For the past 8 months, I’ve been reading biographies of the US Presidents in chronological order. I started doing this to read more, but also to learn more about US history and presidential leadership.
Given that we are a few days from an historic election in the US, I thought this would be a good time to write a synthesis of my biggest takeaways from my readings so far (Washington to Buchanan).
NOTE: A number after the name of a President signifies their number in the order. E.g., John Adams (2)
Partisanship might seem annoying, but it can be a positive force. As early as George Washington’s (1) presidency, the Founding Fathers started forming into two groups: the Federalists and the Republicans. The primary issue that divided the two parties was the size of the federal government, very much the same as today.
In the late 1820s, these two parties gave way to the Democrats who supported Andrew Jackson (7) and the Whigs who opposed him. Once again, the parties differed on the role of the federal government, and specifically the power of the President. Democrats favored a strong chief executive, whereas Whigs favored a strong legislature. Interestingly, the Whigs were never very successful at electing Presidents; only two Whig politicians were ever elected President [Harrison (9) and Taylor (12)], who both died in office.
Today, we may be sad about the unhealthy tensions between the Democrats & Republicans, but history shows us that a vibrant multi-party system has served the US well. Consider an example of its importance: in the 1850s, the Whig party was in shambles. While this may seem to be good news for the Democrats, without a significant opposition, they started in-party fighting and split along North-South lines. This conflict set up the Whigs to evolve into the new Republican party, eventually nominating Abraham Lincoln (16) as their nominee in 1860. These two parties have stood the test of time despite a Civil War, two World Wars, the Great Depression, and numerous other crises.
No matter which party you are loyal to (or even if you have allegiance to no party), for the sake of the democracy, it is essential that all parties are functioning effectively.
The President hasn’t always been the head of the Government. The Founding Fathers saw the role of the President as administering the will of the Congress, the true representatives of the People. The lawmaking power was endowed in Congress and the President was merely there to enforce their will.
It wasn’t until Andrew Jackson — our 7th president — that this changed. When he took office, he didn’t get along with the Whig Congress and disagreed with several of their positions, such as the forming of a strong national bank. So he decided he would simply veto bills if he disagreed with them. In exercising the veto this way (rather than using it only to shoot down unconstitutional laws), he forced Congress to consider his political will before enacting any laws.
Andrew Jackson was the first “retail politician” and convinced the American people that he was their true representative, not their Congressman or Senator. While there’s a lot to dislike about his presidency (e.g., his treatment of Native Americans), he does deserve credit for what we now conceive as the role of the President.
The Civil War was inevitable from the first day of independence. While Lincoln (16) may have been the President when the fight over slavery came to a head, the issue had been on the minds of our Founding Fathers back in the 1770s. Many politicians from the North knew that slavery was an evil enterprise and inconsistent with the values of the new nation. Many from the South saw it primarily as an economic argument and defeated any attempts to limit slavery’s expansion.
Thirteen out of the first fifteen Presidents were either from the South or sympathized openly with the South. And the two who weren’t — Adams (2) and Adams (6) — were extremely unpopular “one-termers.”
The South had been threatening to secede from the Union since the 1820s whenever they felt under attack. Many Presidents, from Washington (1) to Buchanan (15), chose to kick the can down the road by appeasing the South rather than asserting the moral wrongness of slavery and promoting a gradual abolition.
When Lincoln (16) was elected as a Northerner from Illinois, he did the opposite. He showed no sympathy for the cause of slavery. And while he didn’t openly advocate abolition, his attitudes were enough for the South to act on their threat and secede from the Union.
Changes in the speed of communication have dramatically affected our leaders. While this may seem like an obvious point, it is truly remarkable how long it used to take to communicate. In the 1780s, messages would take months to get from the US to Europe and months to return. As a result, ambassadors and generals operating overseas had significant authority to wage war, make peace, and negotiate deals without any intervention from their leaders back home.
To make this work, Presidents needed to be able to totally trust their lieutenants out in the field and give them a crystal clear strategy. There was no room for clarification once the order was dispatched.
By the 1860s, that communication time was shortened by orders of magnitude due to steamships, the railroad, and the invention of the telegraph. It changed how wars were fought. Lincoln (16), for example, was able to actively decide strategy and command troops during the Civil War unlike any of his predecessors.
In today’s world, the President can be “in the room” when operations are taking place. Just think of the photograph of President Obama in the Situation Room during the raid on Osama Bin Laden. To be able to give orders in real time changes the dynamics of leadership dramatically.
Finally, the nature of what we know about our Presidents is changing rapidly. For most of our past Presidents, the bulk of what we know is through their private journals and letters between families and colleagues. Since they couldn’t always be near each other, they wrote everything down in letters which were often released after their deaths.
With communication moving to non-written means (e.g., oral conversations due to faster travel or the telephone), we have lost insight into how Presidents think and how they make decisions. In addition, due to freedom of information laws and threat of cyber-warfare (e.g., email hacks), politicians actively try not to write things down for fear they may be discovered later.
What implications does this have? Most likely what we will know about our Presidents will become a carefully manicured persona that has been curated by their handlers. We will lose significant insight into how they think, how they decide, and how they act when the cameras aren’t on.
Democracy requires constant work. If the first fifteen Presidents have taught me anything, it’s the value of a credible, thoughtful, stable leader in the highest office of the land…and what happens when we make the wrong choice. It is a tremendous honor to be able to select our leaders, but with that honor comes great responsibility.
It is our duty to be informed, engaged, and active citizens. And the most important part of that civic duty is on November 8th.
This is based on lessons from the first 15 Presidents. With 44 (and soon to be 45!) US Presidents, let’s consider this part 1 of 3.