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The Presidents And The Presidency
Through the years the chief executive’s job has grown in power. Here is a study of the men who made it a greater office.
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
Lincoln came to the presidency with virtually no preparation and no preconception of the authority it embodied. But he had sworn an “oath registered in Heaven” to defend the Constitution, and in his inaugural address he promised his fellow citizens to save the Union without which the Constitution would be nothing but a scrap of paper. He had little concern for the form his actions might take; he meant only to act—as commander of the armed forces, executor of the laws, and sole possessor of the shapeless grant of power in the opening words of Article II.
In his effort to save the Union, Lincoln pushed the powers of the presidency to a new plateau. In the course of his famed eleven-week “dictatorship” he called out the militia, clamped a blockade on the South, enlarged the regular army and navy beyond statutory limits, advanced public moneys to persons unauthorized to receive them, pledged the credit of the United States for a sizable loan, closed the mails to “treasonable correspondence,” authorized potential traitors to be arrested, and suspended the writ of habeas corpus along the line of communication between Washington and New York.
“As Commander in Chief in time of war,” he told some visitors from Chicago, “I suppose I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy.” We need not look beyond the Emancipation Proclamation and the declaration of martial law in Indiana to learn what he meant by “any measure.”
There is a good deal more than this to tell about Lincoln’s presidency—the shabby performance as administrator, the creditable performance as diplomat, and the astounding performance as politician and leader of public opinion. But this point should be made clear: through the boldness of his untutored initiative, through an unprecedented plea of necessity, and through an unique interpretation of executive power, Lincoln raised the presidency to a position of constitutional and moral ascendancy that left no doubt where the burden of crisis government would thereafter rest.
Lincoln, like Jefferson, left the presidency temporarily enfeebled. There were times in the next thirty years—under Grant and Arthur and Harrison—when the presidency seemed to have declined permanently in relation to Congress. But our rise to industrial might and our grand entrance upon the stage of world politics turned the course of the presidency once more upward, and Colonel Roosevelt galloped into the White House as our first modern President.
It is hard to come to grips with Theodore Roosevelt, just as it is with any boy of six. There are times when he has the look of a genuinely great man, and times when he has the look, as Mark Hanna said, of a “damned cowboy.” He was, beyond a doubt, a strong President, and no small part of his strength lay in the fact that he was a cowboy. For what Roosevelt gave the presidency was the breathless drama of a Western movie, and he never left the audience in doubt that he was the “good guy” and the other fellows—Democrats, Senators, monopolists, Socialists, diplomats, nature-fakers, muckrakers—the “bad guys.” With the help of an active and attractive family, he put the presidency on the front page of every newspaper in America, and there it has remained ever since with huge consequences for its status and authority. Teddy lived the dreams of every red-blooded American boy: he punched cattle, led a cavalry charge, became President, and, when it was all over, went off to shoot lions and elephants’in Africa.
T. R. was a brilliant molder and interpreter of public opinion who confessed happily that the White House was a “bully pulpit.” He scored several genuine triumphs as leader of Congress and thus gave substance to his theory that “a good executive under present conditions of American life must take a very active interest in getting the right kind of legislation.” He conducted our diplomacy with unusual vigor, although his stick was not so big nor his voice so soft as he liked to boast. Still, the Panama Canal and the Treaty of Portsmouth were rather substantial achievements for those days.
Unfortunately for Teddy, but probably fortunately for the country, there was no real crisis in all his seven years that would permit him to prove conclusively that he was, as he insisted, a “Jackson-Lincoln” as opposed to a “Buchanan” President. The nearest thing to such a crisis was the anthracite coal strike of 1902, which he managed to settle before being pushed into executing his plans, first revealed fully in his Autobiography (1913), to have the Army seize and operate the mines. This event, his land withdrawals, and several other minor exertions of authority led him to state the famed “Stewardship Theory” which is still the most adroit literary justification of the strenuous presidency.
Woodrow Wilson was the best prepared President, intellectually and morally, ever to come to the White House. He proved himself an able administrator, a shrewd leader of his party, a sensitive “spokesman for the real purpose and sentiment of the country,” an impressive head of state, and a genuinely effective leader of legislation.