- Historic Sites
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
In his second term, to be sure, he came to grief in more ways than one, although his record as a wartime President is every bit as admirable as the records of both Lincoln and the second Roosevelt. Confronted by the problem of raising and equipping an army to fight overseas rather than by a sudden threat to the republic, Wilson chose to demand express legislative authority for almost every unusual step. Lincoln had shown what the office was equal to in crises calling for solitary executive action. Now Wilson showed what it could do by working with the legislature. The source of Lincoln’s power was the Constitution, and he operated in spite of Congress. The source of Wilson’s power, except in the area of command and a few related matters, was a batch of statutes, and he co-operated with Congress.
In the end, sad to relate, he lost his hold on Congress, the country, and even himself. His appeal for a Democratic Congress in 1918 was a serious blunder; his whole course of action in behalf of the League of Nations foundered on his own obstinacy. Yet his journey to Europe in December, 1918, was a herald of things to come, a rehearsal of the grand role the President would fill in the aftermath of World War II. Wilson carried the presidency to new moral and political heights, and the strength of his days can be measured in the weakness of those that followed.
Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore VV Roosevelt, and Wilson—this is a galaxy of presidential heroes to which the American people are not likely to add names often or casually. All three of our most recent Presidents—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower—have already been nominated by friends and admirers for admittance to this exclusive club. It is much too early to predict the stature of either Mr. Truman or Mr. Eisenhower in history, although the former will surely win a much higher place than that to which he is angrily assigned by Republican orators, and the latter will surely win special ranking for having been much the most popular President in American history.
It is not too early, however, to predict that Franklin D. Roosevelt will be added to the list of great Presidents. The challenging nature of his times, the airy eagerness with which he met every challenge, the breadth of his view of presidential power, his leadership of the forces of domestic reform and the forces of international freedom, his influence on the presidency —all these factors lead most historians to prophesy greatness for his name. Those millions who still denounce Mr. Roosevelt lavishly may as well face the hard fact bravely that Roosevelt had his own rendezvous with history, and that history will be kind to him. It is kind to almost all Presidents, but especially to those who wield their vast powers with boldness and imagination in response to the “felt necessities of the time.”
This is not at all to say that “strength” in the presidency is to be equated with “goodness” and “greatness.” A strong President is a bad President, a curse upon the land, unless his means are constitutional and his ends democratic-unless he acts in ways that are fair, dignified, and familiar, and pursues policies to which a “persistent and undoubted” majority of the people has given support. We honor the great Presidents of the past, not for their strength, but for the fact that they used it to build a better America. And in honoring them we recognize that their kind of presidency remains one of our chief bulwarks against decline and chaos.