All were elected during dark times, but that is not their only connection. Each also rose to the presidency without saying much. As our nation today risks a potential fourth existential challenge, former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, would do well to learn from their examples.
Our first existential crisis began in the nation’s infancy, when the wartime compact fusing 13 geographically distant former colonies in revolution failed to forge a workable postwar union. “Thoughtful observers unanimously agree that the existing confederacy is rotting to its foundation,” Virginia’s James Madison lamented. Americans were “losing all confidence in our political system,” which “neither has nor deserves advocates.”
Unable to effectively tax, spend or coerce, the central government’s failures contributed to a post-independence economic collapse. Disorder loomed. Violence, too. Farmers in Western Massachusetts even took up arms in protest. Wielding muskets and claiming their state’s distant leaders cared only for coastal elites, they defied the state’s governor and shuttered its courts.
Into the breach stepped George Washington. The former Continental Army commander was not his era’s brightest politician or best orator, nor even its most savvy military strategist. But he was experienced, and trusted.
Reluctant to abandon his long-desired retirement for what he feared would mean further public service during his last useful days, Washington nonetheless agreed to attend the convention forming in Philadelphia with hopes of constructing a new national government. It would not have worked without him, or have even achieved a quorum of states. Washington’s presence alone did not convince skeptics the convention would succeed, but assured it would at least be competently managed, and its results legitimate if successful. Delegates immediately elected him the conference chair.
And he then said practically nothing. The convention, indeed the nation itself, needed stability, and Washington contented himself with letting others debate while he simultaneously exemplified, and imposed, civility. Silence underlay every aspect of his leadership, and his appeal. Famously self-controlled (save for the occasional fit of rage), he assiduously avoided giving offense or saying anything divisive during that long hot Philadelphia summer in 1787.
Each of the convention’s disparate factions could therefore comfortably rally around him, a calm keystone in unstable times. Delegates forged their proposed chief executive with him in mind, though they found it awkward to discuss the position in front of the man they all assumed would soon hold the job. Washington did not chide them. That would have been unseemly. But Benjamin Franklin did. “The first man put at the helm will be a good one,” Franklin reminded the convention. “Nobody knows what sort may come afterward.”
Abraham Lincoln similarly understood that a leader’s first responsibility in a crisis is to avoid making things worse. Facing the impending secession of slave-holding states and the attendant fear of outright Civil War, Lincoln let others speak for him after becoming his party’s presidential nominee, and he was if anything even quieter after winning. The man in charge for another four months, President James Buchanan, daily demonstrated his incompetence. But Buchanan was still president, denying Lincoln’s words any real power until he took office, though anything he said would invariably be manipulated by his political foes.
“I have not maintained silence from any want of real anxiety,” Lincoln consequently explained as Inauguration Day neared, but to keep things from getting worse. Southern guns targeted the Union’s Fort Sumter, but had not yet fired. Opportunity remained to keep the national powder keg from exploding.
He therefore refused to light a rhetorical match.
“Very few men have the faculty to say nothing, and fewer to speak at all under circumstances like those which surround Mr. Lincoln,” a New York newspaper praised. War ultimately came despite Lincoln’s restraint, but his quiet confidence provided time for the North’s disparate factions to rally together for their common cause.
“Anxiety and care are perceptible upon his face,” one journalist noted, “but there is nevertheless, a calm, unassuming something about it which leads the beholder to hope that he may be the instrument in the hands of the people, of quieting the troubled waters.”
Franklin Roosevelt exhibited the same reassuring calm when faced with his own pre-presidential crisis. Unemployment reached heights yet unequaled, not even (so far) in 2020. Food and jobs were scarce. Despair seemed the only abundant commodity.
This was more than a mere economic crisis. Faith in democracy ebbed, fueling critics who sought comfort in strong leaders unbound by paper restraints like constitutions. Better to give power over to the state, as Italy, Germany and a host of other nations had already done, than to mire in endless inefficiency. “If you succeed, you will go down as our greatest” president, a friend advised once he finally took office in 1933. “If I fail,” Roosevelt retorted, “I’ll go down as the last.”
First, of course, he had an election to win, and silence proved just as effective a political tool for Roosevelt as it had for Lincoln and Washington before him. President Herbert Hoover’s failure to stem the crisis and lack of empathy toward its hapless victims appeared to Democratic strategists the best argument for replacing him. Breaking tradition by accepting his party’s nomination in person, thereby demonstrating at once the urgency of the moment and his physical ability to confront it, Roosevelt promised Americans a “New Deal” instead.
That was it. No details, lest they become the subject of the campaign rather than the broader need for wholesale change. In truth, Roosevelt did not know precisely what he would do in office, but believed his first charge was to restore national confidence in a way his predecessor had not. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” he declared after swearing his oath of office, echoing Lincoln’s admonition that the American people still held their destiny in their hands.
One need not support Joe Biden to discern history’s applicable lesson for him. Standing on the cusp of yet another existential crisis, as the covid-19 pandemic and a reckoning over long-standing structural racism further strain an already fractured electorate, Biden’s best argument for unseating the incumbent is how Americans have fared on President Trump’s watch. Like Hoover and Buchanan before him, or the Articles of Confederation for that matter, it’s hard to claim that Trump has offered the steady and unifying presence Americans demand in turbulent times. Even his most avid supporters would not apply the word calm to the president’s news conferences or tweets.
Trump, and the anxiety he engenders even in the best of times, is therefore Biden’s most valuable electoral asset. Every reelection campaign is ultimately a referendum on the incumbent, and Trump dramatically fails Ronald Reagan’s famous test: Are Americans better off today than when he took office? They are hardly more at ease. No matter the ultimate efficacy of his pandemic policies, our current commander in chief has been less an unshakable keystone than a powder keg of his own.
One might argue our digital age is immune to history’s lessons, or suggest that Biden’s low-key campaign is little match for his opponent’s ability to drive news cycles. Those still scarred by Hillary Clinton’s surprising defeat might additionally desire that Biden offer the bold agenda voters perceived her front-running campaign lacked. Bold stances invite critique, however. Bold stances also mean nothing until one takes power. The lesson offered by Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt is that quiet amid cacophony is what it takes to win the presidency during dire times. Avoiding hysteria or potentially divisive details of possible recovery plans will also enable maximum freedom of action once in office.
It might seem counterintuitive at a moment our nation seems at risk, but three of our greatest leaders captured the presidency by saying less. To follow in their footsteps, Joe Biden need only offer calm, unity, and empathy, restricting his campaign to three simple words each would have endorsed:
“I’m not him.”