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Presidents Talking About the Presidency

HUMANITIES, January/February 1997 | Volume 18, Number 1

In keeping with this month's Inaugural, we look at how George Washington and six others saw their role in the American presidency. The words are taken from the seven presidential papers projects supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

George Washington | Thomas Jefferson | Andrew Jackson | James K. Polk |
Andrew Johnson | Ulysses S. Grant | Dwight D. Eisenhower

George Washington

In the Spring of 1789, just before George Washington left Mount Vernon for New York to assume the presidency, he wrote Henry Knox: "I am sensible, that I am embarking the voice of my Countrymen and a good name of my own, on this voyage, but what returns will be made for them-Heaven alone can foretell. Integrity & firmness is all I can promise-these, be the voyage long or short; never shall forsake me although I may be deserted by all men."

Washington went into office without a specific blueprint for his presidency. But from the beginning he rejected the notion of the presidency as an American version of a European prime minister. It is also evident from his actions that he did not subscribe to the Whig theory of congressional over presidential power. On the other hand, any idea of an imperial presidency was foreign to his views of the executive role. "For the constitution of the United States, and the laws made under it," he wrote, "must mark the line of my official conduct. I could not justify my taking a single step in any matter, which appeared to me to require their agency, without its being first observed." In his relations with Congress he was careful to project the image of an independent and equal executive, and he disapproved of legislative attempts to undermine the prerogatives of the presidency.

Through both of his administrations he tended to judge his presidential achievements in terms of his contributions to the creation of what he referred to as a national character, free of party struggles and internal strife.


In a letter to Samuel Vaughan, 21 March 1789:

"I would not be in the remotest degree influenced, in making nominations, by motives arising from the ties of amity or blood: and that, on the other hand, three things, in my opinion, ought principally to be regarded, viz., the fitness of characters to fill offices, the comparative claims from the former merits & sufferings in service of the different Candidates, and the distribution of appointments in as equal a proportion as might be to persons belonging to the different States in the Union; for without pre-cautions of these kinds, I clearly foresaw the endless jealousies, and, possibly, the fatal consequences, to which a government, depending altogether on the good will of the people for its establishment, would certainly be exposed in its early stages."

Dorothy Twohig
Coeditor, The Papers of George Washington

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson approved the document produced by the Philadelphia Convention except in two key respects: He criticized the absence of a bill of rights to safeguard basic civil liberties, and he criticized the failure to limit the number of terms a president could serve. As Jefferson explained in a letter on May 27, 1788, to Edward Carrington of Virginia, "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground. As yet our spirits are free. Our jealousy is only put to sleep by the unlimited confidence we all repose in the person to whom we all look as our president. After him inferior characters may perhaps succeed and awaken us to the danger which his merit has led us into."

Jefferson was genuinely as relieved as his Federalist opponents that John Adams and not he was elected president in 1796. He wrote to Edward Rutledge of South Carolina on December 27, 1796: "I know well that no man will ever bring out of that office the reputation which carries him into it."

His comments aptly forecast the fate of Adams, who in 1800 was repudiated both by the electorate and by a powerful wing of his party in his quest for reelection. Jefferson's remarks also proved to be prophetic for his own two-term presidency. Midway through his second term as President, Jefferson reflected on the burdens of the office in a letter to John Dickinson of Pennsylvania: "I am tired of an office where I can do no more good than many others who would be glad to be employed in it. To myself personally it brings nothing but unceasing drudgery and daily loss of friends. Every office becoming vacant, every appointment made, me donee un ingrat, et cent ennemis. My only consolation is in the belief that my fellow citizens at large give me credit for good intentions."

The pressure would only continue. By late spring Jefferson was embroiled in a court case that was to test the perimeters of presidential and judicial power. Aaron Burr was on trial for treason in Richmond, in a case presided over by Jefferson's formidable Federalist adversary, Chief Justice John Marshall. The President was subpoenaed to appear in person with official documents requested by the defense after Marshall ruled that a general subpoena could issue to the President under the Constitution.

Jefferson resisted. In a letter to District Attorney George W. Hay on June 20, he took his stand: "The leading principle of our constitution is the independence of the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary of each other, and none are more jealous of this than the Judiciary. But would the Executive be independent of the Judiciary if he were subject to the commands of the latter and to imprisonment for disobedience; if the several courts could bandy him from pillar to post, keep him constantly trudging from North to South and East to West, and withdraw him entirely from his constitutional duties? The intention of the constitution that each branch should be independent of the others is further manifested by the means it has furnished to each to protect itself from enterprises of force attempted on them by the others, and to none has it given more effectual or diversified means than to the Executive."

In this and other letters to Hay, who was in charge of prosecuting Burr, Jefferson explained his refusal to obey the summons-which remained unenforced because the defense declined to press its demand-though the President provided the official papers requested by the court and offered to submit testimony in the form of a written deposition. Jefferson's refusal to appear in person, however, set a precedent that has been claimed by all subsequent chief executive s.

John Catanzariti
Editor, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson

Andrew Jackson

The President, in Andrew Jackson's philosophy, was the "representative" of the American people. When he took the oath of office in 1829, few realized the full import of this concept. By 1835, Jackson's alterations in the organization, structure, and the operation of the executive department had been so great his opponents dubbed him "King Andrew" and "King Richard III." The presidency was an office that Jackson had built.

Reform for Jackson meant the restoration of old republican virtue-liberty, equality, and integrity-"a plain system, void of pomp, protecting all and granting favors to none." To his notion, the governmental system had been corrupted by "abuses," brought on by personal ambition, office seeking, favoritism, and special interests. At the core of the corruption was Congress. By its very nature, Congress was made up of representatives and senators whose constituencies were prescribed by their districts and states; neither as a body nor as individuals did they represent the "whole" community. In the tripartite system established by the constitution, only the President, the trustee of all the people- above party feelings and strife-was so divested of local interests and obligations that he could act for the whole as opposed to its constituent parts. The view, repeated over and over again in his messages to Congress, threatened congressional supremacy in law and decision-making.

In implementing his reforms and in deciding on legislation from Congress, Jackson, more than all his predecessors combined, relied on the veto, the pocket veto, and executive privilege to set national above local interests, as he defined them. The presidential office he left in 1837 was not the one he entered in 1829. It had been significantly strengthened at the expense of Congress, and the key issue of his two administrations-money, banking, internal improvements, the tariff, even the nature of the Union-set much of the political agenda for the remainder of the nineteenth century. Jackson's legacy to the executive branch was a framework out of which would evolve the modern American presidency.


"If a national debt is considered a national blessing then we, like Great Britain, can get on by borrowing-But as I believe it a national curse, my vow shall be to pay the national debt, to prevent a monied aristocracy from growing up around our administration that must bend it to its views, and ultimately destroy the liberty of our country." (Letter to William S. Fulton, 4 July 1824; Jackson Papers, Library of Congress)


Now, every man who has been in office a few years, believes he has a life estate in it, a vested right, and if it has been held 20 years or upwards, not only a vested right, but that it ought to descend to his children, & if no children then the next of kin. This is not the principles of our government. It is rotation in office, that will perpetuate our liberty." (Memorandum on appointments and removals, [May 1829] Jackson Papers)


"Resting in connection with this subject, is another worthy of particular examination; it is to limit the service of the President of the United States to a single term; whether of 4 or 6 years seems not material; the latter might perhaps be preferable....The chief magistrate of a free people, should never be found seeking or maneuvering to possess himself of the office." (Draft of First Annual Message to Congress, 1829; Jackson Papers)


"That this right should not be exercised on slight occasions, all will admit. It is only in matters of deep interest, when the principle involved may be justly regarded as next, in important, to infractions of the Constitution itself, that such a step can be expected to meet with the approbation of the people." (Second Annual Message, 6 December 1830; National Archives, Record Group 46, Records of the United States Senate)


The opinion of the Judges has no more authority over Congress then the opinion of Congress has over the Judges, and on that point the President is independent of both. The authority of the Supreme Court must not therefore, be permitted to control the Congress or the Executive when acting in their legislative capacities, but to have only such influence as the force of their reasoning may deserve." (Veto of Bank Bill, 10 July 1832; National Archives, Record Group 46)


"There are no necessary evils in Government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing." (Veto of Bank Bill, 10 July 1832; National Archives, Record Group 46)

Harold D. Moser
Editor-Director, The Papers of Andrew Jackson

James K. Polk

In his inaugural address on March 4, 1845, James K. Polk set forth his constitutional views: "It will be my first care to administer the Government in the true spirit of that instrument, and to assume no powers not expressly granted or clearly implied in its terms. The Government of the United States is one of delegated and limited power, and it is by a strict adherence to the clearly granted power and by abstaining from the exercise of doubtful or unauthorized implied powers that we have the only sure guarantee against the recurrence of those unfortunate collisions between the Federal and State authorities which have occasionally so much disturbed the harmony of our system and even threatened the perpetuity of our glorious Union."

James K. Polk's perspective on the powers of the presidency followed from his Jeffersonian concept of the American union of the states. As he saw it, the great constitutional compromises provided for such limitations of power on the general government as might prevent a tyrannical rule of the majority of states over the minority of states, the large states over the small states, or the free states over the slave states. The Constitution gave the President the veto power, but his constitutional powers gave him no other say over the Congress's law-making authority or practice.

Sectional divisions over slavery and tariffs had forced Congress to formulate additional compromises in 1820 and 1833, and those two questions had played a major part in the presidential campaign of 1844. A strict construction of the Constitution would avoid "those unfortunate collisions" that threatened to destroy the Union.

Polk did not shrink from exercising his presidential powers in the conduct of the Mexican War or in negotiating the Oregon settlement with Great Britain; and by any fair standard of measuring presidents, he led the nation to greater military and diplomatic successes than had been known since the revolution. As he had said in a pre-inaugural letter to Congressman Cave Johnson of Tennessee in December of 1844, "I will if I can have a united and harmonious set of cabinet counsellors, who will have the existing administration and the good of the country more at heart than the question who shall succeed, and that in any event I intend to be myself President of the U.S." A few days before taking office he set four goals for his administration: (1) reduction of the tariff, (2) creation of an Independent Treasury system, (3) resolution of the Oregon boundary dispute, and (4) acquisition of California. He accomplished those objectives and defended militarily the annexation of Texas. Polk also kept one other important pledge. Upon learning that the Democratic party had nominated him for the presidency, he vowed that if elected he would not stand for reelection. At the end of his four years he made good his promise and returned to Tennessee.

Wayne Cutler
Editor, Correspondence of James K. Polk

Andrew Johnson

When it came to extending voting rights to newly freed slaves, the man who succeeded Abraham Lincoln articulated his conservative view of the presidency. Andrew Johnson wrote to Congress in December of 1865 that "a concession of the elective franchise to the freedmen, by act of the President...must have been extended to all colored men, wherever found, and so must have established a change of suffrage in the Northern, Middle, and Western States, not less than in the Southern and Southwestern. Such an act would have created a new class of voters, and would be been an assumption of power by the President which nothing in the Constitution or laws of the United States would have warranted."

After four years of warfare during which Lincoln exerted the tremendous powers of the office of the presidency, it is startling to read Johnson's notion of a limited chief executive. Yet, to those who had long been familiar with Johnson's convictions about the national government vis-a-vis the state governments, it would have come as little or no surprise.

Aware of the restrictions upon black suffrage in the non-Southern states, Johnson could not resist the temptation to note the implications for all states that any plea for black voting rights must have. Certainly there was a legitimate reason to question the President's power to impose black suffrage or any kind of voting regulations upon any state, North or South. It should be observed, of course, that Johnson held strongly racist beliefs and therefore could hardly be expected to champion blacks' right to vote.

In fairness to the record, however, it is undeniable that the President at an earlier point in the reconstruction process had urged Mississippi's provisional governor to consider providing for limited voting rights for blacks in that sate. In a telegram dated August 15, 1865, Johnson asked William L. Sharkey to extend the franchise to black persons who could read and write and who owned real estate valued at not less than two hundred and fifty dollars. By so doing, advised the President, Mississippi could set an example for the other Southern states and also could succeed in foiling the Radicals, "who are wild upon negro franchise." Five days later the provisional governor telegraphed Johnson to inform him that the constitutional convention then in session would not deal with the matter of black suffrage but instead would leave it for the legislature to consider later. Johnson never again broached the subject with any of the other Southern states.

Subsequently, however, he did go on record as personally favoring a limited franchise for Tennessee blacks. In an interview with George L. Stearns on October 3, 1865, the President declared that if he were in Tennessee, he would seek to introduce black suffrage there gradually. He first would offer voting rights to those blacks who had served in the Federal army; from there he would expand the suffrage to those black males who could read and write and then move to include those who owned a nominal amount of property. While staking out his position for a limited suffrage he spoke against universal black suffrage at that time, for "it would breed a war of races." In this same interview with Stearns, Johnson argued that each state must be allowed to control the franchise "by its own laws"; otherwise, a despotic central government would be created.

Whereas radical Republicans would eventually embrace black suffrage as an essential component of Reconstruction, most political leaders did not do so in the first year or so of Johnson's presidency. Indeed, black suffrage would have to await the Fifteenth Amendment, which did not clear Congress until early 1869.

Editor and Director, The Andrew Johnson Project

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant entered the White House in 1869 with considerable reluctance. As general in chief, Grant had a desk job, drew a comfortable salary, lived in a house presented to him by wealthy admirers, and enjoyed the company of his four school-age children. To accept the presidency, he had to resign a position that carried lifelong tenure for another that would last at most eight years and return him to civilian life at age fifty-four.

Grant detested politics and had only once voted for president, and then for Democrat James Buchanan. During the Civil War, he converted so slowly to Republican that in 1864 Democrats had considered nominating him for president.

Grant had won the war as an unmilitary general; he planned to serve as an unpolitical president. Accordingly, he appointed a cabinet without consulting party leaders, then set his own course in enforcing Reconstruction and reforming Indian policy. Early in the Civil War he had learned from mistakes, but the presidency afforded no such opportunities. Moreover, once he traded his uniform for civilian clothes, he lost some of the prestige he had brought to the White House, and party chieftains regained power. Stung by personal attacks, Grant sought reelection as vindication. The second term proved far less successful, marred by exposure of scandals that did not blemish his reputation of integrity but did impugn his judgment.

Because of the contrast between Grant's military achievements and his presidency, he is often ranked among White House failures. His final message to Congress, sometimes misread as an apology, instead presented a candid self-appraisal: "It was my fortune, or misfortune, to be called to the office of Chief Executive without any previous political training. Mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit, but it seems to me oftener in the selections made... Failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent." (Final Message to Congress, 5 December 1876)


"I did not want the Presidency, and have never quite forgiven myself for resigning the command of the army to accept it; but it could not be helped. I owed my honors and opportunities to the Republican party, and if my name could aid it I was bound to accept...I never wanted to get out of a place as much as I did to get out of the Presidency. For sixteen years, from the opening of the war, it had been a constant strain upon me. So when the third term was seriously presented to me I peremptorily declined it...When you take up the question of second or third terms, and propose permanent ineligibility afterward, you are encountered with the argument that in a free government a people have a right to elect whomsoever they please, and that because a man has served the country well he should not at the end of his term be in the position of an officer cashiered from the army. What you want to avoid, it seems to me, is not re-elections but frequent elections. I think the best plan, one that would go farther to satisfy all opinions, would be one term for six or seven years, and ineligibility for re-election." (Conversations, 1878)

John Y. Simon
Executive Director, The Ulysses S. Grant Association

Dwight D. Eisenhower

He was the great war hero of World War II, architect of the D-Day invasion, and later Chief of Staff, United States Army. In civilian life he became president of Columbia University.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, thirty-fourth President of the United States (1953-1961), understood the importance of leadership. He wrote often about it as he took up the task of guiding postwar America in the 1950s. Eisenhower time and again wrote about leadership-leadership in the Congress, in his administration,in the Republican Party, and in the international community.

In July 1953 Eisenhower had served in office for six months. His days were filled with such frustrations as Senator John Bricker's attempt to limit the treaty-making power, and the embarrassing agitation of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Yet his vision of world leadership through the presidency impelled him to write, on July 2, a long entry in his diary that speaks to the role he might play in bringing men and nations together. "Daily I am impressed," he began, "by the shortsightedness bordering upon tragic stupidity of many who fancy themselves to be the greatest believers in and supporters of capitalism (or a free competitive economy), but who blindly support measures and conditions that cannot fail in the long run to destroy any free economic system." He went on to discount Lenin's "contradictions" in capitalism, and then said: "The general conclusion of these meandering thoughts is that leadership must find a way to bring men and nations to a point where they will give to the long-term promise the same value that they give to immediate and individual gains. If we could produce clear and dispassionate thinking in this regard, if we could get today the questions of world trade and world cooperation studied and settled on the basis of the long-term good of all, we could laugh at all the other so-called 'contradictions' in our system, and we could be so secure against the communist menace that it would gradually dry up and wither away."

Elizabeth S. Hughes

Senior Associate Editor, The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower