The Lost Soul of the American Presidency: The Decline into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal

October 31, 2020
The Lost Soul of the American Presidency: The Decline into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal

The American presidency is not what it once was. Nor, Stephen F.Knott contends, what it was meant to be. Taking on an issue astimely as Donald Trump’s latest tweet and old as the Americanrepublic, the distinguished presidential scholar documents thedevolution of the American presidency from the neutral, unifyingoffice envisioned by the framers of the Constitution into thedemagogic, partisan entity of our day.The presidency of popular consent, or the majoritarianpresidency that we have today, far predates its currentincarnation. The executive office as James Madison, GeorgeWashington, and Alexander Hamilton conceived it would be a sourceof national pride and unity, a check on the tyranny of themajority, and a neutral guarantor of the nation’s laws. The LostSoul of the American Presidency shows how Thomas Jefferson’s“Revolution of 1800” remade the presidency, paving the way forAndrew Jackson to elevate “majority rule” into an unofficialconstitutional principle—and contributing to thedisenfranchisement, and worse, of African Americans and NativeAmericans. In Woodrow Wilson, Knott finds a worthy successor toJefferson and Jackson. More than any of his predecessors, Wilsonaltered the nation’s expectations of what a president could beexpected to achieve, putting in place the political machinery tosupport a “presidential government.”As difficult as it might be to recover the lost soul of theAmerican presidency, Knott reminds us of presidents who resistedpandering to public opinion and appealed to our betterangels—George Washington, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, andWilliam Howard Taft, among others—whose presidencies suggest analternative and offer hope for the future of the nation’s highestoffice.