Review: Political Thought and the Origins of the American Presidency


August 2, 2021
by Jeff Broadwater Also by this Author


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Political Thought and the Origins of the American Presidency edited by Ben Lowe (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2021)

In Political Thought and the Origins of the American Presidency, historian Ben Lowe of Florida Atlantic University has assembled an attractive collection of scholarly essays that began as presentations to the university’s 2019 Alan B. and Charna Larkin Symposium on the American Presidency. A brief foreword by David Armitage sets the tone for the rest of volume: as an elected executive with broad powers, the presidency, in 1787, was a novel institution, but it was nevertheless traditional in its similarity to the British monarchy. In a longer introductory essay, Lowe, reviewing recent scholarship, expands on Armitage’s suggestion of a monarchial turn in early American history. Before 1775, Americans may have been perfectly content to live under a monarchy; only the American Revolution, and more precisely, the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) “delegitimized” the institution (page 3). The remaining ten essays are divided into three parts. They explore the European origins of the presidency, the political debate surrounding the creation of the office in 1787 and 1788, and its development under the nation’s first three presidents.

In the first essay in Part One, English historian Blair Worden traces the concept of checks and balances, and the executive’s place in it, back to the era of the English Civil War, when the Long and Rump Parliaments demonstrated that legislators could be as tyrannical as kings. In response, the Instrument of Government (1654) vested broad powers in Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, in order to serve as a check on Parliament. Rather than treating the different branches primarily as representatives of particular classes, which was the traditional view, the Instrument treated them a repositories of different governmental functions that could be allocated as seemed expedient. If the American Founders readily embraced checks and balances, the next essay, by Max Skjonsberg, makes clear they hoped to avoid the factionalism of British politics. Yet even here, European influence appears, mainly in the form of Lord Bolingbroke and the Radical or Country Whigs, who attacked Robert Walpole’s government for maliciously expanding executive discretion at the expense of Parliament. Raising many of the same issues as would the Jeffersonian Republicans of the 1790s, the Radical Whigs, Skjonsberg argues, became the model for an American opposition party.

The concluding essays in Part One, by Eric Slauter and Caroline Winterer, illustrate how Americans could modify or reject European influences. In discussing the debate over the need for a bill of rights during the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, Slauter notes the Federalists’ initial opposition: the English Bill of Rights had been intended to limit royal authority, which was hardly a concern for republican America. Yielding to political reality, however, Federalist James Madison pushed through Congress a new kind of bill of rights, one that limited the power of the people’s representatives. Winterer explores the attraction of Americans to the militarily successful and intellectually active Frederick the Great of Prussia. If some Americans flirted with enlightened despotism, Frederick’s association with the French revolutionaries, his hostility to religion, and the rise of Napoleon, made their crush on the Prussian the last gasp of monarchialism in America.

Part Two consists of essays by Jonathan Gienapp, Claire Rydell Arcenas, and Francois Furstenberg. Gienapp finds differences among three of the leading nationalists at the federal Constitutional Convention. James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris, he argues, took a more narrow view of the executive’s proper role in foreign affairs than did Alexander Hamilton, but favored broader grants of power to Congress. According to Arcenas, Hamilton’s Federalist essays pioneered “a new—and distinctively American—science of politics” by invoking the lessons of experience, not political philosophy, to defend the proposed Constitution (178). In the oddest essay in the volume, Furstenberg questions the convention’s decision, despite considerable opposition, to allow Congress to admit new states by a simple majority. In what may strike some readers as the most naked example of coastal elitism on record, Furstenberg, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, seems agitated that the states admitted since 1789 have tilted presidential elections toward, in his mind, less progressive candidates.

In Part Three, Lindsay Chervinsky explores Cabinet politics under George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Washington and Jefferson managed their subordinates skillfully. Less attentive and less politically astute, Adams struggled painfully. In his essay, Daniel Hulsebosch details the influence of Emer de Vattel’s The Law of Nation (1758) on Washington’s performance as president. Vattel had argued the responsible ruler had an obligation to pursue peace and to promote commerce, immigration, and education. In a final essay, Rosemarie Zagarri describes the emergence of Mercy Otis Warren, an Anti-Federalist and the era’s most prominent female intellectual, as a bitter critic of Washington. The first president was not always the unassailable character he later became.

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