Has the American Presidency Lost Its Soul?

(Jason Reed/Reuters)
A new book makes the case that the Hamiltonian ideal of the constitutional presidency has been hijacked by demagogues.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A n easy trick for pundits looking to generate content is to ask, “What would the Founders think of so and so?” The giants of the American Founding—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Jay, and so on—commented upon such a vast array of subjects that it is but a small matter to find a line that happens to reinforce a preconceived notion, and . . . voila . . . the daily quota for content has been met!

It is much harder to think seriously about the Founding vision, how it applies to modern politics, and what it can teach us (in both its own failings and how we may fall short). Stephen Knott has managed this much more difficult task in his wonderful new book, The Lost Soul of the American PresidencySpecifically, Knott identifies the Hamiltonian ideal of the presidency and how it has been corrupted in the succeeding centuries by demagoguery.

Though James Madison receives credit as the “Father of the Constitution,” the truth is that he put relatively little thought into the presidency, assuming that in a republic the legislature would naturally be the dominant governing body. Rather, Alexander Hamilton was the first great theorist of the American executive. He believed that a vigorous president was necessary for the flourishing of the republic, that the president had to possess core virtues (a strong sense of justice, commitment to the national interest, prudence, courage), and that it was essential to create a selection process to weed out demagogues who would manipulate public fears, vanities, and prejudices to acquire and maintain power.

In Knott’s generally persuasive telling, this “soul” was “lost” very soon after the Founding itself. Washington was a perfect embodiment of the Hamiltonian presidency (perhaps because Hamilton had idealized Washington to conceive the institution), but Thomas Jefferson’s misguided faith in popular sovereignty led to an ineluctable process of presidential democratization. With this came all sorts of problems endemic to majoritarian tyranny: prejudice toward ethnic and racial minorities, undermining of the rule of law, and the proliferation of political corruption. The first truly demagogic president in Knott’s view was Andrew Jackson, and the “lowlights” of presidential governance include Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and above all Donald Trump, the “apotheosis of the popular presidency.”

What makes this interpretation so interesting is that Knott is not an opponent of a strong presidency. His is not a typical Whiggish lament about the degradation of legislative power. He praises Washington and Lincoln to the hilt, he criticizes the oft celebrated Dwight Eisenhower for leading from behind, and he has little to nothing to say about Grover Cleveland or Calvin Coolidge, two executives who­m presidential minimalists are wont to celebrate.

Ultimately, the breakdown of the constitutional presidency has turned the institution into a “media-saturated, cultish, hyperpartisan, public-opinion pandering enterprise.” Rather than uniting the people around their best interests and most noble virtues, the presidency is dominated by “petty men convinced of their own righteousness,” who spew “invectives at their opponents.” Donald Trump is the bitter harvest of the seeds sowed by Woodrow Wilson, and before him by Jackson and Jefferson.

Is there any hope of renewal? Knott does not seem very optimistic. He hints at the possibility of the parties serving a greater gatekeeping function, for example through the Democratic Party’s so-called superdelegates to its nominating convention. In general, he thinks strengthened party institutions might keep manifest demagogues from gaining control of the presidency. He also wishes that the original purpose of the Electoral College could be revitalized, again to provide a barrier against those who would practice what Hamilton called “the small arts of popularity.” Neither possibility seems altogether likely, and Knott seems more interested in renewal among the citizenry. He calls upon public intellectuals to stop glorifying demagogic presidents, especially Wilson, who happened to advance policy views that they agree with. He also recommends greater civic education, so that people from a young age better appreciate the virtues of the Hamiltonian presidency.

Knott’s work is an excellent read. It is a fresh and lively retelling of a familiar tale, grounded on a robust theoretical understanding of the constitutional presidency. The Madisonian in me is tempted to take issue with Knott’s attack on Jefferson, but that is mostly a quibble. By and large, The Lost Soul of the American Presidency did for me what any good book does—it taught me something new and prompted me to think things through a bit for myself.

To that end, I cannot help but wonder if the problem with the Hamiltonian presidency is an example of the general weakness of High (i.e., Hamiltonian) Federalism: Politically, it is a bad fit for the United States of America. In historical retrospect, it is little wonder that the Federalist Party collapsed shortly after George Washington retired from public life. Hamiltonian politics requires not just a class of identifiable, natural aristocrats possessed of special virtue to govern the masses, but also public reverence for these unique characters. Lacking a statesman held in near-unanimous esteem such as Washington, Hamilton and his Federalist allies latched on to militarism, war-mongering, and the criminalization of dissent to sustain their necessary “high tone.”

Say what you want about the democratic presidency, it is at least grounded on something durable—the assent of the people. As James Madison once pointed out, “Public opinion sets bounds to every government, and is the real sovereign in every free one.” What anchor does the Hamiltonian alternative have, save for the virtue of the occupant himself? Sadly, such virtue seems to be a matter of historical happenstance. No institutional mechanisms to filter and refine public influence on the chief magistrate have ever withstood public demands for democratization—not the superdelegates to the Democratic National Convention, not even the Electoral College, whose power was rendered nugatory within a generation of ratification.

Perhaps it is not possible to build institutions that secure Hamilton’s vision of the presidency. Knott notes that Hamilton was wrongly tarred in his day as a monarchist, but Hamilton’s original preference was to elevate the president to so lofty a height that he would be rivaled only by European kings and queens. The difference was that Hamilton did not want a hereditary monarch—for while the king may possess distance from and security against petty politics, virtue is not a heritable trait. But maybe the royal houses of Europe understood something that we Americans do not: A born king is immunized from the pressures of politics, at least to some degree, and is usually invested with such majesty that he commands widespread esteem. Hamilton thought that elected executives could enjoy those qualities without recourse to genetics. But maybe, apart from a few choice souls who occasionally ascend to the office, they cannot.

These are the sorts of difficult questions that good books inspire a reader to begin pondering. And The Lost Soul of the American Presidency is a very good book.

Jay Cost is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College.

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