The only way for the United States to wrestle the reins of power from the general government is a renaissance of State powers as codified by the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. Only then will we have true government by the “consent of the governed.”
It would be easy, perhaps even cliché, to classify President Barack Obama as the worst president in American history. There would be truth in such a claim. But President Obama is, in reality, nothing more than a symptom of the greater disease, that being unchecked executive overreach, a process that began in George Washington’s second term and has continued virtually unabated since. There are exceptions, and pointing them out is easier than listing every unconstitutional act by the presidents who have violated their oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The list of unconstitutional king-like presidents would be a veritable who’s who of almost every “great” president in American history. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries alone are littered with examples of egregious executive usurpation of power, much of it with congressional approval. From President Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, the Bushes, Bill Clinton, and Obama, it’s a crowded field.
Because 2016 is a presidential election year, perhaps it would be better, if not more productive, to highlight three men who took their oath seriously, namely Presidents John Tyler, Grover Cleveland, and Calvin Coolidge. They should be the examples by which all Americans judge the presidency. None were pushovers. They all correctly believed in a strong executive branch, but in the way the founding generation conceived of the office. Congress was to be the most powerful branch of the general government, but the President, though the veto power, could “defend” the Constitution from unconstitutional legislation. That was the key. In his first administration, Washington opined that the President was obligated to let all constitutional legislation pass, and that it should be accepted in toto. Singing statements, executive orders that invalidate legislation, or any other executive trick designed to essentially legislation from the executive mansion would neither be constitutional nor proper according to Washington or any other member of the founding generation for that matter. If the President did not believe the legislation was constitutional, he could veto it, but it must be noted that the first five Presidents rarely used the veto (only ten were issued from 1789-1825), and until the twentieth century, the ability for the executive to override legislation was never considered to be a legislative hammer wielded for partisan purposes. The founding generation considered that to be an impeachable offense. Americans should take notice.
With that said, why were Tyler, Cleveland, and Coolidge great? None are household names, and all three are more likely to be slick trivia questions than serious candidates for a re-carved Mt. Rushmore. Tyler was expelled from the Whig Party for refusing to sign the clearly unconstitutional legislation streaming down Pennsylvania Avenue from his own Party. He once told Henry Clay, the highly partisan and ambitious leader of the congressional Whigs, “…Go you now, then, Mr. Clay, to your end of the avenue, where stands the Capitol, and there perform your duty to the county as you shall think proper. So help me God, I shall do mine at this end of it as I think proper.” Tyler axed a renewed national bank, a higher tariff, and internal improvements legislation all because the Constitution did not grant the general government the power to enact such laws. How refreshing.
Cleveland vetoed more legislation during his two terms in office than all of the previous presidents combined. Most of the vetoes were using to invalidate fraudulent pensions from scheming loafers and their dependents, including one who insisted that “sore eyes among the results of his diarrhea” merited an increase in his pension. He also constitutionally straightened out the economy in 1893 after Congress—with President Benjamin Harrison’s blessing—ruined it in the preceding four years, followed a constitutionally sound foreign policy that involved the Senate in foreign policy decisions, and advocated lower spending and lower taxes. When Congress did not act on all of his “recommendations,” he left the issue alone. There would be no legislative pressure from the executive branch.
Coolidge followed a similar path. Like Tyler, he assumed the presidency after his successor died in office, and like Tyler thought the president should steer the ship of state by blocking congressional attempts to sink it. Coolidge had a simple maxim in regard to executive power: “All situations that arise are likely to be simplified, and many of them completely solved, by an application of the Constitution and the law.” He twice vetoed a popular agricultural bill because it was not only unconstitutional, it was bad economic policy. He resisted federal aid to flood victims along the Mississippi River because he correctly argued it was a State and local issue. At every turn, Coolidge reinforced federalism and resisted executive government. That cannot be said for almost every other president of the last 115 years.
If Americans want good government, they should cease looking to the executive branch as the solution for every problem facing the United States, be it crime, education, or poverty. All of those issues were to be left to the States by the original Constitution. It was not long ago that Americans believed in real federalism. The only way for the United States to wrestle the reins of power from the general government is a renaissance of State powers as codified by the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. Only then will we have true government by the “consent of the governed.” An elected king with unlimited power can never provide that type of government. It will always be liable to abuse at the behest of big donors and powerful special interest groups. The executive branch of 2015 wields more power than George III had in 1776, but the States and the people thereof are the panacea, not a “better” president in Washington. The institution can never be reformed from the inside. History has proven that. I’d vote for John Tyler, Grover Cleveland, or Calvin Coolidge in 2016, but unless science can resurrect the dead, it would be better to focus our efforts at home and thwart Washington through the constitutionally correct method of State intervention.
Brion McClanahan holds a Ph.D in American History from the University of South Carolina. He has authored, co-authored, or edited six books, including The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution (Regnery 2012) and the forthcoming 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America and 4 Who Tried to Save Her (Regnery 2016) You can find him at www.brionmcclanahan.com or at Tom Woods’s Liberty Classroom, www.libertyclassroom.com
Click Here to Read More Essays From This Year’s 90 Day Study!
 Lyon G. Tyler, The Letters and Times of the Tylers (Richmond, VA: Whittet and Shepperson, 1885), II: 33-34.
 James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents 1789-1897 (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of National Literature and Art, 1900), VIII: 436.