Presidency, The: Overview

views updated

Presidency, The: Overview

The first sentence of Article II of the Constitution (1787) states, "The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America." The nature and scope of the presidency depends, in large measure, on the meaning and connotations of the words "executive power." The discussion of the executive department early in the Federal Convention of 1787 resulted, James Madison recorded, for the only time during the convention, in a "considerable pause." The topic was so important, and so unsettled, that the convention seemed "unprepared for any decision on it." What was there, in the previous understanding and experience of the members, that might have caused such uncertainty about the executive? How was this unpreparedness resolved in order to form Article II of the Constitution? And how did the conduct and understanding of the first six presidents (through 1829) give shape to the office that, at the start of the twenty-first century, is generally acknowledged to be the most powerful and important in the world?

traditional concepts of leadership

Leaders, those who exercised executive power, in the eighteenth century and for ages before that, were ordinarily monarchs or chieftains who were supposed to rule in the interests of all "their" people and to be above factions, regional or special interests, and aristocratic family privilege. Instead, they were to be guided by wise moral precepts defined as natural law, God's word and will, the mandate of heaven, immemorial custom, or some other version of higher law. The biblical prophet Samuel or his anointed King David, Pericles of Athens, the Roman emperor Trajan, Queen Elizabeth I of England, and King Henry IV of France were the often-praised and -studied exemplars in the West. Each was deemed great and good, and his or her realm blessed, because each was seen as disinterested, intent on ruling according to the welfare of the polity as a whole, eschewing factional bias, dynastic ambition, personal gain, or any other corrupt (partial, selfish) motive. Jezebel, Alcibiades, Catiline, the emperor Nero, and Richard III of England were for opposite reasons reviled as bad rulers. Thus, nearly all political philosophy and nearly all history teaching by example before the eighteenth century judged political life qualitatively by results, not procedurally by the number who ruled.

At the time of the American founding, moreover, the word "democracy" still had its Aristotelian connotations of demagogy, mob rule, and inevitable decline first to anarchy and then to tyranny. The fondest hope for improving the lives of the people of a nation rested in a benevolent despotism of the sort upheld by Frederick the Great of Prussia or Catherine the Great of Russia. Since government could best be improved through the good character and wisdom of the ruler, much attention was given to the education of the prince who would hold power. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and other early American leaders were familiar with famous books on that subject by St. Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, Cicero, and rather oppositely and perversely, Machiavelli. Plutarch's Parallel Lives served the same purpose.

In the minds of those who fashioned the executive office at the Federal Convention of 1787, then, were long-admired examples of good leadership and learned works explaining how such leaders might be obtained or cultivated—as well as equally long-hallowed arguments that democracy, any sort of direct government by the people, led inexorably to opposite results. The task of the convention, and of government in the new nation, was to resolve this dilemma: Could self-government somehow be organized to achieve good government? The footprints of this question are all over the efforts of the convention to frame executive power and the attempts of the first six presidents to conduct their new office.

the revolution and executive leadership

The immediate context of the quandaries over executive authority was the struggle with its exercise by King George III, his ministers, and the colonial governors that led to the American Revolution (1775–1783). When George III seemed to persist in tyrannical measures despite Patrick Henry's warning that he might thus share the fate of the tyrants Caesar and Charles I, when Lord North and other ministers manipulated Parliament to ignore utterly colonial interests, and when governors such as Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts and Lord Dunmore of Virginia prorogued legislatures and called in occupying British soldiers, the North American colonists saw arbitrary executive power as the very face of tyranny. Fear of executive power in general, and emphasis on legislative power as an antidote, were thus the monitory lessons of Revolutionary struggle. As a result, many of the constitutions of the newly independent states created very weak governors, hemmed in by councils, legislative election, and severely limited function, while the Articles of Confederation (1781) provided for no executive authority at all except that formed by statute of the Continental Congress itself and thus of course subordinate to the Congress.

Along with the widespread disgust regarding arbitrarily exercised executive power, however, a powerful tradition of respect for active, public-spirited leadership persisted in Anglo-America. It was conveyed, Alison G. Olson has noted, in a pattern of thought in England "stretching from the country gentlemen of the 1630s through Shaftesbury, the Tory writers of Queen Anne's time, and Bolingbroke, to Jefferson" that emphasized both a "country agrarian populism" and a need for patriot leadership to stand above the commercial spirit, favoritism, and factionalism (Anglo-American Politics, 1660–1775, p. 174). Robert Walpole, Britain's first real prime minister, was generally understood to embody this rule by parties. Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke, condemned him as "the Minister [who] preaches corruption aloud and constantly, like the impudent missionary of vice" as he manipulated Parliament and the king to exalt the interests of the Whig oligarchs then making Britain into the world's richest and most powerful nation. By "corruption" Bolingbroke meant not only bribery, theft, and so on, but any intention that sought, deliberately or otherwise, the selfish benefit of any person, class, or group rather than the public good; the opposite, to seek the public good, was what eighteenth-century political thinking meant by virtue, the essential quality of good government whether by one, the few, or the many.

In a tract entitled The Idea of a Patriot King (1738), Bolingbroke condemned Machiavelli explicitly for requiring of the prince "no more than the appearance of virtue" rather than possession of real virtue and for extolling not genuine wisdom, but merely its counterfeit, cunning. Bolingbroke insisted that a patriot king would "purge … the crowds of spies, parasites, and sycophants [who] surround the throne under the patronage of [corrupt] ministers." After choosing virtuous advisers, the king would "govern like the common father of his people," as in a patriarchal family where "the head and all the members are united by one common interest and animated by one common spirit." Such a monarch could "renew the spirit of liberty" in the minds of his people by banishing "corruption [as] … an expedient of government, [and] … set the passions of their hearts on the side of liberty and good government." The public good and the welfare of the people, Bolingbroke explained, might come from good executive leadership that could overcome the corrupt and factional tendencies of ministerial and parliamentary government. Under such a patriot leader, "concord will appear, brooding peace and prosperity on the happy land, joy sitting in every face, content in every heart, a people unoppressed, undisturbed, unalarmed, busy to improve their private property and the public stock." Americans connected this idealized model with their hopes (soon shattered) on the accession of George III in 1760 that he might be the patriot king who would banish ministerial misrule of the colonies. Present at his coronation in London, Benjamin Franklin hoped the new, young king's "virtue and … sincere Intentions … [would] make his People happy; will give him Firmness and Steadiness in his Measures." Thinking of the good such a monarch might accomplish, Franklin recalled an old Latin saying, "Ad Exemplum Regis, etc.," meaning, in a full version, "the manners of the world are formed after the example of the King; nor can edicts influence the human understanding, so much as the life of the ruler." John Adams, reading George III's first speech to Parliament in 1761, noted his promise to "patronize Religion, Virtue, the British Name and Constitution, in Church and State, the subjects' Rights, Liberty, Commerce, Military Merit—these are the sentiments worthy of a King—a Patriot King." Fourteen years later, on the eve of the Battle of Bunker Hill, General George Washington scorned the redcoats as "Ministerial Troops, [not] … the King's Troops," while Sons of Liberty, beginning to shift allegiance, toasted "A patriot King or none, over the British colonies." Abigail Adams expressed the final shift two weeks after the Declaration of Independence: "We have in George a match for a Borgia or a Catiline, a wretch callous to every Humane feeling." Such sentiments, both the aspirations for an active, virtuous executive and the condemnation of corrupt ones, remained powerful in the minds of Americans after the Revolution (even though George III was by then thoroughly disqualified) as they sought to reshape executive authority. Abigail Adams again expressed the sentiment writing to her husband in 1783: the nation needed "a Solomon in wisdom, to guide and conduct this great people … at this critical era."

the constitutional convention

As the Convention of 1787 began its discussion of the executive, uncertainty prevailed. When it took up the resolution in the Virginia Plan that "a national Executive be instituted, to be chosen by the National Legislature," James Wilson "moved that the Executive consist of a single person." After discussion stalled for a while, one delegate supported Wilson's motion as likely to secure responsibility and efficiency in the executive. Another opposed it in order that Congress be empowered both to elect the executive and to determine the number to compose it. After Wilson again supported a single executive to achieve "energy, dispatch, and responsibility," another delegate proposed to "annex a Council to the Executive," and yet another condemned a single executive as "the foetus of monarchy." The motion was then postponed, James Madison noted, because the convention seemed "unprepared for any decision on it."

The convention resumed debate on the executive after the contentious decision to make the states equal in the Senate had been taken. Gouverneur Morris argued that election of a single executive by Congress would "be the work of intrigue, of cabal, and of faction" and make it a "mere creature of the Legislative." Instead, election by "the citizens of the United States" would "never fail to prefer some man of distinguished character." Roger Sherman still thought legislative election best because "the people at large … will never be sufficiently informed of characters," a point reinforced by George Mason, who declared such an election was like referring "a choice of colours to a blind man." A few days later, after Morris, Wilson, and others had again argued that, despite Mason's caution, election by the people, for a relatively long term, with reeligibility, was the most purely republican form of election, Madison analyzed the problem. The alternatives were election by the people themselves, by some existing body or group, national or state, or by "some special authority derived from the people." Election by some existing authority, whether Congress, state legislatures, or even state governors collectively, was, as many delegates argued, sure to be hopelessly entangled in cabal and intrigue, foreign and domestic, like the elections of the king of Poland or the Roman pope. After approving the idea of an electoral college as less subject to cabal and more likely to seek good characters than other modes, Madison nonetheless supported election directly by the qualified part of the people (under state law) because the Convention seemed not to countenance the electoral college idea. However, the first draft of the Constitution, presented on 6 August, returned to the earlier mode: a single executive would be elected by Congress for a term of seven years, but could not be elected a second time. With many delegates still undecided, and relatively wide powers conferred on the executive (though not to make treaties or to appoint ambassadors or judges of the Supreme Court), the convention left many questions to be resolved in the clause-by-clause debate of the draft.

In arguing for both broader powers and a more direct election of the executive, James Wilson again explained that the previous association of tyranny with a king and "really formidable" executive power was no longer relevant in a constitution where the executive was elected, directly or indirectly, by the people and was carefully restrained by constitutional authority. Under such circumstances, especially in a constitution with a powerful legislature partly "aristocratic" (i.e., the Senate), the danger of tyranny might come from it rather than the president. The presidency, on the other hand, might advocate for the people and be itself a center of the republican principle of government by consent of the governed. As the force of this understanding more and more impressed other delegates, the election and powers of the president were in the last days of the convention gradually revised to assume the configuration in the final document. Election would be by an electoral college (weighted largely in accord to population) to avoid legislative cabals. In the absence of a majority in the college for any candidate, the matter would be decided in the House of Representatives (voting by states) to avoid too much Senate power. Also, a shorter term and reeligibility were established to bring elections closer to the people. Furthermore, the president was given treaty-making and appointive powers with the Senate relegated to providing "advice and consent," in order to enhance his standing as a republican rather than a monarchical authority. The office, though modeled in some degree on the relatively strong governors of Massachusetts and New York and even on the prerogatives of the rejected British king, was in fact perhaps the most creative part of the convention's work, a new office for a new frame of government, resting, as "Publius" noted in The Federalist No. 1, not on "accident and force," but on "reflection and choice."

establishing the presidency

As the convention finished its work, it became clear that the presiding officer, George Washington, would almost certainly be the first to fill the executive office. Indeed, the delegates had often shaped its dimensions with the expectation that the Revolutionary hero before them, without monarchical ambitions, would be the first president. Though there was some worry about whether the considerable powers thus conferred would be safe in the hands of his successors—whoever they might be—Washington's universally acknowledged patriotism, good judgment, understanding of public affairs, and republican vision were often behind the convention's decisions. The same proposition loomed through the ratification debates: if Washington would almost surely be the first president, then anti-Federal complaints about the commander-in-chief's powers, the veto, making appointments to office, and so on were all blunted by the question "Can Washington be safely trusted with these powers?" Alexander Hamilton's vigorous defense of the mode of election and the powers of the executive in The Federalist Nos. 67–77 carries the implicit assumption that Washington would first fill the office—and the hope that his successors would learn from his understanding and conduct of the presidency. There was widespread agreement that the United States did not want a king (thanks to the reviled George III), but an almost equal agreement on wanting somehow to gain for the polity the admired ideals of monarchy: an above-party, energetic, morally respected, principled, and visionary executive, mindful of the other branches of government but nonetheless himself providing firm, active leadership.

A critical test of understanding of executive power came when Congress faced the question of removal from office: Did the Senate have to "consent" to removals as well as appointments? Or was removal, by implication, only possible through impeachment? Or should Congress, in defining each office, also define a removal procedure? Or did the "executive power" vested in the president by the Constitution implicitly leave removal to the discretion of the president? In arguing for the president's implicit removal power, members of Congress first rejected any senatorial role in removal power as limiting and confusing necessary executive responsibility and opening the door for "cabal" and "discord." It would "reduce the power of the President to a mere vapor," Representative James Madison stated. Members pointed out that while the legislative power was in Article I limited to powers "herein granted" and the judicial power in Article III "shall extend to" only enumerated cases, the executive power was simply "vested," implying a breadth and discretion in some ways similar to the prerogative given to the British monarch, even under Lockean definitions of distribution of powers. Fisher Ames observed that "the executive powers are delegated to the President, with a view to have a responsible officer to superintend, control, inspect, and check the officers necessarily employed in administering the laws." He should be able, then, to remove officers "he can no longer trust with safety." Madison added that under such an understanding, with the president elected at least indirectly by the people, "the chain of dependence … terminates in the supreme body, namely in the people." When the views of Madison, Ames, and others prevailed in the fashioning of the executive departments, it was clear that even Congress had in mind an exalted, responsible executive power exercised independently of partisan legislative contentions and protective of the public good—always the role of the good ruler from Plato and Cicero to Erasmus and Henry IV of France.

the federalist presidents

Washington sought to maintain this active, nonpartisan approach to his office, but was soon surrounded by intense conflict, especially in his own cabinet between Hamilton and Jefferson. The president was appalled, and he begged his secretaries to cease. Without a willingness to subordinate differences to the public good, Washington warned, "every thing must rub; the Wheels of Government will clog," and he feared that "the Reins of government [could not] be managed, or … the Union … much longer preserved." Though Washington, because he came to believe Federalist policies best for the country, was himself drawn into partisan politics, he continued to resist any enshrinement of partisanship in the presidency (in contrast to presidents from Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt to Franklin Roosevelt and George W. Bush, who would proudly tie the presidency to extreme partisanship). In his Farewell Address (1796), ironically a form of partisanship itself, Washington warned against "the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally" and noted that already "the alternate domination of one faction over another … has perpetuated the most horrid enormities, [and] is itself a frightful despotism." Instead, he urged the public to support "consistent and wholesome plans, digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests." Washington began and ended his presidency believing this was the essential role of the national executive.

When John Adams became the second president in 1797, he proclaimed his

wish to patronize every rational effort to encourage schools, colleges, universities, academies, and every institution for propagating knowledge, virtue, and religion among all classes of people … as the only means of preserving our Constitution from its natural enemies, the spirit of sophistry, the spirit of party, the spirit of intrigue, the profligacy of corruption, and the pestilence of foreign influence, which is the angel of destruction to elective governments.

These are sentiments with which neither his predecessor nor his successor would have disagreed. Adams intended to be an active, above-party leader, respectful of the legislature and mindful of the needs of the people and in charge to defend and seek the public good. In his lifelong compulsion to list good and bad leaders, even before the Revolution he had "warmly recommended" Cicero, Demosthenes, the duc de Sully, Sir Robert Cecil, and the elder William Pitt as model public servants, while he condemned Tiberius, Iago, and Richard III as unworthy leaders—a list to which he later added Napoleon Bonaparte, Hamilton, and Aaron Burr. The distinction in every case was not mode of election nor extent of power, but rather service to the public good, not corrupt power lust, dynastic ambition, nor factional intrigue.

With these standards in mind as president, Adams retained what he regarded as honorable public servants, left over from the previous administration, in his own cabinet despite policy and political differences with them, encouraged militant patriotism in response to the XYZ affair, and most notably, sent off a peace mission in 1799 to end the Quasi-War with France (1798–1800) that, by damping war fervor in the country, probably cost him and his party electoral victory in 1800. (This and other public-spirited actions so angered Alexander Hamilton, the de facto leader of the Federalist Party, that he published, during the 1800 election, a vicious pamphlet condemning Adams so severely that it too contributed to Adams's electoral defeat.) Long after leaving office, reading again the works of the author of The Idea of a Patriot King, Adams reflected that patriotism included

piety, or love and fear of God; general benevolence to mankind; a particular attachment to our own country; a zeal to promote its happiness by reforming its morals, increasing its knowledge, promoting its agriculture, commerce, and manufactures, improving its constitution, and securing its liberties; and all this without the prejudices of individuals or parties or factions, without fear, favor, or affection.

Since Adams understood the president to be a patriot leader, he had defined as well the guidelines for that office.

the first republican presidents

When Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, he declared, in his to-become-world-famous Inaugural Address, that "we are all Republicans—we are all Federalists," that "though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable," that he sought to "restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things," and that he believed the republican government he had been chosen to lead, rather than being too weak to rule or even survive, was "on the contrary, the strongest government on earth" because of the willing support of its citizens. Though Jefferson set about to reverse or reduce some Federalist programs (for example, taxes, military preparedness, expansion of the judiciary, and the Alien and Sedition Acts [1798]) in order to create "a wise and frugal government" and "compress [its powers] within the narrowest compass [it] will bear," he also pledged to preserve "the general government in its whole constitutional vigor." He wrote a friend at the same time that since it was "impossible to advance the notions of a whole people suddenly to ideal right, we see the wisdom of Solon's remark, that no more good must be attempted than the nation can bear." Though Jefferson thus urged a certain patience in his conduct of the presidency and insisted that it be in accord with public understanding, he just as clearly signaled the president's responsibility to discern the nation's "ideal right" (natural law; the public good?) and to lead toward it. (Theodore Roosevelt, a century later, would make the same point more bluntly: "I simply made up my mind what [the people] ought to think, and then did my best to get them to think it" [Hughes, Living Presidency, p. 166].) He thought this could be done in accord with standards of "wise and frugal" government held to a "narrow" rather than an expansive sense of national and presidential power. His cabinet members (James Madison and Albert Gallatin at State and Treasury, respectively, were especially important) were generally like-minded. Administrative actions, diplomatic dispatches, and especially, leadership of Congress carried out through meetings and presentation of proposals to friendly legislators, thus carried the stamp of Jefferson's guidelines for the executive.

The signal events of his administrations, the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and the embargo (1807–1809), reveal his understanding of constitutional leadership. Jefferson believed that under a proper "narrow" understanding, Congress and the president needed a constitutional amendment to make such a purchase. He had, however, no hesitation in moving ahead rapidly to resolve the diplomatic crisis leading up to the purchase treaty and then in carrying through on it with Congress, even without an amendment (both Madison and Gallatin thought it was unnecessary anyhow); active executive leadership required such.

Then, as the injustices and depredations of the world war between France and Britain increased dramatically after the Battles of Trafalgar (1805) and Austerlitz (1805), Jefferson sought almost desperately to avoid the war in order to avert its inevitable anti-republican features: the dangerous aggrandizing of both federal and executive power. With Madison's urging and support, Jefferson asked Congress to close American borders to trade with belligerents and to require American ships to leave the high seas where their presence seemed certain to involve them, and American naval vessels, in strife sure to mean war with Britain or France or possibly both. He and Madison saw the Embargo Act of 1807 as a peaceful way to persuade the belligerents, whom he thought needed American trade, to stop their depredations; that is, they saw it as a republican (unwarlike) means of national defense. Jefferson was quite willing to exercise huge powers, carried out by the executive branch, when he thought the common defense required it, but almost as readily he asked Congress to rescind the embargo when he saw its deeply divisive effect in the country and recognized that harsh measures were needed to enforce it. Both the divisions and the harsh measures were deeply antithetical to what for Jefferson were hallowed republican principles of public harmony and mild government.

One can understand the Jefferson and Madison administrations as divided into three periods: (1) 1801–1805, when a fortunate, relatively peaceful interlude in the Napoleonic Wars allowed the president to lead and govern in a principled but "mild" way; (2) 1805–1815, when the clamored demands of world war intruded on all efforts at republican government; and (3) 1815–1817, when Madison had the opportunity again to exercise executive power in ways he and Jefferson had designed before the war crisis. In 1809, then, Madison entered the presidency facing desperate international circumstances with a republican, constitutional system little geared to a world at war. Saddled with a weak cabinet because of the intricacies of politics, with constitutional restraints that required deference to Congress, and with assaults from both belligerents that demanded forceful response, Madison struggled to sustain republican guidelines while also defending the nation. He gradually strengthened his cabinet, persuaded Congress to enact some preparedness measures, and exhausted diplomatic channels for peaceful resolution. Though he did not, in the style of an Andrew Jackson or Winston Churchill (or even an Alexander Hamilton), find ways to be a commanding, inspiring war leader, he managed to conduct the war, finally successfully, while maintaining the forms and spirit of republican government. French minister Louis Sérurier, in Washington throughout the War of 1812, asserted that "three years of warfare have been a trial of [American republican] institutions to sustain a state of war, a question … now resolved to their advantage." Secretary Gallatin had noted the need, as the war began, to avoid "perpetual taxation, military establishment, and other corrupting or anti-republican habits or institutions," while retired President John Adams observed simply at the end of the war that "notwithstanding a thousand Faults and blunders, [Madison's] Administration has acquired more glory, and established more Union, then all his three Predecessors Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, put together." Madison emerged from the war not a dictatorial republican executive, but rather an executive convinced of the need for active leadership and of the president's authority to do so within the republican forms defined in the Constitution. With the dangers to those forms presented by Hamilton's domination in the 1790s of the executive (and what Jefferson and Madison regarded as its corrupt influence on Congress) now allayed by fifteen years of republican experience, Madison led confidently. He proposed recharter of the National Bank, an equitable commercial treaty with Britain, a mildly protective tariff, a small but high-quality defense establishment, a national university, and a program of internal improvements—but this last only by constitutional amendment.

the rise of parties

James Monroe's accession in 1817 to the presidency—deserved, he and his two predecessors thought, for his patriotism in war and peace and for his long service in government—marked the culmination in practice of the executive office's standing above party. Virtually unchallenged entering office (he lost only 34 of 217 electoral votes in 1816 and 1 in 1820), Monroe declared in his first Inaugural Address that "the American people … constitute one great family with a common interest" and hoped the nation might "soon attain the highest degree of perfection of which human institutions are capable." He asserted his intention as "Chief Executive to … not be the head of a party, but of the nation itself." His model was Washington, under whom he had served heroically in the Revolution; thus, Monroe was "the last of the cocked hats," guiding the nation, he hoped, to peace, prosperity, and harmony. His able secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, negotiated an 1817 treaty providing that no warships or forts be on either side of the Canadian border (still in effect today), negotiated another that acquired Florida and for the first time drew a transcontinental boundary between Mexico and the United States (1819), and promulgated with British support the Monroe Doctrine (1823) forbidding expansion of European despotism in the Americas. Despite this remarkable foreign affairs record, Monroe generally was bypassed in the nation's public life by zealous partisanship both in the legislature and within his own cabinet. Bitter sectional battles in Congress, especially over the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and incessant quarrels and maneuvering in his cabinet over the presidential succession clouded the scene at Monroe's retirement in 1825. Noting what was going on, Jefferson wrote "do not believe a word that there are no longer parties among us; that they are now all amalgamated." Monroe still hoped there might be "sufficient virtue in the people to support our free system of republican government" (that is, transcend the corruption of party), but Madison—no longer "sanguine" that an "engendered and embittered spirit of party" could be avoided in the United States—wrote his predecessor that he hoped only that it might be "so slight or so transient as not to threaten … permanent [damage] to the character and prosperity of the Republic." After twenty-four years of earnest effort by Jeffersonian Republican presidents to fulfill a nonpartisan ideal in the presidency (and in fact, twelve years of effort by Federalist presidents before that), it was moribund in practice and under increasing challenge ideologically.

In a presidency that can only be called paradoxical, however, John Quincy Adams—child of the Revolution, son of John and Abigail Adams, master of half-a-dozen languages, the United States' premier diplomat for thirty years, and in American public life through his post-presidential service in the House of Representatives where he was a colleague of Abraham Lincoln's—sought doggedly to remain a national president even as all the forces around him, in the country, in Congress, and even in his own cabinet, had become aggressively partisan and sectional. His first annual message to Congress in 1825, with, as he thought, liberty won and Union assured, proposed a broad program in the public interest. He asked Congress (echoing his father) for laws to promote "the improvement of agriculture, commerce, and manufactures, the cultivation and encouragement of the mechanic and of the elegant arts, the advancement of literature, and the progress of the sciences, ornamental and profound, … [including] a lighthouse of the skies" (a national observatory). The proposals, offered so earnestly and fulfilling, he thought, his duty as a republican leader above party, went nowhere, ridiculed and lost amid personal and sectional controversies seething everywhere. Virtually ignored in the White House as the political vitalities of a free and democratic nation burgeoned in all directions, Adams lost the presidency to Andrew Jackson overwhelmingly in the 1828 election.

In fact, the nature and authority of the presidency was undergoing a basic shift as the very idea of democratic leadership altered in the 1820s and 1830s. Martin Van Buren and others began to articulate a new, positive conception of party and of its relationship to presidential leadership far different from the purposes of the first six presidents. Their upholding of nonpartisanship, the new view asserted, generally had the effect of maintaining an elitist status quo against changing and more democratic ideas of the needs of the country. Instead, those who aspired to leadership, especially the presidency, should draw strength from new and diverse forces and form or work with a political party to organize and give effect to what it saw as the public good. This organization, a political party proudly called such, giving voice and coherence to the will of the people, would become a permanent, ongoing presence and would itself embody democratic processes. It would then support a president who in office would be the leader of the party, carrying out its purpose and policies; a real fulfillment of the idea of government by consent, not a counterfeit as Washington, Jefferson, and Madison would have thought. Such partisan activity would, argued Martin Van Buren, "rouse the sluggish to exertion, excite a salutary vigilance over our public functionaries, … [and by] the very discord which is thus produced, may in a government like ours, be conducive to the public good." The president would be both the beneficiary of this partisan activity and the leader and perpetrator of it in executing his office. In forming what became the Democratic Party in the 1820s, in helping to elect Jackson in 1828 as its first president in office, in supporting him while president (1829–1837), and then in succeeding him in office as the next leader of the party (1837–1841), Van Buren reconfigured the place of both political parties and the presidency in American public life. The first American presidency, from 1789 to 1829, above party in conception, was over; the second, party-based presidency, from 1829 to 1901, was beginning; and the third, active or imperial presidency, from 1901 to 1981, and the fourth, managed and less active presidency, beginning in 1981, were in the future, with signs of a return to the first, above-party conception nowhere in sight.

See alsoConstitutional Convention; Democratic Republicans; Federalist Papers; Federalist Party; Government: Overview; Politics: Political Thought; Politics: Political Culture; Politics: Political Parties .


Corwin, Edward S. The President, Office and Powers: History and Analysis of Practice and Opinion. New York: New York University Press, 1940.

Cunningham, Noble E., Jr. The Process of Government under Jefferson. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Farrand, Max, ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. 4 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1937.

Hamilton, Alexander, John Jay, and James Madison. The Federalist Papers. Edited by Clinton Rossiter. New York: Mentor, 1961.

Hughes, Emmet John. The Living Presidency: The Resources and Dilemmas of the American Presidential Office. New York: Coward, McCann, and Geohagen, 1973.

Ketcham, Ralph. Presidents above Party: The First American Presidency, 1789–1829. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Jefferson, Thomas. The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Adrienne Koch and William Peden. New York: Modern Library, 1993.

Madison, James. James Madison: Writings. Edited by Jack N. Rakove. New York: Penguin Putnam, Library of America, 1999.

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.

McDonald, Forrest. Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985.

Olson, Alison G. Anglo-American Politics, 1660–1775: The Relationship between Parties in England and Colonial America. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1973.

Rakove, Jack N. Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. New York: Knopf, 1996.

Richardson, James D., ed. A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789–1897. 10 vols. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1896–1899.

St. John, Henry, Lord Bolingbroke. "The Idea of a Patriot King." In Political Writers of Eighteenth-Century England. Edited by Jeffrey Hart. New York: Knopf, 1964.

Sharp, James Roger. American Politics in the Early Republic. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993.

Wallace, Michael. "Changing Concepts of Party in the United States: New York, 1815–1828." American Historical Review 74 (1968): 453–489.

White, Leonard D. The Federalists: A Study in Administrative History. New York: Macmillan, 1948.

Ralph Ketcham

About this article

Presidency, The: Overview

Updated About content Print Article