Traditional rankings of the American presidents ask whether our chief executives did what was necessary for the good of the country. But should we look to their fidelity to the Constitution as a better way to evaluate their behavior in office?
9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America: And Four Who Tried to Save Her, by Brion McClanahan (Regnery Books, 2016)
This book is a refreshing attempt to “turn upside down” the traditional rankings of the presidents, which, beginning with Arthur Schlesinger’s 1948 academic poll, place the United States’ most proactive executives—Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson—at the top of the list. “Many historians, and too many Americans in general,” author Brion McClanahan avers, “seem to believe that presidential authority is virtually unlimited.” Mr. McClanahan instead evaluates each president on “what he is constitutionally permitted to do in office,” turning to what the author perceives to be the original intent of the American Founders as found in the Constitution. The result, if not a comprehensive re-ranking, is a short list of indictments of the nine worst presidents and brief defenses of four of the best.
It should be noted that whereas Mr. McClanahan is surely correct that “the founding generation considered an out-of-control executive to be the greatest bane to liberty” (p. xv), it is also true that the Founders themselves disagreed about what exactly constituted an “out-of-control executive,” a question that quickly became a heated political issue between the new government’s first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, and first Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. The latter famously asserted in Federalist No. 70 that “energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.” Despite the author’s clear Jeffersonian sympathies, Mr. McClanahan, somewhat surprisingly, does not reject “energy” as a positive quality of the chief executive, but only energy that in actuality is merely “unconstitutional usurpation of power.” Ay, there’s the rub: What a modern-day conservative of the Hamiltonian stripe (such do exist) may see as energy, Mr. McClanahan may call usurpation. Contemporary conservatives thus may disagree, to an extent, with the author’s underlying Constitutional assumptions, yet few conservatives of any kind would disagree that many chief executives who have served during the period of 227 years since the Constitution went into effect have exceeded in authority what even Hamilton might have countenanced.
Some of the choices on Mr. McClanahan’s presidential “bad list” will not shock the mainstream reader: Richard Nixon scrapes the bottom of the barrel on just about every presidential survey, while Andrew Jackson’s decimation of the Native American population, Woodrow Wilson’s devotion to eugenics, and Lyndon Johnson’s misadventures in Vietnam have lately come to taint these presidents in the eyes of liberals as well as conservatives; Barack Obama too is an obvious, though controversial, choice in today’s partisan political climate. Thus traditional lists are not exactly inverted. But the choices of Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln—and perhaps even the recently rehabilitated Harry Truman— indeed challenge presidential orthodoxy, and the inclusion of the TR and Lincoln will irritate some conservatives, particularly those of the Straussian persuasion.
Many of the charges made against the “imperial presidents” are familiar ones: Mr. McClanahan indicts Woodrow Wilson for exceeding presidential authority in approving an income tax and in creating the administrative war state, Franklin Roosevelt for ruling by executive order and trying to pack the Supreme Court, Lyndon Johnson for waging an unconstitutional War on Poverty, and Barack Obama for “taking the imperial presidency to a new level.” Some criticisms of presidential abuse of power cited by the author will likely be new to the reader, however: for instance, few will know that Teddy Roosevelt attempted to have the Government Printing Office adopt a simplified spelling system recommended by a board put together by Andrew Carnegie and including members like Mark Twain and Melvil Dewey (he of the Dewey Decimal System). Interestingly, Mr. McClanahan criticizes many of the actions of George Washington during his second term in office, arguing that they set a bad precedent for many of the less virtuous men who succeeded him in the office. Yet the author concludes that Washington was a “republican at heart,” blaming his missteps on his following”some very bad advice” from Alexander Hamilton (p. 4).
As with Washington, Mr. McClanahan laudably does not always paint in black and white. Though Teddy Roosevelt is criticized as the first president to usurp power in both the domestic and foreign spheres, Mr. McClanahan clearly has some sympathy for this larger-than-life character, comparing the first President Roosevelt to the “good tyrant” of Athens, Pericles, and noting that TR was self-aware enough to acknowledge contemporary criticism of his actions as deserving of response.
When it comes to the section on the four presidents “who tried to save America,” Mr. McClanahan unreservedly praises John Tyler and Calvin Coolidge—the former is deemed fitting of a place on Mount Rushmore, and the latter is “the only twentieth-century example to emulate”—while offering, albeit with important qualifications, Grover Cleveland and Thomas Jefferson as presidential models. Cleveland is praised for his fiscal responsibility and his resistance to overseas adventurism, while he receives demerits for signing the Interstate Commerce Act and the income tax, though, Mr. McClanahan does not criticize him for exercising “energy” in office. Here the author emphasizes that “executive ‘energy’ is problematic only when it is used in violation of the Constitution and the presidential oath of office” (p. 250).
In the only problematic section of the book, Mr. McClanahan perhaps allows his Jeffersonianism to color his assessment of Jefferson himself. Though he makes a good case for Jefferson’s fidelity to the Constitution during his first term in office—including defending the Louisiana Purchase as “neither illegal nor unconstitutional,” and even convincingly setting forth a republican justification of Jefferson’s attempt to have Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase impeached—the author admits that the Virginian’s second term was “a disaster” (xvii), “a constitutional and political minefield—culminating in his advocacy for an unconstitutional trade embargo with all of Europe” (p. 206). It is hard for the reader to see, then, how Jefferson meets Mr. McClanahan’s standard of a president who sought to save the country by abiding by its Constitution.
Mr. McClanahan is gloomy about the prospects of any single man’s ability to redeem the presidency. “With the mechanisms giving the executive branch and the general government unconstitutional power over the legislature and the states there is no reason to believe that much would change even if John Tyler or Calvin Coolidge were resurrected and put back into office” (p. 273). The fault lies in the imperfect design of the Constitution itself, which Mr. McClanahan believes ought to be amended through a convention of the states as detailed in Article V of the document. The author proposes a series of specific changes that would reign in the power of the president by making it harder for him unilaterally to use the military or to veto a bill for purely political motivations, illegal for him to issue executive orders, and also easier for the Senate to convict an executive who is impeached. Interestingly, Mr. McClanahan’s proposed amendments include clauses that would strengthen presidential powers: one would to limit Congressional spending by giving him what is known as “line-item veto” power, and another would reduce the ratio of Senators needed to approve a treaty from 2/3 to 3/5. As to the author’s proposal to limit the president to a single six-year term, which he justifies by arguing that “history has shown that presidents tend to abuse their power in their second term” (p. 278), one could object that it is the impossibility of a second term that provides a disincentive for executives to behave themselves, a problem that would not be cured by the proposed remedy.
In the end, then, 9 Presidents is an entertaining, even-handed, and informative analysis that helps us think anew about the standards by which we should evaluate our chief executives. Though one may disagree with some of the author’s assessments, he musters convincing support for his arguments at nearly every turn. And though Mr. McClanahan’s book consists mainly of indictments of presidential failure, and offers only a forlorn hope for the country’s future as a constitutional republic, its tone is never dreary, even if its conclusions are.
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