From President Bush’s Iraq Invasion & Patriot Act to President Obama’s Immigration Amnesty & Minimum Wage Hike: The Roots of Executive Overreach in Lincoln & Roosevelt’s Administrations – Guest Essayist: Paul Schwennesen

, , ,

Oh, how we fret!  Rightfully, of course, for nothing is more frightening to the American Mind than the specter of overweening authority.  During the second Bush Administration, the Left was beside itself with concern over executive overreach (from the Iraq invasion to the Patriot Act) and now, during the Obama Administration, the Right is beside itself with concerns about usurped power (from the federal minimum wage hike to Immigration amnesty).  It is good to highlight the tendency of Presidents to overstep their constitutional bounds—but emphasizing it risks ignoring a far deeper and more insidious problem: the immense and pernicious power of Administrative Despotism.  While we focus in animated concern upon the head of the snake, we forget the innumerable coils that already surround us.

Alexis de Toqueville, our keenest observer, worried that Democracies would fall victim to an “administrative despotism” in which:

[The supreme power] covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting.[i]

Presidents are often the levers that open the way to a public conciliation with administrative overreach.  Two of our most famous – Lincoln and Roosevelt, exemplify this.  Lincoln, for his part, is responsible for convincing America that violence was the natural prerogative of the State.  Theodore Roosevelt, meanwhile, acquainted America with the concept of a paternalistic and provisionary government.  The road to Administrative Despotism was surveyed and graded by two of our brightest historical stars.  Our current hand-wringing over presidential extravagance is mere fluff — like wondering what color to paint the road signs.

The first really binding coils of administrative despotism were laid, of course, by Lincoln.  Yes, Lincoln, the most venerable in our pantheon of secular saints.  Lincoln personified Hamiltonian visions of monarchical power.  Like Hamilton, Lincoln was a natural aristocrat who, despite his woodsy façade, believed that only the most gifted and experienced were entitled to rule.  Jefferson and the Second American Revolution had held Hamiltonian ambition in abeyance, but with Lincoln the coils of the administrative state were wrapped in earnest.

The Lincoln of 1848 who had declared that: “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government…” was not the same Lincoln who prosecuted a war against “insurrectionary” States in 1861:

I hold that, in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the union of these States is perpetual….It follows….that no State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union..and that acts of violence, within any State or States, against the authority of the United States, are insurrectionary or revolutionary…

In the crucible of the Civil War, Lincoln forever cleaved the use of violent force with the central authority.  From that moment, voluntary association became an abstract concept instead of a foundational principle.  Altering the form and scope of the State thenceforth would be subject to the approval of the State itself.

Theodore Roosevelt, meanwhile, introduced America to the notion of an active, provisionary government.  Under his administration, government evolved from a negative institution that prevented things (trespasses between citizens, invasion from without) to a positive institution firmly in the business of doing things.  Great big, important, exciting things.  Projects that would make any six-year old boy thrill.  To make this a reality, Roosevelt had to lay aside the chafing framework of the Constitution.  He was dismissive and genuinely puzzled by courts that showed an obstinate “adherence to outworn, to dead and gone systems of philosophy.”

TR experimented with novel “interpretations” of constitutional power.  In 1902, during a col-miners strike, he decided to use federal troops to confiscate mines in order to give strikers the raise they demanded.  When members of his own party were outraged, he responded vigorously, implying that the Constitution was a mere formality, that,  ”The Constitution was made for the people,” he responded, ”not the people for the Constitution.”

By 1912, in his Progressive Party platform speech (seeking an unprecedented third term), he laid out a vision for an active, provisionary state which supports:

…any form of social justice, whether it be securing proper protection for factory girls against dangerous machinery, for securing proper limitation of hours of labor for women and children in industry, for securing proper living conditions for those who dwell in the thickly crowded regions of our great cities, for helping, so far as legislators can help, all the conditions of work and life for wage-workers in great centers of industry, or for helping by the action both of National and State governments, so far as conditions will permit, the men and women who dwell in the open country to increase their efficiency both in production on their farms and in business arrangements for the marketing of their produce and also to increase the opportunities to give the best possible expressions to their social life.

A government with a participatory interest in so many disparate fields of human affairs was a radical departure from the constitutional one that guaranteed Natural Rights alone.

Though Lincoln and Roosevelt have made the American Project immeasurably more difficult by desensitizing the electorate to presidential overreach, all is not lost.  The American Mind is alive to the danger of imperial ambition.  We see shadows of kings and specters of emperors over our hallowed horizons; and our hearts recoil.

Paul Schwennesen is a southern Arizona rancher and director of the Agrarian Freedom Project.

Click Here to Read More Essays From This Year’s 90 Day Study!

[i] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Part IV, Chapter VI.

3 replies
  1. Barb Zack
    Barb Zack says:

    Interesting perspective. However, the march towards progressivsm really got its steam under President Wilson. His active disdain for the Constitution and belief that only intellectuals should be in government started the march towards where we are today. Lincoln may have had a hand in pushing down the first domino but after that it was a free-for-all for any wannabe dictator. All the while, the American people started believing the lies that government was too complicated for the simple citizen and that our duty was to simply accept things. THAT’s why we are where we are today.

    • Paul Schwennesen
      Paul Schwennesen says:

      Yes, Wilson is of course the first technically progressive Progressive. But in many ways, he and his ilk (Lincoln, I’m afraid, was preeminent) just represent a long-festering anti-republican strain represented by the Hamiltonian tradition.

  2. Allan Hampton
    Allan Hampton says:

    What does the original 1787 Constitution articulate about that?

    Well in short the 1787 Constitution articulates only Congress has the power to legislate (federally); Article I, Section 1, Clause 1.

    Also, that the 1787 Constitution is the supreme Law of the Land, Article VI, Clause 2.

    Also, all U.S. Lawmakers are required to take, or affirm an Oath to support the (“this”) 1787 Constitution, Article VI, Clause 3.

    Citizens, and or the federal government, have no method to change, or amend, the Constitution, Article V.

    All laws, treaties, and IMO amendments must be “Pursuance thereof” the 1787 Constitution, Article VI, Clause 2.

    Yes, a radical departure; “A government with a participatory interest in so many disparate fields of human affairs was a radical departure from the constitutional” (from the 1787 Constitution).

    False, “one that guaranteed Natural Rights alone.” The 1787 Constitution articulates U.S. citizens have two(2) Rights that are not natural, 1) the exclusive Right to choose Representatives of the House in Congress every two years, Article I, Section 2, Clause 1. And 2) the exclusive Right to serve on a citizen jury.

    Also, citizens have the Right to alter government with, or by using, the ballot box.

    Barb, you are correct; “THAT’s why we are where we are today.” ………… Citizens do not know the purpose of their federal vote (ballot box), nor know the purpose of the jury boxes. Citizens have failed to inform themselves and politicos are not interested in informing them about citizens’ Duty in Citizenship.


Join the discussion! Post your comments below.

Your feedback and insights are welcome.
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *