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U.S. Presidency III: Re-envisioning the Presidency as the Tribune of the People

Gaius_Gracchus_Tribune_of_the_PeoplePresidency Syllabus
Previous Lesson (Choosing Mediocre Presidents).

– “Woodrow Wilson and the Defense of Popular Leadership,” Chapter 9 in The American presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2007, by Sidney M. Milkis, Michael Nelson. (buy cheap).
– “The Two Constitutional Presidencies,” Jeffrey Tulis, in The Presidency and the Political System.

The weak 19th century presidency gave way to the strong 20th century presidency by a combination of theoretical reinterpretation and institutional change. This entry looks at Woodrow Wilson’s reinterpretation of the presidency as not simply the Clerk of Congress but as the Tribune of the People, a concept at odds with the Framer’s fear of demagoguery.

Congressional Dominance in the Late 19th Century
The 19th century was an era of congressional dominance of the executive. Despite several presidents breaking, or trying to break, the weak presidency mold, Congress and the parties repeatedly fought back to keep the presidency constrained. The new party convention system built to propel Jackson to the candidacy quickly became a mechanism for selecting the un-anticipated candidate of least offense to all the party’s factions.

  • Polk was censured by Congress for misleading them into war with Mexico, and had no choice but to stick to his promise to serve only one term.
  • Lincoln served in a unique crisis situation, but beneath the extraordinary event of the Civil War, we see a very typical party-convention president who played little role in legislative efforts and exercised very few vetoes, due largely to his Whiggish background, and youthful opposition to the autocratic tendencies of Andrew Jackson.

    The Lincoln Presidency says [Linocoln Biographer David] Donald, reflected the same Whiggish restraint. One of his greatest political assets was his passivity. His gift for inaction drew the southern hotheads to fire the first shot of the Civil war, and so they also drew the blame. Since any actions would offend someone, according to Donald, Lincoln took as few as possible. Lincoln himself declared that this policy was to have no policy (Crenson and Ginsberg (p.100).

  • Lincoln’s successor, Johnson, attempted to exert his independence from Congress, but was impeached (although not convicted), and having repudiated the Republicans and returned to the Democratic Party (his original home) he was rejected as their candidate.

After this, the 19th century settled down again to a run of dull uninspiring executives, leading British scholar James Bryce to ask in 1895 why the U.S. did not elect great men as presidents.

As much as the Framers did not want a tyrant, the presidency probably had become far weaker than they desired. They tried to create an executive whose drive for power was sufficiently constrained but that was also energetic on his own territory and capable of acting as an effective check against the legislature. But in the late 19th century in particular, the era of “congressional government,” the presidency was nearly wholly overwhelmed by legislative dominance. Congressmembers took control of the appointment process, forcing presidents to appoint their (the legislators’) hand-picked applicants, thus capturing the spoils of the patronage system for themselves. As president, Ulysses Grant went so far as to argue in favor of this system that stripped him of power, saying it was not “necessarily corrupt, [but] a matter of custom … that cannot be ignored.” Later, Grover Cleveland restated his support for congressional dominance by insisting that he had “not come here to legislate.” The presidency had become not an office of leadership, but merely an administrative office, Congress’s clerk.

The transformation to the modern presidency began in 1896 with the election of William McKinley, and was permanently established by the end of Franklin Roosevelt’s tenure. There are two types of changes that produced this transformation: One was the theoretical re-conception of the presidency (most notably by Woodrow Wilson, while still an academic), and the second is institutional changes that include the candidate selection process and increased delegation of authority by Congress. We will consider Wilson’s innovative theory here, and cover the institutional changes in our next lesson.

Wilson’s Attack on Congressional Government
Both the Framers and Wilson worried about a too-weak executive, but their solutions to the problem were radically different. The Framers had seen the bad effects of legislative dominance in state legislatures in the post-revolutionary period and sought to make the president strong enough to resist that while still preventing him from becoming a demagogic leader who might capture effective legislative power and render Congress a rubber stamp. James Wilson’s argument in the Constitutional Convention against legislative selection demonstrates the concern about having a too weak weak executive:

According to the plan as it now stands, the President will not be the man of the people as he ought to be, but the Minion of the Senate.

Woodrow Wilson, looking at the issue a century later, thought the Framers had not successfully managed to avoid legislative dominance of the executive, and sought to remedy it by making the president strong enough to bend the country, and through it Congress, to his will.

Wilson’s concern was that congressional government did not provide good leadership for the country. Congressmembers, he thought, are too parochial, concerned only with satisfying their own constituents, and the collective representation of all the discrete portions of the country does not add up to the representation of the country as a whole. Important legislation was blocked by the narrow interests of legislative committees, and legislative action was initiated and undertaken by individual committees at the direction of their chairs, with no general coordination of congressional purposes. This was particularly true of the budgeting process. Committees negotiated directly with executive branch agencies, cutting both the president and congressional leadership out of the loop, and there was no coordination between the allocations of money and the revenue process.

Occasionally there would be strong leadership that produced strong party discipline in the House, but party discipline in the U.S. doesn’t compare to that in a strong parliamentary system, because the leaders of the party-in-Congress had no authority over the selection of candidates for legislative seats. Those were most strongly influenced by the local party bosses—the leaders of the party-in-the-electorate—and so they, and local voters, were whom legislators owed their allegiance, not to congressional leaders. Committee chairs being awarded by seniority also undermined the strength of party leaders in Congress. They had few favors to hand out, and few means of punishment.

Before considering Wilson’s solution, it’s important to briefly consider the strength of his analysis. Some things have changed, particularly the budget process and to some significant extent the selection process for committee chairs (which allows for a little more control by party leaders). But while selection of legislative candidates has shifted from local party leaders to self-nomination, that still leaves individual legislators beholden to their specific constituencies. Traditionally that was, and still is largely, the members of their district (or, for Senators, their state). Now, with the increase in out-of-district fundraising, their may be also be an important constituency of potential contributors outside the legislator’s district/state, but that is still a constituency separate from–and as we see with the GOP today, sometimes at odds with–party leadership in Congress.

Today we have even more evidence and strong theory than Wilson had available to support his claim that adding up discrete units of interest does not equate to a coherent group interest. Voting theorists have demonstrated that outcomes can be as much or more a function of 1) how the vote is counted and/or 2) how items are arranged on the agenda, as they are a function of the actual votes cast (the actual preferences of the voters). We also know that collectively irrational policies can be implemented with little resistance when the benefits are concentrated among a few (who each gain much, so have reason to fight hard for it) while the costs are distributed among many (who each gain little, so have no reason to fight against it, but who collectively may lose more than the winning few gain). In short, Wilson’s critique of congressional government was and still is strong. In an era where few people conceived of national interest as anything more than protecting against invasion and insurrection, where interests were overwhelmingly local, this was functional. Once we conceive of national interests as being as significant as local interests, the weaknesses of weak-party legislative governance become evident.

Wilson’s Solution–The Tribune of the People
Wilson proposed two distinct solutions to the problem of congressional dominance, first an idealistic one, then later, a more strategic, pragmatic one. In his 1884 Ph.D. dissertation (Congressional Governance, which, like nearly all dissertations, went un-noticed at the time) he proposed to emulate a parliamentary system by bringing the electoral and legislative interests of the president and Congress into closer alignment through a series of constitutional amendments that would align the terms of congressmembers and presidents and require presidents to select majority party leaders as cabinet secretaries. Realizing the practical impossibility of ever implementing that approach he shifted to an argument for reinterpreting the Constitution, rather than amending it. In 1910 he published a series of lectures, titled Constitutional Government in the United States, in which he critiqued the current system, proposed his new understanding of the Constitutional balance between legislative and executive, and argued that his proposed shifting of political power was constitutionally legitimate.

“The chief instrumentality by which the law of the Constitution has been extended to cover the facts of national development has of course been judicial interpretation, – the decisions of the courts. The process of formal amendment of the Constitution was made so difficult by provisions of the Constitution itself that it has seldom been feasible to use it; and the difficulty of formal amendment has undoubtedly made the courts more liberal, not to say lax, in their interpretation than they would otherwise have been. The whole business of adaptation has been theirs, and they have undertaken it with open minds, sometimes even with boldness and a touch of audacity…”

Boldness and audacity were just what he was striving for, both in reinterpreting the constitutional role of the president and in presidents themselves. His reinterpretation would shift the presidency from being the executive functionary of Congress—a mere clerk, as some called the office, or to re-quote James Wilson, “the Minion of the Senate”—to that of national leader. Drawing on Roman imagery, this vision is often called “the tribune of the people.” Althought Wilson did not use that phrase in his lectures, it seems a fair characterization of his vision, as expressed here:

[The president is] the political leader of the nation, or has it in his choice to be. The nation as a whole has chosen him, and is conscious that it has no other political spokesman. His is the only national voice in affairs. Let him once win the admiration and confidence of the country, and no other single force can withstand him, no combination of forces will easily overpower him. … He is the representative of no constituency, but of the whole people. When he speaks in his true character, he speaks for no special interest. If he rightly interpret the national thought and boldly insist upon it, he is irresistible; and the country never feels the zest of action so much as when its President is of such insight and calibre. Its instinct is for unified action, and it craves a single leader. … A President whom it trusts can not only lead it, but form it to his own views.

While both the Framers and Wilson distrusted excessive congressional dominance, they parted ways in their view of presidential strength. The Framers just wanted to give the president the power to resist dominance and act as a check on Congressional expansion of power; Wilson wanted the president to dominate and lead Congress. He saw no constitutional problems in this because he saw the separation of powers not as a fixed balance but a dynamic process, a continual struggle between the branches for influence. So claiming more power was not unconstitutional, but part of the on-going “Darwinian” (his term) process of trying to realign the balance in response to contemporary political demands.

The President is at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can. His capacity will set the limit; and if Congress be overborne by him, it will be no fault of the makers of the Constitution, — it will be from no lack of constitutional powers on its part, but only because the President has the nation behind him, and Congress has not.

That is, the President cannot actually get out of bounds, because he is the only one who truly represents the whole public of the U.S., and if he does, it’s not his fault for claiming that power, but Congress’s fault for not effectively fighting back.

It might be valuable at this point to think back to the constitutional ratification debates about the presidency. With Anti-Federalists arguing that the president was an impending tyranny and Hamilton arguing that it had just the sufficient power it needed, Wilson adds a third view, that it indeed does have the strength of a tyrant, but that this is good, and we need fear not because in a republic that power will be exercised only in accordance with the will of the people.

We Are All Wilsonians Now
Today, most presidential scholars are Wilsonians. Even as they worry about an imperial presidency, few of them reject the concept of the president as “the tribune of the people,” because we can’t deny that only he represents the whole country, and is the only politician who can reliably command the whole country’s attention via the media. But we do distinguish between what we call “the two constitutional presidencies.” The “Big C” constitutional presidency is the Framer’s president, the textual one, with a relatively clear set of limited authorities, primarily oriented toward executing the laws as passed by Congress.* The “small c” constitutional presidency is Wilson’s presidency, the “big a man as he can be” presidency, who needs to step up and provide national level leadership, to take Congress by the throat and shake it out of its slavish attention to parochial interests.

The public is also largely Wilsonian. We are not fond of presidents who shy away from leadership. Or more precisely, from presidential candidates who do so—nowadays we rarely elect those who don’t boldly proclaim their personal vision for the country. George H.W. Bush was widely mocked for his admission that he had “trouble with the vision thing,” and had he not been riding the wave of a good economy (or had the Democrats nominated someone more publicly inspiring than the goof in the tank) would probably not have won. As it was, he could only hold a single term.

One could argue that we’re all Wilsonians because the political demands have changed; the modern world is not like the 19th century. But what has primarily changed about the world is the U.S.’s international role, the arena where the president always had the most independent authority. That wouldn’t require such a wholesale revisioning of the presidency. Rather, what we primarily demand of presidents now is leadership in domestic politics. To again use George H. W. Bush as our example, in 1992, nobody cared that he had exhibited effective international leadership to constrain an expansionist Middle Eastern tyrant, even though 91% had approved of him at the time he did so; what we really wanted was a president who promised to fix the economy, a domestic problem.

What not all presidential scholars, and few members of the public, have come to grips with is that these two constitutional presidencies do not fit well together. As we will see in a later lesson, our “small c” vision of, and demands upon, the presidency are not matched by the actual powers made available to the office by the “Big C” constitutional presidency. It also conflicts with the Framers’ fear of a demagogue, a president who would lead the public through popular appeals designed to sway them emotionally, whether through flattery or division. The presidency Wilson helped bring to us (not just in his writings, but also in his own use of the office) can legitimately–if not dispositively–be critiqued as demagogic. On this almost everyone agrees, but unfortunately most of us only grant this critique to presidents of the opposing party—our presidents speak important national truths, their presidents appeal to people’s uglier emotions.

Conclusion and the Next Lesson
As noted above, the transformation of the presidency required both theoretical and institutional changes. In this lesson we considered the theoretical change, as most famously argued by Woodrow Wilson. But theorists frequently make good arguments that lead to no on-the-ground changes, and although Wilson argued primarily for a change in ideas, it took ground-level institutional changes as well to make the modern presidency. In the next lesson we will look at those institutional changes. This requires a slight change in the readings listed in the syllabus. I will still be drawing from the “Presidency and the Nominating Process” in The Presidency and the Political System, but I will be drawing on portions of chapters 3, 4 and 5 and 7 in Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced (essentially, anything in those chapters relating to the rise of the primary system, or delegations of power up through the FDR presidency).**
*But not entirely reactive. Presidents are, textually, given some independent range of motion in foreign affairs, able to initiate the negotiation of treaties (although dependent on the Senate for ratification) and able to grant recognition of new countries on his own authority by the exchange of ambassadors. The president is also required to provide “from time to time” information on the state of the union. The Framers recognized that the president would have a more overall perspective on this than geographically restricted representatives (as well as not expecting Congress to always be in session and attendant to national affairs), so in this way they did provide a particular legislative leadership role for the executive.

**I think the ideas in Crenson and Ginsberg’s book make it the most important book on the presidency published in the last half century. But I think the organizational scheme is unclear and by its repeated jumping back and forth between eras and ideas across multiple chapters does not support the clear expression of those ideas. I reluctantly abandoned its use in an undergraduate class after it became clear the students found it bewildering. So that is why I can’t just assign a single chapter here, but must pull bits and pieces from multiple chapters.

[Image: Gaius Gracchus, Tribune of the People]

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33 thoughts on “U.S. Presidency III: Re-envisioning the Presidency as the Tribune of the People

  1. Wilson adds a third view, that it indeed does have the strength of a tyrant, but that this is good, and we need fear not because in a republic that power will be exercised only in accordance with the will of the people.

    Interesting point.

    In a way, wouldn’t Wilson’s President been a function of both the big and small c? During his entire, unlike FDR starting in his second term, even if Wilson wanted to elevate the role of the President, the federalism jurisprudence in his time was more stringent than what it became in the New Deal. Wilson could get ambitious but not too ambitious.

    For the President at the “Tribune of the People” to really take hold, it would require institutional changes in the Supreme Court, at least that’s how I read your post. Great one!


  2. For all his problems as a person, Wilson recognized some serious short comings with the system established in the Constitution. I wonder what he would have thought about Linz’s the Problem with Presidentialism. Nearly all the Founders imagined a very big United States and none of them thought that we would be forever bound by the territory we got after Independence. What I don;t think they considered is how difficult it would be to govern a really large nation. The certainly didn’t envision how industrialization and its aftermath could lead to demands for a more activist government regardless of whether or not its a good idea.


    • There’s really no way Founders really could have foreseen all that, is there? And as it seems that most of them wouldn’t have expected the Constitution to last so long without major revision, it might be fair to question whether their plan really was so unexpectedly awesome or whether we ought to have done a major re-do a long time ago.*

      Re: Wilson’s reaction to Linz. That’s an interesting question. While Wilson ultimately argued for a stronger presidency, that was his fallback position, so while he might not go as far as Linz in his critique of presidentialism, he might yet agree that it would be even better to go with a parliamentary model. Of course that’s seat of the pants speculation, right?
      * I’ve just–today–committed to a 1/2 course (2 credit hours instead of 4) for the fall term that will be a constitutional convention, and nothing but. I’m going to make the students figure out how to organize themselves, instead of telling them how to do it, and require them to write up their proposals and provide intellectual justification for them (with citations, etc.). I’m curious to see how it works out. I figure if it takes the students half the term just to figure out how to organize and structure their process, that’s a pretty good learning experience by itself. The best part is, I won’t have to lecture at all. At. All.


      • Wilson lived at a time when both parties were heterodox, so the idea of more ideologically unified parties in America would be weird to him. He would probably understand the problems it could cause in a Presidential system.

        At least Jefferson envisioned a replacement for the Constitution at one point in the future. I’m not sure about the others but the did include a mechanism to implement a new constitution in the one they wrote, which indicates that they didn’t intend it to last forever.

        The writers of the Constitution were working in the dark and the parliamentary system was still in embryonic form at the time. Madison’s idea that the President should be elected by Congress was a step in that direction since it would create a much closer executive-legislative link and the President would be in acceptable to the majority of Congress and most likely able to work with them.


      • I could certainly use Ord. U. to provide progress reports.

        I’ll assign students to represent hypothetical states, for which I will give them a description. It won’t be the convention of 1787, but a future one.

        I want to pull them far enough out of their comfort zone that they have to think seriously about what kind of political system to design, instead of simply falling back on what they know, while not futilely trying to get them to think like, say, Egyptians, or Puntlanders.

        So my current thought is to craft a story about North America after the zombie wars, in which all governments collapsed, and people organized into self-defense units, which–as things got better–coalesced into new defacto states along a different set of borders than the old states (maybe I’ll draw from the Trumanverse). Then I can adjust the number of them to the number of students I have, give them state interests to watch out for, make it clear they’re starting from scratch instead of just tinkering around the edges, while still allowing them to be Americans. At least I’ve made a good enough argument to half convince myself.

        I plan to walk in the first day, give them the scenario, let them draw states from a hat, tell them the first meeting of the convention is the next class day, and refuse to give them any hints about hiw to proceed–they’ll have to figure that out on their own.

        This course has several motivations. Minor ones have to do with matching a half class to the other half class I’m teaching (Nuclear Weapons and Power) so I do neither an overload nor an underload, and my desire to avoid an extra prep (hence, let the students do all the work). But the major motivation is pedagogical, and has nothing to do with the subject matter of the course. I’ve been paying attention to what businesses say they want college grads to know, and among those are how to work in groups and how to analyze problems. A term-long group project of the whole class and the design of a government from scratch ought to do more of both than multiple short term projects, I think. And the evidence seems to show that students learn a lot more from hands-on work than from lectures.


      • “* I’ve just–today–committed to a 1/2 course (2 credit hours instead of 4) for the fall term that will be a constitutional convention, and nothing but. I’m going to make the students figure out how to organize themselves, instead of telling them how to do it, and require them to write up their proposals and provide intellectual justification for them (with citations, etc.). I’m curious to see how it works out.”

        that sounds great – hope they participate their asses off!


      • I actually aimed my comment more at a school of liberals and leftists that view the Constitution as a being deliberately written to disenfranchise the poor and protect the proerty of the rich. There were a lot of not so good compromises from a moral perspective that were made in order to create the Constitution but without these compromises there would be no United Stated. I also think that this line of thought is projecting a malovelance on the writers of the Constitution that simply isn’t there.

        Madison and company really didn’t have a lot of models for the American system of government. They had what the knew about the UK, Switzerland, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for contempory somewhat representative government. They could study the Roman Republic and Athens for lesson from the past. What the settled on is a somewhat misinterpreted version of the English government after the Glorious Revolution with the hereditary elements left out. They probably saw the President as being akin to how the imagined the British King should be. Addams once refered to England as a monarchal republic I believe.


      • The Charles Beard approach?

        I have some sympathy for that approach. The men at the Convention truly were elites with varying degrees of distrust of the masses. “Democrat” was a dirty word to them (Madison took pains to critique democracy as tyranny of the majority in Federalist 10), and they did fear the leveling activities of a guy like Daniel Shays.

        But I think the argument goes too far when, as you say, it implies malevolence, and an assumption that the Framers were trying to rigidify a status quo and keep others subordinate. I suspect they saw the states as a land of opportunity and believed they were setting a framework that would promote opportunity. (Slaves excepted, of course.)


      • Thats why we get the doopey and rather stupid comments about the United States being a republic and not a democracy from time to time on various internet fora by certain conservative posters. These arguments seemed designed to basically says that liberal legislation should not pass because all liberal legislation is inherently against the Consttituion or something.

        The writers of the Constitution came from a privileged background but they were engaging in a radical experiment for the time. There own class interests mitigated against going all the way but I do not think they intended the system to keep the lower orders down forever.


      • Thats why we get the doopey and rather stupid comments about the United States being a republic and not a democracy

        Yeah, there’s something to that claim, but what there is to it is never what they think it is.


      • My understanding is that the US president as an actual political figure *is* closer to how British monarch were in the immediate aftermath of the Glorious Revolution than to what the monarchy has become since. The modern idea of a wholly apolitical figurehead monarch was a much more gradual development through the 18th-20th Centuries and not something King William himself would ever have signed up to.


    • LeeEsq,

      Wilson recognized some serious short comings with the system established in the Constitution.

      As did just about everyone involved in the framing and ratifying of the document.

      What I don;t think they considered is how difficult it would be to govern a really large nation. The certainly didn’t envision how industrialization and its aftermath could lead to demands for a more activist government regardless of whether or not its a good idea.

      I think it is unreasonable to expect people to be able to look into the future and anticipate future changes that would be inconceivable to them based on their current situation.
      However, they Framers did look at the then-current situation with the government as it functioned under the Articles of Confederation.

      There was a group of people that wanted a purely national form of government that, as you say, could be activist. It was soundly rejected. Even the draft of the Constitution that came out of the convention, a “partly national partly federal” form of government as Madison described in Federalist 39 was seen by the Constitution’s opponents as forming a consolidated government that would ultimately destroy the sovereignty of the states.

      To your point, even if the Framers could see in the future and could argue the need to increase the power of the federal government, that would not have been enough to sway the Anti-Federalists, many of whom still wanted a much-weaker form and would have preferred the Articles of Confederation stayed in place.

      In some states, it was hard enough getting the Constitution we have modified. Had the federal government been delegated more powers than it had, it probably would have never gotten off the ground.


      • a “partly national partly federal” form of government as Madison described

        That’s a funny phrasing to modern ears. We’d simply describe it as federal, and say what he meant was partly national partly confederal. But that distinction developed later–it wasn’t until nation states, with various types of republicanish governments, as opposed to principalities and empires, became the norm that those fine distinctions really developed. They’re a product of post-Convention history, but the innovative structure created by the convention was an important case study that helped shape those distinctions.

        And of course they didn’t create this “partly national partly [con]federal” system because they had a great vision of it’s sheer awesomeness, but–as you indicate–as a compromise to get buy in. They all knew they needed a bit more national, to avoid fragmenting, but damned if many of them wanted to cede too much power from the state they were representing.


      • Most modern ears probably wouldn’t appreciate the distinction unless they went through the ratification debates and the history to see what Madison and company were trying to do. The “partly national partly federal” description was not only a way to describe the structure of the government but also, and just as important, the means in which he communicated the concept of “divided sovereignty”.

        “We the People of the United States” is treated as that today. As relatively innocuous as it sounds, it drew major fire in the ratification conventions and among the most ardent opponents of the Constitution (those views would later be revived by the 19th Century states rights movement when it attempted to reinterpret the Constitution as a purely federal form of government, completely discarding the notion of divided sovereignty).

        Without a sovereign American people, the Constitution would have likely been just as toothless as the Articles.


  3. How do Wilson’s 20th-Century predecessors fit into this narrative? I know virtually nothing about McKinley, except that his campaign was strikingly modern, but “Tribune of the People” sounds like how TR might have thought of himself too, though Taft was more likely to feel constrained by the Constitutional view of the presidency than TR was. Also, he was really fat.


    • McKinley and TR pushed toward the modern presidency sufficiently that they’re generally considered the first modern presidents. Then there was a “relapse,” which as I’ll explain next week was in large part due to the fitful start toward and partial, temporary, pullback from the new primary system of candidate selection. This retrenchment gave us Taft, then Wilson (selected on, iirc, the 46th ballot at the convention, but obviously differently minded), then Harding and Coolidge, as un-aggressive a couple of presidents as we could ever name. It also gave us Hoover, whom I struggle to classify, but then we get FDR, who brings the modern presidency into fruition.

      I actively dislike the common misrepresentations of Hoover. Not only did he not do “nothing” in response to the Depression, but close scholars argue the New Deal actually started under his watch, and FDR initially campaigned against his economic interventionism. Hoover also ought to be recognized as a true American hero for his famine relief efforts during and after WWI, which helped feed millions of people who faced starvation. He’s mocked because the Depression began on his watch, but FDR had two full terms worth of Depression and gets viewed as an economic savior. It’s hard to see a man like Hoover as not being a modern president, and indeed he was probably a transitional figure–we’d gone too far by that time, perhaps, to fully return to 19th century and he was not the type of man to support quite such a passive presidency, perhaps, yet he was no Roosevelt (either of them). He may be the most in-between eras of all our presidents. Perhaps. His presidency gets so overshadowed by the Depression that it’s hard to interpret it outside of that framework, which necessarily distorts, as much as the Civil War distorts the Lincoln presidency.


      • Hoover also ought to be recognized as a true American hero for his famine relief efforts during and after WWI, which helped feed millions of people who faced starvation

        ….unlike the bumbling Harry Garfield, whose coal policies literally left millions in the cold.

        (I joke. I think he did the best he could with what he had. But my (very limited) research suggests people generally liked Hoover much more than Garfield.)


  4. What is the role of personal charisma in the Wilsonian vision? We think of the modern Presidency beginning with McKinley and TR, but that’s got to be at least in part the result of their respective depths of charisma as much as their political skills. And articulation of their respective and surprisingly different visions of policy.

    But both developing media and a pull towards a Rooseveltian scheme of making the President a hero gave us both Herbert Hoover (recall he was something of a heroic figure before the economy crashed, making his name taming problems associated with the Mississippi and Colorado Rivers) and his nation-changing successor. Neither a competent technocrat with good inside skills like Grover Cleveland, nor a minimally-acceptable-to-most nonentity like Franklin Pierce, could really step up to the plate and project a personality onto the body politic.

    I assume Wilson had little but contempt for his predecessor — Taft found the bully pulpit distasteful and stressful, and lacked much interest in forming an agenda to sell to the public. He seemed content to leave governing to Congress and in the arena he had most discretion, foreign policy, he stumbled badly particularly with Japan. (Taft is famous for his Henry VIII-like weight — he was never a thin man but the Presidency put over 100 pounds on the fellow, much of which he shed, not for lack of personal wealth, after leaving office.) all the man ever really wanted was a seat on the Supreme Court — he was ultimately a lawyer, not a leader.


    • Was Taft even a notable CJ? It seems amazing a man could be the only person to achieve both the presidency and chief justiceship and yet seem, historically, a weighty person only because of his girth. A decent fellow though, I think?

      As to charisma, Wilson doesn’t specifically use that term in either of the works mentioned (that was a Weber construct, who wrote around the same time as Wilson, but in Germany, so Wilson may not have picked up on it), but I think it’s fair to say he was thinking along those lines, even without using the word. He spoke highly of oratory (and reportedly was quite a good one himself), and of the need to win oeoole over and gain their love. Because how else can you be their tribune?


    • I understand where you’re coming from, but is there truly any possibility that centuries could pass with no theoretical interpretations? Some might be more subtle, less overt than Wilson’s, but is it something that can actually be humanly avoided?


      • Seeing as the ratification did not provide us with a “settled” interpretation, it’s hard to see how latitudinarian constructions can be avoided.

        I’d argue that Thomas Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution of 1798 followed by the states rights doctrines that emerged during the 19th Century were radical reinterpretations of both the Constitution as well as the Founding-era history. We didn’t need centuries for that to happen.

        Also, without getting too far into the weeds, I’d say that the “re-interpretation” that took place during the New Deal, especially in the Supreme Court’s decisions in 1937 and beyond, was completely unavoidable.


  5. ” The process of formal amendment of the Constitution was made so difficult by provisions of the Constitution itself that it has seldom been feasible to use it;”

    Which in turn becomes ironic and/or morrisettian in hindsight, as homeboy had more amendments ratified on his watch than anyone else other than the first George W., plus one more right before he took office.

    Speaking of amendments, is that one of the ‘institutional’ factors implied yet not explicitly stated? Specifically: Congressmembers, he thought, are too parochial, concerned only with satisfying their own constituents. I think it’s a non-trivial distinction for this analysis of evolving Presidential power that the literal constituency of US Senators prior to the Wilson administration were the respective state legislatures, *not* the citizenry of the respective states. And I believe this has altered both the specific relationships between the Senate and the Presidency, and the House and the Senate, and to tie in with your main theme, the political party machinery and the Senate. (which spills over to Presidential nominee selection).

    Furthermore, and to tie in with what someone said about ‘greatness’ one the previous posts, don’t personality and circumstances conspire with larger historical forces to make WIlson the precise pivot? (as opposed to say, Cleveland, or the first Roosevelt, or Hoover)

    First of course, are innovations in transportation and communication that made federalization of government functions finally practical (and professional – vice, say, the hodgepodge of ignorant yet earnest errors and outright malfeasance that was typified in the Bureau of Indian Affairs from the end of the Civil War to the New Deal).

    But there’s also three historical coincidences which, at the time, were part of the platform of the ruling political coalition (and the larger political establishment, in and out of power), but are not really related nor co-dependent. We have the start of the (permanent) income tax, which finally gave the federal treasury a stable income source. We have the first big global conflict that the US got directly involved in (discounting, of course, the war of 1812 & french+Indian wars as proxy wars) – a war footing that largely continues to this day. And we have the first large scale federalization of police powers, with the very first war on (some) drugs – another policy that continues to this day.

    So, with the Wilson administration, we finally have an Executive Branch that finally has stuff to do on a day-to-day basis. And thus creates the need for a CEO type compared to a Chairman of the Board type.


    • Speaking of amendments, is that one of the ‘institutional’ factors implied yet not explicitly stated?

      No, not in my plans, because I haven’t seen that argument really developed in the presidential literature yet. But it may have a sound foundation that ought to be explored.

      don’t personality and circumstances conspire with larger historical forces to make WIlson the precise pivot?

      I’d generally agree. I think it would have happened anyway, in the nearer term rather than the longer term precisely because of those historical forces, but not necessarily in the late 19-teens.


  6. Thanks for these posts on the presidency. I know I haven’t participated much. In part, that’s because I haven’t necessarily done all the required readings. (Can I get an extension?) But it’s also because there’s nothing to remind me of my own ignorance about something than taking a class in it. I’m learning a lot, and I look forward to future posts.


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