“I would rather that the people should wonder why I wasn’t President than why I am.”
—Salmon P. Chase

Contra Ecclesiastes, the American presidency was something new under the sun. With no explicit precedents to guide them, the Founding Fathers constructed the office and defined its parameters by analogy. In his richly detailed, elegantly written, and closely reasoned book, Forrest McDonald undertakes to investigate the origins and development of this unique institution.

As the foremost student of the Constitution, McDonald boasts an intimate knowledge of the intellectual world of the Founders. The English monarchy, he shows, constituted the most immediate and accessible representation of executive power for them. After 1776, they had to “devise an institutional substitute for the crown.” Yet McDonald is careful to point out that by 1776 the English had fashioned a stable constitutional monarchy that provided the ordered liberty Americans sought. Americans traced the progress of limited monarchy not only in their examination of English history, but in their study of the English legal and constitutional tradition.

During the 18th century, Americans—especially those who read for the bar—routinely consulted the commentaries of Henry Bracton, Sir John Fortescue, Sir Edward Coke, Matthew Hale, and Sir William Blackstone. They did not wholly abandon their English antecedents even after they had won independence from the British Empire. They did not have to.

Their emphasis on law and custom marked the Founding Fathers as exceedingly prudent and conservative men. Skeptical, even disdainful, of abstract theorems and speculative calculations, they nevertheless found in political philosophy a second important source for their idea of the presidency. Ancient thinkers, McDonald declares, contributed nothing to the Framers’ understanding of the executive; instead, the Americans began with Niccolo Machiavelli, who wrote The Prince as a practical manual for rulers. In addition, they had at least a passing, if at times imprecise, familiarity with the work of Thomas Hobbes, Robert Filmer, John Locke, Sir William Temple, Viscount Bolingbroke, Montesquieu, David Hume, and Jean-Louis De Lolme. But John Dickinson articulated the prevailing sentiment among his peers when he said, “Experience must be our guide. Reason may mislead us.” History, not philosophy, would determine the contours of the American presidency.

Biblical, Creek and Roman, and English history each offered the Founding Fathers insight into the nature, evolution, and dangers of executive power. Moreover, they applied the lessons of history to their own experience as colonists, revolutionaries, and statesmen. Their education and their practical experience ill disposed them to vest unrestrained power in any branch of government, particularly the executive.

At the same time, history and experience taught Americans that “safety and ordered liberty cannot exist without competent government and that government without executive authority is no government at all.” Cautiously, they put aside their fears and suspicions of power, and, in devising a new instrument of government, also invented a new chief executive office to administer it. Indispensable to those proceedings was George Washington. “It is no exaggeration to say,” writes McDonald, “that Americans were willing to venture the experiment with a single national republican chief executive only because of their unreserved trust in George Washington.” What was it about Washington’s character and demeanor that inspired the almost boundless admiration and irrepressible devotion of his countrymen?

Washington’s military accomplishments during the Revolution established his reputation; his political career secured it. Intuitively understanding the significance of the presidency, he saw that his every action fixed a precedent. He also recognized that his function as President was as much ceremonial as administrative. The constancy with which he fulfilled his obligations brought dignity to the office and respect for the new nation at home and abroad. Moreover, as McDonald discerns, Washington was the first great political actor in American histor’. As commander in chief during the Revolution, he engineered victory against overwhelming odds. After the fighting ended, he allayed the threat of insurrection among his subordinates, reminding them that he had “grown gray” and “almost blind” in the service of his country. To take up arms against it now would be an abomination. Relinquishing command of the Army to Congress constituted an integral act in Washington’s political drama. Here was no Sulla, no Caesar, no Cromwell who would forsake republican liberty. Washington’s disinterested love of country, McDonald concludes, enabled his contemporaries at least to contemplate instituting the office of President.

McDonald asserts that since Washington retired from public life in 1796, “the caliber of people who have served as chief executive has declined erratically but persistently.” Subsequent Presidents from Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln in the 19th century to Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan in the 20th have made definitive though not always salutary contributions to the presidency. Despite this troubled history, McDonald contends that “the presidency has been responsible for less harm and more good, in the nation and in the world, than perhaps any other secular institution in history.” He may be right. Compared with the upheaval that often attends political change in other nations, the transition from one President to another in the United States represents a model of stability, decorum, order, and sanity. But there is more to good government than the peaceful transfer of power. McDonald’s judicious analysis of what the presidency has become in our time belies or at least raises serious questions about his conclusion.

Throughout his study, McDonald registers the vast and growing divergence between popular expectations and presidential accomplishments. Quite simply. Presidents can no longer live up to the image of themselves that they and the media concoct. They can no longer keep all—or even most—of the promises that they make to win elections. But the problem, as McDonald recognizes, goes deeper. Americans have never decided what kind of President and, indeed, what kind of government they want. The enduring dilemma of American political life remains that we as a people are no more content with a strong executive and an energetic national government than with a weak executive and an enervated national government. McDonald notes that “Polls taken by the American Institute of Public Opinion since the 1930’s have reflected two unchanging popular attitudes toward the presidency, namely that the people want strong, activist presidents and that they distrust and fear strong, activist presidents.” Such indecision ensures recurrent ambiguity in defining the presidency. The expanded responsibilities but diminished capacities of the office have only intensified the afflictions of modern Presidents. Now no longer merely the chief executive of the United States, the President leads the free world. The persona of world leader entails imposing burdens that few can bear for long.

To make policy, for example, the President must sift through a bewildering assortment of information that frequently produces not clarity, coherence, and precision, but confusion, disarray, and turmoil. To complicate matters, presidential advisors, skilled at manipulating the internal politics of the White House to their own advantage or at guaranteeing the President “deniability,” often distort or withhold crucial information. The real wonder is not that Presidents appear perplexed, but that they execute any of the functions of their office.

Finally, campaigns for the presidency have become more expensive, more demanding, more embittered, and more humiliating. Indeed, McDonald’s penetrating inquiry suggests essential questions about the nature and future of democracy in an age when presidential contests have come to be based not only on popularity but on publicity. The quest for popularity in an increasingly democratic political culture may have engendered appeals to common fears, prejudices, and hatreds. But the advent of publicity has virtually drained American political and civic life of values and standards, reason and restraint, taste and judgment. Civilization and democracy no longer seem compatible.

As a result, Presidents do not command the respect that they once enjoyed as a matter of course. Without that respect, they are finished. “It is not enough to govern well,” McDonald wisely argues. “The president must also seem presidential.” He must exhibit integrity, compassion, and mastery of self, rivals, and circumstances. He must inspire confidence. If he fails to do so, he will almost certainly be ineffective, whatever his qualifications for office. As McDonald insists, “the image . . . determines the reality.”

As fanciful and shifting images have come not only to determine but largely to displace substantive reality, it seems improbable that the American presidency will continue to work more good than harm in the nation and in the world. The character of the individuals who now occupy the office and the daunting requirements of the job will continue to produce ambivalent results calculated to feed the vague but growing discontent of the American people. The presidency will thus persist in its slow decline into impotence and incompetence, and then shall the realm of Albion’s seed come to great confusion.


[The American Presidency: An Intellectual History, by Forrest McDonald (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas) 528 pp., $29.95]