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Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty
By Ivan Eland
The Independent Institute Copyright © 2009 The Independent Institute
All rights reserved.
A Precedent-Setting Presidency — Both Good and Bad
PP&L RANKING: 7
First president of the United States
Term: April 30, 1789, to March 3, 1797
Born: February 22, 1732, Westmoreland County, Colony of Virginia, British America
Died: December 14, 1799 (age sixty-seven), Mount Vernon, Virginia, United States
Spouse: Martha Dandridge Custis Washington
Education: Tutored and Self-taught
Occupation: Farmer and soldier
Analysts routinely rank George Washington as one of the three greatest American presidents, with Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So why is he ranked only seventh in this book — mid-range in the good category? Although Washington hated political parties and thus eschewed being labeled, by his second term he was clearly in the Federalist camp — as opposed to being in the Republican Party, which was the forerunner of the Democratic-Republican and Democratic designations. This meant that he had bought into Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton's vision of creating a strong executive and using government to the advantage of big business. In this book, Washington does not rank as one of the three greatest presidents because he expanded the president's power past what most signers of the Constitution had envisioned.
Yet Washington still gets better-than-average marks, despite his party's philosophy of expansive government, simply because he did not use his immense post–Revolutionary War prestige to become king — or at least not a democratic despot like Oliver Cromwell in Britain — and he did subject himself to some self-limitations. Thomas Jefferson believed that Washington's moderation prevented the American Revolution from ultimately destroying the freedoms it intended to enshrine.
Washington also set dangerous precedents of presidential power by usurping control of foreign policy during his term, but the policy he practiced overseas was considerably restrained. At home, he used military force more readily and perhaps needlessly. Besides limiting himself to two terms as president, he made a critical contribution to liberty by suggesting that the Congress consider amending the Constitution to provide the revered Bill of Rights.
Manhandled Domestic Incidents and Determined Foreign Policy
The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was not a revolt to overthrow the government but merely an anti-tax protest. Although no one was killed and Washington pardoned the rioters, he violated the Constitution by suppressing the rebellion, using military force even though the governor of Pennsylvania thought the issue could be settled in the courts. The Constitution requires that states have the discretion to call for federal intervention when domestic unrest occurs. Washington's action also set the bad precedent that the president — not the Congress, as implied in the Constitution — could approve the suppression of threats against domestic tranquility and the constitutional order. In a 1795 law, the Congress unconstitutionally formalized this alteration in the checks and balances system by delegating to the president its enumerated power of calling up the militia in emergencies.
Although Washington pledged to negotiate with the Indians over use of their territory, he aggressively used force to grab Indian land in what is now the Midwest. During Washington's administration, fighting various Indian tribes consumed 80 percent of the federal budget. Although Washington previously had a high opinion of Native Americans, after fighting them in the Ohio War in 1790 he denounced the Ohio Indians as "having nothing human except the shape." Psychologists would later call this type of rationalization "blaming the victim."
Curiously, in contrast to these belligerent actions, in 1793, before the Whiskey Rebellion, Washington refused a request to send troops to Georgia to defend against Indian attacks because he correctly believed that only the Congress could approve such a military deployment.
Under Washington, the executive branch became the sole maker of U.S. foreign policy, a role that was not stipulated in the Constitution. Washington's desire to entrench the executive's dominance of foreign policy was so great that he proclaimed — without consulting the Congress — U.S. neutrality in the Franco-British war that broke out in 1793, a good policy that nevertheless undermined the Congress's constitutional power to start or refrain from initiating wars (the war power). Also, he refused congressional demands in 1792 for information about the ruinous war against the Indians and in 1796 for data on the negotiation of the Jay Treaty. In addition, he protested a House resolution in 1792 congratulating France on its new constitution. The refusal to provide information to Congress on the Jay Treaty and the Indian war set a bad precedent for future presidents to withhold critical information from Congress. Modern pro-executive analysts have used these precedents to build support for the more recent constitutional myth of executive privilege.
Washington, like many of the nation's founders, realized that the United States, with its geographical advantage of being far away from most of the world's centers of conflict, had the luxury of staying out of debilitating foreign wars and overseas alliances that could very well entangle the country in those faraway conflicts.
Demonstrating an avoidance of enduring alliances, Washington broke the U.S. alliance with France, left over from the American Revolution, when that nation declared war on Britain in 1793. Yet the United States did not adhere to strict neutrality in the conflict — ultimately signing the Jay Treaty in 1795, which was so favorable to Britain that it generated anti-U.S. hostility from the French. This enmity ultimately led to the naval Quasi-War with France during John Adams's administration. Meanwhile, the unresolved issues in the Jay Treaty with Britain ultimately led to the War of 1812.
Inflated Executive Power Past the Constitutional Framers' Intentions
The Constitution — envisioning that the Congress would be the most dominant of the three branches of government — specified many more powers for that body, even in defense and foreign policy, than for the executive, which was to possess only vague powers in policy implementation, diplomacy, and command of the armed forces. Washington filled in the details of presidential responsibilities using an outlook of "energy in the executive." In contrast to the sentiment at the Constitutional Convention and among many presidents of the nineteenth century, Washington believed the president should legislate and execute rather than just administer.
Washington used Alexander Hamilton's economic proposals to insert the executive into Congress's constitutionally given sphere of creating legislation that governs fiscal and commercial policy. This intrusion into Congress's jurisdiction set a bad precedent, and executive powers in this arena were expanded later.
In economic policy, Hamilton, as secretary of the treasury, erected a protective tariff and established a national bank, which he argued could be created because the Constitution did not forbid the federal government from doing so. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, however, would say that all powers not specifically delegated to the federal government, nor prohibited to the states, would reside with the states or the people. The framers put this amendment into the Bill of Rights because they presciently feared that the federal government, and especially the president, would try to argue exactly what Hamilton was arguing — that if the Constitution didn't prohibit the federal government or the president from doing something, they had the inherent or implied power to do it.
Despite the ratification of the Bill of Rights in December 1791, almost three years into Washington's first term, Hamilton's pernicious doctrine of implied powers would continue to undermine the Tenth Amendment throughout U.S. history and eventually render it moribund. Ignoring the founders' attempt to block implied powers from leading to autocratic rule, Washington shaped an influential executive branch, which formulated most of the nation's domestic and foreign policies. Washington inserted his power wherever the Constitution was silent or fuzzy in intent, a clear violation of the letter and spirit of the Tenth Amendment.
Hamilton also cut a deal with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that would allow the federal government to assume the debts of the states, in exchange for a southern capital city in Washington, D.C. Hamilton hoped this deal would give the states no reason to impose taxes and every reason to wither away — leaving the federal government paramount. Yet Washington rejected the excesses of Hamilton's program — for example, providing assistance and subsidies to business and internal improvements (infrastructure projects, such as roads and canals). Nevertheless, Vedder and Gallaway rank Washington mediocre — twenty-second out of thirty-nine presidents ranked — in promoting limited government and ensuring price stability.
Although the Federalist Party eventually went belly up, Hamilton's outlook later became the dominant political orientation in American history — unfortunately beating out Thomas Jefferson's competing philosophy of keeping government small to maximize liberty for the common man. During Washington's administration, Jefferson became so dissatisfied with government-business collusion and other activist administration policies that he quit his post of secretary of state, the most important cabinet position.
Set Precedents Limiting Presidential Powers
Despite Washington's enjoyment of fancy accessories and accommodations, he was committed to republican ideals and generally did respect the checks and balances system. For example, he deferred to Congress on most legislation and used the executive veto only when he believed domestic legislation was unconstitutional, a precedent that held for a while although it is not required by the Constitution.
In his first inaugural address, Washington recommended that Congress consider amending the Constitution to provide the Bill of Rights, a vital contribution to the republic. In his Farewell Address, the former general and set a precedent and astutely warned against the United States entering permanent alliances and against maintaining a large standing army, a danger to liberty.
Perhaps one of the most critical actions that Washington ever took as president was to voluntarily leave office after two terms, even though he could have easily won a third term or even ruled for life, as some suggested he should do. He believed in rotation in office. Washington's norm was so strong and important that it endured without any formal legal provision until Franklin Delano Roosevelt abused it prior to World War II. Later, a constitutional amendment codified Washington's precedent.
In the modern era, many advocates of small government have disparaged Washington's presidency, but they forget that the victorious and immensely popular General Washington could have seized much more power in the new government than he did. If he had served in office until he died, it would have set an unbelievably bad precedent for the new country. Furthermore, according to Burns and Dunn, when Washington took office, the experiment of a republican government in a large nation — a unique historical event — was hanging in the balance, but when his term ended it had triumphed. Washington needs to be given tremendous credit for just getting the new system through this critical and shaky first stage. And despite Washington's several bad precedents, without his magisterial presence, presidential power generally waned (except during the terms of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, also a former general, who also had a strong personal aura) until the Civil War allowed Abraham Lincoln to augment it past anything the Constitution had ever envisioned.
Although George Washington did expand executive power past what the Constitution had envisioned, he also limited presidential power in certain ways, did not become a king, and ensured the survival of the new constitutional system. In addition, he realized that the United States' geographical advantages gave it the luxury of staying out of foreign alliances and conflicts. This earns him the rank of seven here. After Washington, with his strong presence, left the executive office, the presidency generally declined in power back toward what the framers originally had in mind.CHAPTER 2
Used the Quasi-War with France to Restrict Civil Liberties
PP&L RANKING: 22
Second president of the United States
Term: March 4, 1797, to March 4, 1801
Born: October 30, 1735, Quincy, Massachusetts
Died: July 4, 1826 (age ninety), Quincy, Massachusetts
Spouse: Abigail Smith Adams
Alma Mater: Harvard College
Like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, John Adams's exploits as a leader in the American Revolution before he became president were impressive, but his tenure as chief executive was much less so. He was, however, a better president (in the poor category) than either Jefferson or Madison (both in the bad presidents category).
In a time when the new nation's military force was weak, Adams steered a course away from involvement in conflict between France and Great Britain. His enforcement of the Alien and Sedition acts, with their repression of civil liberties, stands against him, as does his appointment of John Marshall as chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Avoided War with France
Wars involving France, during the revolutionary and Napoleonic governments, affected several presidencies. Britain and France were fighting, and U.S. maritime trade was being harmed in the process. Adams inherited this problem from the Washington administration, which had signed the British-friendly Jay Treaty. The treaty had infuriated France, a U.S. ally since the Revolutionary War days. Fearing that U.S. shipping was heading to Britain, the French navy began to seize American vessels in the Caribbean in what was called the Quasi-War, so named because of its limited naval combat.
In return, the Congress authorized Adams to seize ships sailing to French ports. Adams exceeded the congressional authorization by ordering the seizure of vessels sailing to or from French ports. When a U.S. ship seized a ship as it came out of a French port, the owners sued for damages in the U.S. courts. The Supreme Court, in the case Little v. Barreme, ruled in favor of them: the U.S. ship captain was liable because Adams's orders exceeded the authority Congress had given him as commander in chief.
This ruling illustrates that in the early years of the republic, the Congress, not the chief executive, was expected to have primary war power, and the president's power as commander in chief was construed narrowly (that is, he had no "implied powers" to act independently of Congress). Unfortunately, during the Cold War and post–Cold War eras, the rise of an imperial presidency would allow the president to expand his role of commander in chief to the detriment of the people's branch, which the founders believed, in a republic, should be the branch to pass judgment about whether and under what circumstances the country went to war.
The young United States had little military strength to withstand a war with France. Adams initially stirred up war fever, and the Congress, which was controlled by his own Federalist Party and which disliked France, would have voted for war if Adams had given them the nod. However, Adams — against the wishes of his own congressional supporters, most of his cabinet, and extremist members of his own party — sent a peace commission to France in 1799. He wisely and courageously avoided war with a much more powerful country. His peace initiative ensured a split in his party, his unpopularity in the face of the public's war fever, and his consequent political obituary.
Excerpted from Recarving Rushmore by Ivan Eland. Copyright © 2009 The Independent Institute. Excerpted by permission of The Independent Institute.
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