In The Soul of America, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jon Meacham helps us understand the present moment in American politics and life by looking back at critical times in our history when hope overcame division and fear.
The Confidence of the Whole People
Visions of the Presidency, the Ideas of Progress and Prosperity, and “We, the People”
Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. —Alexander Hamilton, The New-York Packet, Tuesday, March 18, 1788
I think that ’twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. —Words popularly attributed to Sojourner Truth, the Woman’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, 1851
Dreams of God and of gold (not necessarily in that order) made America possible. The First Charter of Virginia—the 1606 document that authorized the founding of Jamestown—is 3,805 words long. Ninety-eight of them are about carrying religion to “such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God”; the other 3,707 words in the charter concern the taking of “all the Lands, Woods, Soil, Grounds, Havens, Ports, Rivers, Mines, Minerals, Marshes, Waters, Fishings, Commodities,” as well as orders to “dig, mine, and search for all Manner of Mines of Gold, Silver, and Copper.”
Explorers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries sought riches; religious dissenters came seeking freedom of worship. In 1630, the Puritan John Winthrop, who crossed a stormy Atlantic aboard the Arbella, wrote a sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” that explicitly linked the New World to a religious vision of a New Jerusalem. “For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a hill,” Winthrop said, drawing on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. (Forever shrewd about visuals, Ronald Reagan added the adjective shining to the image several centuries later.)
We’ve always lived with—and perpetuated—fundamental contradiction. In 1619, a Dutch “man of warre” brought about twenty captive Africans—“negars”—to Virginia, the first chapter in the saga of American slavery. European settlers, meanwhile, set about removing Native American populations, setting in motion a tragic chain of events that culminated in the Trail of Tears. And so while whites built and dreamed, people of color were subjugated and exploited by a rising nation that prided itself on the expansion of liberty. Those twin tragedies shaped us then and ever after.
As did basic facts of geography. There was a breathtaking amount of room to run in the New World. The vastness of the continent, the wondrous frontier, the staggering natural resources: These, combined with a formidable American work ethic, made the pursuit of wealth and happiness more than a full-time proposition. It was a consuming, all-enveloping one.
For many, birth mattered less than it ever had before. Entitled aristocracies crumbled before natural ones. If you were a white man and willing to work, you stood a chance of transcending the circumstances of your father and his father’s father and of joining the great company of “enterprising and self-made men,” as Henry Clay put it in 1832.
The next year, President Andrew Jackson appointed one such man to be postmaster of Salem, Illinois. Though a Whig at the time—Jackson was a Democrat—Abraham Lincoln was happy to accept. His rise from frontier origins became both fable and staple in the American narrative. Lincoln understood the power of his story, for he knew that he embodied broad American hopes. “I happen, temporarily, to occupy this big White House,” Lincoln told the 166th Ohio Regiment in the summer of 1864. “I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has.”
No understanding of American life and politics is possible without a sense of the mysterious dynamic between the presidency and the people at large. Sundry economic, geographic, and demographic forces, of course, shape the nation. Among these is an unspoken commerce involving the most ancient of institutions, a powerful chief, and the more modern of realities, a free, disputatious populace. In moments when public life feels unsatisfactory, then, it’s instructive—even necessary—to remember first principles. What can the presidency be, at its best? And how should the people understand their own political role and responsibilities in what Jefferson called “the course of human events”?
In the beginning, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, the presidency was a work in progress. Ambivalent about executive authority, many of the framers were nevertheless anxious to rescue the tottering American nation. Governed by the weak Articles of Confederation—national power was diffuse to nonexistent—the country, George Washington wrote in November 1786, was “fast verging to anarchy & confusion!” The Constitutional Convention, which ran from May to September of 1787, was focused on bringing stability to the unruly world of competing state governments and an ineffectual national Congress.
In 1776’s Common Sense, Thomas Paine had suggested the title of “President” for the leader of a future American government. Still, the colonial suspicion of monarchial power was evident in Paine’s pamphlet. “But where, say some, is the king of America?” Paine wrote. “I’ll tell you, friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the royal brute of Great Britain. . . . For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king, and there ought to be no other.”
The tension between the widespread Paine view (that central authority was dangerous) and the practical experience of the Revolutionary War and the Confederation period (that a weak national government was even more dangerous) shaped the thoughts and actions of the delegates who gathered in the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall, in May 1787. Physically diminutive but intellectually powerful, James Madison, who laid out a plan for the new government with care, admitted the proper executive structure was a perplexing problem. “A national Executive will also be necessary,” Madison wrote fellow Virginian Edmund Randolph before the convention. “I have scarcely ventured to form my own opinion yet, either of the manner in which it ought to be constituted, or the authorities with which it ought to be clothed.”
To hear such voices is to be reminded of what we have lost, but also what can one day be recaptured.
Madison’s uncertainty reflected the reality of the time. There were competing schools of thought. On the floor of the convention, Alexander Hamilton of New York proposed a president to be elected for life; others favored plans by which the legislative branch would select the executive, effectively creating a parliamentary system. Even when the drafting was done, the precise nature of the presidency—of its powers and relative role in guiding the nation—was an open mystery to the framers. Yet they were willing to live with ambiguity.
Why? Because of George Washington. It was generally assumed that General Washington, a man with Cincinnatus-like standing who had voluntarily surrendered military power at the close of the Revolutionary War, would be the first to hold the post. (The delegates did provide that the president had to be a natural-born citizen, “or a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of this Constitution,” suggesting that there has always been a wariness of foreign influence and of the foreign-born.) All in all, given the expectation of a President Washington, the creation of the office was an act of faith in the future and an educated wager on human character. From the start Americans recognized the elasticity of the presidency—and hoped for the best.
Such hopes have not always been realized. Near the end of Donald Trump’s first year in power, for instance, The New York Times reported that, before taking office, he had “told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.”
This Hobbesian view of the presidency—that every single day is a war of all against all—is novel and out of sync with much of the presidential past. In his 1867 book The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot delineated the elements crucial to the government of a free people: “First, those which excite and preserve the reverence of the population—the dignified parts . . . and next, the efficient parts—those by which it, in fact, works and rules.” Bagehot argued that the projection of aspirations above the usual run of political business was vital. “The dignified parts of government,” Bagehot wrote, “are those which bring it force—which attract its motive power.”
In the American context, this is especially true of the presidency, for the president, in the words of James Bryce, had become “the head of the nation.” Speaking in Bagehot’s vernacular, Bryce also observed: “The President has a position of immense dignity, an unrivalled platform from which to impress his ideas (if he has any) upon the people.” His influence could therefore be nearly total. “As he has the ear of the country,” Bryce wrote, “he can force upon its attention questions which Congress may be neglecting, and if he be a man of constructive ideas and definite aims, he may guide and inspire its political thought.”
In a twenty-first-century hour when the presidency has more in common with reality television or professional wrestling, it’s useful to recall how the most consequential of our past presidents have unified and inspired with conscious dignity and conscientious efficiency. “Every hope and every fear of his fellow citizens, almost every aspect of their wealth and activity, falls within the scope of his concern—indeed, within the scope of his duty,” Harry Truman said. “Only a man who has held the office can really appreciate that.” Reflecting on his historic push for civil rights after President Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson recalled: “I knew that, as President and as a man, I would use every ounce of strength I possessed to gain justice for the black American. My strength as President was then tenuous—I had no strong mandate from the people; I had not been elected to that office. But I recognized that the moral force of the Presidency is often stronger than the political force. I knew that a President can appeal to the best in our people or the worst; he can call for action or live with inaction.”
To hear such voices is to be reminded of what we have lost, but also what can one day be recaptured.
The possibilities of a powerful president informed several of Hamilton’s contributions to The Federalist, his joint effort, with Madison and John Jay, to support the ratification of the Constitution. Hamilton defended article 2, the establishment of the executive, with characteristic eloquence. In his Federalist published on Tuesday, March 18, 1788, Hamilton wrote, “Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to . . . the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy.”
Still, Hamilton’s enthusiasm had its limits. Eight days later, in a subsequent Federalist essay, he observed, “The history of human conduct does not warrant that exalted opinion of human virtue which would make it wise in a nation to commit interests of so delicate and momentous a kind, as those which concern its intercourse with the rest of the world, to the sole disposal of . . . a President of the United States.” The Founders saw, then, that the executive office would require check and balance.
With Hamilton and Madison’s counsel, President Washington gave the institution its founding form. “As the first of everything, in our situation will serve to establish a Precedent,” he wrote Madison, “it is devoutly wished on my part, that these precedents may be fixed on true principles.” As Thomas Jefferson, the first secretary of state, recalled it, Hamilton once said that “the President was the center on which all administrative questions ultimately rested, and that all of us should rally around him, and support with joint efforts measures approved by him.” In 1792, when farmers in western Pennsylvania were gathering forces to rebel against a federal excise tax on whiskey, Hamilton urged Washington to take a direct hand. “Moderation enough has been shown; it is time to assume a different tone,” Hamilton argued. “The well-disposed part of the community will begin to think the Executive wanting in decision and vigor.”
Washington agreed, writing, “Whereas it is the particular duty of the Executive ‘to take care that the laws be faithfully executed’ . . . the permanent interests and happiness of the people require that every legal and necessary step should be pursued” to avoid “violent and unwarrantable proceedings.”
Within two decades, Thomas Jefferson, after serving in the highest office himself for eight years, came to share something of Washington’s understanding of the presidency. “In a government like ours it is the duty of the Chief-magistrate, in order to enable himself to do all the good which his station requires, to endeavor, by all honorable means, to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people,” Jefferson wrote in 1810. “This alone, in any case where the energy of the nation is required, can produce an union of the powers of the whole, and point them in a single direction, as if all constituted but one body & one mind: and this alone can render a weaker nation unconquerable by a stronger one.”
Many of even the most divisive figures in our history have shared this Jeffersonian vision. Before Andrew Jackson, for example, power tended toward the few, whether political or financial. After Jackson, government, for better and for worse, was more attuned to the popular will. In the American experiment, Jackson proved that a leader who could inspire the masses could change the world.
He was the most contradictory of men—but then, America was, and is, among the most contradictory of nations. He had massacred Indians in combat, executed enemy soldiers, fought duels, and imposed martial law on New Orleans. A champion of even the poorest of whites, Jackson was an unrepentant slaveholder. A sentimental man who adopted an Indian orphan, he was one of a line of leaders who drove Native American tribes from their homelands. An enemy of the Second Bank of the United States, Jackson would have given his life to preserve the central government.
Jackson spoke passionately of the needs of “the humble members of society—the farmers, mechanics, and laborers” and made the case for popular politics and a more democratic understanding of power. He did so in part because he had begun his life as one of that “humble” class. A self-made man who had risen to the highest levels of a slaveholding society, he wanted to open the doors of opportunity for men like him. Today we find many of his views morally shortsighted, but in his time he was a figure of democratic aspiration.
In the presidency, compromise was a little-remarked Jacksonian virtue. No other president fulminated more passionately or threatened his foes more forcefully, but Jackson believed in the union with all his heart. To him, the nation was a sacred thing, hallowed by his family’s blood, for he had lost his mother and brothers in the Revolutionary War. We were then, and are now, what Jackson called “one great family.”
Excerpted from The Soul of America by Jon Meacham. Copyright © 2018 by Jon Meacham. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Soul of America
By Jon Meacham
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