The President and the Historians
By David J. Kent
Saturday, March 27, 2021
President Joe Biden apparently had an unpublicized meeting on March 2nd with a host of presidential historians. Biden, who frequently quotes Abraham Lincoln, sat down for two hours in a free-wheeling discussion ranging from how Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Baines Johnson handled their respective crises, to a little bit of the Jay Treaty of 1794 thrown in for pure wonkishness.
The meeting was organized by historian Jon Meacham, whose 2018 book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels was carried into Biden's 2020 campaign theme of restoring the soul of America. The "better angels" Meacham refers to is from the peroration of Lincoln's first inaugural address. Biden also channeled Lincoln's famous phrase in his own inaugural address, saying in regard to our current national challenges, "Our better angels have always prevailed."
Historians present at the meeting were Doris Kearns Goodwin (who has written on several presidents, including FDR and LBJ), Michael Beschloss, Yale's Joanne Freeman, Princeton's Eddie Glaude, Jr., Harvard's Annette Gordon-Reed, and authors Michael Eric Dyson and Walter Isaacson. According to reporter Mike Allen at Axios, Biden knew a lot about FDR and asked pointed questions about him and others.
The discussion also touched on the elasticity of presidential power and the limits of going bigger and faster than the public might anticipate and stomach. This Biden likely learned from Abraham Lincoln, who knew that he could not get too far out in front of public opinion, which he referred to as public sentiment.
"In this and like communities," Lincoln said in his first debate with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, "public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed."
It's nice to see President Biden following Lincoln's advice. As Lincoln notes, a president's responsibility is not just to follow public sentiment, but lead the public to sentiments that better our nation. Biden seems to have taken Lincoln's lessons to heart and surrounds himself with reminders of Lincoln, including restoring Lincoln's portrait to the Oval Office alongside those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and FDR. Biden often refers to the man who inspires people across the political spectrum.
As Biden noted in his inauguration, when Lincoln was signing the Final Emancipation Proclamation he paused for a few seconds to steady his hand, numb from shaking thousands of hands at his New Year's Day reception. Lincoln didn't want his signature to look hesitant. “I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper. If my name goes into history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”
"My whole soul is in it," the newly sworn-in President Joseph R. Biden repeated.
It's up to all of us to rebuild the public sentiment and find our own better angels, to resolve to work toward a new birth of freedom such that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Perhaps it starts by listening to the historians.