“Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” -Lord Acton
In his most recent book, historian Brion McClanahan highlights 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America and Four Who Tried to Save Her. The names on each list will probably surprise you.
It didn’t take long after the ratification of the Constitution for presidents to succumb to the allure of power and begin to exceed the authority the office was delegated. As with every deformation, the offenses started small and increased gradually over time. The Constitutional Republic has suffered a death of a thousand paper cuts over the years, even the so called “Father of America”, George Washington, wasn’t immune to wielding unconstitutional authority, as he overstepped his powers to put down the Whiskey Rebellion during his second term.
In many people’s minds, as shown in polling, presidents are judged on what they do for the citizenry. The presidents that typically poll the highest are FDR, Lincoln, Truman, Teddy Roosevelt and LBJ. But, how do these presidents stand when compared to the adherence of their oath of office? Should a president be judged on what they “do” for the citizenry or how well they adhere to their delegated powers? McClanahan says that we should judge them on how well they kept their oath and NOT on what they “do” because most, if not all, of what they do is unconstitutional.
“If Americans believe in a federal republic with limited powers, defined by a written constitution, with checks and balances–not only between the three branches of the general government but also between the general and state governments–then the four men who ‘tried to save’ constitutional government in our Republic should be regarded as the greatest presidents in American history.”
So, who were the four presidents who tried to save the Republic according to McClanahan?
Jefferson advanced the idea that no state was “obliged to follow an unconstitutional law” and also that the president had no business in legislative matters. He upheld the idea that the president could write his recommendations down and deliver them to Congress but that his job was only to enforce the laws given him, not to be an active participant in the “mudslinging in the trenches.” He signed bills that reduced the size of the Navy by 2/3rds of what it was under Adams. His most controversial act was the signing of a treaty with France that gave the United States the land known as the Louisiana Purchase. Even then, Jefferson stood by his delegated powers under the Constitution and submitted a negotiated treaty to Congress so they could “advise and consent.” The matter passed both the House and Senate and was signed, by Jefferson, into law. What president in the last 100 years has done that?
Tyler supported the Confederate States of America’s right of secession and was a strong defender of states’ rights(10th Amendment). He was actually so good at doing only what his job allowed that his own party(Whig) disowned him and his Democrat friends did as well. You know you are doing something correctly when you are attacked by both sides! That wasn’t the only time he stood in opposition to his party. He stood in open opposition to the reviving of a national bank, which most of his party supported. He refused to support it because he did not believe(correctly) that the legislature was delegated that power. His most notable accomplishment was the eventual annexation of the Republic of Texas. He kept urging the Congress to consider the move and it was finally passed as a joint resolution bill and signed, by Tyler, in March 1845.
“Cleveland issued more vetoes than all the men who previously held the office combined. Why? Because Congress kept passing unconstitutional legislation, and Cleveland had taken an oath to ‘preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,’ not some pet congressional project. To Cleveland, the veto was a wrecking ball to be wielded in obligation to his oath.” Cleveland also stands out because he didn’t have the unconstitutional ambition to make America an imperial war power, as so many of his predecessors did.
“Coolidge used the office the way the founding generation intended, and he understood his oath. He protected the balance between the federal and state governments and used the veto powers as a check on unconstitutional legislation.” McClanahan also says that “Coolidge may represent just a pause in the progressive onslaught that eventually overwhelmed the Constitution, but it would probably be better to remember him as the last of an era.”
Chilling words considering the end of the era in question ended in 1929.
I have chosen to spend most of the review highlighting the four good presidents because, as McClanahan says, these four are obscured by history. The nine, actually, 13 presidents, who screwed up America is a list of folks many revere and adore. Three are carved into Mt. Rushmore, and four are on U.S. money. It’s not surprising Americans tend to admire those who expand government, considering the general government constantly lives outside its bounds and seeks more and more power.
The list of 13 bad presidents reads more like an indictment then a cursory list of transgressions. McClanahan does an exquisite job filleting the 13 and exposing them for the destructors of the Constitution and the Republic that they really were. As he puts it, trampling the Constitution to save the union is like cheating on your wife to save the marriage. No longer does anyone have an excuse for not knowing the long train of abuses that have been foisted upon America and its citizens. If you want a book that will both inform you historically and educate you with an easy prose and legal precision, I recommended this work highly.
Lest we end on a depressing note, Brion McClanahan not only destroys the constitutionality of imperial presidency in this work, he also offers solutions. You will just have to learn about those after you purchase your copy.
9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America and Four Who Tried to Save Her was written by historian, Brion McClanahan. He is the author of many books, including, The Founding Father’s Guide to the Constitution and The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers. He is a faculty member at the homeschool/adult education site, Liberty Classroom and writes about Southern history and heritage at the Abbeville Institute. He has two podcasts, The Abbeville Institute’s Week in Review and The Brion McClanahan Show.