Cut Out the Presidential Guff

Email Print

The Indispensable Man

by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken

As the presidential election of 1940 approached, Garet Garrett, the great writer of the Old Right, pondered the implications of Roosevelt’s nomination for a third term as president of the United States. Writing in the fall of that year, Garrett watched in alarm as the Roosevelt administration rushed to send American ships and other military aid to Britain. This aid did not come with the consent of Congress or with any other legitimate instrument of American law, but emanated from nothing more than the personal will of Roosevelt himself. While Garrett was certainly opposed to American entanglements in European politics, he was far more disturbed by the fact that American treasure and American lives were being surreptitiously committed to a war in a far away land without the consent of Congress and with little national debate on the matter at all.

Garrett, however, was not so naïve as to think that the abuse of presidential power had begun with Roosevelt. As he witnessed the executive powers being abused by Roosevelt in ever more staggering ways, he considered that the presidency had been consolidating its power and shredding the remnants of federalism for decades. Indeed, the question of the proper extent of executive power had been asked countless times since the earliest days of the Republic. The convention of 1787 had thoroughly wrestled with the problem, and as Garrett observes: "The problem was how to limit the power of the executive, who might be called magistrate or president; limit his access to the emotions of the people lest he persuade them by promises and by eloquence to make him monarch."

But in fact that power has not been limited. Garrett recounted the numerous and constantly accelerating steps from Republican government to "unlimited democracy" in which —in the mind of the president and his men — the will of "the people" is somehow magically transformed into the will of the executive. Such a thing is impossible, of course, yet the fantasy had persisted until Americans were finally prepared to accept what Garrett calls the "doctrine of indispensability — the doctrine of one leader above all, infallible, who knows better than anyone else what is good for people and how to do it."

For Garrett, this state of affairs had been made possible by abolishing the barriers between the passions of the mob and the man at the top promising unending largesse and utopian goodness: a truly independent electoral college, indirectly elected senators, and a constitutional proscription against direct taxation. All were torn down to make room for the indispensable man, and to be sure, the public was happy with such certainty in infallible men on which to hang their affections.

Although their warnings were ignored, many of the men at the constitutional convention of 1787 predicted as much. During the debates of June 1, 1787, Roger Sherman of Connecticut opposed an independent presidency altogether. He declared that the executives should be little more than functionaries of those who make the laws, that leaving interpretation of laws up to independent executive was foolhardy, and that the legislature should be free to vary the number of executives at will. Along similar lines, Edmund Randolph of Virginia strenuously opposed unity in the executive branch, arguing that an institution that puts such power in one man would surely be “the fetus of monarchy.” To allow one man to preside over a nation with such prestige would be contrary to all notions of republican law, thus Randolph suggested an executive of three men, lest the country suffer the same fate as the many despotic states of the world with their single executives. The history of man had illustrated Randolph’s point dozens of times over, and as Benjamin Franklin warned, “there is a natural inclination in mankind to kingly government."

But, proving Franklin’s point, the defenders of a "vigorous Executive," with little more than eloquent speech behind them, claimed that only a single man as executive could provide the "energy, dispatch, and responsibility" necessary to the office. John Rutledge magically divined the moral quality of all future presidents and concluded that a single executive would "feel the greatest responsibility and administer the public affairs best."

George Mason, however, scoffed at the use of such elevated language, suggesting that "the Secrecy, the Dispatch, the Vigour and Energy" which will be derived from a single executive are perhaps "greater in Theory than in Practice." For in a true republic, Mason tells us, such vigor and energy can always be found in the people. Certainly, the Greek Republics, the States of Holland, the Swiss Cantons, and indeed, the American colonies themselves — all without national leaders — had defeated mighty kings and armies through the fruits of a free citizenry. The pre-occupations with vigor and energy "have been strongly insisted on by all monarchical Writers," Mason reminds us, and he remained unconvinced.

Today, with Presidents wielding power that would have made 18th century kings bristle with envy, it would appear difficult to claim that we, to use Mason’s words, have not "degenerated in monarchy." If not in name, then certainly in fact. And this is what Garrett observed in the gloomy autumn of 1940. The power of the Presidency had become so great that — not surprisingly — those who had already grasped such power concluded that "the power is too much to lay down" and that the president has a "duty to keep the government from passing to other hands." They claim that "if our own government should pass to other hands next January — untried hands, inexperienced hands — we can merely hope and pray that they will not substitute appeasement and compromise with those who seek to destroy all democracies everywhere."

One would like to think that such bluster is not the kind of "energy" and "dispatch" envisioned by John Rutledge and his allies, but it has nevertheless become the language of the American presidency, and it is certainly very far from that office of republican magistrates envisioned by Mason and Randolph. Yet every four years, we Americans hear such pretensions to kingly indispensability and we believe. It is to our shame.

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] is a regular columnist for

Email Print