Read an Excerpt
Essays on the Presidents
Principles and Politics
By Paul F. Boller Jr.
TCU PressCopyright © 2012 Paul F. Boller Jr.
All rights reserved.
The First American Presidency, 1789–1829
What kind of president did the founding fathers want when they produced the US Constitution in 1787 and submitted it to the states for ratification? They certainly hoped for a highly moral chief executive who set a good model for the American people he governed, though they didn't mention it in the document they prepared. The first president, remarked Benjamin Franklin, will be a good one—he was thinking of George Washington as the choice—but after that, he wasn't sure what kind of president would succeed him. In his book on Presidents Above Party, Ralph Ketcham singled out the first six presidents—George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams—as taking the moral view of the presidency that the constitution-makers had in mind. He called them "the First American Presidency, 1789–1829." With the election of Andrew Jackson as chief executive in 1828 came a new period in the history of the presidency that was quite different from what most of the constitution-makers had in mind. Apparently US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, an "originalist," stands with the "First American Presidency" rather than the presidents who came later.
* * *
"The whole community," ran an old Latin proverb that Benjamin Franklin liked to quote, "is regulated by the example of the King." What about the example of the president? Ralph Ketcham's Presidents Above Party, a painstaking study of the concept of the presidency held by America's first six chief executives, stresses the fact that until the Age of Jackson the notion that the president should provide moral leadership for the nation—transcending party politics—held powerful sway in the young republic. His point is not new. But he is the first to develop it in all its richness and complexity, and he succeeds in making the "first American presidency," as he calls it, more accessible to us than ever before.
Our earliest presidents, Ketcham points out, were all familiar with Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke's Idea of a Patriot King, published in 1749, and liked what it said. They were, to be sure, devoted to individual freedom and government by consent; in varying degrees, too, they came to terms with the commercial ethic which was rapidly replacing older values while they held office. But at the same time they heartily endorsed Bolingbroke's call for a high-minded, disinterested leadership which put the public welfare above private interest and sought to encourage virtue in the people at large. All of them scorned party politics; they wanted to be patriot presidents. "We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans," asserted Jefferson in his inaugural address in 1801. "If I could not go to heaven but with a party," he once confessed, "I would not go there at all." His position was unexceptionable. From George Washington to John Quincy Adams the nonpartisan presidency, not party leadership, was the great ideal.
The heart of Ketcham's book is his analysis of the views of the first six presidents. But he provides the necessary background for their opinions, both in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British and American thought and in the swirling world of competitive capitalism that was transforming the Western world. He discusses, too, the increasingly popular view that self-interest is the basic motor of human behavior, that "private vice is public benefit," and that the main task of executive leadership is to preserve law and order and let the push and pull of competing factions produce a compromise of some kind. He also examines the new party-oriented presidency developed by Martin Van Buren and other politicians in the 1820s and 1830s and tries to see what remained of the older ideal in administrations following that of Andrew Jackson. "The longing, indeed the imperative, that the president be more than a party leader, that he retain something of the aura, posture, and power of the patriot king," he concludes, has persisted to the present.
Ketcham probably could have organized his book more adroitly; there are too many flashbacks, montages, and periodic replications of themes already well developed. It would have helped, too, if he had introduced in his text the names of the twentieth-century writers he quotes instead of relegating them to the footnotes. But these are minor flaws. His book, like all thoughtful historical studies, throws a great deal of light on current events as well as ancient happenings. It makes clear, for one thing, that the appeal of Ronald Reagan rests more on hisintuitive allegiance to Bolingbrokean principles than on his predilection for supply-side economics. And it forces us, for another, to recognize that with declining party attachments, nominating primaries that stress personalismo rather than principle, and the gradual transformation of American voters into a "telectorate," we may well be entering a new political age as different from the one the Jacksonians ushered in as the Jacksonian age was from the era of the "first presidency."CHAPTER 2
The Log Cabin Myth about American Presidents
There haven't been log cabin presidents for decades. Presidential campaigns cost millions of dollars these days, and candidates must collect a lot of it themselves if they're going to win nominations in the primaries and elections in the presidential contest.
Campaigns are more costly in 2011 than they were in 1984, when Edward Pessen published his book pointing out that few American presidents started out life in log cabins. Even a nice little home and yard are not enough. You must become a millionaire at some point, after begging for dough, if you are going to pay for campaign expenses these days. The US Supreme Court hails the million-dollar presidential contests as wondrous examples of freedom of speech.
* * *
Years ago Charles Beard made a career-line study of the men who drafted the US Constitution and discovered that they were mostly men of wealth. In The Log Cabin Myth Edward Pessen does a somewhat similar study of the thirty-nine presidents, from Washington to Reagan, who have been elected under that constitution, and discovers that, like the constitution-makers, they too for the most part have come from the ranks of the privileged. Pessen's analysis, the first ever made of our presidents' social backgrounds, is based largely on published sources, particularly presidential biographies; though it suffers at times from repetition, it is a convincing corrective to the popular notion that anyone can rise from rags to riches in this country if he tries hard enough.
Once when Lyndon Johnson was showing friends around his Texas ranch he pointed out a ramshackle cabin as his birthplace. "Why, Lyndon," cried his mother afterward, "you know you were born in a much better house closer to town which has been torn down." "I know, Mama," said Johnson, "but everybody has to have a birthplace." To be sure. But the birthplaces of all our presidents—Johnson's included—have almost invariably been good ones. To demolish the log cabin myth, Pessen first examines the social and economic circumstances of the presidents' families and then takes a look at the careers of each of the presidents before he entered the White House. His conclusion: "Very few began at or near the bottom. The lives of the presidents only illustrate this principle: Americans who attain great worldly success, whether in wealth and property accumulation, occupational prestige, or politics, have typically been born to youthful advantages that were instrumental in accounting for their adult success." One does not become a president (or, I would presume, a professor) without special advantages at the outset that are denied the vast majority of Americans.
Pessen describes all thirty-nine presidents, including FDR, as basically conservative, that is, as upholders of the capitalist system, and he thinks the major parties pick candidates mainly for their ideological "soundness." Hence conventionality and mediocrity have been the rule, and our presidents have mainly served "not the general interests of the people as a whole, but the narrow interests of the small privileged and wealthy minority." If intelligence and character were the criteria for high office, says Pessen, there is no reason why our leaders would not be drawn as often from the ranks of skilled mechanics, farmers, teachers, and architects as from the upper classes.
I don't find classifying both FDR and Reagan as conservatives especially illuminating; I am bothered by the fact that Pessen says nothing about the essential conservatism of the masses of Americans who were not born to privilege. Still, it is hard not to sympathize with his plea, at the end of his stimulating (and occasionally sardonic) survey, that "we seek in the future, as we have not sought in the past, to select candidates of commanding intelligence, learning, and above all patience, wisdom, and humanity—traits all that are not necessarily revealed by high social standing and the ideological preferences that typically accompany such standing."CHAPTER 3
Pennsylvania: The Avenue of the Presidents
When Sheldon Meyer, the wonderful senior editor at the Oxford University Press, decided to retire, William E. Leuchtenburg, one of the American historians with whom he had worked, arranged for the publication of a book in his honor containing essays by various historians whom Meyer had guided through editing and publication at Oxford. The book was entitled American Places: Encounters with History, with each essay centered on some place in the United States that the writers were able to link to the development of American history. As the book jacket put it: "America's Leading Historians Talk About the Sites Where the Past Comes Alive for Them."
When Professor Leuchtenburg invited me to write one of the essays, I had begun research on presidential inaugurations, and I decided to pick Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington as my site and the use of the avenue during inaugurations as my historical interest. I was a runner in those days, and whenever I visited Washington I always did my sightseeing while jogging. I'd done some running on the avenue, but not nearly enough, I thought, to nail down my topic. Shortly before commencing my work on the essay, I took a trip to Washington, ran down Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol, and then walked back, taking notes on some of the buildings along the route. What I did reminded me of Abraham Lincoln. During the 1860 presidential campaign, a biography of Lincoln appeared and it mentioned some books he had read. It turned out that he had never gone through one of the books, so "Honest Abe" promptly acquired the book and zipped through it.
I felt deeply honored when Sheldon wrote me a letter after the book appeared telling me how much he enjoyed my trip down Pennsylvania Avenue.
* * *
As a sport, running (like swimming laps) can be boring at times, at least for an amateur, and a few years after taking it up I began combining it, whenever possible, with sightseeing. It seemed like a bright idea: keeping fit while learning something about cities I visited. I did runs around the Emperor's Palace in Tokyo, down Riverside Drive in Manhattan, along the waterfront in Seattle, on the river walk in San Antonio, near Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and in Rock Creek Park and down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC.
Pennsylvania Avenue was a favorite. The sights along the way were impressive: museums, monuments, memorials, statues, imposing government buildings, parks, plazas. The association with presidents, a major interest of mine, was also powerful. Most presidents, I knew, traveled along the "Grand Avenue" from the White House to the Capitol to be sworn into office on Inauguration Day, and then returned to review the big parade in their honor that afternoon from a stand erected for that purpose in front of the executive mansion. A few went to the Capitol by foot or on horseback; more made the trip in fancy phaetons and barouches and, later on, in automobiles and limousines. At my leisurely pace I made the trip (1.7 miles) in about fifteen minutes. It took the presidents longer because they were usually part of a stately procession witnessed by hundreds, and then thousands, lining the avenue. Three presidents—Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton—were runners, but none ventured to jog down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day, though Carter and Clinton walked part of the way on their return to the White House.
Time gallops on, of course, and in retirement I substituted swimming for running, but I still take walks along America's "Appian Way" (as it used to be called) whenever I am in Washington, admiring the Romanesque Post Office, with its 315-foot clock tower, the East Building of the National Gallery of Art (designed by I. M. Pei), and the Willard Hotel (self-styled "the crown jewel of Pennsylvania Avenue"), the host for American presidents since Franklin Pierce in 1853. As I stroll down the avenue (at a slower pace than Harry Truman used in his daily walks), I take time out to visit the exhibits in the National Gallery of Art and the National Archives, chat with attendants at the Willard who have witnessed inaugural parades, and examine the sketches, maps, and quotations inscribed on the flagstone surface of the Freedom Plaza between 13th and 14th streets. Two quotes I find especially pertinent. One is an utterance of Samuel C. Busby, president of the Medical Society of Washington, in 1898: "There is not a street in any city in this country entitled to the eminent distinction which crowns the history of Pennsylvania Avenue." The other is from Thomas Jefferson, writing in 1791: "The Grand Avenue connecting both the palace and the federal House will be most significant and most convenient."
Jefferson preferred the dreams of the future to the history of the past, as John Adams put it, but it took a lot of history to transform the Grand Avenue from what it was when he became the first president to be inaugurated in Washington to what it is today. In 1801, Jefferson used New Jersey rather than Pennsylvania Avenue in walking from his boardinghouse to Capitol Hill, because Pennsylvania was still too much of a "Serbonian bog." But after becoming president he saw to it that the avenue was graded and paved, and he used it when riding in a carriage to the Capitol for his second swearing-in. On both occasions, he received praise for his "Republican simplicity." He avoided fancy garb and insisted on simpler oath-taking ceremonies than those accompanying George Washington's and John Adams's inductions into office. And he soon rechristened the "President's Palace" the "President's House."
Jeffersonian simplicity, I found, was short-lived. Soldiers accompanied James Madison to the Capitol in 1809, perhaps because of strained relations with Britain, and became indispensable features of inaugural processions thereafter. Andrew Jackson returned to Jeffersonian austerity in 1829, walking informally with a few Revolutionary veterans along the avenue, nodding and waving to his fans along the way, as he headed for Capitol Hill. "It is true greatness," exclaimed one observer, "which needs not the aid of ornament and pomp." I expected ornament and pomp in William Henry Harrison's inauguration in 1841, and I got plenty of it. The Whigs, I learned, sponsored the first big, colorful parade (reminiscent of their "log cabin and hard cider" campaign), made up of members of Tippecanoe Clubs and log cabin floats, as well as military units and bands. The most striking float (since it showed that the Whigs tried to keep up with the times) was a large platform on wheels, drawn by six white horses, displaying a power loom, with several operators busily weaving pieces of cloth and tossing them out to people lining the avenue. It was a frigid day, but Harrison joined the procession to and from the Capitol on "Old Whitey," his white charger, and the paraders trooped back and forth for a couple of hours after the inaugural ceremony to entertain the crowds. John Quincy Adams called the procession "showy-shabby," but he meant it as a compliment: elegant but not undemocratic.
Floats became a big thing after 1841. In 1857 two floats demonstrating that Liberty and Union were in good shape (though they weren't) dominated the parade for James Buchanan, and in 1865 three ambitious floats proceeded down the avenue to celebrate Abraham Lincoln's second oath-taking: a replica of the Monitor, from which sailors fired salutes; a structure representing the Temple of Liberty, filled with women wearing costumes signifying the different states; and a platform containing a hand-run press, with members of the Typographical Union turning out inaugural programs for the parade-watchers.
Excerpted from Essays on the Presidents by Paul F. Boller Jr.. Copyright © 2012 Paul F. Boller Jr.. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.