The American Presidency

rion McClanahan, who holds a PhD in American history from the University of South Carolina, is author or co-author of four important books dealing with issues fundamental to our survival as a free, constitutional system. He previously wrote The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution and The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers.

9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America is a comprehensive survey of the American presidents who have, with disastrous consequences, shaped the presidency as an institution.

It provides a valuable yardstick for evaluation of presidential success.

There is no shortage of works in which our presidents have been listed in order of some measure of success. Most frequently they are considered in terms of popularity, communication skills, economic prosperity, military victories, or even on the appearance of “executive energy.” Such rankings have been offered by leftist scholars who were simply passing judgements on ideological dispositions of presidents. Those judgements have been one result of a fundamental distortion of both academic and popular understanding of the executive branch.

McClanahan’s standard of measurement, by contrast, is based on the presidential obligation to adhere to the oath of office with its pledge to uphold and protect the Constitution. While historians surveyed in presidential rankings have employed their own criteria, McClanahan uses an interpretation based on Constitutional requirements which were written in response to Britain’s experience with tyrants and the founding generation’s studies of ancient political orders.

Adherence to the Constitution is not an arbitrary expectation reflective of pedantic or romantic infatuation with an historic document but rather recognition of the fact that “unconstitutional government is irresponsible government” that allows unelected bureaucrats to usurp powers which belong to the states. The larger issue is preservation of our system of self-government. (p. XV)

McClanahan’s list of presidential violators of the U.S. Constitution includes Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and, not surprisingly, Barack Obama.

While Jackson stands as the first of a long series of “imperial” presidents, this tendency appeared during Washington’s second term with his 1793 “Proclamation of Neutrality.” This document was Washington’s response to the violent deterioration of the French revolution and an American desire to avoid involvement in the resultant European wars. While that motive was understandable, Washington’s proclamation represented a violation of U.S. treaty obligations to France. To his credit, Washington’s constitutional violation was at least a reluctant one and reactions to his decision – especially the statement penned by James Madison – indicated that our political class acknowledged that the Constitution mattered. This, of course, stands in startling contrast to the current apparent hunger of presidents to demonstrate that they are above the Constitution. But, as McClanahan notes, the fact remains that Washington had no constitutional authority to unilaterally determine the foreign policy of the United States. Nor did he have authority to call up the militia as he did to suppress Pennsylvania’s “Whiskey Rebellion” in 1792, an action which was facilitated when Congress abdicated its responsibilities in the face of Washington’s decision to lead an army into western Pennsylvania.

While Washington demonstrated at least some tendencies toward constitutional excesses, it was not until Andrew Jackson assumed office that the complete outlines of an imperial presidency could be seen. McClanahan acknowledges Jackson’s status as a great general and a genuine American hero but he maintains that Jackson was reckless as president. Described by Thomas Jefferson as dangerous and unfit for the presidency, Jackson had little respect for laws and harbored bitterness toward any of those who opposed his actions. Although he is often praised as a defender of the Constitution because of his opposition to the Second Bank of the United States, while campaigning in Tennessee for the U.S. Senate he was a proponent of the national bank. His presidential position was motivated not by respect for the Constitution but by his bitterness toward Henry Clay who supported the bank.

A similar tendency can be seen during the “Nullification Crisis” in which Calhoun led South Carolina’s efforts to nullify what he viewed as unconstitutional legislation imposing a tariff on his state. Before assuming the presidency, Jackson supported such efforts. However, once he was president he viewed nullification, more than anything else, as an effort to resist his authority. When Jackson attempted to shut down South Carolina ports and take over the state by military force, the state’s determined resistance resulted in a compromise often regarded as a short-term victory for nullification. In the end, the “Nullification Crisis” demonstrated both Jackson’s determination to assert executive authority and also advance a personal agenda against Calhoun.

While Jackson’s contributions to the undermining of our Constitution are noteworthy, Abraham Lincoln set a new standard that paved the way for subsequent presidential behavior. Proclaimed as the savior of the Union, Lincoln’s administration reduced the states to the status of no more than departments of the federal government. He found his justification, not in the U.S. Constitution, but in the Articles of Confederation with its reference to a “perpetual union.” Citing Washington’s Militia Act of 1792, he summoned military forces to subdue a rebellion. Through unilateral executive actions, Lincoln created what McClanahan describes as the “most oppressive and lawless general government in American history up to that point . . .” (p. 30)

Abraham Lincoln has an iconic place within the Republican Party and subsequent Republicans have often cited Lincoln as an inspiration for them. It should be no surprise that Richard Nixon, like Lincoln, embraced many of the progressive tendencies that are anathema to most Republicans. McClanahan outlines Nixon’s contribution to the undermining of our constitutional system from his first years in the White House. While he began his presidency with submission of a balanced budget, a novelty that enhanced his standing with conservatives, his approach to federal spending resting, not on rejection of unconstitutional measures, but on a change in emphasis. For Nixon, the problem was not unconstitutional programs but the administration of such innovations. Accordingly, his “New Federalism” called for the submission of block grants to states that would, by accepting federal funds, be bound by detailed and oppressive federal dictates.

In an apparent effort to endear himself to the progressives who had rejected him because of his anti-communist reputation during his service in the House of Representatives, Nixon pushed an ambitious environmental agenda. Using both executive orders as well as legislation, he gave us one of the most onerous federal agencies, the Environment Protection Agency. Supplemented by the Clean Air Act, the Oil Spill Act, the Noise Control Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and other legislation, his administration built a host of federal agencies that combined legislative, executive, and judicial functions.

Equally significant in terms of its long-term impact on our constitutional order was Nixon’s embrace of the Kennedy innovation of affirmative action. Like so many progressive programs that promised to correct genuine problems, it had other consequences. Nixon’s affirmative action programs opened the door for federal intervention in and eventual control of education. Under the banner of ending “sexual discrimination” in education, Title IX led to elimination of college athletic programs that offered scholarships only to men – football, for example – while replacing them with obscure programs such as women’s wrestling. While the negative consequences for education were immediately apparent, less frequently observed was the further erosion of the constitutional protections essential for our free political system.

Most of the book – approximately 180 pages – is devoted to presidents who have undermined our constitutional order. McClanahan devotes 90 pages to consideration of four presidents who have endeavored to maintain the system created by our Founding Fathers. The imbalance is simply a reflection of historical reality.

McClanahan’s short list of presidents who tried to save the U.S. begins with Thomas Jefferson who opened the way for a quarter century of constitutional executive authority. At the beginning of his first term – which was a constitutional success – Jefferson dramatically, if symbolically, signaled his intention to reject the trappings of monarchy by walking rather than taking a formal coach ride to his inauguration. He abolished formal state dinners and declared that Congress was the dominant federal institution. Jefferson demonstrated his respect for the Constitution when he accomplished the Louisiana Purchase through a treaty rather than an outright purchase as some recommended. In conclusion, McClanahan notes that Jefferson’s first term set the standard for executive restraint.

Jefferson was not alone in his efforts to preserve our constitutional order. According to McClanahan, he was joined by three others: John Tyler who is often regarded by constitutional standards as our best president, Grover Cleveland whose exemplary vetoes reflected an understanding of the Constitution, and Calvin Coolidge whom he regards as the only president of the past century who respected the Constitution.

9 Presidents . . . is an excellent treatment of the role of constitutional principles in executive policy. More importantly, it demonstrates that violation of these principles has practical consequences – a stagnant economy, inflation, loss of liberty, and increasingly perpetual warfare.

Stephen R. Bowers, Ph.D. is a professor of government in the Helms School of Government at Liberty University. Professor Bowers is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.