

A great tidbit gleaned from this week’s research is this: the greatest number of presidents alive at the same time is six. This has happened four times. The first time was between 1861 and 1862, when Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln were alive. The second time was between 1993 and 1994 (when Nixon died). The living presidents for those two years were Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The third features more or less the same crowd between 2001 and Reagan’s death in 2004–Ford, Carter, Reagan, H.W., Clinton, and George Bush. Today, Carter, H.W., Clinton, Bush, Obama & Trump make up the fourth six.

 

November 22, 1963

By Kaleena Fraga

Tomorrow, November 22, 2017, is the 54th anniversary of the Jack Kennedy assassination. It’s a tragedy that grabbed the attention of the world and never let go. It’s only this year that hundreds of pages of government files concerning the assassination were released, and more were withheld for security reasons.

This photo was taken the day before, on November 21, 1963. Kennedy had had a foreboding feeling about the trip, telling a friend that he had, “a terrible feeling,” about visiting Dallas. Kennedy was no stranger to death–he’d lost his brother in WWII, had lost babies, had faced it himself during his bouts of illness. One of his favorite poems was Robert Seeger’s I Have a Rendezvous with Death

In the years after his assassination, many people have cried conspiracy, because how could a nobody like Lee Harvey Oswald murder the president? Yet, in all cases of presidential assassination, the assassin has always been a nobody. James Garfield, Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy were all killed by nobodies. Other presidents–Andrew Jackson, Gerald Ford, etc.–narrowly escaped the same fate.

Of course, some people thought that Zachary Taylor had been assassinated after he died unexpectedly, but this theory has been largely debunked.

With Oswald’s death, and Jack Ruby’s death, we may never have a definite answer for why JFK was killed on that sunny day in Dallas. He’ll remain a figure of fascination for many years to come. In the meantime the Warren Commission, the first official investigation of his death, makes for some good reading.

Roy Moore, Grover Cleveland, and Morality in American Politics

By Kaleena Fraga

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.

“Only Nixon Could Go to China”

By Kaleena Fraga

Although this expression seems to have roots in Star Trek–Spock once offered it as a Vulcan proverb–there is terrestrial truth to the statement as well. With President Trump currently in China, it’s worth looking back on the first man to make such an overture.

Why was Nixon the only president who could go to China? It has to do with his credentials as a “Cold Warrior.” As a congressman, senator, and vice president he built a reputation of being tough on communism. As a candidate for vice presidency in 1952, he hammered the the Democrats–their candidate, Adlai Stevenson, and their president, Harry Truman–as being soft on communism and unwilling to deter its spread across the world.

Yet, Nixon was not the kind of Congressman who hated communism blindly. Indeed, he took great interest in international affairs and the post-WWII order. In 1967, as he geared up to run for president, Nixon penned an article in Foreign Affairs, “Asia After Vietnam,” making the case for China to end its isolation and the join the international community.

nixonchina2Nixon took political risks in extending a hand to China. Hardline members of his own party saw any sort of negotiation with China as a betrayal to their values. America’s allies in Asia were equally alarmed. But Nixon saw this overture as a way to balance the playing field of the Cold War, to ease tensions, rather than to exacerbate them. As a hardliner himself, as someone who had long battled communists at home and abroad (with the scars from the Hiss trial to prove it), it made sense that he would be the first to offer an open hand to a distrusted and misunderstood nation. A Democrat would be open to accusations of bowing to communism–given Nixon’s credentials, this sort of charge fell flat.

Tuesday Taft Trivia

By Kaleena Fraga

William Howard Taft is perhaps best known for his girth, and for the story (likely untrue) that he once got stuck in a White House bathtub. Taft was largely overshadowed by his predecessor, Teddy Roosevelt, and it was their grappling over the presidency in 1912 that allowed for Woodrow Wilson to snag the victory (Wilson and Grover Cleveland were the only Democrats since the Civil War to reach the White House).

But for Taft the presidency was only four short years of his life. Upon becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, his true ambition all along, Taft remarked that he hardly even remembered his term in office.

Ten Taft Tales:

    1. Taft is the only person in American history to serve as both President and Chief Justice.
    2. As Chief Justice, Taft swore in two other presidents: Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.
    3. His son, Robert Taft, also ran for president. People referred to him as “Mr. Republican.” Young Robert Taft lost in the primaries to Dwight D. Eisenhower.
    4. Taft’s people unsuccessfully tried to replicate Teddy Roosevelt’s success in the toy realm by creating “Billy the Possum.” It was a failure.
    5. Although Taft and Roosevelt’s relationship soured during Taft’s presidency, and during the campaign of 1912, the two later patched things up.
    6. In 1912, largely due to a divided vote between Taft and Roosevelt, and Roosevelt’s enduring popularity, Taft won only eight electoral votes–the worst showing ever for an incumbent president.
    7. Taft threw out the very first “First Pitch” in 1910. President Taft Throwing the First Pitch at a Baseball Game
    8. Taft, encouraged toward the presidency by his wife Nellie, more than by his own ambition, was devastated when she suffered a stroke during his presidency. The more social of the two, Nellie’s illness hindered Taft’s ability to rub elbows in Washington.
    9. Taft was the heaviest president, weighing at one time 354 pounds. After he left the presidency, he purportedly lost 70 pounds.
    10. Taft, like the current president, enjoyed golf.