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Brands's 3rd law (part 2 of 2)
Great leaders have limited vision
Henry Clay’s greatest admirer was Abraham Lincoln, a former congressman from Illinois and current Springfield attorney. A generation younger than Clay, Lincoln called Clay his “beau ideal of a statesman,” and he endorsed Clay’s pragmatic approach to slavery. Lincoln never owned slaves, although his wife’s family had, and he hoped for the day when the Southern states would choose to end slavery. But his reading of the Constitution convinced him that neither the federal government nor the other states could compel the slave states to surrender the institution until they chose to do so of their own accord. And pressing the issue too hard might provoke the Southern states to secede from the Union. The republic Lincoln and his generation had inherited from Clay’s generation, who had inherited it from the founders, might fall to ruin.
Some of the abolitionists hoped it would do just that. William Lloyd Garrison, who had been thundering against slavery for decades from his perch as publisher of The Liberator, declared the Union not worth saving if it tolerated slavery. Garrison’s conscience couldn’t abide further association with slaveholders. Calling the Constitution “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell,” on the Fourth of July in 1854 he burned a copy of the founding charter and declared that the only course for honorable Northerners was “a dissolution of the Union.”
Garrison’s Massachusetts audience cheered his rousing performance. But Abraham Lincoln, when he heard of it, shook his head in dismay. Not only would the course Garrison advised not free any slaves, it would jeopardize the broader progress American democracy had been making toward human equality. Lincoln understood full well that history moves by half-steps. And it moves by hard work and the willingness to compromise with those one considers wrong.
Lincoln was a serious disappointment to the abolitionists. To be sure, he occasionally said something that gave them hope. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he declared in 1858. “I do not believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.” Yet even this statement was ambiguous. “It will either become all one thing or all the other,” Lincoln said.
More often he told the abolitionists what he could not and would not do about slavery. “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists,” he said in his first inaugural address. “I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Even after eleven slave states seceded, and sixteen months into the Civil War, Lincoln was ambivalent. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it,” he wrote to Horace Greeley, who had hectored him to abolish slavery as a means to end the war and save the Union. “And if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
Lincoln finally came to emancipation as a war measure, but even then he did so by halves. The Emancipation Proclamation applied only to the states in rebellion; it left slavery in the Border States untouched.
Of course, the proclamation set a precedent that almost certainly would extend to the Border States before long. Yet it nonetheless showed Lincoln’s unwillingness to get too far ahead of public opinion on this exceedingly controversial topic.
One problem with vision is that you never know if it is unrealistic until you push it too far. In the half decade after the Civil War, advocates of equal rights for African Americans sought to guarantee them the vote by a constitutional amendment. Many of those advocates also sought the right to vote for women. Some wished to combine the two causes behind a single amendment forbidding abridgment of the right to vote on grounds of race or sex. Others, less bold, argued that pushing for women’s rights and black rights at the same time would doom both to failure. One thing at a time, they said.
The cautious ones had their way, and the Fifteenth Amendment, as written and ratified, dealt only with race. Another six decades would pass before women would be guaranteed the vote. If the bold voices had been heeded, and women included in the Fifteenth Amendment, would it indeed have failed? No one knows, because it was not attempted.
Similar caution, or perhaps realism, guided Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s on the subject of a federal anti-lynching law. Many liberals, including Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, persuasively contended that a federal law was required to stamp out the scourge of lynching. State laws did not suffice, for the state courts were rigged against black plaintiffs and almost never convicted even the most egregious perpetrators of racial violence.
Roosevelt understood the situation. He agreed that lynching was a terrible thing. But he refused to put his weight behind the issue, fearing that doing so would alienate Southern conservatives, whose support he needed to pass his New Deal programs. One thing at a time, he explained: the New Deal today, civil rights tomorrow.
Was Roosevelt correct? Again, it’s impossible to say for certain. But the evidence is on his side. The New Deal coalition was fragile enough as things were. And it fell apart early in his second term, even without his endorsement of civil rights.
Public medical insurance is another topic on which judgments about appropriate vision have had a long history. Franklin Roosevelt considered including medical insurance in the package of guarantees that became Social Security, yet decided it was more than his coalition could bear at that time. Harry Truman included medical insurance in his proposed Fair Deal scheme, but the whole thing got sidetracked by the Korean War. Lyndon Johnson finally delivered, in part. Johnson got Congress to fund health care for the elderly and the poor, through Medicare and Medicaid. Other Americans, the great majority, remained on their own. Bill Clinton tried to extend the Medicare concept but got nowhere. Barack Obama had to work hard to get a diluted version of the Clinton program approved in 2010. And Obamacare spent the next decade fighting for its political life.
Which suggests that Roosevelt’s caution was well placed.
Woodrow Wilson got ahead of his compatriots on the defining issue of foreign policy in his day. At the end of World War I, Wilson advocated a leading role for the United States in the new League of Nations. The war, Wilson contended, had been the result of the existing anarchic state of world affairs, in which each country was a law unto itself. The League would bring order out of the chaos and prevent such catastrophes in the future.
But Wilson failed to persuade the Senate, which rejected the League and Wilson’s vision of American leadership in world affairs. During the 1920s and 1930s, Americans retreated to isolationism, which allowed a resurgence of the anarchy Wilson had warned about. Only after Pearl Harbor demonstrated that while America might ignore the world, the world wouldn’t ignore America, did Americans belatedly acknowledge that Wilson had been right. With little debate, the United States became a sponsoring member of the United Nations, the updated version of Wilson’s League.
America’s about-face on the League idea calls into question the very principle of leadership in a democracy. Franklin Roosevelt had held a midlevel post in Wilson’s administration during World War I, and he supported the internationalist vision that guided Wilson to the League. As the vice-presidential nominee of the Democratic party in 1920 he—and presidential nominee James Cox—endorsed Wilson’s vision. But after the Democrats lost the election in a landslide, and Americans wrapped themselves in the cocoon of isolationism, Roosevelt kept his internationalist views to himself.
He continued to do so after being elected president in 1932. Even as Hitler, Mussolini and Franco destroyed democracy in their own countries and threatened it elsewhere in Europe, and Japan’s militarists brutalized China, Roosevelt hardly challenged the isolationist mood. Personally he was convinced that fascism wouldn’t be halted until the United States mobilized against it, but he mounted no crusade to make Americans agree.
The lesson Roosevelt had drawn from Wilson’s experience was that the president mustn’t get ahead of public opinion on an issue as important as war. Wilson had led America into World War I, and when the peace proved unsatisfactory, Americans blamed him. The war was derided as Wilson’s war, and Americans refused to accept Wilson’s peace.
Roosevelt refused to repeat Wilson’s mistake. He would not lead America into war; instead he insisted that America lead him into war. He put such economic pressure on Japan that the Japanese government saw no alternative to attacking American naval forces. Roosevelt expected an attack, although its location, Pearl Harbor, caught him by surprise. He knew that American casualties would be more persuasive with Congress and the American people than any speeches he could make.
And he was right. Pearl Harbor discredited isolationism and revived internationalism. World War II was never called Roosevelt’s war; it was America’s war. And after the war, Americans continued to embrace the internationalism Wilson had preached a generation before. Wilson’s vision guided American foreign policy to the end of the twentieth century and beyond. But by then it wasn’t his vision, but America’s.
So what is the role of leadership in a democracy? The answer would seem to come in two parts. First, to have an immediate effect, a president must not be more than a half step ahead of the American people. Abraham Lincoln took care not to outrun antislavery opinion in the North during the Civil War; his cautious approach yielded the Thirteenth Amendment at war’s end. Franklin Roosevelt got Social Security through Congress in part by not burdening it with medical insurance. Barack Obama pushed the outer limit of caution by accepting passage of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 on a straight party-line vote. It was the best he could do at the time, but the lack of anything that looked like bipartisanship invited Republicans to campaign against the ACA for the next decade.
The second part of the answer goes back to the matter of vision. Woodrow Wilson articulated a vision of America’s role in the world. He didn’t live to see it enacted, yet he gave it currency, and he furnished guidance, if chiefly negative, to Franklin Roosevelt, who finally made Wilson’s vision real.
Was Wilson a great leader of American foreign policy? No, not by the standards of his contemporaries, who spurned his vision and turned their backs on him.
Instead he was a great visionary. And just as prophets are seldom honored in their own countries, visionaries can’t catch a break in their own generations.