Presidents who claimed to limit government often actually did the opposite. History often looks unfavorably on presidents who may have actually contributed smart and important policies. Were Harding and Coolidge really as ineffective as their reputations maintain? Did Hoover not do enough to end the Depression? Was Reagan a true champion of small-government conservatism? We all know that the American president is one of the most powerful people in the world. But to understand the presidency today we often have to learn from the past. Author Ivan Eland offers a new perspective in Eleven Presidents on the evolution of the executive office by exploring the policies of eleven key presidents who held office over the last one hundred years: Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. The book combines an exploration of how political currents shape historical legacies with an in-depth analysis of presidents' actual policies. An important, revealing book about the presidency, legacy, and the formation of history, Eleven Presidents is essential reading for understanding the American presidency.
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Popular Reputations Depend on Political Rhetoric
SURPRISINGLY, POPULAR HISTORICAL reputations of presidents depend less on the actual policies they promulgated while in office than one might imagine. To a great extent, the public reputation of each president depends on rhetorical claims — while campaigning, governing, or otherwise — and a president's party label, which has its own reputation based on political rhetoric. In other words, despite being suspicious of politicians, the public, journalists, and even many historians take the carefully cultivated images of politicians as the basis for their evaluation of them, usually without carefully examining the policies these politicians actually instituted. In addition, a particular president's reputation is affected by the political climate at the time analysts are making the assessment — that is, assessment of the past depends on the present.
In an earlier book, Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty and its revised edition (published in 2009 and 2014, respectively), I evaluated all US chief executives on their actual policies rather than their rhetoric, intelligence, leadership styles, charisma, activism, service during a crisis, or other largely irrelevant attributes. I ranked them as the framers of the nation's Constitution might well have assessed them if the framers had been around to see them all — on the basis of whether each one stayed within the limited role that the framers intended the president to fulfill in the government.
In contrast, this discussion examines only certain chief executives who served during the last hundred years — the age of big government, which began with World War I and has lasted to the present — who promised to constrain government. It evaluates whether their actual policies matched their "limited government" reputations. Most of these presidents happened to be Republican, because during most of that timespan, Republicans cornered the market on "limited government" rhetoric, although two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, also claimed such a goal.
Most Democratic presidents during that period — Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy (JFK), Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), and Barack Obama — never seriously claimed that objective and are thus not covered by this discussion. All of these blatantly big government Democratic presidents ranked very low in Recarving Rushmore — Wilson ranked the worst out of forty-one presidents evaluated, FDR ranked thirty-first, Truman fortieth, JFK thirty-sixth, LBJ thirty-second, and Obama thirty-fourth. Yet, none of them cultivated reputations for limiting government and then delivered the opposite. Thus, for the most part, with a few exceptions, our discussion is about "limited government" hypocrisy of Republican presidents in the last hundred years.
Why Is Limiting Government, Especially the Executive Branch, So Important?
The framers of the Constitution, reflecting the views of the vast majority of Americans at the time the document was signed and ratified, desired only a limited and strictly delegated role for the federal government. The fear of central government came as a result of the American colonies' experience with the British king and parliament.
Thus, the framers allowed the federal government to have rigidly enumerated powers in only certain areas — foreign affairs, deciding on war, funding the armed forces, calling forth the militia when needed, immigration, coining money, regulation of commerce among the states and with foreign lands, and the establishment of post offices and post roads. To highlight the strictly limited role the federal government was to play in the American system, the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights directs that all powers not explicitly delegated to the federal government and not prohibited to the states are to be retained by the states and the people.
In other words, the framers' system was designed for the states to retain all other governmental functions not listed above — for example, education, social services, police powers, and the conservation of natural resources to name just a few. The state governments were favored in the system because they were closer to the people, knew their needs better, and were more responsive to them than the distant federal government. Said differently, the framers intended the states to be much stronger and the federal government to be much weaker than they are now.
The massive growth of the federal government, and particularly the executive branch within it, is the main story in this chronicle. It took this significant expansion of federal power to arrive where we are today. Much of what the federal government now does is unconstitutional — for example, federal law enforcement through agencies such the FBI and DEA, Social Security, Medicare, the federal Department of Health and Human Services, and the Departments of Education and Energy.
Even within the federal sphere, the framers, being suspicious of monarchical power, clearly intended Congress to be the most prominent branch of government, even delegating to the legislative body more powers than the executive branch in dealing with foreign nations and national security. Yet since World War I, and especially starting with the long Cold War, the executive branch has unconstitutionally usurped the powers of the other two federal branches, especially those of Congress. Thus, although the framers intended the states and Congress to be the strongest entities in a truly federal system, now the president and the Supreme Court dominate.
Some say that the Constitution is out of date in a complex, post-industrial world and thus needs to be regarded as a "living document." That term essentially means changing the document's meaning — through unconstitutional legislation, executive actions, or court rulings that set bad precedents — without going through the much harder process of formally amending the language. Conservatives criticize liberals for advocating a living Constitution, but they are also guilty of ignoring and misinterpreting the Constitution to further their own policy agenda.
These shortcuts violate the all-important rule of law critical to the success of a republic. Using them also makes the questionable assumption that more complicated, modern societies need bigger governments and stronger executives to be successful. Yet the more complex the society, the harder it is for the government and a strong chief executive to competently regulate it. Thus, limiting government is still a worthwhile endeavor in the modern era.
Limited Government Prior to the Last One Hundred Years
In the latter half of the 1800s, ending with the presidency of William McKinley, of the two major American parties, the Republican Party was the party of bigger government. The Republicans were for a more activist national government funded by high tariffs and sales of federal land, which would provide for a central bank, internal improvement projects (the nationally subsidized building of roads, canals, and railroads), programs to put people to work during hard times, and subsidies for business. In contrast, the Democrats were generally out to help the little guy (white only), usually by limiting intervention by national government, which traditionally had helped the moneyed classes. Also, the Democrats were for keeping more power at the state and local levels and lowering tariffs — regressive taxes hurting everyday consumers.
Then came the rise of progressivism and Republican presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, both of whom wanted to regulate big business because it was already subsidized and protected via tariffs, primarily by prior Republican-run governments. In foreign policy, Roosevelt "stole fair and square" what would become the Panama Canal Zone through armed coercion and added the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which paved the way for US military intervention in Latin American countries if they did not do what the United States wanted.
Taft is thought of as a conservative today, but that is only because his declared progressivism was more restrained and constitutional than that of the megalomaniacal Roosevelt. Yet despite Roosevelt's and Taft's efforts in trust busting and conservation, the era of big government was not yet at hand. A major crisis — in fact, US involvement in World War I — would be needed to transform the traditional American suspicion of central government into a permanent, latent acceptance of a greater role for the federal government in the American economy and society.
The Last Hundred Years of Big Government
Only during the presidency of Democrat Woodrow Wilson, chief executive after Roosevelt and Taft during the Progressive Era, did the Democrats flip from a party of small government to a big government, progressive party. Not only was Wilson a progressive domestically, but he embroiled the United States in the horrendous slaughter of World War I. During that war, the federal government penetrated the US economy and society to a greater extent than any time theretofore in American history (including the Civil War) and provided the blueprint for further government expansion during the subsequent New Deal, World War II, Cold War, and War on Terror.
Although he moderated his rhetoric during the 1912 campaign against Roosevelt and Taft, Wilson's views on expanding the presidency past the limits written into the Constitution were published for all to see in his 1908 book, Constitutional Government in the United States:
The makers of the Constitution seem to have thought of the President as what the stricter Whig theorists wished the king to be: only the legal executive, the presiding and guiding authority in the application of law and the execution of policy. His veto upon legislation was only his 'check' on Congress — was a power of restraint, not of guidance. He was empowered to prevent bad laws, but he was not to be given an opportunity to make good ones. As a matter of fact he has become much more. He has become the leader of his party and the guide of the nation in political purpose, and therefore in legal action. The constitutional structure of the government has hampered and limited his action in these significant roles, but it has not prevented it. ...
Greatly as the practice and influence of Presidents has varied, there can be no mistaking the fact that we have grown more and more inclined from generation to generation to look to the President as the unifying force in our complex system, the leader both of his party and of the nation. To do so is not inconsistent with the actual provisions of the Constitution; it is only inconsistent with a very mechanical theory of its meaning and intention.
In the book, Wilson concluded, "The trouble with the theory is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the [mechanical] theory of the universe, but the theory of organic life." Thus, Wilson believed in a living Constitution and an expanding presidency.
According to A. Scott Berg, author of the biography Wilson,
In the middle of a period of great economic inequality — when the nation's richest 1 percent owned half its wealth — [Wilson] unveiled his Presidential program. His "New Freedom" worked honestly to protect the less favored 99 percent of his countrymen. In order to actualize his slate of progressive reforms, he brought a bold new approach to his office, one in which the executive and legislative branches co-operated the government. ...
"What I am interested in is having the government of the United States more concerned about human rights than about property rights," he insisted. Toward that end, he lost no time in creating the Federal Reserve Board, reducing excessive tariffs, reforming taxation, strengthening anti-trust laws, inaugurating the eight-hour workday, establishing the Federal Trade Commission, developing agricultural programs, improving rural life, and making corporate officials liable for the actions of their companies. He even offered the first government bailout of a private industry in distress — cotton. Without so much as a breath of scandal, his New Freedom served as the foundation for the New Deal [FDR] and Fair Deal [Truman] and New Frontier [JFK] and Great Society [LBJ] to come.
Despite his pioneering for other unabashed expansionists of government, and the presidency in particular, Wilson is not covered in our discussion, because he, like most of the others Democratic chief executives of the last hundred years, did not try to hide his agenda from the public, Congress, or the press.
As a reaction to the carnage and costs — both human and material — of World War I and Wilson's ambitious domestic agenda, his Republican successors, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, wanted to reduce the size of government.
Warren Harding inherited a country in disarray from a long distracted (spending months overseas negotiating the Versailles Treaty ending World War I) and then debilitated (incapacitated with a stroke during the last seventeen months of his presidency) Woodrow Wilson. The ill-advised US entry into the war had led to postwar economic ruin, labor unrest, race riots, and fear induced by terrorism from anarchists and the resulting excesses of Palmer Raids and government-sanctioned vigilante activity designed to combat that terrorism. After campaigning on a "return to normalcy," Harding's inaugural address made that more specific by stating, "We can reduce the abnormal expenditures, and we will. We can strike at war taxation, and we must. ... Our most dangerous tendency is to expect too much of government, and at the same time do for it too little." He also rejected joining the League of Nations and said America should have "no part in directing the destinies of the Old World. We do not mean to be entangled."
In his annual messages to Congress, keeping the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution in mind, Calvin Coolidge, who took over as president when Harding died suddenly in 1923, regularly spoke of limiting the federal government from encroaching on the role of states and localities. Here is an example from his third annual message in 1925:
The functions which the Congress are to discharge are not those of local government but of National Government. The greatest solicitude should be exercised to prevent any encroachment upon the rights of the States or their various political subdivisions. Local self-government is one of our most precious possessions. It is the greatest contributing factor to the stability, strength, liberty, and progress of the Nation. It ought not to be in ringed by assault or undermined by purchase. It ought not to abdicate its power through weakness or resign its authority through favor. It does not at all follow that because abuses exist it is the concern of the Federal Government to attempt their reform.
Yet, as this discussion will demonstrate, the Harding/Coolidge period was one of the few times in Republican presidential history, since the party's origin in the mid-nineteenth century, that GOP chief executives matched their limited government rhetoric with actual deeds.
Coolidge's successor, Herbert Hoover, who nowadays is also thought of as a conservative in the popular mind, was one only when compared to the subsequent presidencies of Progressives Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. President when the stock market crashed in 1929, the progressive Hoover took government beyond where it had gone before, unfortunately turning a mundane recession into the great economic cataclysm that was the Great Depression. In many instances, Hoover set the precedents for FDR's great expansion of government under the New Deal.
Yet, another reason for the erroneous popular perception that Hoover was a "do-nothing" conservative was his use of "limited government" rhetoric to hide precedent-setting and disastrous peacetime state intervention into self-regulating market mechanisms, which could have righted the economic downturn before it turned into the cataclysm of the Great Depression. An example of such deceptive rhetoric is the "associationalism" — which was supposedly designed to ward off pressure for government intervention — enunciated in Hoover's inaugural address:
Our people have in recent years developed a newfound capacity for cooperation among themselves to effect high purposes in public welfare. It is an advance toward the highest conception of self-government. Self-government does not and should not imply the use of political agencies alone. Progress is born of cooperation in the community — not from governmental restraints.
Excerpted from "Eleven Presidents"
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Table of Contents
1 Popular Reputations Depend on Political Rhetoric,
2 Years of Normalcy and Restraint,
3 Domestic Troubles But No Foreign Entanglements,
4 Smaller Government at Home and Abroad,
5 Watergate and a More Restrained Foreign Policy,
6 Limited Government Starts to Return,
7 Busting the Myths,
8 Hawkish Tendencies,
9 A Good Fiscal Record Counts,
10 Big Government at Home and Abroad,
11 Political Rhetoric and Hypocrisy,
About the Author,