American Presidency by McDonald takes a strong stand against the executive branch gaining too much power over the other branches of government. His basic thesis is that this Constitutional government is brilliantly conceived yet because the way the document was written it is subject to widely varying interpretation along the way. He points out in the beginning of his book that the language used in the writing of the Constitution is not as clear as it could be in terms of what constraints can be placed (or should be placed on the presidency). While it is “vital” for an executive to have the authority he needs, “it is dangerous as well” (McDonald, 3). The historical review and analysis of the presidencies is thorough and detailed, and is an eye-opener for readers who are not intimately familiar with American history from the point-of-view of the Constitution and the presidency.
Many readers probably do not know that by the time the young American nation was moving toward establishing its own government, England actually had “ordered liberty” (McDonald, 12) – a “constitutional monarchy.” The way history is often taught is that the Mother Country, because the King slapped so many taxes on the colonists and instituted other sanctions designed to keep the colonies in check, was a brutal dictatorship. That is simply not the case, and indeed in Chapter 2 McDonald points out that the English model for a government was the one that the “framers” of the U.S. Constitution used.
In Chapter 3 the author takes readers through the various stages of government that England went through prior to becoming a constitutional monarchy. All of these eras and the leaders that served England during them have a part to play in how and why the framers of the U.S. Constitution debated, argued, cajoled one another and finally came up with in the end.
In Chapter 4 McDonald notes that in the first three weeks of the Constitutional Convention delegates “buttressed their positions with historical references at least twenty-three times.” Clearly, the intelligent, well-read delegates from throughout the colonies wanted to use history as a lesson and as a reference. Among the books from which quotes were taken was the Bible, which (most readers probably were not aware of) “…contains a great deal about the evolution of executive power” (McDonald, 68). As an example of how thorough McDonald was in presenting his approach to American history, he spends several pages on Biblical references that may have been used by the delegates.
McDonald paraphrased the Bible as though every story in the Bible is a verified factual account of what happened. An atheist, who sees the Bible as a book with nice colorful stories but doesn’t believe it is a true record of history, will probably lose confidence in McDonald at this point. But nevertheless, on page 71 the author asserts that God told Samuel, the last of the judges over the Israelites (who had fallen into “idolatry”) to “warn the people” about the kind of king they might wind up having to deal with because of their bad behavior in their self-government experiment. That king might establish a draft and sent their sons into war; he might also seize their daughters “for service in their household” and tax people “unmercifully” while making them slaves.
Those things that God supposedly warned the Israelites about are suspiciously similar to things that American presidents have done; hence McDonald’s decision to use that illustration in his book. To wit, Lyndon Johnson needed more and more soldiers to go to Vietnam in the Sixties, so he changed the draft and took away the deferments that college students had enjoyed. And while President Johnson did not turn daughters into servants and didn’t make Americans into slaves, the citizens of the U.S. were – and are – taxed large sums of money to pay for what the government in Washington does, including spending the billions required to go to war, which Johnson and George W. Bush have done.
The Bible was just one source of historical precedent that the framers of the Constitution used in arguing for their positions. Another source (Chapter 4) was Greek history. On pages 73-75 McDonald makes the point that there were constitutions in ancient Greece that either held up or were broken down because of flaws in the creation of the constitutions. Then he turns to Rome and uses historical references from that period to illustrate and illuminate how the framers of the U.S. Constitution ended up with the document we have as our basis of laws today.
By Chapter 5 the author finally comes to grips with the colonial experience and describes the way the English empire attempted to government the colonies – the failures, and the things that worked, which the framers could later build upon. Colony by colony, McDonald works his way through all the conundrums and sticking points that the colonists ran into on their way to attempting self-government – while the heavy hand of the King of England loomed over everything the colonists did. McDonald mentions many little steps along the way towards the Constitutional Convention, and on page 132 readers learn that there had been temporary constitutions in place in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was put forward.
Indeed, m any states adopted constitutions which “provided for legislative supremacy” (a response to the colonists rejection of an absolute authority figure such as the king evolving through some formula). The constitution (mainly written by Benjamin Franklin) that McDonald wrote was most “extreme” establishes a “unicameral legislature and no chief executive.” Instead, executive power was placed by Franklin in a council, with twelve members, and many restrictions built in to keep the power balanced and not in the hands of one man.
All of these points, moments of history, and examples are backup to the original thesis that McDonald provided, and that was twofold: the first one was the language and terms of the Constitution; while the framers were painstaking in their attempt to institute the most specific language possible, they nevertheless ended up with words and phrases that were (and still are) subject to interpretation and debate. And the second salient point of McDonald’s book (which he backs up throughout the book) is that too much power in the hands of the executive branch of government can be very dangerous – and there are ample examples of that problem shown throughout history.
Chapter 7 of McDonald’s book takes readers through the intricate, bombastic and sometimes infamous moments of the Philadelphia convention during which the Constitution was hammered together by men from various parts of the colonies, all of them with their own agendas. Pages and pages of his book detail all the various proposals for how to keep the executive branch in check. They are too many and too involved to mention all of them in this paper, but interestingly, there were some delegates that wanted to create an executive who would be chosen “for life” (McDonald 168). Meanwhile McDonald uses very descriptive narrative to give readers a sense of what the dynamics were at the Philadelphia convention. Phrases like “rancor and confusion” (McDonald, 169) and “grumbling and expressions of disapproval” (McDonald, 178) and “minor tinkering” (178) offers more than a vague clue as to the tension in the room during various debates.
Ratification of the Constitution is thoroughly reviewed in Chapter 8, and finally in Chapter 9 McDonald gets into the actual presidencies of American leaders. The lengthy and wordy descriptions he provided for readers were all a lead-up to his last chapters on what the presidents actually did in their administrations – relative to the power that they were able to use, take, or assume, based on their varied interpretations of the Constitution. On page 221 McDonald describes “Signs of strain” between George Washington and the Senate right away as the government debated how treaties should be made with Native Americans and with foreign countries. This, anyone remotely familiar with the early government of the U.S., was a natural and to-be-expected dynamic in a young democracy. How will it work? it’s one thing to establish a government; it’s another to actually put it to the test. Chapter 10 deals with the third president Thomas Jefferson, who (McDonald, 247) tried to “wield power’ through “bargaining, persuasion, and the careful husbanding or expenditure of his counters in the political game.” It was not so much Jefferson adopting to what he saw as the Constitutional exactness, but rather it was, McDonald writes, Jefferson’s “personality traits.” That may sound like a well-disciplined approach by Jefferson to be conscious of diplomacy and bargaining, but in fact Jefferson “and his subordinates” wrote and “steered through Congress” more bills than the George Washington and John Adams administrations combined.
Jefferson’s attempt to get legislation enacted was “rarely rejected.” The fact that Jefferson was so brilliant in his capacity as an executive “…saved the office [of the presidency] and possibly the Union” (McDonald, 248). But that having been said, the process Jefferson used to get his way with Congress “imperiled” both the presidency and the nation, as there ensued a huge fight over the election of 1800 based on back room power plays and electors (in the Electoral College) who were not actually chosen by the people.
By Chapter 11 McDonald begins discussing how presidents from Washington on dealt with the law based on the Constitution. And while federal law gradually gave way to state and local laws, because some issues and problems were simply easier to deal with at the local and regional level, it was also true that presidents and their attorneys general had problems enforcing what federal laws did require federal jurisdiction. Part of this problem, McDonald write on page 285, was “the penchant of Congress to enact bad legislation”; bills that were well intentioned turned out to be “poorly crafted,” or plainly impossible to enforce. The author gives examples of laws that attempted to legislate morality, that didn’t work; the “Mann Act,” which made it a federal crime to “transport a female across state lines for ‘immoral purposes'”; and the Volstead Act (prohibition), which attempted to ban the sale or production of booze.
The problem few framers had envisioned was the growth of the federal bureaucracy; in Chapter 12 McDonald reviews with his usual precision and detail, the way the executive branch grew into a huge bureaucracy and how the Congress resisted presidents’ desires to create huge kingdoms at every turn. President Richard Nixon, who resigned in shame in 1973, had put in place a “super cabinet” with four men (Ehrlichman in domestic affairs; Kissinger in foreign affairs; Schultz in economic matters; and Ash in “executive-management” matters) given enormous power to act in the president’s name. This new arrangement of executive power did not succeed, however, because of the Watergate scandal. If Watergate had not happened, though, a special panel set up to investigate the dynamics of the executive branch (“National Academy of Public Administration”) wrote that the federal government might have been turned into a Germanic “ideal type of monocracy, ruled from the top through a strictly disciplined hierarchical system.” And the only way to bring a president into accountability – with a system such as what Nixon wanted – was to impeach the president.
McDonald is never shy in his book about telling it like he sees it; for example, on page 340, in describing the aftermath of the Nixon and Johnson Administrations – and the attempts by Congress to regain some of the power lost to the executive branch – McDonald said the federal government appeared “…rather to be a huge, amorphous blob, like a creature out of science fiction.” His footnote for that passage refers to several books that criticize the way the federal government has functioned (and malfunctioned) over the 20th Century. A reader can only wonder what McDonald would say about the Bush Administration, which has clearly been given (or simply taken) enormous power away from the Legislative branch since the September 11 attacks. Perhaps a follow-up book is in order for McDonald, because many authors and scholars and alert citizens have certainly noted in books and periodicals and newspapers and on television that Bush seems to do pretty much as he pleases, insisting along the way that the Constitution has given him power “to protect the American people” through any means he deems appropriate, including wiretapping citizens’ phones with out a warrant, among other provocative adventures.
McDonald, Forrest. (1994). The American Presidency: An Intellectual History. Lawrence, KS:
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