Editor’s Note: Douglas Brinkley is the Katherine Tsanoff Brown Chair in Humanities and Professor of History at Rice University and CNN Presidential Historian. Read more opinion articles at CNN.
In June 1948, the situation in postwar Berlin was tense. For three years, the city had been divided into competing zones of occupation, but now the Soviet Union had cut the Western Allies’ access routes, making a play for dominance.
In Washington, DC, fears of a new war ran deep. At one particularly anxious meeting, a young staffer noticed that Secretary of State George Marshall remained cool and collected. “Mr. Secretary,” he asked, “how in the world can you remain so calm during this appalling crisis?” Marshall, who was the US Army’s Chief of Staff during World War II, replied bluntly, “I’ve seen worse.”
This anecdote came to mind when I saw President Donald Trump declare that the 2020 Election should perhaps be postponed because of Covid-19 and mail-in vote concerns. I’m here to tell the President that postponement is an extreme anti-American act that Congress will never let happen.
Like George Marshall, we as a nation have seen worse, both epidemiologically and economically. Voting – the central, unifying act of functioning democracy – went forward in troublesome decades past.
It’s insulting to the American public to even suggest that this sacred constitutional right should be undermined by an authoritarian President tanking in the national polls to Joe Biden.
From the earliest days of the republic, regular elections and orderly transfer of power have been signatures of American democracy. That we were able to achieve both so early is a testament to the wisdom of the Founders, but even they disagreed over the limits of executive authority.
Worries that a president could be seduced to monarchism and tyranny prompted them to invest Congress with the sole power to calendar presidential elections, but Thomas Jefferson, for one, worried that by not writing term limits into the Constitution (those came later), presidents could leverage an “elective monarchy” to remain in power for life.
In 1797, that worry faced its first test as President John Adams contemplated a second term in the midst of escalating tensions with France. Jefferson, Adams’ vice president, feared that escalation could distract the nation from the “pivot of free and frequent elections.” If war came, he wrote, no one could foresee “into what port it will drive us.”
Luckily, Adams maintained the peace. The 1800 election proceeded as scheduled. And for more than 150 years after, Americans brooked no possibility of postponing our quadrennial presidential rite, despite war, panic and pestilence.
The first wartime election occurred just 15 years after Jefferson’s foreboding. In June 1812, President James Madison declared war on Great Britain, precipitating the War of 1812. Through the summer and fall, American forces engaged in ferocious action in Michigan and western New York.
Public opinion was split, with most New England states refusing to send militiamen to the cause and later formulating a plan to secede from the Union. With the nation divided and under attack, Madison might easily have considered postponing that year’s election.
Instead, he won a second term, kept the union together and negotiated an end to hostilities.
Less than half a century later, Abraham Lincoln faced an even more grievous threat to the union. His election on an anti-slavery platform in 1860 had precipitated Southern secession, which in turn sparked the Civil War.
By 1864, the Union and Confederacy had waged some of the bloodiest battles in history, with hundreds of thousands killed. Yet plans for the election went forward, spurred in no small part by Lincoln himself.
Just one year before, his address at the Gettysburg battlefield had committed a generation of Americans to ensuring that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” It remains our most galvanizing reminder of America’s national purpose.
Through Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and the early decades of the 20th century, Americans faced droughts and crop failures, crushing wealth inequality, economic panics and the horrors of the first World War, all without wavering from the cause to which Lincoln had dedicated them.
Then came the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, which killed some 50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 Americans. It was one of the most disruptive disasters in modern history, forcing the closure of churches, schools, amusements and even federal courts – but not voting booths.
In 1918, as the midterm election drew near, newspapers calmly alternated news of the flu’s horrific toll with predictions of the November results. With the Great War won, public support was high for spreading democracy to Europe’s ravaged nations, and nonexistent for tampering with our own democracy at home.
In spring 1940, with Nazi Germany on the march and Franklin Roosevelt challenging Congress to boost US defense mobilization, the idea of skipping a US presidential election gained broad support for the first time.
Across the country, intemperate voices argued, as one commentator put it, “that politics should be completely adjourned during the building of the defense program; that opponents of the party in power should sit down and shut up; that, in fact, the presidential election should be postponed until the danger to this country is over.”
Soon after, Roosevelt used one of his fireside chats to squash the idea. “It is whispered by some,” he said, “that only by abandoning our freedom, our ideals, our way of life, can we build our defenses adequately, can we match the strength of the aggressors… . I do not share these fears.”
“For more than three centuries,” Roosevelt continued, “we Americans have been building on this continent a free society, a society in which the promise of the human spirit may find fulfillment… . It is this that we must continue to build – this that we must continue to defend. It is the task of our generation, yours and mine. But we build and defend not for our generation alone. We defend the foundations laid down by our fathers. We build a life for generations yet unborn. We defend and we build a way of life, not for America alone, but for all mankind.”
Like Lincoln, Roosevelt understood his duty to the Founders’ great experiment.
In the postwar era, the United States continued to be the symbol of rock-solid democracy. Candidates could come and go, but faith in what seemed like the natural cycle of our elections was near absolute.
As television took hold in American life, it brought presidential politics into our homes, with newscasters like Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley calling the parties’ national conventions as though they were World Series games. It was democracy in living color.
Fast forward to 2004. As the first post-9/11 presidential election loomed, Newsweek reported that members of George W. Bush’s administration wanted to usurp Congress’s power to set presidential election dates, citing the need for quick decision making were terrorists to strike immediately before the election.
In a display of rare bipartisan consensus, both Democrats and Republicans panned the idea. “We should be an example for democracies around the world, and that means holding our elections as scheduled,” said then House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
One Texas voter quoted in the Odessa American got right to the point: “We expect this kind of talk from tinpot dictators or Third-World banana republics desperate to hold onto power,” he said, “not from the current administration of the world’s oldest constitutional republic.”
So the next time Trump tweets or suggest that the 2020 election might be postponed, patriotic lawmakers should shut him down hard. Ballots will be cast.
Our country has seen worse and always had the fortitude and democratic idealism to carry on. November 3 is the gold-stamped day. The race for the White House has begun.