The Historical Presidency: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Destroyer Deal: Normalizing Prerogative Power


Richard M. Pious is Adolph and Effie Ochs Professor at Barnard College and professor at Columbia University. His books include The President, Congress and the Constitution, The War on Terrorism and the Rule of Law, and Why Presidents Fail.


In the aftermath of the imperial presidency, some historians and political scientists developed a revisionist critique of Franklin D. Roosevelt's destroyer deal, criticizing his claim and exercise of prerogative power to unilaterally exchange destroyers for leasing rights to British bases in the Western Hemisphere. They argued that the deal was a violation of international law, that it went beyond the Constitution, that it violated neutrality laws passed by Congress, that it took advantage of the British in a time of maximum peril. The purpose of this article is to examine two of these claims—that the president went beyond the Constitution and the laws. The destroyer deal was an exercise of prerogative power anticipated by the founders of the Constitution, and Roosevelt's policy was successful because it “normalized” prerogative, basing it on what presidency scholar Richard Neustadt referred to as “power stakes.”