The Presidents And The Presidency


Washington also lent his vast prestige to the republic and to the presidency and thus rendered them acceptable to the American people. The Republicans in opposition may have ridiculed the pompous ceremonies in which the General thought it necessary to indulge, hut they did not understand as clearly as he that magic may be reduced but never eliminated entirely from the processes by which tree men are governed; even they could not deny that his grand tours through the states strengthened the people’s trust in the Constitution and excited their interest in the presidency.

Nor could they deny, indeed they were loud to lament, that he used his powers vigorously. Washington took time to make up his mind: he knew that any one of his decisions might set a precedent for generations to come. When he was ready to act, he acted with force and courage. In the field of foreign relations alone he set a dozen precedents that no later period of congressional ascendancy could ever erase. Thanks to Hamilton he was an influential leader of legislation, thanks to his experience he was an excellent administrator, and thanks to himself he was a head of state who made every king alive seem like a silly goose. He was, in short, the best ol all possible first Presidents. Constitutionalism, dignity, authority—these were his gifts to the presidency and to the republic.

The presidency of Thomas Jefferson presents a slippery problem to the judgment of history. That he was a great man there can be no doubt, but that he was a great President there is considerable doubt. To his lasting credit are his injections of large doses of republicanism into an office that was coming to look just a shade too kingly: the breath-taking assertion of power (which took even his own breath away) in the purchase of Louisiana, and the Hat declaration of presidential independence in his rejection of John Marshall’s subpoena in the trial of Aaron Burr.

His most important contributions, of course, were his conversion of the presidency to a political office and his leadership of Congress, and it is exactly at these two points that we um into trouble with Jefferson. His successes in molding and leading a party and then using it to influence Congress leave us no choice but to judge him an effective President. Yet the very methods through which he brought strength to his own presidency were calculated to weaken the office grievously once he had turned it over to lesser men. to men who were not and could never be the party chieftain that he was.

John Marshall made a remarkable prediction about Jefferson’s methods and influence in a letter written to Hamilton while the election of 1800 hung in the balance:

“Mr. Jefferson appears to me to be a man, who will embodv himself with the House of Representatives. By weakening the office of President, he will increase his personal power. He will diminish his responsibility, sap the fundamental principles of the government, and become the leader of that party which is about to constitute the majority of the legislature.”

We need not subscribe to the full bitterness of this statement to recognize that Marshall was a shrewd prophet. Jefferson did embody himself in the House of Representatives, thereby increasing his power ten times over. The power, however, was personal and not presidential. It flowed from him and not from his office, and this, surely, was the essence of Jefferson’s presidency. If we concentrate our gaze on his eight years, then shift it swiftly down to the middle of cither the Nineteenth or Twentieth Centuries, we can say that it was a strong and great presidency. If we let our gaze halt at any year between 1809 and 1829, we must judge that Jefferson damaged the office severely by compromising its independence.

Andrew Jackson plucked Jefferson’s chestnuts from the fire, although he would hardly have put it that way. Coming as it did after twenty years of congressional supremacy and government by commission, his resolute presidency was a remaking of the office. Jackson regained control over the Cabinet, revived the veto and purified it of the niceties that had grown tip around it, acted simultaneously as a dramatic chief of state and a hard-driving chief of party, and made clear to South Carolina that the executive power was equal to the task of preserving the Union. He never missed an opportunity, by word or deed, to reassert the independence of an office that had become much more dependent on Congress than the framers could possibly have willed. His veto of the Bank Rill, his proclamation against the nullifiers, and his “solemn protest” against the Senate’s resolution of censure are assertions of presidential independence and authority that make exciting reading el’en today.

Jackson rode into office on a wave of protest that he never directed and barely understood himself. The presidency would surely have become a democratic office had Jackson never held it, but he was the one who presided imperiously over the radical reversal in the roles of President and Congress as instruments of popular power and targets of popular feeling. No small part_of his success may be traced directly to the fact that he was the first President of the United States elected by the people, and to the added fact that he knew it.

Jackson’s mistakes were many, his legacies not all bright; more than one such President a century would be hard to take. Yet he was a giant in his influence on our system of government, and the influence, on balance, seems to have been wholesome. Well might he write in defense of his conduct: “I shall anticipate with pleasure the place to be assigned me in the history of my country.”