President Trump is now interpreting history. Most recently (May 1, 2017) he indicated that if President Jackson had been active in the Civil War time frame, he would have prevented the war. Essentially the rationale appears to be that President Jackson was “tough” and had a “big heart”. Probably it is more a considerable respect by the current president for the former president’s “action Jackson” and winning persona.
The President’s interpretation presents a great confidence that personality can overcome major historical trends and competing issues. It emphasizes the tactical and transactional over durable truths being affirmed through resilient actions.
Such opinion as President Trump’s should be considered in terms of contingency that through achieving a short-term objective we may obviate a critical long term opportunity. By my reading this is exactly the lesson of America’s Civil War and President Lincoln’s management of it.
An initial question to consider this is whether a President may by design shape history – fundamentally through the elements of a strategic plan and strong management change the course of history? Or – is modifying the course normally more opportunistic – taking things as they come?
Just recently I finished reading David McCullough’s Truman. The contrast between President Trump and President Truman is profound – but then again, interestingly, there are similarities in how President Trump achieved his election by campaigning among those left behind, while President Truman’s whistle-stop campaign was directed towards a similar constituency.
President Truman was a self-avowed common man, many felt not up to the Presidency. The judgment has changed among historians, with the conclusion now being he was one of the top six (6) presidents in American history winning the ratings war against President Jackson who is a few slots behind. President Jackson in now in the Wikipedia‘s composite ranking around nine (9) being battered by his devotion to slavery and his deadly and arbitrary tactics with the “trail of tears”.
When President Truman died in 1972, Mary McGrory of the Washington Star wrote one of many tributes:
He did not require to be loved. He did not expect to be followed blindly. Congressional opposition never struck him as subversive, nor did he regard his critics as traitors. He never whined.
He walked around Washington every morning – it was safe then. He met reporters frequently as a matter of course, and did not blame them for his failures. He did not use the office as a club or a shield, or a hiding place. He worked at it . . .. He said he lived by the Bible and history. So armed, he proved that the ordinary American is capable of grandeur. And that a President can be a human being . . ..
How refreshing this is.
President Truman was largely self-educated. Certainly, he did not have the finish and luster of a President Kennedy, but neither did he exhibit a failure to contemplate the processes of American history. Colonel Truman was very well read and throughout his life a student of American history and institutions. He used this knowledge when his policies and leadership changed the course of American history in multiple areas including race relations, atomic weapons and using them to win a war, implementing the Marshall plan with its benefits to Western culture and alliances, and resisting the Communist invasion of South Korea. He practiced what he learned. In this regard, he had common traits with his predecessor President Lincoln who is now winning the presidential ratings war at number one (1) by most accounts.
Ronald C. White, Jr. in his book The Eloquent President discusses in detail how Mr. Lincoln presented his ideas. His expressions were not so much the pure written word, but instead the spoken word — written. (As an interesting aside, to feel the power of Mr. Lincoln’s writings, Mr. White recommends that his readers speak his great statements.)
Mr. Lincoln was also an astute politician. He was charged by his election victory with resolving the most wicked problem, addressing that peculiar institution of slavery, while keeping the Union together. He achieved this through sacrificing a lot of American blood and understanding and acting powerfully upon important opportunities.
Mr. Lincoln was elected U.S. President in November of 1860. Before he could be inaugurated in March of 1861, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated on February 18, 1861 as provisional President of the Confederate States of America.
Within six (6) weeks of Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration, after Fort Sumter was attacked by the Confederacy and surrendered a Union garrison, Mr. Lincoln calls for 75,000 volunteers to serve 3 months. The fight was on.
These troops found no quick victory. In the East, the Union was unsuccessful at Bull Run 1 & 2, The Seven Days, Front Royal and the other Shenandoah battles, but finally on September 17, 1862, in a very bloody day, the Union achieved a strategic victory at Antietam (Sharpsburg), providing the President with the “leverage” necessary to define the moral course of the War. Mr. Lincoln issued a preliminary warning that he would emancipate the slaves in any state in rebellion on January 1, 1863. He gave the states notice of their voluntary ability to return.
Earlier, on Augusts 23 1862, President Lincoln provided his response to a letter from Horace Greeley establishing his principle:
I would save the Union, I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored, the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. . . . .” (letter in Washington’s National Intelligencer)
After clarifying his purpose for resisting secession as saving the Union on August 23rd, achieving at Antietam a strategic victory at arms on September 17th, issuing the warning of September 22, 1862, and with additional significant political effort and achieving the ability to move past the defeat at Fredericksburg on December 11 – 15, 1862, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 as he promised.
History advises without the Civil War, there was no route to emancipation in that historical time-frame. Without full faith and profound resilience there would have been no victory. Without victory, there would have been no proclamation and the Proclamation was the milestone activating so many forces that grew into the Thirteenth Amendment prohibiting slavery in the United States. This chain of events addresses the hypothesis about great achievements being simple acts of personal will.
All of this is to say that by my reading, historical greatness has not been achieved by glamorous action employing the agencies of tactical expressions of strength and dominion, but instead as demonstrated especially by Presidents Lincoln, through a developed wisdom acting resiliently and eloquently within the forces of grand and enduring institutions.