I would submit that of the 57 presidential elections our nation has thus far conducted, three stand above the others in their importance to the establishment and maintenance of the American way of life: that of 1788; that occurring seventy-two years later, in 1860; and that coincidentally occurring seventy-two years after that, in 1932.
The presidential election of 1788 was the first under a Constitution that had been ratified earlier that year despite Americans’ misgivings that included a fear of institutionalizing a monarch-like President. Alexander Hamilton — who, while writing The Federalist with James Madison and John Jay under the pen name, “Publius,” had spent the years before ratification seeking in part to persuade the citizenry that the Constitution would not create a de facto American monarchy – understood that the people needed reassurance in adopting the new governmental structure. Mr. Hamilton wrote retired General George Washington, the most respected person in the country, to encourage him to stand for the post: “… [T]he point of light in which you stand at home and abroad will make an infinite difference in the respectability in which the government will begin its operations in the alternative of your being or not being the head of state.” After Mr. Washington indicated that he would assume the presidency, he was unanimously elected in the newly-established Electoral College. Mr. Washington’s stature and the manner in which he conducted the presidency brought harmony from cacophony sufficient to enable the fledgling United States of America to establish credibility – and sustainability — with its citizens and abroad.
Given the paroxysm of emotion surrounding slavery at the time of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election – after secession but before the commencement of hostilities, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens called slavery the “immediate cause” of the separation, although Mr. Lincoln’s Republican Party’s 1860 platform did not propose to abolish slavery where it already existed – it seems clear that the Southern States’ attempt to divide the Union would have come, if not in 1860, at some point under some president during the last half of the 19th Century. President Lincoln’s insistence on saving the Union was not universally embraced. Another president in 1860 or a later time might well have reasonably decided that maintaining the union wasn’t worth the blood. Putting aside the immorality of perpetuating slavery, had the North acquiesced to the South’s departure, it is hard to see from a geopolitical standpoint how two separate nations would have withstood the pressures of the 20th century. Mr. Jay foresaw as much when he argued, writing as “Publius” in Federalist No. 5, that a single union of states brought strength, while separate confederacies of states couldn’t be relied upon to work together: “Hence it might and probably would happen that the foreign nation with whom the Southern confederacy might be at war would be the one with whom the Northern confederacy would be the most desirous of preserving peace and friendship. [Emphasis Mr. Jay’s].”
According to the Library of Congress, at the time of Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932, a quarter of American workers were unemployed due to the Great Depression and that “… hunger marches and small riots were common throughout the nation.” There was unrest worldwide: In Russia, Communists controlled Russia after overthrowing a provisional government that had been intended to arrange for free elections and espoused universal suffrage and freedom of press and assembly; in Italy, Benito Mussolini, advocating for “revolutionary nationalism” and proclaiming the inferiority of Slavs, “blacks” and “yellows,” had after being named Prime Minister supplanted the existing democracy, and as Duce of Fascism ruled as dictator; and in Germany, as part of an effort to bring order to the financial and social unrest in the Weimar Republic, Adolf Hitler, the leader of the National Socialist German Workers – Nazi — Party – was about to be named Chancellor. Although the Communists and Fascists had markedly different philosophies, in practice their approaches had one thing in common: the preeminence of the state over the rights of the individual. A well-known anecdote sums up the challenges faced by Mr. Roosevelt upon his election: a friend told him that if he succeeded, he would go down in history as the greatest American President. Mr. Roosevelt replied: “Yet if I fail, I may be the last one.” He was obviously ultimately called upon not only to steer the nation through the Depression but to lead it in its death struggle against Nazi imperialism.
I consider these three presidents our greatest specifically because they alone among the presidential cohort had to address existential challenges to the American way of life. (I would suggest that Soviet and other nuclear weapons clearly have and do constitute a threat to American life, but not to its way of life.) The challenges these three presidents faced were brought about by outside circumstances. In each instance, we were blessed to have the right person at the right time. I would venture that it was because of the rigor through which our structure was effectively maintained by Franklin Roosevelt and the majority of his successors that our nation managed to travel more than 72 years since we last faced an existential threat to our way of life. I would submit that another such existential threat, of a different nature, now faces us. Although the direction of the rest of this note is obvious to anyone that has read virtually any of these pages, it will appear in Part II.