The False Promises of Presidential Leadership

This century witnessed the “return of history” in international affairs, and has now shown that we Americans are not immune from the tendencies of human nature toward excessive ambition, and of political society—particularly democracy—toward oligarchy and tyranny. Americans are not exceptional.

As historian Gordon Wood states in a recent interview at The Imaginative Conservative, John Adams knew this well. Precisely by recognizing that no people is exempt from the tendencies of human nature and political society, Adams helped construct an exceptionally balanced and constrained democratic republic, a system with the best chance of preventing tyranny, preserving liberty, and securing a measure of happiness. He helped forge an exceptional nation.

Imagine talking politics before the U.S. Constitution or the Declaration of Independence existed. Perhaps you find yourself in Boston in January of 1776. The air is abuzz with the debate over whether the American colonies should separate from England. The inescapable question: If we separate, what about the day after—how will we be governed? Imagine you are asked to set forth principles for constructing new governments for 13 soon-to-be independent states. Quoting the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration of Independence or the Preamble to the Constitution is not an option. You must justify your proposal based on principle, experience, or necessity.

John Adams faced exactly this challenge. His off-the-cuff response to a query from the Virginian George Wythe in private conversation formed the basis of a follow-up letter, which Wythe passed to publisher Richard Henry Lee. Lee published the letter in April 1776 as an essay entitled, “Thoughts on Government, in a Letter from a Gentleman to His Friend.” Authorship was kept anonymous at Adams’ request.

Pursuing a “research after the best” form of government in the style of the ancients, Adams uses this essay to defend the republic—not simple democracy—as the best that human wisdom can contrive. He calls it “an empire of laws and not of men,” and his version of the republican ideal is one that would not be universally admired in American political thought as it later developed.

Woodrow Wilson’s vision of government in Constitutional Government in the United States (1908) stands in stark contrast: “Government is not a body of blind forces; it is a body of men . . . with a common task and purpose.”

That would be an empire of men, not of laws.

Wilson explicitly names Adams’ formula as expressed in the Constitution of Massachusetts as one he is rejecting:

I am not repeating the famous sentence of the Massachusetts Bill of Rights, “to the end that this may be a government of laws and not of men.” There was never such a government. Constitute them how you will, governments are always governments of men, and no part of any government is better than the men to whom that part is entrusted.

He particularly has in mind the American President—which he would become four years after writing this. By Wilson’s lights, the President acts not just as the leader but almost the embodiment of the nation. Intuiting and channeling public opinion through “personal force,” he acts in the interest of the nation as a whole.

This expansive conception of the presidency has found expression in Relic: How Our Constitution Undermines Effective Government, and Why We Need a More Effective Presidency (2016). Political scientists Terry M. Moe and William G. Howell make the case for more coordinated and centralized government than a “parochial” Congress—dysfunctional by design—can offer as long as it retains the sole prerogative of lawmaking. They argue that the Constitution, particularly its provision for the separation of powers, wasn’t built for “the United States of the twenty-first century”—a “modern, post-industrial, highly interconnected, technologically advanced, fast-changing country that is awash in serious social problems.” Separation of powers prevents effective governance.

Like Wilson, Moe and Howell want to rely on “the promise of presidential leadership.” Presidents’ concern for their legacies induces them to think about long-term national policy concerns, uninhibited by parochial or special interests. They propose shifting some of Congress’ legislative prerogatives to the executive branch, specifically requiring Congress to vote up-or-down on “fast-track” legislative proposals from the President. This change would, of course, require a constitutional amendment.

The argument Moe and Howell advance for giving Presidents more power is an application of Wilson’s claim that Darwinian change and adaptation are essential to constitutional government. The American Founders operated, according to Wilson, with a rigid and outdated view of government based on Newtonian physics. What was needed was a recognition that:

The underlying understandings of a constitutional system are modified from age to age by changes of life and circumstance and corresponding alterations of opinion. It does not remain fixed in any unchanging form, but grows with the growth and is altered with the change of the nation’s needs and purposes.

Liberty, on this reading, means that each new generation adopts its own idea of happiness and corresponding expectations of government.

But Adams sought to base his theory of government on what is constant, rather than what is changing in society. He and other Founders were not so much inspired by aesthetic enthusiasm for balanced order as what we might call a sense of “republican realism.” This is at the core of Adams’ constitutional design. For him, the best form of government can only be determined relative to its purpose: no less than securing the happiness of human society. In contrast with the Wilsonian, shifting notion of happiness, Adams judges that happiness consists in virtue, which runs counter to human nature. After eliminating forms of government based on fear—common but “sordid and brutal”—or honor, “truly sacred” but incomplete, Adams lands on the republic, the organizing “principle” or “passion” of which is “impartial and exact execution of the laws,” as most conducive to fostering virtue and therefore happiness.

Government must restrain human nature, notably the impulse toward ambition, wrote Adams. In Discourses on Davila (1790), meant to dispel the utopianism of the French Revolution and all revolutionary ideologies, he expounds his view of human nature and the “constitution of the human mind,” drawn from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Man is “gregarious” or social by nature, possessing a universal “passion for distinction” at least as constitutive as the need for food. The passion for distinction in its various manifestations “is a principal source of the virtues and vices, the happiness and misery of human life,” says Adams. History is “little more than a simple narration of its operation and effects.”

When this passion for distinction “aims at power” in the political arena, it manifests as ambition, which must be restricted and channeled to serve society rather than abolished. While aiming for the high goal of social happiness, Adams reflects—perhaps in the light of post-Independence experience and consternation toward the French Revolution—that terrestrial happiness and virtue are available only in a limited, preparatory sense.

As Adams details in “Thoughts on Government,” the structural outgrowth of this republican realism is the “much-celebrated separation of powers” that Moe and Howell wish to demystify. Adams says the powers of government should be distributed into the three branches; further, legislative power should be divided between a directly representative body and a “council”—a proto-Senate—rather than vested in a single assembly because

a single assembly is liable to all the vices, follies, and frailties of an individual—subject to fits of humor, starts of passion, flights of enthusiasm, partialities, or prejudice . . . A single assembly is apt to be avaricious and in time will not scruple to exempt itself from burdens which it will lay without compunction on its constituents . . . A single assembly is apt to grow ambitious and after a time will not hesitate to vote itself perpetual.

Constitutional principles and structural features grounded in Adams’ republican realism heavily shaped the state constitutions including the Constitution of Massachusetts, of which, as mentioned, Adams was the principle author. The longest enduring written constitution in the world, this work influenced the framers of the U.S. Constitution. In Federalist #51, James Madison explicitly connects republican realism with the separation of powers, which pits “ambition” against “ambition” in order to safeguard the people’s liberty.

Wilson, with Moe and Howell in his wake, harbors no such qualms about human nature and ambition. In fact Wilson seems preoccupied with the opposite worry: that the President won’t have a “big” enough personality to “enforce his views” and lead the nation. Wilson’s self-fulfilling prophecy was that the American President would—and should—exercise increasing influence due to newfound American prominence on the world stage. His decidedly anti-republican conception of the presidency veers awfully close to a government of one individual, the one that can best play to the crowd—in a word, tyranny.

I hasten to add that the “fast-track” tweak at the core of Moe and Howell’s vision of reform is not entirely objectionable. As they present it, it would preserve separation of powers and Congress’ sole power to enact legislation. The tweak could, according to them, even reduce or at least redirect the presidential impulse to try to sidestep Congress. But the theory behind the proposal raises serious questions about the nature and function of representative government.

Does the President truly represent the unified interest and will of the nation, separate from the parochial interests of its citizens? If the problem with the Constitution is its vestment of the representative branch with lawmaking ability, oughtn’t we to give up on the very project of building a representative republic?

More importantly, a political theory embracing expansive executive leadership, centralized in a single person, subverts the notion of republican realism that our system presumes. Republican realism about human nature and ambition was the impetus for the institution of constitutional government in England over eight centuries ago, the basis on which checks against arbitrary authority found a permanent home in the Anglo-American political tradition.

There is no question that society changes, or that the interplay of circumstance, crisis, and response has shaped American political history, as in all societies. Twenty-first century America is very different from the agrarian society of the late 18th century. Still, the Founders’ advocacy of republican government was based on elements of human nature and political society they assumed to be constant—and recent political history would seem to vindicate that judgment. Before abandoning the notion of republican realism and its structural implications for constitutional government, we should consider any rival theory’s suppositions. We should examine whether they are rooted in a firm understanding of human nature and political society.

Adams once wrote to his beloved wife Abigail that he studied politics, government, and war so his sons could study “mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history . . . agriculture” and their children could study “painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” Clearly, Americans cannot yet graduate from the study of government, politics, and war. The 2016 election cycle ought to inspire fresh pondering of the first principles of our system of government. In that sense, Moe and Howell have done a service in forcing such reconsideration.

We can start our study by rereading and rethinking “Thoughts on Government.”

Reader Discussion

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on October 13, 2016 at 10:40:51 am

Americans are exceptional. It's these non-Anglos we keep importing by the millions that don't share our culture. Compare Orange County to Los Angeles as proof.

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on October 13, 2016 at 11:07:58 am

"We should examine whether they are rooted in a firm understanding of human nature and political society." - it might be presumed that Moe and Howell, and perhaps Wilson, would like John Dewey, counter with the assertion that "human nature is to have no nature".

Moe and Howell's Hobbesian restructuring of the U.S. Constitution is fraught with the potential for the kind of so-called, "engineering of consent", (which is already evident and emergent on the Federal level), employed by Joseph Goebbels, that left even Edward Bernays so lamentable.

I would submit, this may be precisely the Leviathan Adams was seeking to harpoon.

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Paul Binotto
on October 13, 2016 at 11:27:18 am


Re: "engineering of consent" - Good point and accurate.

Here is another take on the matter and it may be said to be "engineering of compliance" by the Progressives.

From today's Powerline blog:
Here is a sample in which a Democrat operative admits of the Dem's pernicious strategy:


" is a March 2015 email from Bill Ivey to Podesta that includes the following passage:

"And as I’ve mentioned, we’ve all been quite content to demean government, drop civics and in general conspire to produce an unaware and compliant citizenry. The unawareness remains strong but compliance is obviously fading rapidly."

"It’s hard to put a generous construction on this passage, which seems to admit that liberalism depends on the ignorance of citizens for them to be “compliant,” but darn these dumb Americans, they just don’t want to behave."

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on October 13, 2016 at 11:56:44 am

“Adams judges that happiness consists in virtue, which runs counter to human nature.”

A civic people disagree. Everything that has happened had to happen for the USA to recognize that after 227 years, some of its founding assumptions are not working. False assumptions may include:

1. The civic human being is born in sin rather than appreciative bonding.
2. The elect human being needs no coaching to do the noble, hard work of transitioning from feral animal to psychologically-adult-person. The elect will always carry the poor.
3. The goal of human life is faith, family, and fidelity to dominant social morality.
4. The power of the universe favors the USA: Fidelity to the-indisputable-facts-of-reality is unimportant.
5. Capitalism with elite owners and consuming masses will prevail.
6. Most citizens will never adopt the preamble to the constitution for the USA.

We think the USA is at a nadir with possible future ascent to private-integrity as personal-liberty-with-civic-morality, or something better a civic people has not yet articulated.

Civic morality appreciates the fact that citizens are living in the same time in the same place. Their social associations, beyond iterative collaboration for broadly-defined-safety-and-security, are matters of private preference. Just as being a sports-fan is a private choice, being religious is a private choice. Personally committing to the-indisputable-facts-of-reality rather than opinion is an option.

A civic people admit that not only do most newborn children tend to behave, with psychologically mature coaching, children become young adults who are prepared and intend to live a personally rewarding life. Perhaps the problem is that We the People of the United States thinks that nourishing uneducated masses is alright. Political regimes have suppressed the preamble by labeling it "secular," or "areligious," whereas it is a civic statement, neutral to religion.

The preamble may be paraphrased as follows: the civic people in their states, in order to accomplish the goals stated herein, cultivate a national government with the organization and limitations stated herein. About 65% of state representatives signed the preamble and the rest of the draft constitution for the USA. We think in 2016 65% want civic morality but are bemused by political regimes and personal dissent, even criminality and evil. However, with practice as a civic culture, people with personal dissent should lessen and the USA might asymptotically approach the totality, We the People of the United States.

The Europeans who became colonists after the First Virginia Charter, 1606, discovered freedom from the oppression they would have continued to suffer had they stayed in their homelands. As the decades marched by, the colonists experienced the liberty to make their own life. They faced obstacles they would not have experienced had they stayed in their homelands, and learned to rely on the-indisputable-facts-of-reality to survive and thrive. By 1765, they realized that England was enslaving them to not only taxation but immorality as slave-masters. They asked loyal-fellow-subjects in England for relief, but the English neither understood nor responded. Therefore, the colonists declared their colonies states and declared war for independence. With help from France, the colonists became Americans.

In 1787, the Americans realized they were now in charge, and created an imperfect plan for civic justice. But in 1789, the First Congress re-instituted social justice under factional Protestantism and Blackstone---English common law with its national Protestantism.

The signers, who had learned "freedom from" and "liberty to" left it to our generation to establish private-integrity, defined herein. A civic people, 65% of all real-no-harm-factions, must “come out of the closet” and establish personal-liberty-with-civic-morality. With routine use of the preamble by the majority of the people, the amended constitution for the USA seems sufficient to establish republican rule of law.

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Phil Beaver
on October 13, 2016 at 12:38:58 pm

I take it that YOU are one of the "elect"

I've heard that the eschaton is immanent but until this day, I did not realize that the "totality" could also be made immanent.

Many of us, breathlessly, await the immanence of the eschaton totality!!!!!

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on October 13, 2016 at 12:39:26 pm

Mr. Gabe,

Thanks for the link and for the alternative take. The arrogance and contempt of the Progressive elites is palpable.

The emergence of a so-called "Populist" movement is one response (I would argue a healthy response), to dissatisfaction with our current government, one that surely threatens the progressive status quo, if its only outcome is to frustrate that status quo by forcing it to reel in or delay implementation of its abuses.

The most dangerous response, (one that may already be to blame for the current crisis of governance in the U.S.), that most threatens the preservation of Republican Democracy is for the populous, out of a sense of personal and collective disgust and loss of confidence in their government, to tune-out the government, and in a sense, predicate their continuing consent to be governed by the (corrupted) government on the condition that the government does not insist on seeking their consent.

Thank goodness, "these Dumb Americans" cannot only be counted on to misbehave but to retain an uncommon common sense.

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Paul Binotto
on October 13, 2016 at 13:28:51 pm

gabe, you are humorous indeed. Quoting my post, "False assumptions may include: The elect human being needs no coaching to do the noble, hard work of transitioning from feral animal to psychologically-adult-person."

I accepted long ago that the statement attributed to Jesus, "I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day," does not apply to me. I'm glad you know the verse so well.

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Phil Beaver
on October 13, 2016 at 14:33:41 pm


And just for the record: I am neither elect nor "electable"

have fun

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on October 13, 2016 at 15:16:50 pm

Thanks, gabe, I'll add that to my file "Data from Coventry."

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Phil Beaver
on October 17, 2016 at 10:35:12 am

I quit reading for a while on finding this expression: "the-indisputable-facts-of-reality". Science, as such, remains free to revise earlier views, statements, and conclusions. It is only in religion that statements become beyond dispute, refutation, or revision lest the faithful burn the questioner at the stake for heresy. As Einstein may have said, "Science is a like a ship: it all hangs together but nowhere are you on solid ground." It may have been Richard Dawkins who tells this story: "After a technical, scientific presentation, an audience member thanked the speaker for showing him that a view he had held for years was wrong." In short, there are no indisputable facts of reality, not even in religion as the superabundance of rival sects demonstrates.

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Ted Shepherd
on October 17, 2016 at 11:01:44 am

"In short, there are no indisputable facts of reality, not even in religion as the superabundance of rival sects demonstrates." - still nothing in these words demonstrates that there does not exist outside all this, a single Truth.

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Paul Binotto
on October 17, 2016 at 13:53:09 pm

Mr. Shepherd, I appreciate the comment and the initial preservation of the dashes in the-indisputable-facts-of-reality. The dashes are intended to hold five words to a single thought.

The traditional discussion of the objective truth of which much is undiscovered and some is understood has been obfuscated by words such as "science." Even wonderful Jeremy Bentham did not recognize that physics exists and science studies physics and the progeny of its laws, such as biology and psychology. Also, few classical writers admitted that science is made frail by the scientist, but the laws of physics are immutable.

Einstein, in a 1941 speech for a Chicago conference on Science and Religion, would have done us a favor by titling his talk, "The Laws of Physics and the Laws of Integrity" rather than "The Laws of Science and the Laws of Ethics." Perhaps Einstein understood that science is a study and physics its object, but maybe he saw it differently.

In a discussion on October 10 with William Bonin ( theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/opinion/our_views/article_c4331eda-800b-11e6-bffd-0779ed43ea0e.html?sr_source=lift_amplify) , I realized that private-integrity is insufficient and changed the goal to public-integrity as private-liberty-with-civic-morality. Especially for those eight words the dashes are critical so that the reader comes away with a two-word thought and a five-word thought as synonymous.

With the proposed civic-morality, every real-no-harm ideology, religion, politic---whatever civic people support---flourishes.

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Phil Beaver
on October 17, 2016 at 13:59:12 pm

Mr. Binotto, I agree.

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Phil Beaver
on October 17, 2016 at 15:55:04 pm

From the outskirts of Coventry:

You are indeed a civic person!!!!!

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on October 17, 2016 at 16:39:05 pm

That's the best news in a year, at least on this thread! I do not have go to Coventry to have Italian beer with you!

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Phil Beaver
on October 18, 2016 at 14:51:37 pm

Deep thoughts eloquently expressed.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.