A Plea for a Federalist Presidency

In the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney promised a “fundamental turnaround of the American economy” if he were elected president. He claimed his election would guarantee the creation of over 11 million jobs. On day one, he insisted, he would jump-start the economy by issuing executive orders repealing Obamacare and opening up energy production, and by sending legislation to Congress to be enacted within the first 30 days of his presidency.

Four years later, the promises from the Republican presidential candidate were even more grandiose, if less specific. “You’re gonna be so proud of your country if I get in,” Donald Trump proclaimed on the stump. “We’re gonna start winning again. We’re gonna win so much, we’re gonna win at every level. We’re gonna win economically, we’re gonna win with the economy, we’re gonna win with military, we’re gonna win with healthcare and for our veterans, we’re gonna win with every single facet, we’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning! And you’ll say, ‘please, please, it’s too much winning. We can’t take it anymore!’” Both Romney and Trump told Americans that a better future would be achieved through their election. Rather than elect representatives to deliberate and legislate in Congress, we could make our country great by choosing a single, national leader.

It would be comforting to dismiss this kind of rhetoric as an aberration. But presidents of both parties have been making such promises for decades for one simple reason: we demand that they do so. This rhetoric is bipartisan and obligatory because the American people, by and large, want a president who does all of the work of our political system. As Stephen Knott argues in The Lost Soul of the American Presidency, Trump is the “logical culmination” of the process earlier presidents started. Knott’s account is both interesting and instructive, if decidedly slanted towards the Federalists and Whigs he admires.

The Hamiltonian Presidency

The core argument of Knott’s book is “that shifting presidential power away from its constitutional foundation toward a presidency of popular consent contributed to the decline of the office and of the American polity.” The book is therefore about much more than the American presidency’s decline into demagoguery. It is about the problem of mass democracy and how its emergence has affected the American constitutional system.

Knott contrasts “the Hamiltonian or Constitutional presidency and the modern presidency.” The Hamiltonian presidency was based upon the principle that “the president should not mold or inflame public opinion but rather serve as a check against it.” (Knott does, though, praise presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan who attempted to “mold” public opinion in the right way.)

The modern presidency, by contrast, is focused on rallying supporters and public opinion in favor of their vision for remaking the nation. Knott rests his case for the Framers’ conception of the presidency almost exclusively in the writings and speeches of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, though John Adams also makes a few favorable appearances.

In Knott’s conception of the presidency, the chief executive should serve as a symbol of the nation, not as the head of a party, and should unify the nation through symbolic speeches and acts. This Hamiltonian presidency must, of course, be energetic, but within the restraints of constitutional government. Most fundamentally, the president should be above the whims of public opinion. The president should lead through rhetoric when important national moral questions are at stake, but in a way that appeals to the reason and the “better angels” of the public.

The Framers upon which Knott relies, in his telling, “were averse to any form of government that simply translated the wishes of the public into law.” They “were fixated on the threat presented by demagogues.” Therefore, they created a presidency chosen indirectly by an Electoral College that would serve as a filtering mechanism. Our first president, George Washington, fulfilled this expectation, he argues.

And then came Jefferson. Beginning with Jefferson, and continuing almost inexorably into the 21st century, the president became increasingly focused on mobilizing public opinion, using popular rhetoric, and offering a vision of national transformation, debasing the office and exacerbating partisanship.

There were a few exceptions, and Knott’s discussion of those exceptions is excellent. Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge, Dwight Eisenhower, and Gerald Ford all receive praise in the book, while the most biting criticism is reserved for Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, and of course, Donald Trump. The treatments of Truman’s 1948 campaign and Kennedy’s chaotic administration are fascinating and illuminating. Knott’s analysis of the historical development of the presidency offers an important counterbalance to the prevailing academic treatments of the presidents. Historians tend to rank Knott’s favorite presidents at the bottom of their lists, and praise most of the presidents that he criticizes.

Is There Only One “Framers’ Presidency”?

It is not hard to see that the modern presidency bears no resemblance to the Hamiltonian presidency. It is difficult, however, to determine when the “decline into demagoguery” took place, and how that decline is related to other developments in our history. Knott’s reflections on those two issues raise some significant questions.

His response to the first question—the timing of America’s decline—is somewhat ambiguous. He implies strongly that the constitutional presidency was killed by Thomas Jefferson, or by Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. In his words, “Jefferson’s election led to a fundamental transformation of the American government . . . altering the way a president would relate to the citizenry. Jefferson refounded the office of the presidency, placing it on a populist course.” In this telling, Jefferson’s presidency was a revolution. He writes that “the Jeffersonian template for the presidency replaced that of Washington and Hamilton” over time.

Should we place so much of the blame for the modern presidency on Jefferson and Jackson? Is it not true that modern developments have done at least as much to pervert the presidency as Jefferson’s populism?

Andrew Jackson’s presidency similarly “sought to dismantle the constitutional presidency of Washington and Hamilton.” Jackson inflicted “radical change . . . upon the presidency and the entire constitutional order.” By the end of Jackson’s administration, Knott writes, “the American republic had moved from a system designed to check majority tyranny to one where the guiding precept was ‘the majority is to govern.’”

Knott hedges this argument to some extent, placing some blame for the presidency’s decline into demagoguery at the feet of a few 20th-century presidents, particularly Woodrow Wilson. But his argument seems to be that the Washingtonian and Hamiltonian system was already fundamentally transformed by 1809, or at least by 1837.

If the constitutional presidency was gone by the time John Adams left the White House, the reader is left to wonder: was the constitutional presidency Knott describes really the only way to view the presidency to begin with? Knott presents a decidedly Federalist or Whig view of the presidency, one that places great weight on the ability of the political system to resist public opinion. His analysis of the Founders’ view of the presidency is drawn almost entirely from Hamilton and Washington. 

In short, Knott’s view of the constitutional presidency is one that was shared by some, but not all of the Constitution’s Framers. That only one, or perhaps two, presidents served before that conception of the presidency went into fundamental decline suggests that the Constitution left open other possibilities for the office and its role in the political system. The notion of a more popular presidency, still restrained by institutional forms, is not entertained in the book.

Who’s To Blame?

This is not to say that the thesis of Knott’s book is incorrect. On the contrary, the book is powerfully argued and absolutely correct that the modern presidency has assumed authority that has wreaked havoc on the core features of our political system. Presidents engage in dirty and perpetual campaigning, focus on media and rhetoric more than governing, and circumvent the deliberative, legislative process by dominating Congress or simply ruling by executive fiat.

It is not the thesis of Knott’s book, but the argument for it, that raises questions. Should we place so much of the blame for the modern presidency on Jefferson and Jackson? Is it not true that modern developments, including new ideas about the political system, the rise of mass media, and the emergence of party primaries, to say nothing of the administrative state, have done at least as much to pervert the presidency as Jefferson’s populism?

Knott attends to some of these changes in the book, especially in his excellent final chapter on “The Prospects for Renewal.” The chapter offers wise and important reforms that would help restore some semblance of the older, healthier system. In particular, he emphasizes the preservation of the Electoral College and the restoration of party superdelegates to select responsible candidates. However, much more could be written about how institutional changes contributed to a popular expectation that the President will represent and respond to collective wishes, as opposed to the parochial Congress.

The Lost Soul of the American Presidency is an important book with a compelling thesis: that the presidency has devolved into a divisive and demagogic office that contributes to the pathologies of our contemporary politics. Because Knott is so dedicated to this thesis, however, he sometimes fits evidence to the thesis rather than vice versa. To cite just a few examples: when quoting Hamilton’s famous statement in Federalist 68 about the Electoral College, he cites the uncorrected phrase that “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” (Most editions use the corrected McLean or Gideon versions in which Hamilton revised the phrase to read that this would seldom occur.)   

In his treatment of Jackson’s patronage appointments he notes the corruption of Samuel Swartwout as “a scandal the likes of which had never been seen under the old regime,” but those familiar with Hamilton’s Society for Useful Manufactures and William Duer’s schemes would note a resemblance between the two scandals.  In short, Knott’s case does not rest upon there being such magnitudes of difference between his favorite and most despised figures in American history, but he continues to grind some of those axes in this book, to its detriment.    

Most substantively, Knott also quotes Martin Van Buren’s famous letter to Thomas Ritchie of Virginia proposing a national nominating convention as evidence that Van Buren favored the “personalized presidency.” Van Buren did say that Andrew Jackson’s “personal popularity” (the phrase Knott quotes) would be an asset to the campaign, but the purpose of the convention, Van Buren makes clear, was to diminish the personalized presidency by making Jackson the creature of the party rather than relying entirely on his own popularity. In other words, Van Buren was trying to do something similar to what Knott advocates: diminish the president’s direct, popularity-based appeal to the people.

Curiously, Knott returns to Van Buren 150 pages later, praising him for using his party as a “filtering mechanism to weed out undesirable presidential contenders.” Knott could have pursued this idea more systematically throughout the book, showing that the rise of parties transformed the presidency, but in a way that could have maintained the filtering he desires by strengthening party leaders’ ability to select candidates. He notes, correctly, that many modern presidents were not the choices of their party leaders. Yet, because of his unwillingness to entertain any other model than the Hamiltonian presidency, he barely engages the idea of using parties to constrain presidents and does not focus much on the process of presidential selection by parties.

These oversights notwithstanding, The Lost Soul of the American Presidency is a valuable book. Citizens of both parties and of all ideological persuasions would be better off with a more restrained presidency. One might hope that the rise of Trump would compel progressives to rethink their commitment to presidential demagoguery, but that outcome seems doubtful.