The nation was in crisis. A southern state threatened to go its own way and the president had to decide how to respond. It was not the winter of the secession of 1860-1861. Rather, it was the cancellation crisis of 1832-1833. Andrew Jackson, himself a southerner, pondered what to do.
It’s no surprise that one of the responses to the coronavirus pandemic has been a renewed interest in the leadership provided by presidents at other times of crisis. Any volume on almost any president offers insight because crisis management largely defines the president’s job. There are countless good biographical studies, including the general works of Michael Beschloss (War presidents: the epic story, 1807 to modern times) and Doris Kearns Goodwin (Leadership: in times of turbulence).
I pulled books from my shelf and three works in particular resonated.
?? Jon Meacham Pulitzer Prize Winner American lion: Andrew Jackson at the White House opens with the crisis of 1832-1833. South Carolina (spurred on by Jackson’s vice president John C. Calhoun) had struck down a federal tariff law. The state’s action, if not challenged by the federal government, threatened the existence of the nation. Jackson didn’t want it. “Disunity by armed force is treason,” he thundered, and threatened military intervention to arrest the Carolinians of the South.
Meacham writes that Jackson âwould be patient, but he would do the right thing. His mix of caring and sanction reflected his view that politics were both clinical and human, motivated by both principles and passions that he had to bring together and harness for the good of the whole.
Persuaded by Jackson’s warmongering, as well as a renegotiation of tariffs, South Carolina backed down and the union crisis was delayed by a generation.
For more than a century later, Jackson, considered an avatar of American democracy, ranked highly as president (he was featured on the $ 20 bill in 1928). But over the past several decades, revulsion at his actions against the Cherokees has led to a reassessment. In a 2017 C-Span survey, historians ranked him 18th among presidents, a few notches behind James Polk, who started a war with Mexico.
Even though Jackson was terribly wrong, he was right to preserve the United States. This is why Abraham Lincoln kept a portrait of Jackson (a slave owner) in his office. Besides membership in the Republican Party, this is arguably the only other similarity between Lincoln and President Trump.
So much has been written about Lincoln as a leader it seems trite to invoke him now. One aspect that received less attention than others, however, was his role not as president but as commander-in-chief.
?? that of James McPherson Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief (full disclosure, I studied with McPherson) offers notable examples of Lincoln’s military leadership. McPherson reminds us that “not only Lincoln’s success or failure as president, but also the very survival of the United States depended on how he discharged his duties as Commander-in-Chief.”
Out of sheer determination, Lincoln became a savvy Commander-in-Chief, a master of military strategy and tactics, as well as political calculation. According to his secretary John Hay, the self-taught Lincoln âhas read a great number of strategic books. He looked at the reports of the various departments and districts of the warfield.
In Lincoln’s correspondence with his generals, the letter which perhaps best illuminates his character as a leader is that which he addressed to Ulysses S. Grant after the victory at Vicksburg in July 1863. After offering his gratitude, Lincoln s felt compelled to “say one more word.” . He admitted having qualms about Grant’s plans for the assault and concluded by stating, ‘I now wish to personally acknowledge that you were right and that I was wrong.’
Every time I read this sentence I am amazed again to think that the President and Commander-in-Chief possessed the confidence and the humility to admit he was wrong. There is no better example of what it means to be in charge, how to lead, and how to gain the respect of others.
Lincoln’s presidency began with the onset of a war; Harry Truman began with the end of one. Truman admired Lincoln, although he ranked him below Jackson on his list of greatest presidents.
?? AJ Baime The accidental president: Harry S. Truman and the four months that changed the world illustrates the inability to predict who will succeed in the Oval Office. “Who the hell is Harry Truman?” “Asked Franklin Roosevelt’s chief of staff, William Leahy, when the Missouri senator was put on the ticket in 1944. Truman served 82 days as vice president, during which time he only visited Roosevelt only twice for official business. âI’m not big enough for this job,â Truman said on becoming president.
During these first four months, from April to July 1945, Truman oversaw the end of World War II. He attended the Potsdam conference alongside Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, ordered the use of the atomic bomb, and began planning a postwar recovery.
In his speech to Congress on April 16, 1945, four days after Roosevelt’s death, Truman spoke firmly and reminded Americans that “the whole world looks to America for enlightened leadership towards peace and progress “.
He said that âtragic fate has imposed serious responsibilities on us. We must continue. “
And he continued, with a voice that âwas the voice of an ordinary man,â observes Baime. “He had become a symbol for ordinary Americans, who saw in him the hopes and dreams of their own lives and those of their children.”
Truman was happy to remain somewhat of an outsider. He did not come to any favors and had no problem replacing most of his inherited cabinet members by the end of the year. Memorably, he is credited with saying, “If you want a friend in Washington, take a dog.”
It’s tempting to believe that there are lessons from Jackson, Lincoln, or Truman that can be applied today, but I don’t think that’s how the past informs the present. “Human nature will not change,” Lincoln once observed. There will always be leaders who shrivel up under pressure and those who stand up in the moment. It is impossible to predict who will fail and who will succeed, who will wither away and who will turn out big enough for the job. Studying past crises cannot solve this one, but it can remind us that one day that moment will become history, and that future readers will judge how well our leaders performed.