I have written several articles on our Presidents and Vice-Presidents. A list of the links have been provided at the bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address additional Presidents and their places in history.
It is widely known and vilified that compares himself with Abraham Lincoln. His comparison aggravates his critics, who don’t like to see the man they consider to be the nation’s worst chief executive linked with the man widely regarded as the best. There are however many parallels between the two presidents as well as a few contrasts.
Let us start with the political party. Lincoln was the first Republican president, while Trump was the last Republican president. Both men were long-shot candidates. Both won with less than a majority of the popular vote and took office in a deeply divided, polarized country with a substantial portion of the media engaging in virulent personal attacks on their character. In 1860, Lincoln, like Trump, defeated a field of more experienced rivals. Both men came to the office with little or no government experience. Lincoln had only served four terms in the Illinois legislature and one term in Congress. Trump had spent zero time in the government. Trump on the other hand, had far more executive experience. Before his presidency, Lincoln ran a two -man law firm with a reputation for disorganization. He often store important papers in his hat.
Both men have experienced harsh reactions to their elections. In 1860, secessionists wore ribbons with slogans such as ” Resistance to Lincoln is Obedience to God.” Lincoln governed during the most divided era in our nation’s history. Trump is governing in perhaps the most acrimonious period since. Both presidencies have been times of extreme media partisanship. In Lincoln’s day, newspapers were closely aligned with the Democratic or Republican parties, and it showed in their reporting.
In 1863 after the Gettysburg Address, the Democratic Chicago Times proclaimed that “the cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances” of Lincoln’s speech. While the Springfield Republican, in Massachusetts, called it “a perfect gem, deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression.”
Lincoln, like Trump, was furiously attacked in the media. Newspapers called him a demon, a buffoon, a miserable failure, a disgrace to the nation. “The man who votes for Lincoln now is a traitor,” one Wisconsin paper asserted when he ran for reelection in 1864. You can imagine what Southern newspapers wrote.
Trump returns the media’s fire almost daily, but his assaults have been a war of words. Lincoln’s counterattacks could be more aggressive. His administration believed some opposition newspapers fueled treason.
During the Civil War, federal authorities sometimes harassed or closed antiwar newspapers, and even arrested editors. Lincoln did not order the suppressions, but he rarely objected.
Lincoln, like Trump, developed ingenious end runs around the press to communicate directly with the people. He managed to get letters and speeches widely published so voters would know his thoughts and words. Trump has done the same with rallies, 90-minute press conferences, and his tweets.
The Washington political establishment viewed Lincoln, like Trump, with wariness and outright hostility. He was considered a rube from the prairies, clearly out of his depth. Mary Lincoln, like Melania Trump, was snubbed by many in the nation’s capital.
Trump is somewhat of a street fighter. His instinct, when hit, is to hit back twice as hard. In his younger days, Lincoln also was a scrapper. He once defended a colleague from an unruly audience by threatening to break heads with a stone pitcher. On another occasion, he came close to dueling a political rival with broadswords.
With age, he became more conciliatory. As president, he sometimes cooled off by writing blistering letters and then filing them away without mailing them. No tweeting for Lincoln.
Lincoln, of course, was a wartime president. Trump and his allies consider themselves engaged in a kind of soft war on at least two fronts: first, against “the swamp,” an entrenched Washington elite, and second, against a hard-left insurgency that aims to radically transform the country. While Trump has waged a war of words with the media and would undoubtedly like to silence his fiercest critics, Lincoln actually did. Faced with an armed Rebellion by eleven Southern states, he desperately needed to keep in the Union the four border states where slavery was legal [Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky and Delaware]. The first federal troops who marched through Baltimore on their way to Washington were attacked by rioters who supported Confederate independence. Lincoln reacted by taking bold steps including empowering military commanders to arrest and imprison civilians who were advocating the Rebel cause and suspending habeas corpus [the right to have a judge determine whether an arrest and detention is lawful]. The press was not exempt as 300 newspapers were shut down for various periods of time and scores of newspaper owners, editors and reporters imprisoned. Trials were held by military tribunals, not civilian courts. Over the course of the war close to 14,000 people, in states that remained loyal to the Union, were arrested and put in military prisons.
At first Lincoln’s suppression of civil liberties was limited to the critical border states. As public support for his continued prosecution of the war wavered, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus across the entire country. Newspapers were shut down and civilians arrested by military authorities in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. The most prominent Copperhead, Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, was arrested and found guilty by a military court of making disloyal statements aimed at weakening the Union war effort. Lincoln had Vallandingham exiled to the Confederacy.
Congress ratified Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus which the Constitution allows for in time of Rebellion. After the war ended the Supreme Court ruled that his imposition of martial law, when the civilian courts were in normal operation, was unconstitutional.
President Lincoln was a very different man facing a radically more dangerous situation than President Trump. Yet each president represents a direct threat to a national establishment by an outsider.
Trump inherited the ongoing war against terrorism. Trump’s first effort to expand Presidential power was aimed at controlling lawful immigration and travel. After a number of false starts the Supreme Court upheld Trump’s power as President to limit travel from certain Muslim majority countries. In doing so the Supreme Court took the opportunity to repudiate its opinion upholding President Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order that interned in concentration camps American citizens of Japanese ethnicity for the duration of World War II.
In both cases, Trump’s supporters believe he is defending the nation’s founding principles. His opponents strenuously disagree. That, perhaps, is the area of comparison with Lincoln that matters most. Having failed to secure Congressional funding for an extensive wall on the Mexican border, Trump has invoked the 1976 National Emergencies Act [“NEA”] and issued a proclamation that illegal immigration and drug trafficking pose a threat to national security. In the NEA Congress delegated to the President broad discretion to determine when an emergency exists. Many Presidents have used the NEA. President Obama declared ten emergencies [most involving sanctions against foreign individuals and nations such as Libya, Yemen, Venezuela and Russia]. No prior President has used the NEA to circumvent Congressional authority to determine appropriations. Legal challenges to Trump’s effort to expand Presidential power to build a barrier on the Southern border will likely end up being resolved by the Supreme Court. The NEA does not define what is an emergency and there has never been a successful challenge to a Presidential declaration of an emergency.
Trump rails against “fake news”. He would have had plenty of targets to assail if he had lived during the Civil War. Biased editors and reporters felt free to try and destroy the reputations of people they didn’t like. General William Tecumseh Sherman was notoriously hostile to the press who took retribution by publishing false stories that he was stark raving mad. Newspapers were either Democrat or Republican and the news was reported through a biased political lens. Lincoln’s immortal Gettysburg Address was harshly criticized by the Democratic press while receiving high praise in Republican papers. The era’s cutting-edge technology was the telegraph and reporters rushed to be the first to use the wires, often with incomplete facts resulting in a multitude of false stories, including battles that were never fought.
In such a tumultuous environment Lincoln created a new method for communicating with the American people. As Harold Holzer describes in his book, Lincoln and the Power of the Press, Lincoln combatted harsh political and newspaper attacks by writing letters defending his policies. The letters were addressed to the person or newspaper editor that was critical of him. Lincoln released his private letters to various Republican newspapers who supported him. The letters would be printed in full and were picked up by papers across the country. Lincoln had ingeniously found a way to powerfully amplify his voice to a nationwide audience.
Lincoln was fiercely dedicated to our founding principles, especially those in the Declaration of Independence, his favorite founding document — that we are all created equal, and we all have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He knew that as long as we stick to our founding principles, America can be a great nation. They both expanded the President’s executive power to address what they saw as threats to homeland security and they devised new ways to communicate with the people. Like Lincoln, Trump has innovated in the way a President communicates with the public. He uses modern technology to disseminate his views in real time to the nation and the world. Trump’s use of Twitter allows him to bypass the media and broadcast what he is thinking many times a day to his fifty-nine million followers.
Lincoln has a well-earned reputation as America’s greatest President. He ended slavery. His steely resolve to see the country reunited and his political adroitness in managing a fractious Congress and a strong-willed Cabinet led to ultimate victory. Despite his crack down on the press and individuals sympathetic to the Confederacy, he ensured that free elections continued during the war including the 1864 Presidential election. Lincoln’s reelection was a reflection that the majority of the people approved of his war polices, including his controversial suppression of civil liberties.
While there are enormous differences between Trump and Lincoln there are some similarities. Both expanded their executive authority to address what they saw as threats to national security and both Presidents were creative in finding innovative ways to communicate to the people rationales for their policies and positions.
In the end, history judges presidents largely on the defense of those principles. That is one reason we admire Lincoln so much. He defended them to the end. If any president, from any party, wants to be compared to Lincoln, let it be for that.
thehill.com, “Trump has more in common with Lincoln than you might think,” By John Cribb; godfatherpolitics.com, “What Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln Have in Common,” By Robert Kofman; foxnews.com, “Newt Gingrich: The surprising thing Trump and Lincoln have in common,” By Newt Gingrich;
Examples of the rhetoric that both Presidents received from the Press
This relentless hostility parallels what President Lincoln had to endure in the media of his day – newspapers and magazines.
As I wrote in my No. 1 New York Times best-seller “Understanding Trump” many news organizations opposed Lincoln from the beginning – much as they have President Trump in our time.
Upon Lincoln’s election, the Memphis Daily Appeal wrote on November 13, 1860:
“Within 90 days from the time Lincoln is inaugurated, the Republican Party will be utterly ruined and destroyed. His path is environed with so many difficulties, that even if he had the ability of Jefferson and the energy of Jackson, he would fail, but he is a weak and inexperienced man, and his administration will be doomed from the commencement.
“If he takes that radical section of the Republican Party, the conservative wing of it will cut loose and repudiate him. If, on the other hand, he courts the conservatives and pursues a moderate conciliatory policy, the radicals will make open war upon his administration.”
These criticisms of Lincoln were not confined to the South.
In his book “1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History,” author Charles Bracelen Flood noted that The New York Herald once wrote of Lincoln that “his election was a rash experiment, his administration is a deplorable failure.”
The northern paper’s editors also said of Lincoln: “As President of the United States he must have enough sense to see and acknowledge he has been an egregious failure. One thing must be self-evident to him, and that is that under no circumstances can he hope to be the next President of the United States … (he should) retire from the position to which, in an evil hour, he was exalted.”
Does any of this sound familiar?
Just as President Trump rails against “fake news,” President Lincoln felt that a significant front in his war to preserve the Union was against the news media. This made Lincoln highly critical and skeptical of the media.
According to Noah Brooks, a reporter who had regular access to the president, Lincoln often said “the worst feature about newspapers was that they were so sure to be ‘ahead of the hounds,’ outrunning events, and exciting expectations which were sure to be disappointed.”
But the hostility toward Lincoln within the Washington establishment and the political elite was just as ferocious.
Edward Everett, the famous orator who spoke for hours at Gettysburg while Lincoln gave a very brief but historically and morally much more powerful speech, wrote in his diary that Lincoln was “evidently a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the crisis.”
According to George Templeton Strong, a prominent New York lawyer, Lincoln was “a barbarian, Scythian, yahoo, or gorilla.”
Even the general who Lincoln chose to lead the Union Army, George McClellan, dismissed President Lincoln as a frontier hack, “an idiot,” and “the original gorilla.”
And even among his fellow Republicans, Lincoln encountered fierce attacks.
Republican William M. Dickson of Ohio wrote in 1861 that Lincoln “is universally an admitted failure, has no will, no courage, no executive capacity … and his spirit necessarily infuses itself downwards through all departments.” You decide whether attacks on President Trump’s hair or attacks on Lincoln’s intelligence are more demeaning.