Channelling George Washington: The Role of the Presidency

News at Home

Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the fourth in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

"To see this country happy is so much the wish of my soul, nothing on this side of Elysium can be placed in competition with it.

“President Washington? Is there a new problem on the political horizon?

“The biggest one of them all.  The role of the president in our government.  Most of President Obama’s current troubles are rooted in his misunderstanding of the president’s job, as I designed it—and performed it.  I demonstrated then – and insist now – that the president is coequal to Congress and in many areas must be – yes, even should be – superior.”

“By interesting coincidence, there are two books on the market, arguing the case from opposite sides.  One, Crisis and Command, by John Yoo, is a history of executive power from your presidency to George Bush’s.  The other, Bomb Power, by Gary Wills, argues presidents have gotten much too powerful, especially since they’ve been given the authority to use atomic weapons.”

“I’m familiar with both books.  I vote for Mr. Yoo, who backs a strong president.  Wills is a typical Jeffersonian, shaking in his shoes about executive power.  He’s hardly the first writer to sound this alarm.  Arthur Schlesinger Jr. declared it in The Imperial Presidency several decades ago in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.  More recently, Gene Healey published The Cult of the Presidency.”

“You feel this concern goes back to Mr. Jefferson?”

“I know it does.  I watched the man in action, doing everything he could get away with, while serving as my Secretary of State, to make the federal government as feckless as it was under those idiotic Articles of Confederation that governed us – NOT – during the Revolution.”

“Did he pursue the same policy when he became president?”

“It was good for a laugh, watching him trying to pretend he was Congress’s humble servant and meanwhile twisting arms and pouring gallons of his expensive French wines down the gullets of the congressmen and senators he invited to his men only White House dinners, trying to get something done.”

“Then came the Louisiana Purchase.”

“That was good for some major chortles up here in Elysium.  Martha had joined me by that time, so we could compare notes and opinions.  She told me the two worst days of her life were the day I died and the day President Tom stopped at Mount Vernon to offer his condolences.  She had a bilious stomach for a week after he left.”

“I didn’t realize Mrs. Washington had such strong political opinions.”

“Why do you think she burned all our letters?”

“Mr. Jefferson felt he didn’t have the power to make the Louisiana Purchase, as I recall.”

“It almost choked poor Tom, but he finally had to rely on the implied powers of the presidency to do it, or lose the opportunity to double the size of the country.  Of course, he blathered away about it being an exception to the rule, made from necessity, as if the celestial guardians of democracy would strike him dead for committing such a terrible offense.”

“Mr. Wills says James Madison accused you of usurping far more power than he ever intended the president to have when he wrote the Constitution.”

“By the time Jemmy said that, he had become a devotee of Tom Jefferson, and everything he said or wrote was influenced by that overmastering fact.  When Jemmy and I sat on the porch at Mount Vernon and discussed the presidency a year before the Constitutional Convention, he agreed with my contention that a strong president was the only way the people could hope to have their voices heard above the babble of Congress.  The president is the only man—or woman—elected by all the people.  He or she represents – or should try to represent – all of them.  In some ways I felt Jemmy didn’t go far enough in that direction.  I favored giving the president a veto over congressional lawmaking with no provision for them to override it.”

“Mr. Wills bases his argument on what Madison said in the Federalist Papers—in particular Federalist 51.”

“That’s a tortured reading of the text, if there ever was one.  Jemmy’s main concern in Federalist 51 is how the checks and balances in the Constitution give all three coequal branches of the government power to prevent any one branch from running amok.  But I’ve got a far better argument than torturing that text or your readers into seeing things my way.”

“What might that be?”

“Jemmy Madison’s presidency.  He became a living if barely breathing example of what happens to a president who lets Congress walk all over him.  In 1811, he sat in the White House and watched Congress abandon the Bank of the United States, the financial institution that had created American prosperity.  It was done for purely vindictive reasons.  The bank was created by my secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton.  Tom Jefferson and his assembled disciples in Congress still hated the man, even though he’d been dead for seven years.  Jemmy let this happen while we were teetering between peace and war with Great Britain.”

“It was the equivalent of destroying the Federal Reserve System today.”

“Exactly.  The following year, a group of congressmen from the West, led by Henry Clay, persuaded everyone that war with the British would be a cakewalk.  We could capture all those empty acres in Canada while the Brits were up to their ears in a death grapple with Napoleon Bonaparte.  Congress declared war, all but licking its collective chops in anticipation of second Louisiana Purchase.”

“Did Mr. Madison agree with them?”

“War was never Jemmy’s cup of tea.  He shook in his shoes at the thought of it.  But he went along with the declaration of hostilities.  The majority in the Senate was a mere six votes.  In the House the margin wasn’t much better, 79-49.”

“Not good omens of a united war effort.”

“By 1813, New England was in semi-revolt and a lot of people were calling it ‘Mr. Madison’s War.’  The Secretary of the Treasury was telling Jemmy the government didn’t have enough cash on hand to pay the clerks in Washington D.C.  Without the Bank of the United States it was almost impossible to borrow money.  Meanwhile our armies, all organized on Jeffersonian principles, stumbled into horrendous defeats in Canada.”

“What do you mean, Jeffersonian principles?”

“Tom didn’t see any need for a trained regular army.  He maintained militia would fight just as well, if they were led by inspiring officers.  He – and Jemmy – ignored everything we’d learned in eight years of fighting the British in the Revolutionary War.  For Jemmy, the final humiliation came when the British landed four thousand men in Maryland, routed another militia army and burned the White House, the Capitol and almost every other government building in Washington.  There was serious talk of impeaching Jemmy.  Others wanted to lynch him.  If this doesn’t refute the idea of a president subservient to Congress, I don’t know what does.”

“Do you think President Obama could descend to such a low point?”

“No.  I think he’s learning – the hard way, as usual – that a president has to lead Congress.  You can’t let them do things on their own.  That way you get a stimulus bill with 6,000 earmarks.  You get the backstairs deals to pass the health bill that have sickened millions of voters.  You end up with what a lot of presidents have confronted since President Nixon was forced to resign—an Imperial Congress, populated by more or less permanent incumbents more interested in what they can do for themselves and a few favored constituents than what they should be doing for the country.”

“The Imperial Congress! We ought to discuss that idea at some length, Mr. President.”

“I’ll be back soon.”

Related Links