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The Imperial Congress
An impetuous and sometimes corrupt Congress has often hamstrung the efforts of the president since the earliest days of the Republic
Fall 2010 | Volume 60, Issue 3
Three decades of weak presidents and an ever more powerful Congress began. Of 13 pieces of major legislation passed between 1873 and 1897, only one was taken at presidential initiative. Sen. George F. Hoar of Massachusetts remarked that most senators of this era would have considered it a “personal affront” if the White House were to ask for their vote on a bill. A senator visited the White House “to give, not to receive advice.”
With this lofty attitude came a less hallowed hallmark of congressional government: rampant corruption. Crédit Mobilier of America, a holding company organized to build the Union Pacific Railroad, purchased congressmen and senators in wholesale lots. The Russian minister Eduard de Stoeckl sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 with similar tactics. In 1876, deprived of the White House by disgusted voters, the Republican leaders of Congress stole the election by purchasing the electoral votes of Southern states—and abandoned the freed slaves to Jim Crow to win congressional Democrats’ cooperation with “Rutherfraud” B. Hayes as president.
With power the only test of legitimacy, the Senate became the headquarters of political bosses such as Roscoe Conkling of New York, Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, and Zachariah Chandler of Michigan. Presiding over state and city machines fueled by immense amounts of boodle, they inspired Henry Brooks Adams to remark in his 1880 novel Democracy that the United States had a government “of the people, by the people, for the benefit of Senators.” Only half in jest, Mark Twain wrote: “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress.”
Viewing this scene with high-minded dismay in 1884, Woodrow Wilson put his astute finger on the fundamental flaw of congressional government: it was impossible to fix responsibility for decisions emanating from a body composed of hundreds of politicians. “Nobody stands sponsor to the policy of the government,” he wrote. “A dozen men originate it; a dozen compromises twist and alter it; a dozen officers whose names are scarcely known outside Washington put it into execution.”
Wilson wondered whether the whole system should be junked—wouldn’t the clear-cut lines of party power and responsibility of Great Britain’s parliamentary government work better? But he eventually realized that American voters would never swallow such a switch, and he decided that the only alternative to congressional government was a strong presidency: “The president is at liberty, both in law and in conscience, to be as big a man as he can.”
For almost 20 years after Wilson wrote these words, they remained in the realm of prophecy. The presidents of the 19th century fought an essentially defensive battle against congressional attempts to further erode their office. In these struggles, public opinion tended to favor the president, who was elected by all the people and could claim to be their spokesman with considerable effectiveness. In 1887 Grover Cleveland was emboldened to challenge the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act; Congress repealed it.
In 1901 the assassination of William McKinley brought Theodore Roosevelt into the White House, and a far more vigorous assertion of presidential power began. Roosevelt’s initiatives in foreign policy, such as the construction of the Panama Canal, his dispatch of the Great White Fleet on a world tour, and his challenge to the country’s “malefactors of great wealth” left Congress gasping. Executive orders created national forests out of public lands, initiated antitrust prosecutions, and settled a coal strike by threatening a government takeover of the mines.
Agitated congressmen demanded that TR file all his executive orders with them and hired a team of lawyers to critique their legality. Roosevelt ignored them, loudly identifying himself with the “Jackson-Lincoln theory of the presidency” and maintaining it was “not only his right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the nation demanded, unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or the laws.”
After TR’s departure, Congress seemed to resume control of the nation. His rotund successor, William Howard Taft, was soon described as “a large body surrounded by men who know exactly what they want.” But in 1912 the public decisively repudiated Taft, giving more votes to Roosevelt (running on the improvised Progressive “Bull Moose” ticket) and throwing the election to the Democratic candidate—none other than Woodrow Wilson. “The public expects the President to manage Congress,” one editor wrote after Taft’s humiliation. “A failure to dominate Congress was Mr. Taft’s chief shortcoming in the public mind.”
As the man who had diagnosed the malaise of congressional government and its cure, Wilson came to the White House determined to be the master of Congress—and he succeeded for more than six years. With a program of domestic reform that included the Federal Reserve Act, the Clayton Antitrust Act, and the Keating-Owen Act banning child labor, his superb oratorical gifts, and a startling ability to manipulate the press, Wilson was able to marshal intimidating degrees of popular support. He was the first chief executive since John Adams to appear before Congress to deliver his messages and the first to use the president’s room in the Capitol to meet with legislators to push his proposals. An alarmed constitutional scholar wrote that Congress was “in eclipse” and compared the situation to a coup d’état.