In late January 1904 the president of Princeton University stepped to the podium of The Outlook Club in Montclair, New Jersey. Today, university presidents get into the news when some scandal erupts, but at the beginning of the last century they often enjoyed the status of what we now call “public intellectuals”—frequently quoted in the newspapers on the issues of the day, looked to for solutions to economic and social problems. Nicholas Murray Butler at Columbia, Charles William Elliot at Harvard, and Arthur Twining Hadley at Yale were well-respected national figures. The Outlook Club was exactly the platform for such a person; possibly named after The Outlook, a prominent magazine featuring literary and political commentary associated with the several “reform” movements of the day, the Club afforded its speakers an audience of university-educated civic leaders who used their influence to promote “good government”—by which they first intended government free of corruption and of the party “bosses” associated with it, but which would soon coalesce into something still more ambitious: Progressivism.
As readers of Constituting America begin considering the use and abuse of executive power under the sitting president and many of his recent predecessors, it’s not a bad idea to step back for a minute and consider the origins of this startling expansion of executive rule, an expansion not authorized by any fair reading of, say, the United States Constitution, where executive power is enunciated. While it is unquestionably true that American presidents from time to time exceeded their Constitutional authority—Thomas Jefferson admitted as much in making the Louisiana Purchase—such overreaching typically occurred because some national emergency or other extraordinary circumstance had arisen. (Jefferson, citing the importance of New Orleans to the commercial prosperity and military security of the middle of the North American continent, refused to hesitate to make a bargain with the French despot who by then was calling himself Napoleon I, knowing that that tyrant’s vast military ambitions in Europe had opened an opportunity for America on this continent that might never arise again—the possibility of peaceably obtaining possession of a huge parcel of invaluable farmland overlain with a river system that emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. This was a prize that Napoleon himself could not win in Europe at the price of his own Grande Armée, but Jefferson could win it here at the cost of four cents an acre.) But such circumstances were understood to be rare, and in need of public justification.
What we see now is a much more routine use of executive action that effectually usurps the actions of the legislative branch. How did this come about? How was it excused?
The speaker at the Outlook Club that night was Woodrow Wilson, who had been appointed to the presidency of Princeton two years earlier after a distinguished scholarly career at the Johns Hopkins University. Wilson was already one of the most prominent members of the Progressive movement, coming to the attention of his peers for his studies of, and advocacy for, professional or “scientific” administration of the American state, in imitation of German and French models. And of course he would use the presidency of Princeton as a springboard to the governorship of New Jersey and then to the White House—a career path that seems quite implausible to us, today, but only because we no longer lionize our university presidents as we did then.
The title of Wilson’s talk was “Our Elastic Constitution.” His argument was simple. “The Constitution is like a snug garment stretched to cover so great a giant as the nation has become. If it wasn’t stretched it would tear.”
With the closing of the American frontier “less than fourteen years ago,” in 1890, America has not stopped growing. Not only had it acquired the Hawaii, the Philippines, and other far-flung territories, it had embarked on a vast project of industrialization and urbanization. “The American is skeptical of impossibility, he is ready for anything. He admits theoretical impossibilities, but has never found them actual.”
Well, actually it had, as Wilson well knew. The attempt at reconstructing the regimes of the former slave states in Wilson’s native Southland had met with mixed success at most. But that was in a way Wilson’s point, unspoken on the occasion of his Montclair speech but forthrightly advanced on other occasions. “Certain it is that statesmanship has been steadily dying out in the United States since that stupendous crisis during which its government felt the first throbs of life,” Wilson had written, years earlier. Notice that the vitality of the government began not with independence in 1776, not with the Articles of Confederation in 1778, nor even with the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, but only during the greatest national emergency since the founding—the Civil War. And government soon went dormant thereafter.
But meanwhile, the country not only lived but grown robustly, both in population and in territory, throughout the nineteenth century. Only a strong executive, “vouchsafed the freedom of Prerogative, which must include the power of supplementing as well as of shaping the law to fit cases,” can make the office of the presidency worthy of the energies of great men—or, as Wilson had come to call them “leaders of men.”
Twentieth-century American will choose as its president a man judged by the people to “understand his own day and the needs of the country, and who has the personality and the initiative to enforce his views both upon the people and upon Congress.” Under twentieth-century conditions, the executive and not the legislative branch has “the most direct access to [popular] opinion,” and therefore “the best chance of leadership and mastery,” unimpeded by the confusion and contradiction of legislative debate. “[B]ecause he has the ear of the whole nation and is undoubtedly its chosen spokesman and representative, the President may place the House at a great disadvantage if he chooses to appeal to the nation.”
The ever-growing American nation, then, was held by the Progressives to need a leader, a person to focus public opinion and to act decisively not only to express but to guide it. President Obama is the latest example of this line.
The difficulty lies in the definition. When you get right down to it, a real constitution must actually constitute something. But if the constitution is defined by its elasticity, it no longer constitutes. Spandex may show off one’s best features or (as often) cover a multitude of sins. But it constitutes nothing. An elastic constitution shows off or covers up the will of the president, the Supreme Court, the Congress, the federal bureaucracy. It no longer limits their actions. And so we have what we have.
Will Morrisey holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College; his books include Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War and The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government.
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