9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America and 4 Who Tried to Save Her
© 2016 Brion McClanahan
It is my dearest hope that by the time Donald Trump leaves the West Wing, the office of the presidency will have been so discredited that no one will take it seriously anymore. Congress will take serious measures to counter executive overreach, and the American people will somberly reflect that it was a bad idea to allow so much responsibility, expectation, and power to rest on the shoulders of one man. My second dearest hope is that pigs will fly. Brion McClanahan does what he can to take the American monarchy down a few pegs, though, by devoting half his book to exposing the greatness of a few titans as irresponsible hubris, and hailing a few forgotten men for their diligent work thwarting or ameliorating the excesses of others.
McClanahan scrutinizes each president based on how effectively they fulfilled their oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. Because Article II of the Constitution, which creates the office of President, does not include a full job description, McClanahan relies on debates from the Constitutional convention and the States’ ratification proceedings to determine what was expected of the president. This figure was not to be a king in democratic clothing, but a guardian of the rule of law: his primary job was to keep Congress, the only legislative body, in check – the job that George III failed to do when he allowed Parliament to tyrannize the colonies. Those who maintain a zealous watch are praised here; the rest, like those who invent new powers for themselves, or accept new powers from Congress through legislative fiat instead of constitutional amendment, or presume on the states or other branches’ prerogatives, or allow the other branches to presume on the same, are condemned. In general: 19th century presidents were largely faithful to the job, and 20th/21st century presidents sought to re-invent and magnify the office, and did so to the point that the old republic is now ruled by Jabba the State. (I borrow that, with gratitude and a bellylaugh, from Anthony Esolen.)
McClanahan’s critique is thus very strict, and he does not pardon men for doing pursuing good ends through improper means: that is not how the rule of law works. The Constitution is not a dead decree, a sacred writ that forces us to live in perpetuity by an 18th century society’s rules, but neither is it a piece of clay to be molded in any way. Those who wish to change the structure of US Government must do so through amendment, or – as the North threatened to do, as the South attempted to do – remove themselves and try again. McClanahan’s strict adherence to the original intent of the Constitution, and the observance of the rule of law, will no doubt earn the most criticism from those who read this, who believe that the government should periodically assume new powers as it “needs” them, without respecting the appropriate procedures. But those procedures, the rule of law, protect us from merely being controlled by the whims of men.
So, who are the nine?
- Andrew Jackson, who terminated the Second Bank of the United States through extralegal means, promoted a dubious tariff that picked sectional favorites, and threatened to order the militia into South Carolina to prevent it from seceding in response to said tariffs;
- Abraham Lincoln, who failed to recognize the legal separation of the southern States from the Union, illegally made use of State militias to invade a foreign power, presumptuously revoked habeus corpus, instituted a draft, instituted the income tax, and helped devalue the currency for starters;
- Theodore Roosevelt, who made the president a celebrity and inserted himself into the legislative process, assuming powers not granted to him by the Constitution, including to make presidential proclamations.
- Woodrow Wilson, who drove legislation, attempted to institute tariffs that picked sectional favorites, persecuted and jailed Americans for exercising the first amendment, instituted the Federal Reserve, and created powerfully intrusive regulatory bodies with no constitutional sanction;
- Franklin D. Roosevelt, who created the American conservative movement by violating so much precedent and expanding the power of his office so quickly that critics didn’t even know where to begin countering his illegal intrusions into lives of people and the economy;
- Harry S. Truman, who turned America into the guardian of the world and helped establish the military-industrial complex’s power over the American future;
- Lyndon B. Johnson , who continued overreach in both domestic and foreign policy; like FDR before him and Nixon after him, he created agencies that combined legislative, judicial, and judicial functions, ignoring the wisdom of checks and balances;
- Richard Nixon, who continued the same sorry trend and pawed at the economy as well, and began the steady erosion of the dollar as a unit of real value; and
- Barack Obama, who greatly expanded Bush’s illegal wire-tapping, droning, and pushed through the Affordable Care Act, which made the sorry debacle of US healthcare even more onerous .
The two most controversial names on the list are Lincoln and Obama; Lincoln, because most people will refuse to consider that the constitution of the United States – the little c –constitution – was much different in 1860 than in 2018, that people did consider themselves members of the State of Maryland or the State of Vermont, and that the Union was a debatable issue; and Obama, because he was merely burning down a house that had already had its doors and windows pried off and its interior walls torn down by previous presidents. Oddly, even though McClanahan refers to Obama as the ‘worst’, the chapter on said president is rather short. Frankly, I think ranking a then-sitting president was a mistake.
There are some general lessons to be learned. In the 20th century, the easiest way to gain enormous power was through war — either real war, or by couching social programs in the language of war. Two, the most common violation is the president assuming responsibilities — lawmaking and warmaking — that are Congress’s alone. The president is not granted the authority to summon militias; only Congress may do that, and they require a state governors’ request. It doesn’t matter if Congresses passes a law giving itself power to do this or that — that’s not how the rule of law works. If they could empower themselves, they should just dispense with the formalities and issue straightforward dicta like honest oligarchs.
Following the rogues’ gallery, McClanahan then devotes the second half of his book to praising Thomas Jefferson, John Tyler, Grover Cleveland, and Calvin Coolidge. Jefferson is no surprise, rejecting anything that smacked of monarchy in presidential treatment and , ending as he did the illegal Alien and Sedition acts. Tyler will be unknown to most Americans; he was the first vice president to assume the office of president after Zachary Taylor died, and he spent most of his time in office vetoing Congressional actions that had no warrant in the Constitution. He was so consistent at it that both parties grew to hate him. Good on ya, Johnny! Cleveland was also solid on reining in Congress, and if nothing else he deserves a standing ovation for doing his best to prevent the United States from enveloping Hawaii. Coolidge, of course, has a deserved reputation for being a calm and steady hand on the rudder, intent on reversing growth as best he could within constitutional limits. The sad truth of political economy is that a bad president can increase his powers in violation of the law through his own will, while a good president’s own scruples forbid him from violating the law to reverse course.
The book ends with a series of suggested amendments which would in theory curtail the power of el presidente, though given how much bureaucratic power is now vested in the sprawl of executive departments, said amendments only only be a start. These amendments include limiting the president to one term and sharply enforcing Congress’s sole responsibility as a warmaking body.
When I began reading this, I was a little worried about McClananhan’s style, which — when he is lecturing — can grow abrasive. It’s not a style fit for communicating with people who disagree with you, and I’m happy to report that he largely reins himself in here, though his language grows a little less formal as he comes nearer to the 20th century. I think he manages to be approachable to those who disagree with him, but very few people care more about rule of law than doing what they think should be done now, and to the devil with the consequences. That, combined with the fact that human beings frequently revert to some tribal desire for a strong leader who can take charge and restore confidence in the future — whether he’s killing the old shaman for not pleasing the gods, or forcing everyone to buy health insurance to “fix” the cost of insurance — makes me think all human political experiments beyond a certain scale are doomed to failure.
Happy president’s day…
Recarving Rushmore, Ivan Eland. A very similar but more thorough review of each president based on their contribution to liberty, peace, and rule of law.
The Cult of the Presidency, Gene Healy. The story of how quiet servants like Tyler and Cleveland were supplanted by celebrities with delusions of grandeur .
The Twilight of the Presidency, George Reedy. A masterful review of how the American monarch is hindered by the sheer expanse of his office