Often as Jimmy Carter quoted Harry Truman in the recent campaign, he never mentioned Truman’s favorite maxim: “There is nothing new except the history you don’t know.” As a Born-Again Baptist, the President-elect may believe that the Bible contains all the history he needs to know, and perhaps he is right. With all due respect, however, I suggest that he and we might both benefit if he took a little time to bone up on American history, and especially the history of the Presidency. For openers, I offer the following observations, derived from study of our first and third Presidents.
The Presidencies of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, to be sure, were as different as those of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The two men represented fiercely hostile parties, their ideologies were polar opposites, their administrative methods were studies in contrast, their styles were strikingly antithetical. Apart from being Virginians, they seemingly had nothing in common but their red hair, and even on that score they differed, for Washington never appeared in public without a powdered wig and Jefferson scrupulously disdained that affectation.
If, however, their periods of incumbency are viewed in institutional perspective—if one considers their Presidencies not as administrations but as experiences in the office—one is struck by similarities rather than differences. Moreover, certain inherent and enduringly relevant characteristics of the Presidency itself become manifest.
One such characteristic is that the Presidency is dual in nature, entailing two functions so different from one another that the ability to perform them both is rarely to be found in a single person. One function is administrative and executive, and is involved in the formulation and implementation of policy. The other is ritualistic and ceremonial, and though we think of that part of the Presidency as being of secondary importance when we bother to think about it at all, it is at least as important as the governing function—and possibly a good deal more so. Indeed, scholars have often misunderstood the Presidency because they ignored or underestimated the purely ceremonial aspect of the office; and no small number of gifted men have failed as President because they did likewise, or were adept at one of the functions but not the other.
To justify and explain that observation, it is necessary to begin with colonial and even pre-colonial times. We derived our perception of the executive branch of government from the English, who unfortunately were not at all gifted in dealing with executive authority. For some centuries before the accession of the Tudors in 1485, the English tried to get along with home-grown kings, and they underwent a continuing succession of rebellions, civil wars, regicides, and usurpations. The Tudors, who were Welsh, not English, provided stability in the Crown until 1603, though with a great deal of attendant social, religious, and economic upheaval. Then came the Stuarts and along with them another century of rebellion, regicide, civil war, and revolution. At last, in 1714, the English found a king they could live with—George I of the small German principality of Hanover, who understood neither the English government nor the English language, and spent his entire reign unhappily wishing he could return to his beloved fatherland. The Hanoverians have occupied the British throne ever since, down to and including Elizabeth II.
It was under the first two Hanoverians (George I and George II, 1714-60) that the English worked out a permanently viable monarchy—and, significantly, it was then that Anglo-Americans came to political maturity. The English solution to their problem was at once ingenious and ingenuous: they simply divided the two sets of royal functions and entrusted them to two separate sets of persons. Those functions that had to do with the exercise of power—defending the nation against alien enemies, enforcing domestic order and justice, and formulating and implementing governmental policy—became the province of the ministry, which was composed of members of Parliament and headed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The ritualistic and ceremonial functions remained the province of the Crown. Removed from the actual work of government, the English Crown became the symbol of the nation—its mystical embodiment—and as such the object of reverence, awe, veneration, even love. In English America, things were somewhat different: whereas the ministry in the mother country was recognized and obeyed as the government, tension continued to exist in the colonies between executive authority, as embodied in the royal governors and their councils, and the colonial assemblies, representing the colonial subjects. But the Americans professed as much reverence for the Crown in the person of the King as did their brethren in the home country, and except in parts of New England those professions reflected deeply felt sentiments. On both sides of the water, a people formerly given to killing their kings had now become willing to fight and die for them.
Then came an aberration, the third George, who attempted to reunite the two royal functions—with, for a time, a considerable measure of success. The Anglo-Americans reacted strongly against that effort, and the story of the American Presidency, as well as the independence of the United States, begins with their reaction. The Americans’ sense of betrayal is reflected in the Declaration of Independence: apart from a bit of stirring propaganda at the beginning and end, that document is little more than a recitation in dreary detail of George Ill’s alleged abuses of executive authority. The same sentiment was expressed more tangibly in the revolutionary constitutions: the governors of the several states were mere figureheads, and the Confederation Congress had no excutive arm at all.
Yet the Americans did not abandon their habit of ceremonial reverence toward the Crown, despite the Founding Fathers’ fervent protestations in favor of republicanism. To have done so would have been to cast off generations of social conditioning overnight, if indeed not to deny a basic human need. Instead, the Americans kept the monarchical habit alive through various surrogates. Thus, for instance, they vested the state governors with responsibility for performing many of the traditional royal rituals; in lieu of celebrating George’s birthday they celebrated that of their “deliverer,” Louis XVI of France; and when the French dauphin was born in the 1780’s they celebrated the event with public balls, firing of cannon, displays of fireworks, and dancing in the streets.
Meanwhile, the political experience of the immediate postwar years convinced most thinking Americans that they had overreacted against executive power in 1776—and, indeed, that government without an executive branch is no government at all. The subject was still so touchy, however, that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 spent more time debating the proper construction of the executive branch than they did on the legislative and judicial branches combined. In the end, they merely sketched the duties and description of the office in broad outlines, and left it for the first incumbent to fill in the details.
They were willing to do so—and, in fact, were willing to create the Presidency at all—only because George Washington was available to serve as the first President. The virtual deification of Washington in his own time, not merely by the multitudes but by sophisticated and hard-nosed politicians and businessmen as well, is something of a wonder. Part of the explanation is that he was the nation’s military hero, though some other American commanders were abler and had better records. He also looked like a leader: he was cool and aloof, and tall, broad-shouldered, and narrow-hipped; and in a country populated mainly by people who were hot-tempered and overly confidential, and short and fat, such attributes were not to be taken lightly. Moreover, he quite self-consciously played the part of the impeccably upright Father of his Country. And, finally, there was the unspoken (and unspeakable) but nevertheless very real popular craving for a king.
Therein lay Washington’s greatest contribution to the Presidency and to the perdurance of republican institutions in America. He provided a halfway house between monarchy and republicanism; he made it possible (and safe) for Americans to indulge their traditional reverence for the Crown without reneging on their commitment to a republican form of government. The way he played his role was a product of studied design, and he devoted far more time and thought to matters of ceremony than to matters of state. From all advisers that he trusted he solicited suggestions for rules of conduct that would strike a balance between “too free an intercourse and too much familiarity” (which would reduce the dignity of the office) and “an ostentatious show” of monarchical aloofness (which would be improper in a republic). Rules were worked out, and so effectively did Washington follow them that no less skeptical a person than Abigail Adams, wife of the Vice President and a veteran of receptions at Versailles and the Court of St. James, was almost moonstruck upon meeting the President. Washington, she gushed, moved and handled himself “with a grace, dignity, and ease that leaves Royal George far behind him.”
As to carrying out the executive functions of government, Washington looked to the Constitution as a guide and took the document quite literally, almost as if it were a manual of instructions. For several years, for instance, he did not meet with his department heads in cabinet sessions; rather, as the Constitution directed, he “required their opinions in writing,” even on the most trivial of matters, which added greatly to their work loads. As to the formulation of legislative policy, Washington scrupulously avoided having any part of it, for that, he believed, would have involved an improper violation of the doctrine of the separation of powers: he would no more have proposed a law, for example, than he would have vetoed a bill on grounds of policy. Even in regard to foreign affairs he tried for a time to follow the Constitution literally; once, he sauntered into a session of the Senate to seek its “advice and consent” regarding some Indian treaties, and occasioned a great deal of confused embarrassment in the doing.
Such methods of procedure left a considerable void in the actual wielding of executive power, and under those circumstances the United States moved rapidly, albeit temporarily, toward a version of the ministerial system then used in England. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamiltion—acting, it will be recalled, neither on his own initiative nor on orders from the President, but upon instructions from Congress—submitted his two great reports on the public debt, then his report on the Bank, and then his report on manufactures, and accompanied them all with lengthy drafts of proposed legislation. Moreover, he worked intimately with congressmen in steering his proposals into law; and, with congressional cooperation, he continued to formulate and see to the enactment of legislation throughout his tenure as Secretary. Clearly he conceived of his “ministry” as the “government,” and thought of himself as the prime minister. Even after he retired, Hamilton continued for some time more or less to direct the government, more or less through a ministry.
The Jeffersonian Republicans objected to the Federalists’ approach to government on quite a number of grounds, central among them being the Federalists’ conception of the executive. Jefferson and his followers not only believed Hamilton to be a monarchist but even regarded him as the agent of an international monocratic conspiracy. They castigated Washington for indulging in royal pageantry and for wallowing, kinglike, in popular adulation; they denounced Hamilton for introducing, extra-constitutionally, the corrupt British ministerial system. And yet the Republicans’ own conception of a proper executive branch was curiously mixed. On the one hand, they insisted that executive power was and should be strictly limited by the written Constitution, and that it should be absolutely separate from the legislative branch. On the other hand, in their hearts they did not trust paper Constitutions, and they looked to Jefferson to be an elected version of what the English Tory, Viscount Bolingbroke, had called a patriot king: one who would rally the entire nation to his banner, and then, in an act of supreme wisdom and virtue, voluntarily restrain himself and thus restore the ancient system of the separation of powers.
When the Jeffersonians came to power in 1801, they promptly refashioned the executive in accordance with their ideological precepts. As to the ceremonial—or what we might properly call the monarchical—functions of the office, Jefferson seemingly rejected them entirely. What he actually did, however, was to republicanize them. He ostentatiously forswore ostentation and display, pomp and protocol. He gave no public balls and held no levees, and no one celebrated his birthday. He abandoned the monarchical ritual (which had been followed by Washington and Adams and all state governors) of appearing in person before the legislative branches, and afterward exchanging formal messages about the executive message; instead, when Jefferson had anything to say to Congress he sent a written note, and kept it as brief as possible. He staged no entertainments for the public; instead, his doors were open to every citizen at all times. Finally, he never held “court” for government officials or foreign ministers. Instead, he held a continuous succession of small, informal dinner parties, at which the wines were superb and the cuisine was prepared by a French chef, but the atmosphere was one of studied casualness. Unwigged, dressed in frayed homespun and rundown slippers, Jefferson captivated his guests with the folksy, open hospitality of a country squire and with dazzling conversation that ranged from art, architecture, and archeology through mathematics and music to philosophy and zoology.
This was not merely a republican affectation adopted as a counterfoil to monarchical affectation, nor was it a form of reverse snobbery. Rather, it reflected a calculated design on Jefferson’s part, and accomplished just what he expected it to accomplish. By stripping everyone of the possibility of pretense and the trappings of status, and by dealing with people only in intimate gatherings where he was host and master of the house, he established a setting in which he was utterly without peers. In those circumstances he stood towering as the first among equals.
By that means—and through the instrumentality of a well-organized Republican press, which had only to describe him as he truly was—Jefferson became immensely popular. He became, in fact, quite as popular as Washington had been at the time of his inauguration, before partisan attacks began to tarnish his previously spotless reputation. There was, however, a crucial difference between Jefferson’s popularity and that of Washington. Whereas Washington had been revered as a demigod and the symbol of the nation, Jefferson made the transition from monarchy to republicanism complete by humanizing the Presidency and serving as a symbol not of the nation but of the people. That was an achievement of profound significance, for as the American people became democratized and spread their society over a vast continent, they sorely needed a symbolic monarch if they were to remain a single nation, and yet they could tolerate one only if he bore the peculiarly democratic stamp that Jefferson had coined.
As to the executive function, the “Revolution of 1800,” as Jefferson called it, took place on several levels and in several stages. Administratively, the government was purged of “irreconcilable monarchists” (that is, staunch Hamiltonians) and in choosing their replacements Jefferson employed an artful blend of patronage and meritocracy. The actual conduct of administration was put mainly in the charge of Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, who had the twin tasks of dismantling Hamilton’s elaborate fiscal machinery and of instituting methodical procedures and strict accounting in place of the slipshod and cavalier ways that had been followed by the Federalists. Gallatin also served as the middleman between the President and Congress. That made it possible for Jefferson to influence legislation without interfering directly in the legislative process, and thus to preserve the form of strict separation of powers; and it gave Jefferson all the flexibility of Hamilton’s independent ministerial system while leaving the President in command.
Jefferson presided over the administration with the easy, relaxed, informal manner that he employed at his congressional dinner parties, and with equal success. He conducted cabinet meetings as a democracy of equals, and allowed Congress to operate with no overt presidential direction and only the gentlest of presidential guidance; and yet, until almost the very end, he ran Congress more successfully and more completely than Hamilton had ever done and few succeeding Presidents ever would do, and the cabinet always reflected his will except when he had no firm opinions on a matter. Moreover, he did so without using any of the techniques that are usually associated with “strong” Presidents—popular pressure, naked power, bribery, flattery, cajolery, blackmail, or shrewd trading. Rather, his achievements all flowed from the force of his intellect, his character, and his personality.
But that, perversely, was a grave weakness in the Republican scheme of things: administratively, the system could be made to work only with a Thomas Jefferson at the helm, and so far we have never had another. When Jefferson himself faltered, as he did on several occasions during his Presidency, government almost stopped functioning except in the routine operations of Gallatin’s Treasury machinery. When Jefferson left office, the shortcomings of his method of administration rapidly became manifest. The cabinet became the center of petty bickering and continuous cabalizing, and Congress split into irreconcilable factions and repeatedly asserted its will against that of the President.
In other words, the Jeffersonians destroyed the English-cum-Washingtonian/Hamiltonian split system of the Presidency, and erected no viable alternative in its place. The resulting problem has plagued us throughout the nation’s history. The most popular Presidents in their own time—those who most successfully fulfilled the monarchical function of the office—were men like Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, who obviously put on a swell show but never accomplished much of anything, or like Andrew Jackson, who won popular adulation while wreaking irreparable destruction. Others were extremely able at getting things done—I make no comment here about the merits of what they were doing, and have in mind such Presidents as Taft, Hoover, Johnson, and Nixon—but were so totally incompetent in fulfilling the monarchical function of the Presidency that they were virtually ridden out of the office on a rail. The big winners in the history books are those who—like Lincoln, Wilson, and Harry Truman—were shrewd, devious, unscrupulous, and successful operators, unloved and unlovable in their own times, but whom the historians can enshrine as retroactively lovable after all memory of their personalities has disappeared.
So much for the first characteristic of the Presidency. A second characteristic has to do with the exercise, structure, and psychic cost of presidential power, and is a bit more involved. Although in this case too I shall confine my discussion primarily to the Presidencies of Washington and Jefferson, I mean my observations to pertain in general to administrations that extend for two terms. As it happens, both Washington and Jefferson could have been reelected for a third term had they so chosen, but it took a great deal of persuasion to get Washington to serve even a second term, and Jefferson announced shortly after his reelection that he would follow Washington’s precedent and retire at the end of his second. By Madison’s time the two-term limit had already hardened into a hoary tradition.
Given that tradition, the relations between a President and his party and Congress change profoundly between his first and second terms. Politically they are interdependent during the first term, for each can help the other to reelection. After the President is reelected, they no longer have such a relationship: the President, not coming up for a third election, has no further political need for the congressmen of his party, and he is of no future political use to them. The resulting mutual estrangement is exacerbated by a peculiarity of American political history. That is, though the President is cut off from his power base in government by reason of his lame-duck status, he almost invariably has the illusion of increased power because he almost invariably wins bigger when running for reelection than he did when being elected the first time.
This shifting of political relationships has major implications, one of which is that the President’s followers, no matter how loyal and honorable they may have been during the first term, tend to start jockeying for positions in the race to become his successor four years hence—even though such activity may be clearly inimical to the national interest. Throughout Washington’s first term, for instance, Jefferson and Hamilton behaved with some civility toward one another in their roles as Secretaries of State and the Treasury; but during the second term they were the leading rivals to succeed him, and all restraint was abandoned. Hamilton spent more time attacking (or, actually, counter-attacking) Jefferson than he did attending to his duties, and eventually he more or less forced Jefferson to resign. Meanwhile, Jefferson entirely neglected his duties in the State Department, attempted to sabotage the administration’s foreign policy, vilified his rival incessantly, and finally destroyed Hamilton as a presidential prospect with a lurid expose of his extramarital indiscretions.
A decade later, after Jefferson himself had been elected for a second term, he was a hapless witness to an even more destructive version of the game. His Secretary of the Navy, supported by factions in the House and the Senate, sought to undermine the administration’s foreign policy so as to discredit Secretary of State James Madison as a prospective successor to the Presidency. They backed James Monroe, who was then minister to England; and Madison, for his part, deliberately hewed to a policy that created a serious danger of war with Britain rather than allow Monroe to negotiate a treaty that would insure peace but also greatly increase Monroe’s pretensions to the Presidency. Toward the end of Jefferson’s second term, the maneuvering for future advantage took on extreme proportions: for instance, William Branch Giles of Virginia, who for fifteen years had been an unwaveringly loyal Republican, began to sabotage Gallatin’s Treasury administration when he learned that Gallatin (instead of himself) might be Madison’s own choice for Secretary of State.
Other implications of the shifting of relationships in the second term more directly affect the President and the Presidency. One is that the President, no matter how humble his behavior before, tends to emerge from his triumphant reelection with a sense of power that borders on arrogance, if indeed he does not suffer delusions that he is God or superman. To a generation that has witnessed the Presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, such an observation will hardly elicit a raised eyebrow; but it may come as a surprise to learn that Washington and Jefferson, in their second terms, also tended to set themselves above the law and to regard opposition and even criticism as being tantamount to treason. The phenomenon is indigenous to the presidential office.
Washington, shortly after his reelection, was faced with mounting criticism from informal oppositionist political clubs called Democratic-Republican societies. He regarded the societies much as the late Senator Joseph McCarthy regarded “cells” of the American Communist party—namely, as agents of a foreign power and of an international revolutionary conspiracy—but was at first unable to do much to suppress them. Then a group of moonshiners in the mountains of Pennsylvania tarred and feathered a “revenooer,” so to speak—actually they besieged and burned the house of a collector of the federal excise tax on whiskey—and Washington proclaimed the action to be the handiwork of Jacobin subversives, the Democratic-Republican societies. He assembled a force of 15,000 militiamen and personally marched at their head to crush the so-called insurrection. That episode was typical of his toleration for political opposition during his second administration.
But if Washington’s second administration was intolerant, that of the Father of American Liberty, Thomas Jefferson, was a nightmare of repression. Among other things, Jefferson attempted to have the Supreme Court purged of Federalists through impeachment on purely political grounds; he sanctioned the suspension of habeas corpus, the wholesale arrest of citizens without charges, and the forcible removal of accused persons from the district in which they had a constitutional right to trial; he declared large regions in insurrection and under martial law for the legal violations of a handful of persons; he became the only President prior to modern times who bypassed the courts and used the army in the routine enforcement of the laws; he sought, received, and personally enforced legislation depriving whole classes of people of their property, not only without due process of law but without even the possibility of a trial; he denounced a critical press with an almost paranoid sense of persecution, and attempted by legal and extra-legal means to suppress newspapers which opposed him. Finally, he attempted during his last year in office to supervise, with minute and personal attention, not only what his fellow citizens should eat—this is quite literally true—but how much they should eat as well.
In the face of all this, his party became split into two ideological wings. One, concentrated in the House and led by John Randolph of Roanoke, veered to the extreme position of the doctrinaire libertarian who would abide the subversion of government and of society itself before willfully jeopardizing the rights and liberties of a single citizen. The other, concentrated in the Senate and led by William Branch Giles, adhered to a form of Republicanism that might be styled totalitarian libertarianism: believing that government in their hands was dedicated to preserving human liberty, they saw legal protection of the civil rights of accused persons only as subterfuges behind which traitors and other enemies of liberty could hide. Jefferson almost uniformly sided with this latter group. Among the fruits of their labors was a bill, passed in the Senate but rejected in the House, which would have prescribed the death penalty for any person who “resisted the general execution of any public law.”
Yet another implication to the Presidency of the reelection-and-lame-duck syndrome is related to the previous one. It is in the nature of the Presidency that matters of domestic reform, however engrossing they may be for the President initially, lose their appeal after a time. The chore of manipulating or currying favor with congressmen, necessary though it is, grows tedious and even demeaning, and the attraction of dealing with foreign affairs, wherein one has a much freer hand, becomes well-nigh irresistible. So it was with Washington by the winter of 1792-93, and so it was with Jefferson by the winter of 1804-05. Each man found the prospect of close future dealings with Congress entirely distasteful, to say the least; and neither would have been human if, in the afterglow of a triumphant reelection, a voice deep inside had not whispered that he had now earned the right to stand above that sort of thing.
In any event, though neither of them plunged totally into overseas adventuring upon being re-inaugurated—as many of their successors were wont to do—both entirely neglected domestic reform for the sake of foreign affairs in their second terms. Since I am not concerned here with the history of their administrations, but with generalizations about the Presidency that can be drawn from them, I shall not dwell on this subject. It is germane, however, to point out that Washington was much more successful in handling foreign relations than Jefferson was, and to suggest a reason.
Washington was governed exclusively by his conception of the national interest, while Jefferson’s policy was tempered (if not dictated) by considerations of ideology. Historians have generally held that Jefferson’s approach was the more progressive, enlightened, and humane, and that it was merely bad fortune that his policy brought failure, economic ruin, and ultimately war, whereas Washington’s had brought peace and prosperity. I devoutly disagree with that judgment. To the extent that ideology and not interest governs a nation’s policy, the nation sacrifices its ability to compromise, to admit it was wrong, and to change—for when the true believer, in politics or in religion, compromises or recants, he has committed the mortal sin of making accommodations with the infidel or the devil. The Jeffersonians, proving to be unable to make accommodations with those they regarded as wicked, locked themselves into a foreign-policy strait jacket, and the inexorable result was Jefferson’s calamitous last year in office in which, to avoid war in Europe, the United States government virtually waged war against its own citizens.
Still another aspect of the problem is that in his second term the President becomes fair prey for every manner of vilification: once the reality of his lame-duck status begins to penetrate the popular consciousness, press and politicians move in like so many hyenas gathering around a wounded lion. It has been so since the beginning. Washington, who had been utterly sacrosanct before, had scarcely been reelected when the personal attacks began. Early in 1793 Philip Freneau’s National Gazette (an opposition newspaper secretly financed by Jefferson out of State Department funds) opened the barrage by describing the celebration of Washington’s birthday as a “monarchical farce,” and by sneering that his sycophants fawned upon him as if he were “Virtue’s self.” The attacks mounted in shrillness and intensity in the ensuing months, and by year’s end a New York Republican journal was emboldened to charge that Washington’s education had consisted mainly of “gambling, reveling, horse racing, and horse whipping”; that he was “infamously niggardly” in private dealings; and that, despite his pretended religious piety, he was a “most horrid swearer and blasphemer.” Before long, if John Adams’s recollections are to be believed, “ten thousand people in the streets of Philadelphia, day after day, threatened to drag Washington out of his house, and effect a revolution in the government.” For the next two years, as the attacks continued and increased (he was accused of stealing from the Treasury and even of having secretly been a traitor during the Revolution), Washington repeatedly interrupted cabinet meetings to indulge himself in tirades against the press or in fits of self-pity. When he finally left office, Benjamin Bache—grandson of Franklin and editor of the Philadelphia Aurora—penned this stirring eulogy: “If ever there was a period for rejoicing, this is the moment. Every heart [that is] in unison with the freedom and happiness of the people ought to beat high with exultation that the name of Washington from this day ceases to give a currency to political iniquity and to legalized corruption.”
Jefferson’s story was somewhat different, for he had been exposed to some pretty juicy scurrility through much of his public career. Already before he became President he had been widely castigated as an atheist, a coward, a bloodthirsty revolutionary, a hypocrite, a liar, a demagogue, and a fop; and during his first term his improper advances toward the wife of a close friend were revealed in the newspapers, and it was charged (or exposed, depending upon which historians you believe) that he had long had a slave as a concubine and had sired several children by her. Throughout all this, however, he maintained his aplomb, and at least publicly maintained his posture as the unqualified champion of freedom of the press.
It was in the second term that newspaper attacks finally and deeply began to wound him—or, to put it another way, that his critics became so vicious that they were at last able to find his vulnerable spots. Curiously, he proved to be relatively insensitive to attacks on his personal behavior or morality but hypersensitive to charges regarding his public conduct. Charges that he was an agent or lackey of Napoleon, or was excessively secretive, or dictated to Congress sent him into fits of rage or fits of depression. And his enemies, once they got the knife in, twisted it unmercifully. Jefferson’s response was much as Washington’s had been, except perhaps that it was more so. He had once written that a free press was more vital to public happiness than good government, and that faced with a mutually exclusive choice he would readily opt for the press; now he resurrected the oppressive ancient doctrine of common-law indictment for seditious libel, and attempted to whip the press into line by instituting what he called “a few wholesome prosecutions.” When that failed to stop the onslaught, he could only fulminate and whimper and rage. “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” he wrote again and again. He remarked repeatedly that it was a “melancholy truth” that suppression of the press would be no worse than the press’s own “abandoned prostitution to falsehood.” He wailed that “our printers raven on the agonies of their victims, as wolves do on the blood of the lamb.”
Along with attacks by the press, there is usually, toward the end, some sort of open rebellion by Congress. This does not always apply, but it is almost invariable with what political scientists used to call “strong” Presidents. Thus, during Andrew Jackson’s last year in office and in Theodore Roosevelt’s as well, Congress formally resolved that it would not even receive any further messages from the President. Normally the congressional rebellion emanates from the Senate, which is attempting to regain some of the influence in the conduct of foreign relations which it believes the President has usurped. The phenomenon can work with either or both houses, however, and the Presidencies of Washington and Jefferson offer illustrations of each of the possible combinations.
With Washington, the rebellion came in 1796, and arose in the House of Representatives. The keystone in Washington’s foreign policy was Jay’s treaty with Great Britain, signed in the winter of 1794-95 and approved by the Senate, after an intensive campaign and by the narrowest of constitutional margins, in a special session in the summer of 1795. When the full Congress reconvened in December, House Republicans (who vehemently opposed the treaty) sought to chastise the administration and cut the House in on foreign-policy decisions in future. Taking the position that the House’s exclusive power to initiate appropriations (without which no treaty could be implemented) gave it a voice in foreign policy co-equal to the Senate’s power to approve or reject treaties, the House demanded that the President turn over all papers relating to Jay’s mission. Those papers contained some politically damaging documents, and (quite in addition to his objection to the constitutional challenge) Washington was loath to surrender them. He brooded over the demand; and then, summoning what was left of his great personal dignity, he sent his answer. The papers, he said, were not “relative to any purpose under the cognizance of the House of Representatives, except that of an impeachment; which the resolution had not expressed,” and on that ground he refused. Despite everything, no congressman was willing to go that far, and the matter died.
Jefferson, for his part, did not fare as well. During the last congressional session of his Presidency, the Senate rose to reassert its claim to a role in foreign affairs, particularly in ways designed to prevent Jefferson’s successor from having a free hand in continuing Jefferson’s policies. Then both houses decided to scuttle the embargo, on which Jefferson had staked his all as an instrument of foreign policy, and they did so in a way that was at least partly a deliberate insult: they voted that the embargo should expire on March 4, so that Jefferson’s Presidency and his favorite policy should die together. Finally, the Senate took a cheap shot that was a matter of calculated cruelty aimed at the fallen President. Some months earlier Jefferson had appointed an old friend, William Short, to a legally nonexistent post as minister to Russia, expecting that the Senate would routinely confirm the appointment and thus support a pet project that he had worked long and diligently for, the opening of diplomatic relations with Czar Alexander I. For political reasons, he held back an announcement of the appointment until the last minute; and when the Senators received it, they summarily and unanimously rejected it.
My final point should by now be obvious. It is simply that the burden of presidential power over a period of two terms—the psychic cost of the office—is greater than any reasonable man can be expected to bear.
The Presidency left Washington a broken and beaten man—embittered, given to almost insane rages, possessed of little memory or judgment, and convinced that a conspiracy had undermined his Presidency and was hounding him to his grave. Perhaps the most telling testimony as to what the office had cost him is the angry, defensive, and self-pitying draft of a final message that he composed early in 1796—that is, before Hamilton wrote for him the immortal document which was actually released as his Farewell Address. This is how Washington’s own version read:
As this address, fellow citizens, will be the last I shall ever make to you, and as some of the gazettes of the United States have teemed with all the invective that disappointment, ignorance of facts, and malicious falsehoods could invent, to misrepresent my politics and affections—to wound my reputation and feelings—and to weaken, if not entirely destroy, the confidence you have been pleased to repose in me; it might be expected at the parting scene of my public life that I should take some notice of such virulent abuse. But, as heretofore, I shall pass them over in utter silence.
The rest of the draft was an itemized denial of the charges.
And if Washington’s Presidency ended in anguish, Jefferson’s ended in agony. Jefferson had remarked that Washington suffered during his second term “more than any person I ever yet met with,” but Jefferson’s own suffering in the same circumstances was even greater. He came to regard each session of Congress as an unbearable ordeal; he repeatedly referred to the Presidency as his prison; during his last two years in office he was periodically afflicted with migraine headaches that kept him shut alone in a darkened room for weeks on end; in his final year he collapsed under what used to be called a nervous breakdown—a total paralysis of will. At last the ordeal was done, and on March 4, 1809, he was at Madison’s side as Chief Justice John Marshall administered the oath of office to the President-elect. He remained in Washington a week, packing his belongings, before quitting the place forever. Then the sixty-five-year-old Father of American Liberty mounted a horse, to ride through snow and storm for three days and nights until he regained the sanctuary of his home at Monticello. In the seventeen years that remained of his life, he never again left the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.