The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

American Presidents

In his brilliant classic, A Disquisition on Government, John C. Calhoun warned that a written constitution would never be sufficient to restrain the governmental leviathan.  The net tax consumers (those who received more in government benefits than they paid in taxes), especially government employees, would relentlessly argue away the effectiveness of constitutional restrictions on government, he predicted.  The net tax payers would inevitably be overwhelmed and defeated.  There was never a truer political prediction.

In his new book, 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America – And Four Who Tried to Save Her, Brion McClanahan presents a masterful and superbly-scholarly discussion of how nine presidents, beginning with George Washington himself, effectively destroyed constitutional government.  On the brighter side, he also explains how four presidents – Jefferson, Tyler, Cleveland, and Coolidge – did their best to preserve the Jeffersonian vision of limited constitutional government.

A Disquisition on Gove... John C. Calhoun Best Price: $9.00 Buy New $6.85 (as of 09:45 EST - Details) In a sense, the book demonstrates the futility of “limited constitutional government” for precisely the reasons given by Calhoun.  For example, even George Washington acted in ways that were destructive of constitutional government.  McClanahan describes how slick political manipulators like Alexander Hamilton were able to talk Washington into things that were either of dubious constitutionality or plainly unconstitutional.  Washington wanted America to stay out of foreign wars, so he issued a “Proclamation of Neutrality.”  That sounds fine, but there was no constitutional authority for the president to intervene in foreign policy in that way.  Nor did Washington have the constitutional authority to call up the state militia (only Congress does) to invade Pennsylvania during the Whiskey rebellion – another one of Hamilton’s heavy-handed, tyrannical adventures.

What this shows is that even with the best intentions on the part of the most selfless president in American history, the poison of politics will inevitably prevail to chip away at constitutional liberty.

Every chapter is a mini-book on the various presidents that McClanahan examines.  Andrew Jackson is praised for some things that he did, such as defunding the Bank of the United States, but is rightfully condemned for some of his more tyrannical acts, such as threatening force during the nullification crisis of the late 1820s, following passage of the 1828 “Tariff of Abominations.”

Lincoln is accurately portrayed as the most tyrannical of all presidents.  He had a “careless disregard for executive restraint” and achieved “the wholesale transformation of the American political system from a federal republic to a consolidated nation.”  “Every [subsequent] president who screwed things up could use Lincoln’s example to justify his actions,” writes McClanahan.

Teddy Roosevelt continued the assault on the Constitution, which was despised by all “progressives” like himself, by bastardizing the Commerce Clause to justify myriad economic policy interventions; passing a Food and Drug Act based on the “fabricated lies of a socialist” (Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle); confiscating “public” land; and foreign interventionism without congressional authorization.  Then there is Woodrow Wilson, the “twentieth-century pioneer in unconstitutional executive authority” who nationalized industries, destroyed capitalism in America by adopting “war socialism”; attacked civil liberties with his alien and sedition acts; was a sworn enemy of the 9 Presidents Who Screw... Brion McClanahan Best Price: $6.38 Buy New $15.17 (as of 10:25 EST - Details) Constitution; and plunged the country into a senseless war that killed more than 100,000 Americans for no good reason.  Naturally, he is always ranked near the top of every American historian’s list of “great presidents.”

McClanahan offers an excellent summary of FDR’s unconstitutional New Deal interventions, with the entire First New Deal being ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, followed by FDR’s famous “court packing” scheme.  He was a Lincolnian dictator gone wild, adopting war socialism, placing Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, confiscating privately-held gold, adopting an American version of Soviet central planning, and scheming to get Americans into the European War to save his own political hide after eight years of the “New Deal” had proven to be not only failures, but made things worse.

Truman “perfected the art of the demagogue” with even more “Fair Deal” economic intervention, the senseless Korean War, the initiation of the Cold War, “emergency” seizure of private businesses, and worse.  Then there is Lyndon Johnson, the only man to rival FDR during the twentieth century in terms of constitutional destruction.  McClanahan’s summary of the Johnson administration’s policies is infinitely superior to – and hundreds of pages shorter than — the hagiography of Johnson written by regime propagandist and court historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin.

McClanahan’s discussion of Jefferson, the first good president, is masterful.  He details his anti-tax, pro-civil liberties policies and his strict constructionism.  He does not portray Jefferson as a perfect libertarian specimen, but as a real, live human being who was involved in politics.  He was not perfect in every way, but he was better than all the rest in demonstrating his belief that that government is best which governs least.

The nineteenth-century Jeffersonian John Tyler is described as “arguably the best president in American history,” which is why most Americans have never even heard of him.  He was a hardcore Jeffersonian who, as president, vetoed the entire “American System” of Henry Clay and the Whig Party (protectionist tariffs, a national bank, and corporate welfare), after which the Whigs kicked him out of his own party.

The Jungle (Dover Thri... Upton Sinclair Best Price: $0.95 Buy New $2.94 (as of 06:10 EST - Details) I have called Grover Cleveland “The Last Good Democrat”; McClanahan correctly labels him as the last Jeffersonian president.  He vetoed more legislation than all of his predecessors combined, which of course is why most Americans know almost nothing about him.  He opposed foreign policy imperialism, including the annexation of Hawaii; was a free trader; and opposed the beginnings of a welfare state, arguing that “though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.”  He vetoed numerous schemes to turn veterans’ pensions into welfare handouts.  For this he has been pilloried by the history profession for the past 120 years.

Another object of leftist hatred is Calvin Coolidge, a somewhat sad figure in that he was, as McClanahan describes him, “a Jeffersonian whose vision had given way [by 1933, the year of his death] to the socialism of Franklin Roosevelt.”  His tax-cutting policies and his foreign policy non-interventionism earned him eternal ridicule at the hands of the American history profession.

McClanahan’s final chapter proposes several constitutional amendments that would curtail executive power, decentralize government, and begin to breathe life back into American federalism.  This is all fine and good, but in my humble opinion, American history – including the history as so brilliantly told by Brion McClanahan – amply proves that any and all constitutional limitations on governmental power will always be easily and cleverly evaded by our ruling class of master politicians, once defined with perfect precision by Murray Rothbard as masterful liars, connivers, and manipulators.