Yes, highly intelligent leaders with differing viewpoints can run a government

A signed carte de visite of Abraham Lincoln by photographer Mathew Brady sold for $81,250 at an October 2016 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 2005, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin published her award-winning book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It begins with the presidential election of 1860 and focuses on the shrewd decision by Lincoln to form a Cabinet comprised of his three main competitors for the Republican nomination.

William H. Seward (Secretary of State), Salmon P. Chase (Treasury Secretary) and Edwin Bates (Attorney General) were molded into a formidable team in perhaps the most unusual Cabinet in history. They enabled President Lincoln to cope with incompetent generals, hostile congressmen, the secession of Southern states and the bloody Civil War that followed. Perhaps he was aware of the axiom to “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” (often attributed to Chinese military strategist Sun-Tzu in The Art of War).

Team of Rivals was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and director Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln was nominated for Best Picture; Daniel Day-Lewis won the Oscar for Best Actor (2013). Both are highly recommended.

The book attributes much of Lincoln’s remarkable accomplishments to his unique ability to help disgruntled opponents solve their differences by empathy – to sense or feel what others experience – and then put himself in their place. This is obviously a factor, but omits his basic wisdom, sense of humor and courage under extraordinary pressure. On the personal ego scale, he ranks at the bottom, along with Harry Truman … and the precise opposite of the current Oval Office occupant, who is off the scale (74-year-old billionaires rarely change their M.O.).

From the standpoint of presidential cabinets, this degree of executive freedom to choose individuals probably only existed one other time: during President Washington’s two-terms. However, the situations were vastly different on several dimensions:

  • The Constitution did not express the requirement for a “Cabinet” (a term coined by James Madison). However, there was a proviso for the president to obtain advice from others, as desired.
  • There were no formal political parties in either of Washington’s two terms that needed consideration.
  • When Washington took the oath of office on April 30, 1789, he had the unfettered flexibility to choose from the best minds in the nation, all of them well known by him. He chose wisely: Thomas Jefferson for State; Alexander Hamilton for Treasury; Henry Knox, War; and Edmond Randolph, Attorney General.

There was a general bias for a small federal government since the states were still leery of ceding any of their hard-won rights to a central entity. However, five months later, President Washington approved the Judiciary Act of 1789 and created a Supreme Court that consisted of a Chief Justice and five Associate Justices. This federal government was run by men responsible for the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. It was a generally harmonious time.

Further, Washington’s style of management was to meet individually with his Cabinet to seek their advice and counsel. This soon evolved into a group meeting that excluded Vice President John Adams, who never attended a single Cabinet meeting. The meetings were efficient and effective despite a low level of acrimony over issues where individuals differed. However, Washington welcomed debates to ensure he had the advantage of bright men with opposing opinions.

For example, in February 1791, Treasury Secretary Hamilton and Secretary of State Jefferson engaged in a debate that would have a significant impact on basic American law. The issue involved the U.S. Constitution that had been ratified two years earlier: Did it authorize the federal government to charter a bank?

The federal and state governments were in debt $100 million, primarily due to the Revolutionary War. Secretary Hamilton wanted to consolidate all the debt and form a federally chartered bank to pay off the debts. In 1790, an agreement had been reached to have the federal government assume all state debts. In a quid pro quo, the nation’s capital would relocate near the Potomac River in Virginia. Twelve months later, Congress passed legislation to create the federal chartered bank. This allowed the creation of a viable national currency, used by all states to pay taxes to retire debt. President Washington was now required to sign or veto the law.

His Cabinet was divided.

Jefferson, Madison and Randolph objected to the legislation, arguing the Constitution did not authorize the federal government to charter or incorporate an institution, let alone a bank. During the Constitutional Convention, Madison had supported giving the government limited power to grant corporations. However, corporations and banks were so divisive they were excluded in order to gain approval of the Constitution. It was argued that Hamilton’s bank would violate the relationship of state power versus federal power. This resulted in Washington asking Hamilton why the powerful trio was wrong?

The ever-energetic Hamilton worked all night to produce a 15,000-word Constitutional interpretation. He argued that the “necessary and proper clause” authorized Congress to make all laws, which shall be necessary for carrying into execution its duties under Article 1. He said that chartering a bank was “necessary for managing the nation’s currency, debt and credit,” which was the purview of the federal government via the clause “to coin money and regulate the value thereof.”

Jefferson had a visceral mistrust of paper money (a basic function of banks) and similar misgivings about incorporation. Since a federal bank was a de facto corporation, he argued their creation was simply a monopoly, like the Bank of England created by the British Monarchy. He and Madison asserted any power the Constitution did not forbid and which was not expressly granted to the federal government automatically stayed with the states, one and all, as dictated by the 10th Amendment. Surprisingly, Hamilton prevailed and Washington approved the legislation on Dec. 12, 1791, thus allowing the Bank of the United States. It opened in Philadelphia as the first central bank in the new nation, with a 20-year charter.

It is in this and many more examples of highly intelligent leaders with differing viewpoints on how best to organize and run a new nation, that we find the seeds of discontent that would lead to political parties. It helps explain how small rifts can grow into chasms over 200-plus years. Even as I finish writing this, a television in the background is chattering with some ruckus to impeach another president. If we ever truly had any political empathy, there is little evidence of it today (sigh).

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

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Hector Cantu

Hector Cantu was the editor of The Intelligent Collector magazine.

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