Rescuing the Soul of the Presidency

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"Jackson stirred the pot. Andrew Johnson stirred the pot. Richard Nixon stirred the pot. Donald Trump is stirring the pot," says presidential historian Stephen Knott.

The Open Mind explores the world of ideas across politics, media, science, technology, and the arts. The American Prospect is re-publishing this conversation.

The American presidency has devolved from the neutral unifying office envisioned by the framers of the Constitution into the demagogic partisan entity of the present, argues historian Stephen Knott in his forthcoming book The Lost Soul of the American Presidency. Knott is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and previously served as co-chair of the presidential oral history program at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

Alexander Heffner: What does the soul of the presidency mean?  

Stephen Knott: I don’t mean to suggest that the presidency has a kind of religious connotation to it, but there is an understanding of the presidency that our 18th and 19th century presidents for the most part shared, which was that the president should be a unifying figure, that the president should serve as a head of state and not appeal to a faction or a base. There was also, I think, an understanding or more of an understanding anyway, of the limits of the office, the limits of politics and also the importance of personal character. So I would say those sort of attributes have been lost in a more modern, primarily progressive understanding of the presidency that begins with Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson for the most part.

Heffner: The devolution started at what point in your estimation?

Knott: I hate to say this since he’s a somewhat revered figure, but I think it’s the truth. It starts with Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson rejects the sort of Washington-Alexander Hamilton conception of the presidency and begins to move the presidency away from being rooted in the Constitution in Article Two, which deals with the presidency, towards the idea that the president is the spokesman for the majority, that it’s his job to represent and to implement the will of the people. He doesn’t go all the way with that kind of thinking, but he opens the door to that and it leads to the presidency of Andrew Jackson who just flat out says it’s the majority’s job to govern and it’s the president’s job to speak for that majority.

Heffner: There is a tension between the more majoritarian nation of Jackson to the anti-majoritarian Trump age where there is demagoguery and populism, but the majority of the country does not support it.

Knott: When Jackson and his movement are expanding the suffrage amongst white males, they are contracting it amongst the free blacks in the north. So you see a number of states taken over by the sort of Jacksonian movement that begin to restrict the right of suffrage of free blacks in the north. By the 1840s and 50s, most states, except for a few in New England have removed black voters from the rolls. Jackson is frequently portrayed as a champion of the common man. But if you were African American or Native American, that’s simply not the case. The so-called anti-majoritarian elitists that Jackson campaigned against actually had a more sympathetic view towards African Americans, Native Americans and so forth.  

Heffner: What about the soul of the person, the individual who occupies the office?

Knott: So Jackson’s whole life in my view is one that is devoted to an acceptance of conspiracy theories and acceptance of the idea that somewhere there’s an elite, usually somewhere on the east coast, that’s determined to oppress or tuck it to the common man. And he is going to be the champion of these folks who are constantly getting kicked by these east coast elites.

Heffner: So you say that Jackson was really the introduction of soullessness in a sense.

Knott: Andrew Johnson, whose hero is Andrew Jackson, his fellow Tennessean, is sort of a—next-to perhaps President Trump, the most demagogic president this country has ever had and lacks those qualities of prudence, moderation, and magnanimity that so characterized Abraham Lincoln. I’m a big fan of Abraham Lincoln, as you probably already picked up. But one of the biggest mistakes that occurs within his presidency is when he selects Andrew Johnson as his running mate in 1864. It was a disaster for the country.

Heffner: So if we are experiencing the decline of statesmanship today, how might one rescue those qualities instead of the demagoguery of Jackson and Trump?

Knott: Jackson stirred the pot. Andrew Johnson stirred the pot. Richard Nixon stirred the pot. Donald Trump is stirring the pot. That’s not the job that the founders conceived of for the American president. This book I think is a clarion call, I hope, for a return to that older that lost soul of the American presidency that emphasizes the chief of state role, that emphasizes the fact that the president is to an extent the symbol of the nation and should act accordingly.

Heffner: How do you get there?

Knott: I wish I could say I’m optimistic that we can get there, but there are a few things we can do. One of which is we have to, I think, take a look at how we select our presidential nominees. There has to be more screening in a sense, and I think the political parties might have a role to play there. Unfortunately, that screening role where party leaders used to weed out the folks lacking some essential qualities—I would want to see that type of screening restored. Now I realize that’s going against the grain of what most folks want to see these days. They don’t like the old smoke-filled rooms. They don’t like the role of the party bosses. But I would argue that if you look at American history, the party bosses did a decent job in at least picking people who were not going to do harm, they may have been somewhat mediocre. They may never end up on Mount Rushmore, but they did not do harm. I don’t see anything in place these days to keep a demagogue who’s totally unprepared for the office out of that office. Party leaders used to play that role. That’s one step we could take. Give the party leadership more of a role in selecting presidential nominees.

Heffner: One of the leading Democratic candidates for President, Elizabeth Warren, has advocated anticorruption measures in her campaign for the nomination. What legislation or constitutional amendments are required to ensure that the soul of this country, and the soul of the presidency is protected?

Knott: There are a number of legislative initiatives I think could be taken to make sure that the things we would classify as corruption are prevented. And I have no problem with that whatsoever. What I would argue is in some ways even more important, is a cultural change that needs to take place within the American public. We need to stop falling for those folks who promise us every four years that they’re going to remake the world; you know, that they’re going to stop the oceans from rising, they’re going to stop climate change the minute they’re elected or they’re going to make Mexico pay for the wall. These kinds of outlandish promises that long predate Donald Trump.

The American public needs to think about the limits of government, the limits of the presidency, the importance of character, particularly the thing that keeps coming back to me when I was writing that book is this magnanimity of soul, this bigness of soul, of his greatness, of soul. Not pettiness, not constantly harping on what divides us, but again, appealing to our better natures.

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