From Washington to Trump: What Is Dereliction of Duty?Roundup
tags: George Washington, presidential history, Donald Trump
Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky is an expert in the cabinet, presidential history, and U.S. government institutions. She is Scholar in Residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College and Senior Fellow at the International Center for Jefferson Studies. She is the author of the award-winning The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.
Every president takes an oath of office to defend and protect the Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic. But what does that actually mean? Americans, past and present, expect the president to defend the country against physical attacks — but beyond that, we rarely agree, whether it be 1789 or 2021.
In 1787, when the delegates at the Constitutional Convention crafted Article II of the Constitution, they penned the president’s oath of office. Thinking of the British troops that had departed New York City just four years earlier, they certainly expected the president would rally the defenses if a foreign power invaded the country.
They also fully anticipated that the president would lead a response to a domestic insurrection, and they had good reason to create a powerful executive for that very scenario. The previous year, Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays and a group of rebels closed down the local courts in western Massachusetts in response to punitive tax measures. Congress had been unable to raise the funds or forces to suppress the rebellion. Fearful for their own safety, wealthy citizens in Boston finally raised the money to pay for a private military force and restore order.
After the Constitution was ratified, the framers applauded the presidents that defended the Constitution against any type of armed force and condemned those who fell short. For example, protests in western Pennsylvania against a whiskey excise tax turned violent when rebels burned down the home of a local tax collector in 1794. After unsuccessfully pursuing peaceful solutions, President George Washington called up local militias and crushed the rebellion. Most Americans agreed with his decision — even the Republican newspapers that regularly criticized the president.
How, then, do we define dereliction of duty in the 21st century? On some issues, we’ve departed a great deal from the framers’ vision for the presidency. When faced with public health crises, we expect the president to do something, even if we don’t always agree about the extent of presidential action. Former President Trump’s approval rating continued to fall during the pandemic because he refused to take any action at all. His low poll numbers reflect the expansion of presidential expectations — Americans in 1793 or 1918 may not have expected presidents to address a pandemic, but in 2020 they did.
And yet, on some issues we very much agree with George Washington. We fully expect that the president will defend the Constitution and the branches of government — against both enemies from abroad or from down Pennsylvania Avenue. While the Constitution and the oath of office may be outdated, on the president’s responsibility to defend the nation, it is still very relevant.
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