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In the late spring of 1787, fifty-five delegates gathered in Philadelphia to try to save the eleven-year-old nation from itself. Aimless and broke, nearly defenseless against enemies foreign and domestic, the country had ingested a lethal dose of diffusion, as each state was unwilling to compromise its own independence for the sake of the whole. A sign of the times, officials from Rhode Island refused to attend. The rest filed into the Pennsylvania State House—doctors, lawyers, planters, soldiers, artisans—with a single task before them: repair the Articles of Confederation before the experiment dies.
Behind locked doors guarded by armed troops, with windows latched and curtains drawn, the delegation assessed the situation. Within days, the majority drifted toward a painful realization: the patient was terminal. Nothing could be done but to engineer an entirely new body politic, one that would bond the thirteen states and their myriad of militias, legal codes, postal systems, trade policies, revenues, and debts into a single entity. As the convention moved forward, an unsettling fact lingered—no one had given them the authority to do this. But they continued, secretly dismantling the old and weak Continental Congress. In its place they designed a federation to be led by something the country had gone without since 1776—a head of state.
At the end of four months, the delegates emerged and presented the Constitution to the states. When debating whether to ratify this unsolicited albeit bloodless coup, citizens were disturbed by several of its features. To begin with, the document was made by only fifty-five men out of a country of nearly four million, and yet it had the audacity to declare “We the People…”
Far worse, the manuscript empowered an overriding legislature to collect taxes and form a standing army, the very offenses that sparked the Revolution in the first place. There was also no bill of rights. It all had a striking resemblance to a certain British Empire.
To many, the most unsettling part was the creation of a “president” who wielded the power of vetoes, federal appointments, and irreversible pardons. Plus he was to be commander of the armed forces. How could these delegates propose such an idea when thirty of them had personally signed the Declaration of Independence against a similar government such a short time ago? The whole affair smelled like a counterrevolution. Even some of the delegates themselves worried that the presidency could one day become “the fetus of a monarchy.”
Today, we know the end result was a success. Ratification was achieved, the new federal system went into place without sectarian violence, and the president did not devolve into a king.
The fears of the eighteenth century appear naive to us in the twenty-first. We are the heirs of the system they denounced as too fragile. Their protests seem shortsighted, their skepticism misplaced against an office we have grown to respect, made by men whom we revere. We have a Washington State, several Adams counties, a Jefferson City. Our children might go to Monroe Elementary or Adams Junior High or Jackson Senior High or one of the other ten thousand schools named after a former leader. We travel to Mount Vernon and Mount Rushmore, go to college football games in Lincoln and Madison, and watch spacecraft launch from the Kennedy Space Center. We buy history books and pay with cash and coins adorned with former chief executives.
When it comes to presidents, we are comfortable with the past… and yet uneasy with the present. Our recent executives look as if they are a completely different breed, far less noble than the ones who adorn our memory and monuments. We recall Vietnam and WATERGATE and claim a loss of innocence. We cite recent scandals, skyrocketing budgets, and the growth of big government to confirm that the executive branch has usurped an inordinate amount of power, far beyond what we think the Founding Fathers ever would have allowed. To us, the White House increasingly resembles a royal house (indeed, the executive branch contained either a Bush or a Clinton from 1981 to 2013). We have ungraciously named this era the Imperial Presidency.
Rest assured, we are looking at our living presidents in much the same way the first citizens of the Republic viewed theirs, with emotions ranging from adoration to loathing, and basing judgments mostly on which political faction the person belonged to. If this generation has lost anything when it comes to its relationship with the presidency, it is a sense of perspective, just like previous generations often lost theirs.
Thus is the beauty of studying history—it offers the chance to examine the phenomenon of change and to regain a sense of perspective. By no coincidence, some of the most effective chief executives diligently studied the past. Bookworm Harry Truman could hardly reflect on any current event without drawing comparisons to earlier times. Woodrow Wilson, PhD, taught history at Princeton, while Theodore Roosevelt published several works on military history (and his Naval War of 1812 remains a standard on the subject). The Father of the Constitution, James Madison, brought crates of invaluable history books to the Philadelphia Convention, compliments of his friend Thomas Jefferson.
Has the presidency gained more power than could have ever been imagined? In short, yes. So have the Supreme Court, the Congress, and the general population. When it first began, the modest United States sat clutching the Atlantic coastline. It was less than a hundred miles deep, numbering a few million people, with only one in four white males empowered to vote. Today, the Republic reaches five thousand miles across a continent and into the great Pacific, contains more than three hundred million inhabitants, and guarantees every law-abiding citizen the right to register and cast a ballot from anywhere in the world. It produces and consumes a quarter of the earth’s resources, has bases and businesses across the planet, and endures as the lone super-power left after a century of global wars.
In tandem, the presidency and the country have transcended far beyond their original boundaries. To understand this monumental progression, one must closely examine the presidents themselves, which is why this volume was written.
The goal of The History Buff’s Guide series is to make history comprehensive and comprehendible to the newcomer, while offering the wider-read enthusiast fodder for debate. The tool of choice is the succinct and enlightening top-ten list, which examines subjects in greater depth than a general overview, yet avoids the drowning minutiae of exhaustive works. The end result is a clear view of the big picture and a gateway to further study.
Every list overtures with background information and criteria for the respective topic. Some lists are chronological to illustrate progression. Others are quantitative or qualitative. Where appropriate, names and terms appear in small caps to indicate a subject that appears in another list. All rankings are the result of thousands of hours of research, confirmations, consultations, and analysis.
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This book would not have been possible without the help and support of many outstanding individuals, and this historian would like to thank everyone involved, including his many colleagues at Columbia State Community College, the Polk House Museum, Kirkwood Community College, Michael Bryant of the U.S. Department of Education, and Bryon Andreasen and staff at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Thanks also to Charlie Becker and Dennis Bayne of Camp Courageous of Iowa, and their diligent crew, for their wonderful inspiration to this author and countless others. To the Prairie Writers of Iowa, for their direction and advice on content and writing, plus graduate student James Beins for content review on political philosophy. As always, many thanks to Ed Curtis, Ron Pitkin, and the rest of the patient and professional crew at Cumberland House Publishing, the staff at Sourcebooks, and to Barb Ross and John Wasson, the better angels of human nature.