How the First Seven Presidents Approached their Duties and Invented the Job of President
Known for his excellent examination on presidential leadership, The Presidential Difference, which looks at the leadership style and characters of the presidents from FDR to George W. Bush, Fred I. Greenstein has turned his attention to the start of the American Experiment, taking a look at the first seven Chief Executives: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson.
Greenstein argues, based on his extensive research into all things presidential, that “the matter of who happens to be president of the United States has sometimes had momentous consequences.” To show this, he evaluates each of these presidents
“in terms of his strengths and weaknesses in public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, policy vision, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence.”
“This book examines presidential leadership in a period… when the actions of chief executives had a bearing on the fate of the American experiment in popular government.” The first seven presidents also “served in a time when the sketchy description of the presidency in the Constitution gave the chief executives imperfect guidance on their responsibilities, leading their conduct of the presidency to depend heavily on their personal inclinations.” This meant that each of these seven presidents were conscious of the fact that their actions in office could well have lasting and important consequences – this was especially the case for George Washington, who was working in thus-far entirely new territory: even the “many things which appear of little importance in themselves” (in Washington’s words), “may have great and durable consequences” for his successors.
Today, presidents are staffed by the considerable bureaucracy of the Executive Office of the President, while the first seven presidents “had little or no staff assistance”, with the members of the cabinet fulfilling the role presidential advisers. The cabinet itself was a smaller outfit, too: today there are 22 members on Obama’s cabinet, while at the very beginning, Washington had by a Secretary of State (Thomas Jefferson), Secretary of War (Henry Knox), Secretary of the Treasury (Alexander Hamilton), and an Attorney General (Edmund Randolph).
Communication was of particular importance in these times and often relied on “patronage-subsidized administration newspapers that played a central part in early presidential public communication”. For the Federalist faction, this was the Gazette of the United States. What is interesting is to consider the “virulence of political discourse” in the early Republic: “contemporary political rhetoric is bland by the standards of an era when political opposition was not accepted as legitimate, much less constructive.” This was a time when dueling was still commonplace (Andrew Jackson was notorious for his duels, long-suffering from a shoulder wound), and not infrequently did members of Congress come to blows in the House Chamber.
Equally, all seven of these president “paid lip-service to the ideal of transcending politics”, but to varying degrees each one “also did what they deemed politically necessary to respond to the realities of a divided nation in a conflict-ridden world”, not to mention whatever they saw as in their own interests with regards to re-election and improving the lot of their supporters and political faction.
The book is organised into easily-digestible, short chapters, all of which follow a similar format, with clear conclusions under the evaluation-criteria at the end of each chapter. This makes the book an excellent, easily used reference book; however, coupled with the shortness of the volume (a mere 103 pages, not including notes, etc.), it does mean the readability suffers. That the author has gone favoured brevity is certainly a welcome departure from much presidential scholarship, however this has the adverse effect of making his conclusions sometimes come across as only half-supported, or arrived at through cherry-picked facts and/or sources.
That being said, the author does make use of plenty of contemporary sources – including the opinions of these men held by the others of the seven; for example, Jefferson’s opinion of Washington that, while a durable and prudent man, his opinions and policies were “little aided by invention or imagination”.
Some will be disappointed that there aren’t really any surprises in the book – Washington was virtuous and is portrayed like a God among men (of course); Jefferson went downhill in office, as he focussed to much on abstractions; the “anticlimactic” presidency of James Madison; and the two Adamses were ineffective and bumbling presidents, the victims of their temperaments and, for the younger, the circumstances of his election, while the elder is referred to as the “Absentee President”. Monroe comes across very well, which I agree with, and it makes a nice change for this to be recognised. All these presidents were different in their characters and approach to the Executive Office, performing at different levels of efficiency and political aptitude. For someone interested in the presidency, this book was certainly an interesting read and addition to my ever-expanding library.
Greenstein does an excellent job of providing short biographies of each president covered, as well as placing their presidencies into the context of their times, making this book a no-nonsense guide to the characters of these seven presidents, and an examination of the characteristics that the author believes served them well and poorly during their time in office.
An interesting addition to the study of the presidency, I would recommend Inventing the Job of President along with the books listed, below.
Additional Reading: Fred I. Greenstein, The Presidential Difference (3rd Edition, 2009); Morton Keller, America’s Three Regimes (2007); Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power (1991); James David Barber, The Presidential Character (2008); Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy (2006); Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers (2000); Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Imperial President (2004)