Without access to critical federal resources, state governors have increasingly attacked the president’s lackluster performance. In response, Trump has lashed out with criticism and blame. This discord has taken on partisan overtones, as the president has targeted Democratic governors, including Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan (to whom Trump referred dismissively as “the woman in Michigan” in a recent news conference, before following up by calling her “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer” on Twitter).
As governors have pleaded with the president for much needed medical equipment, Trump has reportedly told them to “try getting it yourselves.” Trump even insinuated that the White House Coronavirus Task Force should only communicate with governors who openly praise the Administration’s actions, telling reporters “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.”
At stake here is more than just partisan squabbling and name calling. Potentially millions of lives are at risk, and the debate over who bears responsibility gets to the heart of American federalism: which levels of government are most responsible for leadership, problem solving and — most important — resources in a crisis? At times of national crisis, however, federalism can be a strength, not an obstacle. President Abraham Lincoln made this clear during the Civil War.
In the 19th century, questions about how federalism ought to work were more pronounced than they are today. The federal government was much smaller and had far less authority and engagement with the citizenry. Indeed, for many Americans, the only federal official they might encounter during the course of their entire lives was their local postmaster.
This posed a challenge for Lincoln, who faced the herculean task of mobilizing a national army of unprecedented size. In 1861, the entirety of the United States’ standing armed forces amounted to only approximately 25,000 men — about 16,000 regular Army soldiers and officers, and just under 9,000 sailors and officers in the Navy. By war’s end, more than 2 million men would serve in the Union Army. How did the federal government achieve such a massive mobilization? In large part it was because of cooperation between Lincoln and state governors across the 20 free and five border states who remained in the Union.
Governors were not only chief executives but often commanders in chief of their state militias, and the vast majority of Union soldiers enlisted via militias at the local level. As political figures, governors helped inspire nationalism and mobilization through public rhetoric and oratory, a story historian Stephen D. Engle has recently told. Early in the war, President Lincoln relied almost entirely on states to raise armies, but even after Congress enacted national conscription in 1863, recruitment still depended heavily upon state and local efforts, impossible without the administrative work of governors.
In short, governors were crucial to the Union war effort, but Union victory required national leadership and federal contributions as well. Lincoln helped marshal the federal government’s considerable resources to organize and finance the war, through war bonds, issuing paper currency known as greenbacks and enacting the first federal income tax.
Ultimately, Union victory was the result of collaboration and cooperation — a partnership between President Lincoln and state governors that would have been impossible without give and take on both sides.
Such cooperation cannot be dismissed as the byproduct of a different, gentler time: the political landscape Lincoln faced was just as partisan as today’s political climate, if not more so. Federal and state elections continued unabated during the war, and Northern Democrats continued to attack every aspect of the Lincoln administration’s execution of the war effort.
Yet, while Democratic governors did not always agree with the president, or even refrain from criticizing him, both they and Lincoln knew when to put partisanship aside and work together for a common cause. Likewise, Lincoln never shirked his public duty to work with them toward the shared goal of Union victory.
One of Lincoln’s most vocal critics was Democratic Gov. Horatio Seymour of New York, elected in 1862. Seymour’s inaugural address in 1863 included a blistering critique of Lincoln’s war policies. Yet, rather than lashing out in response, Lincoln wrote Seymour emphasizing their shared purpose and telling him “the co-operation of your State, as that of others, is needed — in fact, is indispensable.”
Though the two disagreed politically, Lincoln still rushed army units to help stop the violent New York City draft riots in the summer of 1863. And despite Seymour’s extreme opposition to the draft, New York still provided 12,000 militia members at Lincoln’s request to help protect Washington, D.C. in 1864.
In other words, Americans from both parties could simultaneously disagree and carry their fair share of the burden of financing the war and raising troops. Union soldiers frequently received cash bounties for volunteering, and the bounty system was nonpartisan, often administered at the local and county level. Local Democratic governments were just as responsible as Republicans for funding the bounties. The war effort was genuinely bipartisan.
As the coronavirus pandemic deepens, state governors will need ever increasing resources to stop the spread of the disease and protect our nation’s most vulnerable. The economic crisis that has resulted from putting our daily lives on pause will also only worsen.
The necessity of cooperation and coordination between the federal government and local officials therefore will become only more important. Partisan and philosophical disagreement over how best to mobilize resources will always exist, but it can exist without party identifiers being a prerequisite for receiving aid, or without the President publicly lamenting, as he did on Tuesday about New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, “For some people, no matter how much you give, it’s never enough.”
Clinging to partisanship in such times threatens not only to make the monumental task before us more difficult, but even worse, it threatens peoples’ lives. President Trump would do well to look to the example of his own party’s most famous forebear, and how collaboration between governors and the president ultimately brought the nation through one of its greatest crises.