Recently, one of my students asked me just how many presidents in American history actually had been ready from day one in office since today's candidates seem to be making such a big deal out of it. Indeed, not long after I was asked that question this issue became the cover story for a couple of the national news magazines and countless pontifications by the talking heads on TV, Internet, and radio.
Hillary Clinton often says she will be ready to be president on "day one." There will be no need for a "week of orientation" or any "on the job training." If elected, she will "hit the ground running" because she believes she has more experience than her Democratic rival, Barack Obama. After all, while Obama was serving in the Illinois state legislature, Clinton was in the White House. John McCain's people did virtually the same thing to his opponents throughout the campaign, though for him the issue is now moot since he is the heir apparent to the Republican Party nomination.
Almost 150 years ago, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois might have utilized the same logic that today's candidates seem to be exploiting. While Abraham Lincoln was trudging along the law circuit in Illinois, Douglas was one of the most influential members of the U.S. Senate and one of the most prominent and esteemed politicians in America. The "Little Giant" commanded respect and attention wherever he went, and his resume, accumulated during a lifetime in politics, was impressive.
The coming presidential election of 1860 threatened to rip the nation asunder. Political pundits of the day asked who was better prepared to handle this crisis than Stephen Douglas who had navigated some pretty rocky shoals in the Senate during the incendiary 1850s. Who better would "hit the ground running" on "day one," they asked both in his home state of Illinois and across the nation. The answer was simply a no-brainer. Douglas was clearly the more experienced candidate than the virtually unelectable political neophyte Lincoln.
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But history didn't cooperate with Douglas. Douglas did not take the oath of office on a rainy March 4, 1861. Assuredly, he was there. He watched as his opponent put his hand on the Bible and he even held his long-time rival's hat while Lincoln delivered his inaugural address.
Douglas listened as Lincoln reminded his "dissatisfied fellow countrymen" that "we are not enemies, but friends," and hoped that "the better angels of our nature" would indeed prevail and bloodshed would be averted. Shortly after Lincoln concluded, the rain abated and the sun broke through the clouds, perhaps portending that his first day in office would be a good one.
But, unlike many of the ceremonial first days of a new presidency, Lincoln found himself in an immediate quagmire. The sun's shining never lived up to its potential. What did "day one" of the Lincoln administration look like? It wasn't easy, and Lincoln remembered it well: "The first thing that was handed to me after I entered this room when I came from the inauguration was the letter from Maj. Anderson saying that their provisions would be exhausted before an expedition could be sent to their relief."
The Buchanan Administration had left an unresolved crisis square in the lap of the new president. The flash point would be Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C.
A bleak situation
Lincoln asked his general in chief, Winfield Scott, for his opinion, and "Old Fuss and Feathers" outlined the bleak situation. When asked how long the soldiers in the fort could hold out, Scott replied that he couldn't answer with any accuracy. Could Scott resupply or reinforce Fort Sumter with "all the means now in your control," asked Lincoln. "No," replied the general, "Not within many months."
The new president could not accept this.
Lincoln sought the advice from each member of his newly appointed Cabinet, many of whom had been his arch-rivals for the Republican Party's nomination and who were no fans of the new president.
Secretary of State Seward advised against assisting Fort Sumter, saying that any "attempt must be made with the employment of military and marine force, which would provoke combat, and probably initiate a civil war." Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Attorney General Edward Bates agreed with Seward.
Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, however, offered a radically different opinion. If the administration failed to help Fort Sumter, then it would surely "convince the rebels that the administration lacks firmness and will therefore tend more than any event that has happened to embolden them."
Slowly but surely the president heard from the remainder of his cabinet. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase was in favor of resupplying the fort while Secretary of War Simon Cameron advised against it.
Obviously, the president had much to consider since his Cabinet was deeply divided. Upon the shoulders of the 16th president on his first day in office fell the monumental decision of civil war unlike anything America has experienced before or since.
Perhaps yet again, today's candidates would be well advised to hit the history books instead of their focus groups and poll numbers. By doing so, they would find that no one is ever truly ready to hit the ground running once they swear "to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States" at high noon on the Capitol's Portico.
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