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The Presidents And The Presidency

May 2024
14min read

Through the years the chief executive’s job has grown in power. Here is a study of the men who made it a greater office.

The White House is much on our minds today. Whether we look ahead to the next election, or back to September 24, 1955, the day of President Eisenhower’s heart attack, we are more aware than we we have been for years of the central position the presidency occupies in our scheme of things.

The importance of this noble office, both as instrument and symbol of American democracy, can be most accurately measured by making a list of the major functions the President performs in the American system of government. With the passing of generations the President has become a majestic Pooh-Bah who combines in his person all these essential and delicate roles:

Chief of State , the ceremonial head of the government of the United States, the man who does for the American people what the Queen does for the people of Britain.

Chief Executive , the one official commanded by the Constitution to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” the one official expected by the people to secure an ethical, loyal, efficient, frugal, and responsive administration.

Chief Diplomat —in John Marshall’s words “the sole organ of the nation in its external relations, ami its sole representative with foreign nations.”

Commander in Chief , in peace and war the supreme head of the armed forces, the living guarantee of the American belief in the “supremacy of ihe civil over the military authority.”

Leader of Legislation , a “third house of Congress” intimately associated with every stage in the legislative process.

Chief of Party , since Jeffferson’s day the active leader of his own party and thus the nation’s top “boss.”

Voice of the People —in Woodrow Wilson’s words “the spokesman for the real sentiment and purpose of the country.”

Protector of the Peace , a one-man riot squad ready to muster up troops, experts, food, money, loans, equipment, medical supplies, and moral support in the event of natural disaster or social disorder.

Manager of Prosperity , an economic overseer expected by Congress and people to act decisively “to promote maximum employment, production, and purchasing power.”

Leader of Coalition of Free Nations , or at least permanent presiding’ officer of various committees of his peers, the leaders of nations united in the face of Soviet pressure.

It is not too much to say that the outstanding feature of American constitutional development has been the growth in the power and prestige of the presidency. This growth has not been steady, but subject to sharp ebbs as well as massive flows. Strong Presidents have been followed by weak ones: in the aftermath of every “dictator” Congress has exulted in the “restoration of the balance wisely ordained by the fathers.” Yet the ebbs have been more apparent than real, and each new strong President has picked up where the last one left off. Lincoln took oil’ from Jackson and Polk, not from Pierce and Buchanan. Franklin Roosevelt looked back to Wilson over the barely visible heads of the three Presidents who came between them. In the face of history, it seems hard to deny the inevitability of the upward course of the presidency—discontinuous, to be sure, but also irreversible.

Why should the presidency have developed into so powerful an office? Why has it outstripped both Congress and Court in the long race for authority and prestige?

The search lor an answer to this fascinating question begins in tin: Convention at Philadelphia in 1787, for out of this “assembly of demigods” came Article 11 of the Constitution, the firm and spacious foundation on which die modern presidency still .stands. The presidency outlined in the Constitution was largely the work of three men: James Wilson, who campaigned tirelessly for an executive who could operate “with energy, dispatch, and responsibility”; James .Madison, who swung around slowly, but in the end decisively, to Wilson’s views: and Gouverneur Morris, who led die battle for a strong executive on the door of die Convention and then sealed the victory by writing the final draft of the Constitution. Executive power was greatly mistrusted at the time, and persistent voices were raised against almost every arrangement that eventually appeared in Article U. Wilson and his colleagues were able to score their final success only after a series of debates, decisions, reconsiderations, references to committees, and private maneuvers that still leave the historian befuddled. In the end, eight clear decisions on the structure and powers of the executive were taken by the Convention, every one of them in favor of a strong and independent executive:

An executive would be established separate from the legislature. The executive would consist of one man, a President of the United States. The President would have source of election outside the legislature. He would have a fixed term of office. He would be eligible for re-election to an indefinite number of terms. He would be granted his own powers by the Constitution, especially the power to veto acts of Congress. He would not be encumbered with a council to which he would have to go for approval of his nominations or vetoes or other acts. No “person holding any office under the United States” could be a “member of either house during his continuance in office.”

The result of these decisions was the presidency of. George Washington, a presidency marked by strength, dignity, independence, and constitutionalism. Time and time again Presidents have gone back to him, and beyond him to the plain words of Article II of the Constitution, for unimpeachable authority for strong and unusual actions. Once these words had been written and approved and tested by time, legislative supremacy would not endure nor parliamentary government ever develop on the American scene.

The search for an explanation of the power and glory of the presidency requires us to survey the whole sweep of American history. Out of our history we may single five massive forces that have pushed this office ever higher in our memories and desires.

The first of these is the rise of the “positive state.” the big government that regulates, stimulates, and operates in every part of the American economy and society. The growth of our industrial civilization has brought in its train a thousand problems of huge contern to the American people; in seeking to meet them, Congress has created an Administration manned by more than two and a hall million persons. As a result, the President has been elevated to a position of administrative authority without precedent in all history.

Alexis de Tocqueville put his finger on a second element in the rise of the presidency when he lung ago predicted: “Ii’ the existence of the Union were perpetually threatened, if its (hid interests were in daily connection with those of other powerful nations, the executive government would assume an increased importance in proportion to the measures expected of it and to those which it would execute.” The power of the President has been permanently inflated by our entrance during recent times into world politics and our decision to be armed against aggression, and as the world grows smaller, he will grow bigger.

An associated cause is the shattering series of emergencies, both foreign and domestic, that have been our lot in the last century. Great emergencies in the life of a constitutional democracy bring an increase in executive power and prestige, always at least temporarily, more of’ten than not permanently. Lincoln, Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt all lei’t the presidency a stronger instrument because of the extraordinary powers they had exerted in time of’ crisis.

The long decline of Congress has also contributed to the rise of the presidency. Not only does Congress now look to him for continuous leadership, as it certainly did not look to him before 1900; it cannot exercise its own authority without, in turn, increasing that of the President. Whether because of its exertions or because of its deficiencies, Congress has done its part to make the President what he is today.

Finally, the presidency has drawn great strength from the rise of American democracy. Since the days of Andrew Jackson it has been generally recognized as a highly democratic office. It depends directly on the people for much of its power and prestige; it shrinks to a rather mean thing when it loses their support. It is no accident of history that the upsurge of democracy and Jackson’s resurrection of the presidency went hand in hand. American democracy still finds in the President its single most useful instrument.

The search leads in the end to the Presidents themselves. None of these mighty events—the upbuilding of the positive state, our plunge into the world, the crises of war and depression, the hard times of Congress, or the triumph of democracy—would have had such influence on the presidency if strong, alert, capable men had not come to this high office and shaped the event to their ends. The Presidents, too, helped build the presidency, and we should pay our respects to the distinguished seven whom most historians nominate for greatness.

George Washington enjoyed a long head start toward being a great President simply because he was the first President. It was no easy trick to be the first occupant of a mistrusted office under a dubious Constitution. Two or three missteps might have touched oil an irresistible demand for a new convention to undo the damage of Article II. But Washington, who had a nice feeling for the delicacy of his task, never did commit a serious misstep.

Washington also lent his vast prestige to the republic and to the presidency and thus rendered them acceptable to the American people. The Republicans in opposition may have ridiculed the pompous ceremonies in which the General thought it necessary to indulge, hut they did not understand as clearly as he that magic may be reduced but never eliminated entirely from the processes by which tree men are governed; even they could not deny that his grand tours through the states strengthened the people’s trust in the Constitution and excited their interest in the presidency.

Nor could they deny, indeed they were loud to lament, that he used his powers vigorously. Washington took time to make up his mind: he knew that any one of his decisions might set a precedent for generations to come. When he was ready to act, he acted with force and courage. In the field of foreign relations alone he set a dozen precedents that no later period of congressional ascendancy could ever erase. Thanks to Hamilton he was an influential leader of legislation, thanks to his experience he was an excellent administrator, and thanks to himself he was a head of state who made every king alive seem like a silly goose. He was, in short, the best ol all possible first Presidents. Constitutionalism, dignity, authority—these were his gifts to the presidency and to the republic.

The presidency of Thomas Jefferson presents a slippery problem to the judgment of history. That he was a great man there can be no doubt, but that he was a great President there is considerable doubt. To his lasting credit are his injections of large doses of republicanism into an office that was coming to look just a shade too kingly: the breath-taking assertion of power (which took even his own breath away) in the purchase of Louisiana, and the Hat declaration of presidential independence in his rejection of John Marshall’s subpoena in the trial of Aaron Burr.

His most important contributions, of course, were his conversion of the presidency to a political office and his leadership of Congress, and it is exactly at these two points that we um into trouble with Jefferson. His successes in molding and leading a party and then using it to influence Congress leave us no choice but to judge him an effective President. Yet the very methods through which he brought strength to his own presidency were calculated to weaken the office grievously once he had turned it over to lesser men. to men who were not and could never be the party chieftain that he was.

John Marshall made a remarkable prediction about Jefferson’s methods and influence in a letter written to Hamilton while the election of 1800 hung in the balance:

“Mr. Jefferson appears to me to be a man, who will embodv himself with the House of Representatives. By weakening the office of President, he will increase his personal power. He will diminish his responsibility, sap the fundamental principles of the government, and become the leader of that party which is about to constitute the majority of the legislature.”

We need not subscribe to the full bitterness of this statement to recognize that Marshall was a shrewd prophet. Jefferson did embody himself in the House of Representatives, thereby increasing his power ten times over. The power, however, was personal and not presidential. It flowed from him and not from his office, and this, surely, was the essence of Jefferson’s presidency. If we concentrate our gaze on his eight years, then shift it swiftly down to the middle of cither the Nineteenth or Twentieth Centuries, we can say that it was a strong and great presidency. If we let our gaze halt at any year between 1809 and 1829, we must judge that Jefferson damaged the office severely by compromising its independence.

Andrew Jackson plucked Jefferson’s chestnuts from the fire, although he would hardly have put it that way. Coming as it did after twenty years of congressional supremacy and government by commission, his resolute presidency was a remaking of the office. Jackson regained control over the Cabinet, revived the veto and purified it of the niceties that had grown tip around it, acted simultaneously as a dramatic chief of state and a hard-driving chief of party, and made clear to South Carolina that the executive power was equal to the task of preserving the Union. He never missed an opportunity, by word or deed, to reassert the independence of an office that had become much more dependent on Congress than the framers could possibly have willed. His veto of the Bank Rill, his proclamation against the nullifiers, and his “solemn protest” against the Senate’s resolution of censure are assertions of presidential independence and authority that make exciting reading el’en today.

Jackson rode into office on a wave of protest that he never directed and barely understood himself. The presidency would surely have become a democratic office had Jackson never held it, but he was the one who presided imperiously over the radical reversal in the roles of President and Congress as instruments of popular power and targets of popular feeling. No small part_of his success may be traced directly to the fact that he was the first President of the United States elected by the people, and to the added fact that he knew it.

Jackson’s mistakes were many, his legacies not all bright; more than one such President a century would be hard to take. Yet he was a giant in his influence on our system of government, and the influence, on balance, seems to have been wholesome. Well might he write in defense of his conduct: “I shall anticipate with pleasure the place to be assigned me in the history of my country.”

Lincoln came to the presidency with virtually no preparation and no preconception of the authority it embodied. But he had sworn an “oath registered in Heaven” to defend the Constitution, and in his inaugural address he promised his fellow citizens to save the Union without which the Constitution would be nothing but a scrap of paper. He had little concern for the form his actions might take; he meant only to act—as commander of the armed forces, executor of the laws, and sole possessor of the shapeless grant of power in the opening words of Article II.

In his effort to save the Union, Lincoln pushed the powers of the presidency to a new plateau. In the course of his famed eleven-week “dictatorship” he called out the militia, clamped a blockade on the South, enlarged the regular army and navy beyond statutory limits, advanced public moneys to persons unauthorized to receive them, pledged the credit of the United States for a sizable loan, closed the mails to “treasonable correspondence,” authorized potential traitors to be arrested, and suspended the writ of habeas corpus along the line of communication between Washington and New York.

“As Commander in Chief in time of war,” he told some visitors from Chicago, “I suppose I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy.” We need not look beyond the Emancipation Proclamation and the declaration of martial law in Indiana to learn what he meant by “any measure.”

There is a good deal more than this to tell about Lincoln’s presidency—the shabby performance as administrator, the creditable performance as diplomat, and the astounding performance as politician and leader of public opinion. But this point should be made clear: through the boldness of his untutored initiative, through an unprecedented plea of necessity, and through an unique interpretation of executive power, Lincoln raised the presidency to a position of constitutional and moral ascendancy that left no doubt where the burden of crisis government would thereafter rest.

Lincoln, like Jefferson, left the presidency temporarily enfeebled. There were times in the next thirty years—under Grant and Arthur and Harrison—when the presidency seemed to have declined permanently in relation to Congress. But our rise to industrial might and our grand entrance upon the stage of world politics turned the course of the presidency once more upward, and Colonel Roosevelt galloped into the White House as our first modern President.

It is hard to come to grips with Theodore Roosevelt, just as it is with any boy of six. There are times when he has the look of a genuinely great man, and times when he has the look, as Mark Hanna said, of a “damned cowboy.” He was, beyond a doubt, a strong President, and no small part of his strength lay in the fact that he was a cowboy. For what Roosevelt gave the presidency was the breathless drama of a Western movie, and he never left the audience in doubt that he was the “good guy” and the other fellows—Democrats, Senators, monopolists, Socialists, diplomats, nature-fakers, muckrakers—the “bad guys.” With the help of an active and attractive family, he put the presidency on the front page of every newspaper in America, and there it has remained ever since with huge consequences for its status and authority. Teddy lived the dreams of every red-blooded American boy: he punched cattle, led a cavalry charge, became President, and, when it was all over, went off to shoot lions and elephants’in Africa.

T. R. was a brilliant molder and interpreter of public opinion who confessed happily that the White House was a “bully pulpit.” He scored several genuine triumphs as leader of Congress and thus gave substance to his theory that “a good executive under present conditions of American life must take a very active interest in getting the right kind of legislation.” He conducted our diplomacy with unusual vigor, although his stick was not so big nor his voice so soft as he liked to boast. Still, the Panama Canal and the Treaty of Portsmouth were rather substantial achievements for those days.

Unfortunately for Teddy, but probably fortunately for the country, there was no real crisis in all his seven years that would permit him to prove conclusively that he was, as he insisted, a “Jackson-Lincoln” as opposed to a “Buchanan” President. The nearest thing to such a crisis was the anthracite coal strike of 1902, which he managed to settle before being pushed into executing his plans, first revealed fully in his Autobiography (1913), to have the Army seize and operate the mines. This event, his land withdrawals, and several other minor exertions of authority led him to state the famed “Stewardship Theory” which is still the most adroit literary justification of the strenuous presidency.

Woodrow Wilson was the best prepared President, intellectually and morally, ever to come to the White House. He proved himself an able administrator, a shrewd leader of his party, a sensitive “spokesman for the real purpose and sentiment of the country,” an impressive head of state, and a genuinely effective leader of legislation.

In his second term, to be sure, he came to grief in more ways than one, although his record as a wartime President is every bit as admirable as the records of both Lincoln and the second Roosevelt. Confronted by the problem of raising and equipping an army to fight overseas rather than by a sudden threat to the republic, Wilson chose to demand express legislative authority for almost every unusual step. Lincoln had shown what the office was equal to in crises calling for solitary executive action. Now Wilson showed what it could do by working with the legislature. The source of Lincoln’s power was the Constitution, and he operated in spite of Congress. The source of Wilson’s power, except in the area of command and a few related matters, was a batch of statutes, and he co-operated with Congress.

In the end, sad to relate, he lost his hold on Congress, the country, and even himself. His appeal for a Democratic Congress in 1918 was a serious blunder; his whole course of action in behalf of the League of Nations foundered on his own obstinacy. Yet his journey to Europe in December, 1918, was a herald of things to come, a rehearsal of the grand role the President would fill in the aftermath of World War II. Wilson carried the presidency to new moral and political heights, and the strength of his days can be measured in the weakness of those that followed.

Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore VV Roosevelt, and Wilson—this is a galaxy of presidential heroes to which the American people are not likely to add names often or casually. All three of our most recent Presidents—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower—have already been nominated by friends and admirers for admittance to this exclusive club. It is much too early to predict the stature of either Mr. Truman or Mr. Eisenhower in history, although the former will surely win a much higher place than that to which he is angrily assigned by Republican orators, and the latter will surely win special ranking for having been much the most popular President in American history.

It is not too early, however, to predict that Franklin D. Roosevelt will be added to the list of great Presidents. The challenging nature of his times, the airy eagerness with which he met every challenge, the breadth of his view of presidential power, his leadership of the forces of domestic reform and the forces of international freedom, his influence on the presidency —all these factors lead most historians to prophesy greatness for his name. Those millions who still denounce Mr. Roosevelt lavishly may as well face the hard fact bravely that Roosevelt had his own rendezvous with history, and that history will be kind to him. It is kind to almost all Presidents, but especially to those who wield their vast powers with boldness and imagination in response to the “felt necessities of the time.”

This is not at all to say that “strength” in the presidency is to be equated with “goodness” and “greatness.” A strong President is a bad President, a curse upon the land, unless his means are constitutional and his ends democratic-unless he acts in ways that are fair, dignified, and familiar, and pursues policies to which a “persistent and undoubted” majority of the people has given support. We honor the great Presidents of the past, not for their strength, but for the fact that they used it to build a better America. And in honoring them we recognize that their kind of presidency remains one of our chief bulwarks against decline and chaos.

A Chart of the Presidency

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