The Qualities that Make a Great President by William H. Taft

This blog applies Abraham Lincoln’s perspectives to 21st Century political and social issues. Occasionally however, visiting other historically important people’s opinions of Lincoln, across time, helps place his words and his deeds into the larger perspective of history.

For instance, the Repulican Party and it’s presidential candidate in 2016 sought identification with Abraham Lincoln’s historic reputation with their “Party of Lincoln” references to appeal to a segment of the grass-roots electorate.[1]

By 2017 however, the Party of Lincoln switched to Andrew Jackson, whom they viewed as a

Andy Jackson former president
Photo of former President Andrew Jackson about 1843.

more fitting image for a role model. In fact, in May, 2017, Trump even said Jackson could have prevented the Civil War had he been alive at the time. He placed Lincoln’s words and deeds as inferior to Jackson’s.[2]

This administration’s change from Lincoln to Jackson, whom they believe better represents the ideals of our country and whom they believe was a better president, indicates that something is profoundly wrong in America.

Former President William Howard Taft eloquently tells us why.

Taft
President William H. Taft, in a photo published by George Prince about 1907.

In an address on February 11, 1911 to the annual banquet of the Lincoln Centennial Association in Springfield, IL, commemorating of the 102nd anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, Taft went further than discussing the words and deeds of Lincoln.

Taft explored the personal qualities that made Lincoln great as a president – character, intellect, kindness, patience, and political savvy.[3]  He weaved a series of facts about Lincoln with his own experiential perceptions of the job of being president. It’s so well written that it’s no wonder President Taft later became the tenth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court!

Taft opened with a truism long maintained by most writers of biographies.

Contemporary judgement of men conspicuous in public life…necessarily lacks a sense of proportion, and it is not until the winnowing effect of time has removed the commonplace figures of the drama in which the great man played the leading part…that the remarkable features of his character stand out…[3]

Taft credited Lincoln with populist attributes : “up from the soil;” “one of the plain people; he lived and dressed and ate and spoke as they did,” and “in early life, seemed to have the same failings as they did.”

However, this background obscured the traits of Lincoln’s “…character and intellect and the other exceptional qualities that differentiated him from his fellows.”

These qualities, which put him in a league alone with George Washington, Taft maintained, required the crucible of “our awful Civil War…” to bring them forth and shine. And because of them – his character and intellect – Lincoln met the level of leadership demanded in that crisis.

Taft’s contrast of Lincoln’s accomplishments with a somewhat humorous sketch of the characteristics Taft felt were necessary to do the job of being a president successfully, offer an interesting insight by a sitting president in the second decade of the 20th Century. [All bolding is mine for your attention.] 

…without any executive or administrative experience whatever, was thrust into an office, requiring in successful discharge of its duties, the highest ability in selecting subordinates; the keenest political sense and shrewdness, in order to secure the unity of support in the loyal States; a familiarity with military strategy and with the organization of military resources, and a patience and a long suffering kindness that has no superior that I know of save in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.”[3]

While the end of that quote may be a bit too extreme [or self-anointing since Taft was still president], his point about Lincoln’s lack of experiential preparation to take on the office of president, especially during the crisis of a civil war, was well made.

With all those odds that Taft noted stacked against ANYONE without the prior experience, what DOES it take succeed as president?  This is what he described.

“Lincoln’s intellectual honesty and his sympathetic, human heart were his two great and highest attributes, because from them flowed all his other qualities.” [3]

Taft discussed Lincoln’s natural preparation to be president without knowing that was his destiny. He started with Lincoln’s intellectual self-development in boyhood – his powers of reasoning, speaking, and clarity of thinking.

“No one could be severer with another than he was with himself in reasoning to a conclusion. He made no argument and stated no propostion until he had worked it out pro and con in his own mind, and what he wrote or spoke had a most convincing quality.”[3]

After a section on Lincoln’s speechwriting ability, Taft reached what now should be called the blueprint for a standard by which ALL presidents are measured for greatness. He took several problems all presidents face – infighting, criticism by subordinates, and of course, public/media criticism – and he showed how Lincoln dealt with them.

First, with regards to the infighting that most presidents face, Taft noted Lincoln set a larger objective by which governed his personal behavior.

He cherished no resentments. He was meek and lowly in weighing his qualifications to meet the problems set before him by the war, and he was patient beyond belief with the men whom he thought to be the necessary instruments in accomplishing the nation’s good.”[3]

With this larger goal in mind, Taft said Lincoln even tolerated criticism from members of his administration.

He had a simple dignity as president quite equal to the needs of the office, but he sank personal vanity and repressed his natural indignation at the studied insults of his subordinates  when it seemed wise to do so in his country’s interest.

And like the presidents in 1911 and in 2017, Lincoln faced heavy criticism by the public, the media, and even individuals.

Lincoln had to go down through the valley of the shadow of popular denunciation and popular distrust. He had to bear the bitterest ridicule, the most contemptuous criticism, and accusations of the meanest motives. He had to see small demagogues exhaulted in the popular mind at the expense of his own standing and of his own reputation.[3]

Again, Lincoln acted with a mindset that put the critics and the criticism into an acceptable framework.

For months and years he had to strengthen himself with the thought that he alone understood the problems he was working out; that he alone had the necessary clearness of vision to see far beyond the present and secure the Nation’s salvation at the expense of popular misunderstanding and partisan attack. [3]

President Taft respected and honored Abraham Lincoln – NOT for his words and deeds, but for those qualities that enabled his words and deeds.

“My last official act before leaving Washington was to sign a bill appointing a permanent commission…to determine a proper memorial in Washington to the memory of Lincoln…I hope with the aid of the present National Art Commission and inspired by the zeal that the love of Lincoln’s memory prompts in every heart, that the commission shall find an appropriate national expression of the love and gratitude of the country for her greatest son.”[3]

It did.

So, President William Howard Taft’s premise: Great presidents are born – not made – with the qualities of character, intellect, kindness, patience, and political savvy.

Every current member or supporter of the “Party of Lincoln” in America should realize, from President Taft’s address, that the current president is definitely not in the same league as Lincoln – but more importantly, WHY he’s not.

Jackson's Statue in D.C.
Statue of Andy Jackson in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House.

They would do well also to remember that his icon, President Andy Jackson, is honored with just a hat-waving statue in Washington, D.C.

President Abraham Lincoln is honored with a monument.

And Trump wants a wall.

Food for thought.

Mac

Works Cited

[1] The first “Party of Lincoln” Reference was September, 2016. Trump, speaking in a black church in Detroit, promised to carry on Abraham Lincoln’s legacy if elected president. “Becoming the nominee of the party of Abraham Lincoln, a lot of people don’t realize that, Abraham Lincoln, the great Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, has been the greatest honor of my life,” Trump told churchgoers at Great Faith Ministries International, marking his first appearance at an African-American church. “It is on his legacy that I hope to build the future of the party, but, more importantly, the future of the country.”  Retrieved June 25, 2017 from “Trump flashes humility in first ever Black church visit” Sept. 3, 2016 Politico  @ http://www.politico.com/story/2016/09/donald-trump-detroit-african-american-church-227712

[2] “President Trump questions why the Civil War happened, thinks Andrew Jackson would have prevented it…” May 2, 2017 NY Daily News Retrieved June 25, 2017 from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/trump-thinks-andrew-jackson-prevented-civil-war-article-1.3122527

[3] Taft, William Howard. “Abraham Lincoln.” The Lincoln Centennial Association Addresses: Third Annual Banquet (1911).  Springfield, IL: The Lincoln Centennial Association. pp. 19-25.  A copy of this can be found on Internet Archive @ this link: https://archive.org/details/lincolncentennia00hump   pp.19-25.

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2 Replies to “The Qualities that Make a Great President by William H. Taft”

  1. Not a Lincoln scholar, I was pleased to see your presentation of Taft’s speech and have bookmarked the Archive reference for more careful perusal later. Thanks.
    But I offer you this counsel from a lifelong Republican who worked in three Republican President’s administrations but did not vote for the Mr. Trump in any primary or in the general election. Let it go. He is the President. We can not change that. To focus on him, to resent him — is like taking poison and expecting him to die.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Taft’s speech WAS an outstanding tribute. You’ll like it in its entirety. What you counsel is perhaps wise, however, I’ve never been so afraid of Democracy dying as I’ve been since Trump’s rise from joke to president. America will not recover from him I fear. My blog is merely an attempt to coordinate Lincoln’s words with the current political crisis. Lincoln himself remarked that mankind will always have the same types of leaders – weak, strong, etc. BUT Lincoln warned us to learn from the past & apply the lessons to the future. [serenade response, Nov.,1864] But please, stop back frequently & comment often. While I don’t always agree; I do always respect. Thanks again! Mac

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