The Presidency as Public Trust

Email Print

Presidents of the United States used to refer to their office as a "public trust." Madison in Federalist #57 wanted a Constitution to keep rulers "virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust." Washington’s Farewell Address (1796) spoke of the Presidency as "that important trust." He also called it an "arduous trust." He said "in the discharge of this trust," he had done his best, but that he was conscious of his inferiority and that experience had taught him to be diffident. These words echoed the words of his First Inaugural (1789) when he wrote of "the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me," as well as being "conscious of his own deficiencies."

In one definition, "a trust is a relationship in which a person or entity (the trustee) has legal control over certain property (the trust property or trust corpus) but is bound by fiduciary duty to exercise that legal duty for the benefit of someone else (the beneficiary) according to the terms of the trust and the law." A fiduciary is a person who "bears a special relationship of trust, confidence and responsibility to others."

Madison wrote of the rulers acting for "the common good of the society," and Washington’s First Inaugural spoke of the "public good." In opposition to it, he noted "local prejudices or attachments," and "separate views" and "party animosities." He chose not to provide "a recommendation of particular measures." Near the end, Washington refused personal pay and said that the Presidency would be "limited to such actual expenditures as the public good may be thought to require."

Madison and Washington both viewed the Presidency as an office of trust in which the President had legal control over property, presumably the institutions and resources of the United States or federal government. The duty they conceived was to use that office for the benefit of all the people in common. Measures that would not accomplish this goal presumably fell outside the proper bounds of that trust.

This bit of history stimulates many questions. We question if and how the public good can ever be identified. That objection aside, we wonder if the public good was more easily identified in 1789 than in 1860 or 2005. We wonder about the motives and intentions of the early leaders who used this idea. Did they sincerely believe in the idea, or did they use it cynically as propaganda, or something in between? We wonder how well they adhered to their own words, and what may have caused them to deviate when they did. We wonder how this idea traces back to earlier notions of civic virtue. We wonder how our rulers in practice thought of the public good, and what they thought enhanced it or detracted from it.

As interesting as these questions are, I do not address them here. Instead, I examine the disappearance and eventual death of the idea of Presidency as public trust. I do this by examining the Presidential Inaugural Addresses. We will find that the demise of the public trust concept links to other important changes in the Presidency and country that are important to us.

The idea that the Presidency is a public trust has died. It is now the exception rather than the rule. Presidents no longer habitually reflect on the public good or see themselves as owing a duty that is bounded by the Constitution as a kind of trust document. Presidents no longer reflect openly on their inadequacies in carrying out the trust. They now relish long lists of particular measures rather than eschew them.

When did Presidents stop viewing their office as a trust? When did their duty to the people in common die? Why did it die? How did its death relate to the growth of government? What can we learn about our own predicament by understanding the death of this duty?

In his Inaugural Address, John Adams, unlike his predecessor, does not mention or seem to view the Presidency as a public trust. He mentions executing laws for the "general good" after free elections of honest and enlightened people through the Constitution. His ideas of the general good include education, improvements in agriculture, commerce and manufacturing, peace and neutrality, reparations for harm done to U.S. commerce by other nations, upholding the individual States, upholding the Constitution, justice, bettering relations with Indians, and maintenance of friendliness to France.

Jefferson clearly articulates the trust idea. In his First Inaugural he lays out a galaxy of principles "by which to try the services of those we trust." He speaks of "common efforts for the common good." His Second Inaugural reviews how well he considers that he lived up to his contract. At the end, sensible of the probability that he will err due to weakness of human nature and lack of understanding, he opines that neither self-interest nor passion will interfere with his duties.

The next six Presidents all affirm that their office is a public trust. Monroe, for example, notes "the importance of the trust and of the nature and extent of its duties." John Quincy Adams mentions "the path of duty in the discharge of my public trust." Jackson views the "management of the public revenue" as "among the most delicate and important trusts." Both Van Buren and William Henry Harrison’s addresses clearly adhere to the idea of the public trust. Harrison’s address is also notable for his clear-headed appraisal of various Constitutional defects that had by then emerged and also by his realistic view that rulers may well deceive and flatter "with the intention to betray."

James K. Polk in 1845 provides something of a break with the past by not affirming his office is a trust. On the other hand, like Presidents before him, he devotes a good part of his address to a review of Constitutional principles. He also speaks of the growing issue of States Rights and Federal Union.

The two Presidents who follow, Zachary Taylor and Franklin Pierce, revert to the trust idea. Buchanan is much like Polk in not mentioning the public trust, other than a reference to management of public lands. He too reviews the Constitutional principles and affirms strict construction.

With Lincoln’s First Inaugural, we encounter a clear break with the past. By then seven states had seceded. This meant that there was no longer any identifiable common good. There was no agreed upon public trust for a President to administer. Lincoln could not possibly use his office for the benefit of all the people in common. Once he tried to preserve the Union forcibly, he could no longer be acting for the common good.

Lincoln declared: "I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual." This legal view and the arguments that followed failed to prove his case. They simply identified Union in circular fashion with the common good. Lincoln promised "there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere." Yet he ended with a veiled threat. "You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to u2018preserve, protect, and defend it.’"

The oath of office is to live up to the Constitution as long as it exists. But if the parties to that compact withdraw from it, then there is no obligation in the Constitution that gives the Federal Government the right to compel the States to maintain the agreement. The latter language is too abstract to grasp the reality. In fact, some men no longer wished to federate themselves with some other men, and the latter decided to make them federate forcibly. Such warring contradicted any notion of a public trust for the common good.

Following Lincoln, Grant’s two inaugural addresses made no mention or allusion to the Presidency as a public trust. The next five Presidents restored the tradition. Hayes felt himself "called to the great duties of this great trust." Garfield said "I am about to assume the great trust which you have committed to my hands." Cleveland referred to a "supreme and sacred trust." Benjamin Harrison spoke of the "mutual covenant." McKinley spoke of the "high trust to which I have been called."

Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 marks the point at which the notion of public trust all but dies. Roosevelt’s address talks of "duties to others," meaning other "nations of the earth," and of showing it by being "strong." He talks of "other perils" relating to "extraordinary industrial development." He calls upon people to display qualities of "courage, of hardihood, and endurance, and above all the power of devotion to a lofty ideal."

Roosevelt’s advocacy of manly virtues replaces any talk of the Constitution or the public trust. These are not mentioned at all and cannot be, because Roosevelt doesn’t discover the common good and the historically common values while constrained by the Constitution. He crosses the line into arguing for his preferred values and policies of international obligation that are not to be found in the Constitution.

William Howard Taft continues in the modern tradition — no mention of trust or the common good and no mention of the Constitution. Instead, he says "The office of an inaugural address is to give a summary outline of the main policies of the new administration…"

Wilson’s First Inaugural calls all men to a "great trust" that answers to a progressive agenda that cleanses the American ways of life and corrects a number of evils that Wilson perceived. This, however, is not the view that the Presidency is a trust. It is Roosevelt reworked. Neither Harding nor Coolidge speak of the trust. Herbert Hoover assumes "this trust" but quickly launches into a detailed agenda. By this time, the Federal Government was so involved in American life that the Presidents could not and did not refer at length to the Constitution or its principles because the contradictions between their actions and that document were flagrant.

In four inaugural addresses, Franklin Roosevelt only in his second says "Government is competent when all who compose it work as trustees for the whole people." His first inaugural in passing mentions the "trust reposed in me." But it spends more time criticizing conduct in banking and business that "too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing."

Truman makes no mention of a trust, and Eisenhower in two inaugurals makes no mention of his office as a trust.

By this time, America’s involvement in world affairs was no longer tentative. Eisenhower transmuted the trust idea as follows (First Inaugural): "Knowing that only a United States that is strong and immensely productive can help defend freedom in our world, we view our Nation’s strength and security as a trust upon which rests the hope of free men everywhere." This statement declares a duty of the Nation as a whole to defend freedom anywhere in the world. This idea basically subverts and overrides the Constitution, turning the American nation into a police force for the world. The Presidency is no longer a trust for the common good of the American people. Instead the American people are declared a trust for the common good (freedom) of the world’s people. Bush II echoes this idea.

Both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who also abandoned the Presidency as trust idea, echo Eisenhower’s vision of America as the liberator of all mankind, which Johnson refers to as the "American covenant." This includes "man’s dominion over tyranny and misery." He tells us that "Each of us must find a way to advance the purpose of the Nation, thus finding new purpose for ourselves."

From Nixon to the present, the Inaugural Addresses contain much that is revealing about America, but nowhere is the concept of public trust restored to its former high place. For the most part, expansive visions continue to be the rule, both domestic and international. They hark back to Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson.

The changing content of Presidential Inaugural Addresses accurately reflects the new American slavery. In keeping with the waning of freedom in America, its rulers more and more speak of freedom for mankind, less and less speak of the Constitution, less and less speak of their duties, and more and more assume the role of spiritual leaders who provide values and meaning to their countrymen’s lives.

The new concepts of servitude in the Addresses follow an internal logic. Freedom for mankind translates into slavery and continual warfare for Americans because of the obligations and sacrifices it entails. The Constitution can’t be discussed because it has been entirely subverted. The rulers, assuming the mantle of Gods, have no duties to the citizen. The opposite is true: they impose duties. And the rulers constantly inculcate their subjects with the rhetoric of subservience to the State and its edicts.

The death of a duty, the Presidential duty of trust to the American people, signals the rise of the duty of the American people to the President (and the State), and to whatever purposes the rulers select. Bush II, in the Eisenhower/Kennedy/Johnson vein, says (in his First Inaugural) that "Our democratic faith is…a trust we bear and pass along." The meaning of this obligation, as in Eisenhower’s time, is (in the Second Inaugural) "to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

Based on the words and expressions of their Inaugural Addresses, our early leaders viewed the people, the voters, as sovereign. They had obligations to carry out for the common good, a public trust. They viewed values as emanating from an informed and virtuous populace. They viewed their position with humility, knowing the many difficulties of surmounting their own limitations, sectional and other rivalries, emotional issues of the times, recognizing the common good, and so on. They adhered to the Constitution and referred to it at length for political guidance. They frequently reviewed its principles and justified their recommendations based on basic American principles. They were conscious of the limits of Federal power. They followed the principle of neutrality to foreign nations. Although their words showed realistic hope and optimism, utopian appeals to win the world or to conquer ancient evils were not the standard rhetoric.

The concept of public trust was logically linked to and consistent with many of these positions. They existed together and they died together. Today’s Imperial Presidency has no room for basic American principles, constitutional or otherwise.

Sadly, many peoples of this earth would gladly exchange their government for ours even in its present condition because they must put up with extensive corruption. However, they would do better to look to the earliest model of American government and society. They would do well to analyze where we went astray. Most of all, they would do well to understand how the American people came to prosper and what caused that growth in prosperity to be diminished if not extinguished. We Americans would do well to understand this ourselves.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.

Email Print