A Review of: The American Presidency: An Intellectual History by Forrest McDonald Kansas, 1994.
Since the surrender at Appomattox, the South has been virtually excluded from two of the three branches of the national government. We can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Southerners who have been appointed to the Supreme Court or elected to the presidency. Most of those who have been elevated to one of these high offices have been Unionists-men of Northern principles.
Indeed, not a single states’ rights Southern conservative has occupied the White House since John Tyler, and of the small handful of Southerners who have served on our nation’s highest tribunal since 1865, most have been hostile or indifferent to conservative values and the rights of the States.
Only in the Congress, during the last 130 years, has the South had a real voice; and even here it has been the feeble voice of a beleaguered minority, rarely unified and often compromised by the liberalism of its members or the interest group ties of its party leaders. There have been some notable filibusters to slow things down, and the South once had a lock on some committee chairmanships, but these are eddies in a torrent of liberal Unionism. Reconstruction, an ongoing enterprise for helping to keep the South in its place, extends down to the present.
In many ways, then, the South has been more of a bystander than a leading participant in national affairs since the War of Secession, and only Dear Old Dixie’s worst elements, as the present administration reminds us, seem to sit in the national councils of state nowadays. It was not always this way, of course. In the period between 1789 and 1860, the South was well represented in all three branches of the national government and either held the balance of power or dominated public affairs. Eleven of the first 15 presidents preceding Lincoln were Southerners, and more than half of the justices on the Supreme Court came from below the Mason-Dixon.
Almost to the man, they fought for strict construction and limited government, successfully resisting Unionist doctrines year after year. They were a conservative force in American politics. The national government on the eve of secession was a mere speck on the political map, with only a handful of officials and virtually no presence outside the Federal City. The history of the government of the United States since 1860, on the other hand, has been a history of aggrandizement and increasing centralization of authority. Like ancient Rome, the nation has been metamorphosed from a democratic republic into a global empire, with territorial holdings extending into the next hemisphere. It may be doubted whether any of this would have happened had the South been granted the right of self-determination.
In this pioneering intellectual history of the American presidency, Forrest McDonald traces the rise and fall of the second branch, noting the decline in the caliber of the men who have served as chief executive. “I am not sanguine” about the future of the institution, he concludes, “and do not see how anyone who lived through the 1992 election could be.” Few sane men will offer a more optimistic prognosis than this.
We are reminded of Lord Bryce’s classic, The American Commonwealth, first published in 1888, which devoted an entire chapter to the depressing subject of “Why Great Men are Not Chosen Presidents.” Bryce attributed the problem to the fact that few Americans of first-rate ability are drawn into politics, and to the general inclination of the American people and political parties to favor non-controversial candidates over brilliant ones. This preference for mediocrity, the chief requisite of “executive leadership” in so many levels of American life, is reflected today not only in the White House, but in the executive mansions of our state governors.
But Bryce was not an historian and did not bring an historical perspective to his study of our political system. Had he known more about the South and enjoyed a keener sense of history, he would have been more acutely aware that the decline of the presidency began when the South lost its grip in the 1820s. This is when the party hacks and King Demos took over, a shift to the left that became a rout after the election of Lincoln. This is the antecedent of the populist-progressive movement that has brought us, almost without interruption, one second-rate president after another for more than a century. “The only thing remarkable about them,” observed Bryce, “is that being so commonplace they should have climbed so high.” What Bryce never disclosed, however, is that: 1) great men have been chosen president, 2) that most of them were aristocrats from the antebellum South, and 3) that one reason great men were not chosen president in Bryce’s time (or in ours) is because the South that produced these leaders was destroyed, and the region itself was held in perpetual economic and political bondage after the War.
Perhaps, then, one of the major reasons great men are no longer chosen president is because the Yankees have been in charge. Whatever the causes of our declining presidency, it hardly seems appropriate to lay much of the blame on the region that has exerted the least influence on the office. But this too will change, for two of the last five presidents have been Southerners, all liberals, and as the South becomes more like the North, we may be assured that not only will the mediocrity continue to flourish, but that representation of the “New South” will also expand.
Had Professor McDonald’s historical analysis included every President, this would have been a tedious book of doubtful utility.
Few of the nobodies elected to the presidency have left much of a mark on the institution, and there is little to be learned about the office by dwelling upon their tenure. The author has therefore wisely forsaken a chronological approach in favor of a topical one. The general aim of the book is not to evaluate the political thought of each President, but to examine what McDonald calls “the legitimate perimeters of presidential action.”
Part One of the book explores the “Roots” of the presidency, that is the germinal source of the conceptual framework of the office as designed by the Framers. Rejecting monarchy and the notion of a plural executive, the Framers confronted the task of devising an institutional substitute for the Crown that could function properly and stand up to a powerful legislature. McDonald shows—and this is one of the most original and enriching portions of the study—that the Framers drew from a variety of sources, mostly English, in drafting Article II of the Constitution. They include the great commentaries on the Constitution and laws of England, works that were familiar to the Framers. Here, for the first time, the student of the American presidency will learn of the influence of Jean-Louis de Lolme’s The Constitution of England, a treatise widely read in the colonies in the 1780s; of Bracton’s De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae, Fortes-cue’s De Laudibus Legum Angliae, the voluminous writings and opinions of Lord Coke, Matthew Hale, and Sir William Blackstone on the English Constitution; of the political philosophies of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Bacon, Boling-broke and Hume in shaping ideas about executive power. The sources also include the lessons that were learned from the Bible, from Greek, Roman and English history; from the trials and tribulations of colonial government and the American Revolution. Especially important in understanding the origin and development of the presidency is the experience of drafting and implementing the first state constitutions.
In Part Two of the book, the author turns to the creation of the presidency. This section covers the Constitutional Convention, the struggle over ratification and the presidencies of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. Unlike the first Article of the Constitution, which spells out the delegated powers of Congress in specific terms, Article II speaks only of the “executive power,” it being the intention of the Framers to sketch the provision in broad strokes, leaving the first occupants of the executive branch to fill in the details. This is precisely what the Virginia dynasty achieved. Their precedents, particularly those established by Washington and Jefferson, defined the presidency. Thus it was the South which played a commanding role in shaping the office, bequeathing to the nation a tradition of energetic but limited executive power that was not broken until Abraham Lincoln occupied the White House. The tenure of John Adams, incidentally, did almost nothing to shape the office. That of Jefferson, on the other hand, was far more significant than is commonly thought, and the author’s superb chapter on the presidency of Jefferson is an important reinterpretation that at last elevates the Sage of Monticello to his proper place in the history of the presidency.
The third and last part of The American Presidency traces the evolution of the office from the presidency of Andrew Jackson down to the present. The author deals with a complex array of historical and legal materials—the President as chief law enforcer and defender of the Constitution, his administrative responsibilities, his diplomatic and war powers, executive-legislative relations and the president as myth and symbol. Though the powers of the Chief Executive have expanded well beyond anything imagined by the Framers and the early presidents who molded the office, the American presidency, concludes McDonald, “remains functionally true to the original design.”
The same, of course, cannot be said for Congress and the Federal Judiciary. We live in a Leviathan State of nearly a quarter billion souls. We police the globe. The sheer enormity of it all is so radically different from the original design that it is difficult to see how and in what respects the modern presidency is functionally consistent with the intent of the founding generation.
Strictly speaking, McDonald is correct; the powers of the President remain basically unchanged. Neither amendments to the constitution nor decisions of the Supreme Court have formally created new executive powers, and presidents seeking to usurp the powers of Congress have ultimately been unsuccessful in permanently altering the relationship between the two branches.
On the other hand, it is arguable that the massive growth of the federal government has changed the decision-making function of the President. In order to carry out all of the assignments that are thrust upon this single individual, the President must dele-gate his authority to thousands— nay, millions—of faceless, unaccountable bureaucrats in countless departments, agencies, boards and commissions. He may in theory be in charge, administering affairs of state, but in reality somebody else is making many of the decisions. A fundamental principle of the separation of powers doctrine holds that powers delegated cannot be redelegated. Yet it is a fact that for the past 50 years or more Congress has routinely—and in some cases even deliberately—enacted legislation that at best provides only vague guidelines for administrators and freely permits the executive branch to “fill in the details.” It is fatuous to say that the will of Congress is routinely honored and followed—or even known—by the hordes of federal bureaucrats who daily apply thousands of federal laws in our land. This is not to overlook the various independent regulatory commissions, otherwise known as the Fourth Branch of Government, that exercise executive functions and are not even accountable to the Chief Executive.
It must also be kept in mind that the powers of Congress and the Federal Judiciary have been profoundly altered and substantially enlarged as a result of the wholesale usurpations of powers once reserved to the states. We are all familiar with what Congress has accomplished just through a liberal interpretation of the Commerce Clause or how the Supreme Court has redefined our liberties by stripping the states of their exclusive jurisdiction over disputes between a state and its citizens under the Bill of Rights. The same cannot be said of the Chief Executive. There has been no direct transfer of power from the states to the executive branch of the federal government. The President has not usurped the powers of the states; but he has inherited them. They are embodied in the acts of Congress and the decisions of the Supreme Court that he enforces. He is, in effect, an accessory to the crime, a knowing and willing accomplice, at least in those instances when he participates in the law-making process and signs bills into law that encroach upon the reserved powers of the several states. In the final analysis, therefore, it may be the case that the American presidency has not remained quite so functionally true to the original design as we originalists would prefer.
Whatever the extent of the departure, Forrest McDonald’s intellectual history of our nation’s highest office is a monumental achievement in American historiography. McDonald’s engaging and learned commentary, exhaustive research, his fearless but judicious interpretations of complex ideas and events, and his lively prose, are all a tribute to his impeccable scholarship. Like Edward S. Corwin’s constitutional history of the presidency, this work will serve as a beacon for further study of our nation’s highest office for years to come.
Not the least of its many virtues is that the book is refreshingly free of Yankee idolatry, leftist cant and ideological claptrap. This is not another pilgrimage to the shrines of St. Abraham and Father Franklin of Hyde Park. The reader will find no mindless worship in these pages of executive power, no silly surveys of historians purporting to show that most of the great presidents were liberal reformers. Being a Southerner who, like the rest of us, has not had a president he can call his own since Jeff Davis, Forrest McDonald is able to bring a sense of critical objectivity to this study that most historians today are simply incapable of grasping. Historians, then, particularly Yankee historians, stand to profit from this book.
This article was originally printed in Southern Partisan magazine, 3rd Quarter 1994.