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The Presidency in Action

ISSUE:  Summer 1944

The Use of Presidential Power, 1789-1943. By George Fort Milton. Little, Brown and Company. $3.00.

“It is easier,” remarked Woodrow Wilson, “to write of the President than of the presidency.” In his recently published volume, George Fort Milton has written of the presidency in terms of the use made of their power by the eight men whom he classes as great Presidents. These are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Those whom the author consulted were not inclined to alter this list, though some gave honorable mention to “three strong men who did not become great”: John Tyler, James K. Polk, and Rutherford B. Hayes.

For purposes of analysis the President is regarded as playing in the drama of American politics six major roles in one. He is simultaneously Chief of State, Chief of Foreign Relations, Commander-in-Chief, Chief of Government, Chief of Party, and Leader of Public Opinion. He is, as it were, the Mikado, Ko-Ko, and Pooh-Bah all combined.

With incidental mention of Presidents who came in between, the author examines the way in which each of the immortals enacted his six-fold role. The result is a book which does not purport to make contributions to historical research, but which for all that may be recommended to the professional student as well as the serious general reader.

What the writer aims to do is to survey the familiar story in order to sharpen its meaning in terms of his chosen topic, To this end he has read widely and well and has conferred with many persons, scholars as well as men of affairs. If his history is popular, its treatment is characterized by balanced judgment and by a penetrating insight which contributes something to the interpretation of the Chief Magistracy.

There are minor errors of fact, but these are nowhere fatal, nowhere even serious for the main theme. The Postmaster General did not gain Cabinet rank in 1794, but only under President Jackson. In the historic debate on the President’s power of removal which took place in the First Session of the First Congress, the House of Representatives did not “drop its bill” for delegating this power, but rather amended the pending bill in order to replace the implication of delegation by the implication of legislative recognition of the President’s implied constitutional power to remove executive officers. Again, the Senate did not attach a “reservation” to the Jay Treaty, but consented to, and advised the President to ratify the Treaty, “on condition that there be added to the said Treaty an article, whereby it shall be agreed to suspend the operation” of one of its provisions, and recommended that the President proceed without delay to further friendly negotiations on the subject. To this additional article the British government gave its assent. Nor, in more recent times, was the famous 7(a) a section of the NRA cotton textile code, but of the National Industrial Recovery Act itself. Such slips, however, are but defects of the quality of incisive summation with which the volume is replete.

Mr. Milton’s newspaper experience has doubtless aided his mastery of a style which holds the reader’s attention because it is both fluent and lucid. While references to the President as our Number One Man smack too much of newspaper copy, to say that in the early weeks of his Administration Franklin Delano Roosevelt exhibited “genius in disorder” is to sum up many things by a turn of phrase.

In discussing the opinions of Jefferson and Hamilton on the constitutionality of the Bank, the author remarks that the underlying difference “was over who should rule, the few or the many. The seat of power, the fact of control, the distribution of the fruits of our human and material resources—these were then, as ever after, the principal objects of the political battles in America.” With these words he puts his finger on that conflict which runs, like a central theme through the course of American political and constitutional history, though it is equally important to remember that, except in the War between the States, this continuous battle has been fought out within the framework of the acceptance of basic common assumptions.

Again, with reference to Theodore Roosevelt, the reader is told that, “Governmentally, he believed in the Hamil-tonian thesis of a full-powered central government, to be employed for Jeffersonian goals.” But so also in their different ways did Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The continuity of the central conflict between the Hamiltonians, who believe that the stability of society depends upon control being vested in the rich and the wellborn, and the Jeffersonians, who believe that the rights of the many are morally prior to the privileges of the few, is matched by a literal exchange of secondary policies, as between these two groups, which has accompanied the transformation of a simple, agricultural society into a great industrial nation. Today it is the Jeffersonians who build up the national government as an instrumentality of democratic control of the privileges of the few, as it is the Hamiltonians who seek to protect those privileges behind the bulwark of states’ rights. The common failure to realize this elementary truth enables the Hamiltonians of both our major political parties to pose as Jeffersonians by clinging to the specific policies which in the early days of the Republic made Mr. Jefferson the spokesman of the many, but under the changed conditions of today make these wolves in sheep’s clothing the spokesmen of the few. Mr. Milton would have done well to focus his analysis more pointedly upon this sine qua non of any intelligent appraisal of American constitutional history.


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