Previous Lesson (Choosing Mediocre Presidents).
– “Woodrow Wilson and the Defense of Popular Leadership,” Chapter 9 in The American presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2007, by Sidney M. Milkis, Michael Nelson. (buy cheap).
– “The Two Constitutional Presidencies,” Jeffrey Tulis, in The Presidency and the Political System.
The weak 19th century presidency gave way to the strong 20th century presidency by a combination of theoretical reinterpretation and institutional change. This entry looks at Woodrow Wilson’s reinterpretation of the presidency as not simply the Clerk of Congress but as the Tribune of the People, a concept at odds with the Framer’s fear of demagoguery.
Congressional Dominance in the Late 19th Century
The 19th century was an era of congressional dominance of the executive. Despite several presidents breaking, or trying to break, the weak presidency mold, Congress and the parties repeatedly fought back to keep the presidency constrained. The new party convention system built to propel Jackson to the candidacy quickly became a mechanism for selecting the un-anticipated candidate of least offense to all the party’s factions.
- Polk was censured by Congress for misleading them into war with Mexico, and had no choice but to stick to his promise to serve only one term.
- Lincoln served in a unique crisis situation, but beneath the extraordinary event of the Civil War, we see a very typical party-convention president who played little role in legislative efforts and exercised very few vetoes, due largely to his Whiggish background, and youthful opposition to the autocratic tendencies of Andrew Jackson.
The Lincoln Presidency says [Linocoln Biographer David] Donald, reflected the same Whiggish restraint. One of his greatest political assets was his passivity. His gift for inaction drew the southern hotheads to fire the first shot of the Civil war, and so they also drew the blame. Since any actions would offend someone, according to Donald, Lincoln took as few as possible. Lincoln himself declared that this policy was to have no policy (Crenson and Ginsberg (p.100).
- Lincoln’s successor, Johnson, attempted to exert his independence from Congress, but was impeached (although not convicted), and having repudiated the Republicans and returned to the Democratic Party (his original home) he was rejected as their candidate.
After this, the 19th century settled down again to a run of dull uninspiring executives, leading British scholar James Bryce to ask in 1895 why the U.S. did not elect great men as presidents.
As much as the Framers did not want a tyrant, the presidency probably had become far weaker than they desired. They tried to create an executive whose drive for power was sufficiently constrained but that was also energetic on his own territory and capable of acting as an effective check against the legislature. But in the late 19th century in particular, the era of “congressional government,” the presidency was nearly wholly overwhelmed by legislative dominance. Congressmembers took control of the appointment process, forcing presidents to appoint their (the legislators’) hand-picked applicants, thus capturing the spoils of the patronage system for themselves. As president, Ulysses Grant went so far as to argue in favor of this system that stripped him of power, saying it was not “necessarily corrupt, [but] a matter of custom … that cannot be ignored.” Later, Grover Cleveland restated his support for congressional dominance by insisting that he had “not come here to legislate.” The presidency had become not an office of leadership, but merely an administrative office, Congress’s clerk.
The transformation to the modern presidency began in 1896 with the election of William McKinley, and was permanently established by the end of Franklin Roosevelt’s tenure. There are two types of changes that produced this transformation: One was the theoretical re-conception of the presidency (most notably by Woodrow Wilson, while still an academic), and the second is institutional changes that include the candidate selection process and increased delegation of authority by Congress. We will consider Wilson’s innovative theory here, and cover the institutional changes in our next lesson.
Wilson’s Attack on Congressional Government
Both the Framers and Wilson worried about a too-weak executive, but their solutions to the problem were radically different. The Framers had seen the bad effects of legislative dominance in state legislatures in the post-revolutionary period and sought to make the president strong enough to resist that while still preventing him from becoming a demagogic leader who might capture effective legislative power and render Congress a rubber stamp. James Wilson’s argument in the Constitutional Convention against legislative selection demonstrates the concern about having a too weak weak executive:
According to the plan as it now stands, the President will not be the man of the people as he ought to be, but the Minion of the Senate.
Woodrow Wilson, looking at the issue a century later, thought the Framers had not successfully managed to avoid legislative dominance of the executive, and sought to remedy it by making the president strong enough to bend the country, and through it Congress, to his will.
Wilson’s concern was that congressional government did not provide good leadership for the country. Congressmembers, he thought, are too parochial, concerned only with satisfying their own constituents, and the collective representation of all the discrete portions of the country does not add up to the representation of the country as a whole. Important legislation was blocked by the narrow interests of legislative committees, and legislative action was initiated and undertaken by individual committees at the direction of their chairs, with no general coordination of congressional purposes. This was particularly true of the budgeting process. Committees negotiated directly with executive branch agencies, cutting both the president and congressional leadership out of the loop, and there was no coordination between the allocations of money and the revenue process.
Occasionally there would be strong leadership that produced strong party discipline in the House, but party discipline in the U.S. doesn’t compare to that in a strong parliamentary system, because the leaders of the party-in-Congress had no authority over the selection of candidates for legislative seats. Those were most strongly influenced by the local party bosses—the leaders of the party-in-the-electorate—and so they, and local voters, were whom legislators owed their allegiance, not to congressional leaders. Committee chairs being awarded by seniority also undermined the strength of party leaders in Congress. They had few favors to hand out, and few means of punishment.
Before considering Wilson’s solution, it’s important to briefly consider the strength of his analysis. Some things have changed, particularly the budget process and to some significant extent the selection process for committee chairs (which allows for a little more control by party leaders). But while selection of legislative candidates has shifted from local party leaders to self-nomination, that still leaves individual legislators beholden to their specific constituencies. Traditionally that was, and still is largely, the members of their district (or, for Senators, their state). Now, with the increase in out-of-district fundraising, their may be also be an important constituency of potential contributors outside the legislator’s district/state, but that is still a constituency separate from–and as we see with the GOP today, sometimes at odds with–party leadership in Congress.
Today we have even more evidence and strong theory than Wilson had available to support his claim that adding up discrete units of interest does not equate to a coherent group interest. Voting theorists have demonstrated that outcomes can be as much or more a function of 1) how the vote is counted and/or 2) how items are arranged on the agenda, as they are a function of the actual votes cast (the actual preferences of the voters). We also know that collectively irrational policies can be implemented with little resistance when the benefits are concentrated among a few (who each gain much, so have reason to fight hard for it) while the costs are distributed among many (who each gain little, so have no reason to fight against it, but who collectively may lose more than the winning few gain). In short, Wilson’s critique of congressional government was and still is strong. In an era where few people conceived of national interest as anything more than protecting against invasion and insurrection, where interests were overwhelmingly local, this was functional. Once we conceive of national interests as being as significant as local interests, the weaknesses of weak-party legislative governance become evident.
Wilson’s Solution–The Tribune of the People
Wilson proposed two distinct solutions to the problem of congressional dominance, first an idealistic one, then later, a more strategic, pragmatic one. In his 1884 Ph.D. dissertation (Congressional Governance, which, like nearly all dissertations, went un-noticed at the time) he proposed to emulate a parliamentary system by bringing the electoral and legislative interests of the president and Congress into closer alignment through a series of constitutional amendments that would align the terms of congressmembers and presidents and require presidents to select majority party leaders as cabinet secretaries. Realizing the practical impossibility of ever implementing that approach he shifted to an argument for reinterpreting the Constitution, rather than amending it. In 1910 he published a series of lectures, titled Constitutional Government in the United States, in which he critiqued the current system, proposed his new understanding of the Constitutional balance between legislative and executive, and argued that his proposed shifting of political power was constitutionally legitimate.
“The chief instrumentality by which the law of the Constitution has been extended to cover the facts of national development has of course been judicial interpretation, – the decisions of the courts. The process of formal amendment of the Constitution was made so difficult by provisions of the Constitution itself that it has seldom been feasible to use it; and the difficulty of formal amendment has undoubtedly made the courts more liberal, not to say lax, in their interpretation than they would otherwise have been. The whole business of adaptation has been theirs, and they have undertaken it with open minds, sometimes even with boldness and a touch of audacity…”
Boldness and audacity were just what he was striving for, both in reinterpreting the constitutional role of the president and in presidents themselves. His reinterpretation would shift the presidency from being the executive functionary of Congress—a mere clerk, as some called the office, or to re-quote James Wilson, “the Minion of the Senate”—to that of national leader. Drawing on Roman imagery, this vision is often called “the tribune of the people.” Althought Wilson did not use that phrase in his lectures, it seems a fair characterization of his vision, as expressed here:
[The president is] the political leader of the nation, or has it in his choice to be. The nation as a whole has chosen him, and is conscious that it has no other political spokesman. His is the only national voice in affairs. Let him once win the admiration and confidence of the country, and no other single force can withstand him, no combination of forces will easily overpower him. … He is the representative of no constituency, but of the whole people. When he speaks in his true character, he speaks for no special interest. If he rightly interpret the national thought and boldly insist upon it, he is irresistible; and the country never feels the zest of action so much as when its President is of such insight and calibre. Its instinct is for unified action, and it craves a single leader. … A President whom it trusts can not only lead it, but form it to his own views.
While both the Framers and Wilson distrusted excessive congressional dominance, they parted ways in their view of presidential strength. The Framers just wanted to give the president the power to resist dominance and act as a check on Congressional expansion of power; Wilson wanted the president to dominate and lead Congress. He saw no constitutional problems in this because he saw the separation of powers not as a fixed balance but a dynamic process, a continual struggle between the branches for influence. So claiming more power was not unconstitutional, but part of the on-going “Darwinian” (his term) process of trying to realign the balance in response to contemporary political demands.
The President is at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can. His capacity will set the limit; and if Congress be overborne by him, it will be no fault of the makers of the Constitution, — it will be from no lack of constitutional powers on its part, but only because the President has the nation behind him, and Congress has not.
That is, the President cannot actually get out of bounds, because he is the only one who truly represents the whole public of the U.S., and if he does, it’s not his fault for claiming that power, but Congress’s fault for not effectively fighting back.
It might be valuable at this point to think back to the constitutional ratification debates about the presidency. With Anti-Federalists arguing that the president was an impending tyranny and Hamilton arguing that it had just the sufficient power it needed, Wilson adds a third view, that it indeed does have the strength of a tyrant, but that this is good, and we need fear not because in a republic that power will be exercised only in accordance with the will of the people.
We Are All Wilsonians Now
Today, most presidential scholars are Wilsonians. Even as they worry about an imperial presidency, few of them reject the concept of the president as “the tribune of the people,” because we can’t deny that only he represents the whole country, and is the only politician who can reliably command the whole country’s attention via the media. But we do distinguish between what we call “the two constitutional presidencies.” The “Big C” constitutional presidency is the Framer’s president, the textual one, with a relatively clear set of limited authorities, primarily oriented toward executing the laws as passed by Congress.* The “small c” constitutional presidency is Wilson’s presidency, the “big a man as he can be” presidency, who needs to step up and provide national level leadership, to take Congress by the throat and shake it out of its slavish attention to parochial interests.
The public is also largely Wilsonian. We are not fond of presidents who shy away from leadership. Or more precisely, from presidential candidates who do so—nowadays we rarely elect those who don’t boldly proclaim their personal vision for the country. George H.W. Bush was widely mocked for his admission that he had “trouble with the vision thing,” and had he not been riding the wave of a good economy (or had the Democrats nominated someone more publicly inspiring than the goof in the tank) would probably not have won. As it was, he could only hold a single term.
One could argue that we’re all Wilsonians because the political demands have changed; the modern world is not like the 19th century. But what has primarily changed about the world is the U.S.’s international role, the arena where the president always had the most independent authority. That wouldn’t require such a wholesale revisioning of the presidency. Rather, what we primarily demand of presidents now is leadership in domestic politics. To again use George H. W. Bush as our example, in 1992, nobody cared that he had exhibited effective international leadership to constrain an expansionist Middle Eastern tyrant, even though 91% had approved of him at the time he did so; what we really wanted was a president who promised to fix the economy, a domestic problem.
What not all presidential scholars, and few members of the public, have come to grips with is that these two constitutional presidencies do not fit well together. As we will see in a later lesson, our “small c” vision of, and demands upon, the presidency are not matched by the actual powers made available to the office by the “Big C” constitutional presidency. It also conflicts with the Framers’ fear of a demagogue, a president who would lead the public through popular appeals designed to sway them emotionally, whether through flattery or division. The presidency Wilson helped bring to us (not just in his writings, but also in his own use of the office) can legitimately–if not dispositively–be critiqued as demagogic. On this almost everyone agrees, but unfortunately most of us only grant this critique to presidents of the opposing party—our presidents speak important national truths, their presidents appeal to people’s uglier emotions.
Conclusion and the Next Lesson
As noted above, the transformation of the presidency required both theoretical and institutional changes. In this lesson we considered the theoretical change, as most famously argued by Woodrow Wilson. But theorists frequently make good arguments that lead to no on-the-ground changes, and although Wilson argued primarily for a change in ideas, it took ground-level institutional changes as well to make the modern presidency. In the next lesson we will look at those institutional changes. This requires a slight change in the readings listed in the syllabus. I will still be drawing from the “Presidency and the Nominating Process” in The Presidency and the Political System, but I will be drawing on portions of chapters 3, 4 and 5 and 7 in Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced (essentially, anything in those chapters relating to the rise of the primary system, or delegations of power up through the FDR presidency).**
*But not entirely reactive. Presidents are, textually, given some independent range of motion in foreign affairs, able to initiate the negotiation of treaties (although dependent on the Senate for ratification) and able to grant recognition of new countries on his own authority by the exchange of ambassadors. The president is also required to provide “from time to time” information on the state of the union. The Framers recognized that the president would have a more overall perspective on this than geographically restricted representatives (as well as not expecting Congress to always be in session and attendant to national affairs), so in this way they did provide a particular legislative leadership role for the executive.
**I think the ideas in Crenson and Ginsberg’s book make it the most important book on the presidency published in the last half century. But I think the organizational scheme is unclear and by its repeated jumping back and forth between eras and ideas across multiple chapters does not support the clear expression of those ideas. I reluctantly abandoned its use in an undergraduate class after it became clear the students found it bewildering. So that is why I can’t just assign a single chapter here, but must pull bits and pieces from multiple chapters.
[Image: Gaius Gracchus, Tribune of the People]