Politics & Policy

‘A Great and Mighty President’

Three historians discuss the “splendid misery” that is the presidency.

Patrick Henry opposed the Constitution as vehemently as he opposed tyranny. Indeed, at the Virginia ratifying convention in June 1788, he argued they were the same thing. “Besides the expenses of maintaining the Senate and other house in as much splendor as they please,” he railed, “there is to be a great and mighty president, with very extensive powers — the powers of a king.”

Three months before, Alexander Hamilton, writing as “Publius” in the New York Packet, had defended the proposed presidency. “The executive authority, with few exceptions, is to be vested in a single magistrate,” he wrote. “If, in this particular, there be a resemblance to the king of Great Britain, there is not less a resemblance to the Grand Seignior, to the khan of Tartary, to the Man of the Seven Mountains, or to the governor of New York.”

Both men were right. The president assumed very extensive powers. But even with them, no occupant of the office has yet resembled a king — at least not considerably. For this good fortune, we owe a large debt to the men who have held the office.

No man had a greater influence on the presidency than its original occupant. “The office of the presidency was not only forged by George Washington,” says historian Ron Chernow, who recently published a one-volume biography of the first president. “One can make the argument that the office was forged for George Washington.” At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, most delegates assumed he would be the first executive, and they outlined the president’s responsibilities in the Constitution with him in mind — that is to say, rather vaguely. Unlike the lengthy Article I, which enumerates the legislature’s tasks, Article II is short and vague.

“That was extremely important,” Chernow adds, “because we had just fought a war against the abuse of executive power. Washington’s presence at the Constitutional Convention and this assumption emboldened the delegates to create a very powerful office, one so powerful that Thomas Jefferson and others were alarmed by its scope.”

Washington wielded that power effectively: creating a national bank, negotiating an unpopular treaty with Great Britain, and extinguishing the Whisky Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. But he also answered a fundamental question — one whose answer we take for granted today: How is a president supposed to act? “Washington decides that, basically, the president won’t stop by your house for dinner,” Chernow quips. “The office would have a certain dignity and detachment.” Americans still afford their presidents that dignity. Notice last year’s kerfuffle over comedian Jon Stewart’s calling President Obama “dude.”

Nonetheless, Washington also established an egalitarian tradition: the presidential inauguration. “There’s no requirement in the Constitution,” Chernow notes, “only that he take the oath of office. Washington decides he’s going to take the oath in the open air before the multitude. He decides to make an inaugural address. He decides that inaugural address should be broadly thematic. He took the oath of office with his hand the on Bible. Basically, we still hew closely to the pattern of that day.”

An open-air celebration was not a foregone conclusion. The Senate, for instance, did not open its doors to the public until 1794.

Thomas Jefferson, however, gave the office much more of a populist flavor, says historian Gordon Wood. “He saw himself as speaking for the people; I don’t think Washington saw it that way at all,” Wood observes. Unlike Washington, who held weekly levees reminiscent of those held by European courts, “Jefferson really threw all that out and opened himself to the people” — sometimes answering the White House’s door in his slippers.

It was Jefferson’s example that Abraham Lincoln most admired. “All honor to Jefferson,” the 16th president once wrote. Of course, Lincoln enhanced the presidency’s power immensely. He declared martial law and suspended habeas corpus — which was unconstitutional — to win the Civil War.

Lincoln’s greatest contribution, however, was his intellectual effort on behalf of the Union, Wood contends. “The question of the Civil War is not why the South seceded,” he argues. “The question is why the North cared. Lincoln voiced that care: If we fail, then self-government fails. By the middle of the 19th century, there were no republics left in the world, so he was voicing the ideal that came out of Jefferson.”

By saving the American experiment, Lincoln allowed a future president, Theodore Roosevelt, to turn an agrarian republic into a world power. “Roosevelt made the presidency into the office of an international statesman,” says historian Edmund Morris, who recently released the final installment of his three-volume biography of the 26th president.

Roosevelt succeeded in this effort largely because of his cosmopolitan personality. He had four grand tours of Europe before serving as president, spoke German and French fluently, and boasted an enormous range of international acquaintances. “The climax of his presidency was the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906, which he got for mediating the end of the Russo–Japanese war,” Morris notes. “To date, he’s the only president who’s ever been asked to mediate a foreign war.”

After World War II, the American people’s confidence in the presidency declined. After the disastrous presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter, the people perceived the presidency as weak. That perception changed, however, after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office.

“The most obvious and dramatic effect of his inauguration was the restoration overnight — it really was overnight — of American self-confidence and patriotism,” Morris argues. “It’s one thing he and TR had in common: It was a personal dignity and they embodied the national dignity as well as its force.”

The other quality Morris emphasizes is Reagan’s courage. “Before him, every president seemed to be scared of the Soviet Union — terrified of it,” he says. “Reagan seemed to instinctively understand that it was a ramshackle system, a house of cards that just had to be tipped over and then it would crumble.”

Reagan was the last president who strengthened the office, Morris says: “Clinton was much more accommodating with Congress and the latest Bush was much more controversial. But Reagan somehow managed to hold it all together.”

Our government is not a one-man show — nor should it be. But unlike a congressman or a senator, who must represent his district or state, the president must represent the entire nation. He must look out for the whole. For that reason, we put so much emphasis on choosing our presidents correctly — and on celebrating those who served us well.

It was the second president, John Adams, who blessed the White House by praying, “May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.” Our best presidents understood that good, wise leaders in despotic governments were unexpected boons — and in free governments, absolute necessities.

— Brian Bolduc is a William F. Buckley fellow at the National Review Institute.


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