In recognition of Presidents Day, the Jack Miller Center presents the following publications by JMC fellows and other political writers on the purpose of Presidents’ Day, America’s most influential presidents, and the nature of executive power. Take some times today and reflect on the ways presidents have shaped American history.
What today’s leaders could learn from those we honor on Presidents’ Day
By Washington Post Editorial Board
PRESIDENTS’ DAY may seem somewhat contrived, an attempt to work a three-day weekend into the month when our two greatest national leaders were born, with the goal of making February a little more tolerable. But somewhere under the annual glut of ads for improbable bargains, there’s real meaning to the day, especially in this year of rancor, division and shameless deceit. It is to be found in the lives of the two men who are the focus of the holiday: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Their examples have endured; when they cease to matter to us, we will be in trouble.
Why Presidents’ Day is slightly strange
By Valerie Strauss
Most federal holidays are clear-cut. On the Fourth of July, for example, Americans celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. On the other hand, Presidents’ Day is a slightly strange holiday for three main reasons:
*There is no universal agreement on the actual name of the holiday.
* There is no universal agreement on which presidents are being honored.
* There is no agreement on something as simple as whether is an apostrophe in “presidents.”
Presidents’ Day: Losing Our Heroes, One Day at a Time
By David Hazony
Life is fluid: Anything you don’t fight to keep, you risk losing. Over the past generation two crucial holidays in the American calendar—Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthdays—have merged and morphed into a single anemic Monday known widely as “Presidents’ Day.”
When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, we had separate special days for each of them. A clear logic drove both observance and education: We learned about the life of Washington, about his successes and failures, about his humility, about his incredible perseverance and tactical genius; we learned of Valley Forge, of his efforts to keep the revolution going, about his running out of the chamber in shame when chosen to be the first president.
Lincoln at Gettysburg
By Diana Schaub
The most obvious problem in approaching Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is that we know it so well. If you’ve received a good education, you might even be able to recite it from memory. Everyone knows the irony of that line where Lincoln says “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here” — ironic because his brief dedicatory remarks have become the most famous American speech.
In fact, the Gettysburg Address must rank high among the greatest speeches anywhere. It is right up there with the Apology of Socrates and the Funeral Oration of Pericles, with the added benefit that Lincoln’s was actually written and delivered by him, whereas the speeches by Socrates and Pericles come to us secondhand, so to speak, from Plato and Thucydides. Those ancient Greek speeches may or (more likely) may not have actually been delivered in the literary form in which they have become immortal. By contrast, Lincoln’s speech arrived at its fame without editorial assistance.
Diana Schaub is a JMC fellow and professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland. Schaub received both her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. She teaches and writes on a wide range of issues in political philosophy and American political thought. She is the co-editor of What So Proudly We Hail: America’s Soul in Story, Speech, and Song, and Erotic Liberalism: Women and Revolution in Montesquieu’s “Persian Letters
It’s Washington’s Birthday, Not Presidents’ Day
By Gleaves Whitney
People ask why a few of us presidential junkies would like to see Presidents’ Day changed back to Washington’s Birthday. The technical explanation has to do with a misguided law called HR 15951 that was passed in 1968 to make federal holidays less complicated. The real answer is simply this: George Washington is our greatest president, and too few American children know why.
George Washington earned the respect even of his former enemy, King George III, by doing something exceedingly rare in history: When he had the chance to increase personal power, he decreased it — not once, not twice, but repeatedly. During the American Revolution, Washington put service before self. His personal example was his greatest gift to the nation. It has often been said that the “Father of our country” was less eloquent than Jefferson; less educated than Madison; less experienced than Franklin; less talented than Hamilton. Yet all these leaders looked to Washington to lead them because they trusted him with power. He didn’t need power.
Presidential Selection: Theory and Development
By James W. Ceaser
Examining the development of the process of presidential selection from the founding of the republic to the present day, James Ceaser contends that many of the major purposes of the selection system as it was formerly understood have been ignored by current reformers and modern scholars. In an attempt to reverse this trend, Professor Ceaser discusses the theories of selection offered by leading American statesmen from the Founders and Thomas Jefferson to Martin Van Buren and Woodrow Wilson. From these theories he identifies a set of criteria for a sound selection system that he then uses to analyze and evaluate the recent changes in the selection process.
Five normative functions of a presidential selection system comprise the author’s criteria: it should minimize the harmful effects of ambitious contenders for the office, promote responsible executive leadership and power, help secure an able president, ensure a legitimate accession, and provide for an appropriate amount of choice and change.
Professor Ceaser finds that the present system is characterized by weak parties and candidate-centered campaigns that lead to the problems of “image” politics and demagogic leadership appeals. He therefore argues for a more republican selection system in which political parties would be strengthened to serve as a restraining force on popular authority, public opinion, and individual aspirations for executive power.
James W. Ceaser is the Chairman of the JMC academic council and Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1976. He has written several books on American politics and political thought, including Presidential Selection, Liberal Democracy and Political Science, Reconstructing America, and Nature and History in American Political Development. Professor Ceaser has held visiting professorships at the University of Florence, the University of Basel, Oxford University, the University of Bordeaux, and the University of Rennes. Professor Ceaser is a frequent contributor to the popular press, and he often comments on American Politics for the Voice of America.
The Discretionary President: The Promise and Peril of Executive Power
Benjamin Kleinerman addresses the fundamental question of what role discretionary executive power should play in a constitutional order, reexamining what has become an intractable debate to show that what can destroy our Constitution also has the potential to save it. Kleinerman traces this problem from Hobbes through Lincoln to address one of the central dilemmas of our post-9/11 age: how to empower the president to respond to legitimate threats without endangering the constitutional order. He stakes out a middle ground in this highly contentious debate, affirming that a president has the discretionary power to act for the public good without statutory authorization-but warning that, to remain constitutional, it must be truly discretionary power that could not be legalized.
Kleinerman articulates and defends a “constitutional politics of necessity,” best exemplified by Lincoln, in which opponents should call on presidents to defend the necessity of exceptional actions and explain why they had to be taken outside the existing legal framework, beyond simply being “for the public good.” He observes that Lincoln acknowledged the illegality of his actions while claiming their necessity but that Bush claimed powers as if they were permanent. He also reexamines separation of powers in light of executive discretion, suggesting that, during times of insecurity, discretionary executive power can be devoted to preservation of the Constitution so long as the other branches remain vigilant.
Kleinerman argues for a president sufficiently strong to take actions without which we cannot be secure yet sufficiently circumscribed that such actions do not become the norm. His book delineates the tough distinctions citizens need to make between the necessary exercise of extraordinary powers and the dangerous aggrandizement of unnecessary power.
Benjamin A. Kleinerman is a JMC board member and Associate Professor of Constitutional Democracy at James Madison College, Michigan State University. Professor Kleinerman received his B.A. at Kenyon College in Political Science and his PhD at Michigan State University in Political Science. Professor Kleinerman is also a former Postdoctoral Fellow in the Program on Constitutional Government and a former Visiting Fellow in the James Madison Program in Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. Professor Kleinerman’s first book, The Discretionary President: The Promise and Peril of Executive Power published by the University Press of Kansas, has been reviewed in The New Republic and Political Science Quarterly. He is currently working on a second book that continues the investigation of executive power currently titled, Becoming Commander-in-Chief: A Constitutional Success Story. Professor Kleinerman teaches classes on both political thought and political institutions. He has also published on other subjects including literature and politics and American political history.
Thomas Jefferson and Executive Power
This book examines Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to combine respect for a fundamental constitution with the fact that no set of laws can foresee every event. His solution to this problem offers a democratic, yet strong, alternative to the more common, Hamiltonian solution. Jefferson scholars have long written of ‘two Jeffersons,’ one before he became president and one after he became president. The first was opposed to a strong executive, while the second embraced one out of necessity. This book challenges this account. It presents Jefferson’s understanding of executive power, which, though it developed over time, pointed to an executive that was both democratic and powerful.
Professor Jeremy D. Bailey is a JMC fellow. He holds a dual appointment in Political Science and the Honors College at the University of Houston. His research interests include executive power, constitutionalism, and American political thought and development. His current book project is The Idea of Presidential Representation: An Intellectual and Political History. His major publications include James Madison and Constitutional Imperfection (Cambridge University Press, 2015), The Contested Removal Power, 1789-2010 (University Press of Kansas 2013, coauthored with David Alvis and Flagg Taylor), which was named a 2014 “Outstanding Academic Title” by Choice, “The New Unitary Executive and Democratic Theory,” (American Political Science Review 2008) and Thomas Jefferson and Executive Power (Cambridge University Press 2007).
Bailey attended Rhodes College and received his Ph.D. from Boston College, where his dissertation was the 2004 co-winner of the APSA’ s E. E. Schattschneider Prize for best dissertation in American politics. He joined the University of Houston in 2007, and, in 2014, he was awarded the University’s Provost Core Teaching Excellence Award. He is the director of the Phronesis minor in the Honors College and the co-director of the Tocqueville Forum in American Ideas and Institutions.
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