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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Presidential Motives and the Early American State: a Polity-Centered Perspective
  4. John Adams: the President as Martyr
  5. James Monroe: Hidden-Hand Statesmanship
  6. Staying the Hand of Jacksonian Aggression
  7. James Madison: Underestimating the Empire
  8. James K. Polk: Pursuing a Balanced Imperialism
  9. Statesmanship and Restraint after the Civil War
  10. Conclusion
  11. References
  12. Biography

Most political scientists assume that American presidents seek to optimize their chances of reelection and to maximize their policy preferences in strategic negotiations with their rivals. Presidents, however, have also been pressed throughout history to restrain their self-aggrandizing aims when confronted with what they take to be exigencies of governance. This article examines the governing challenges met by presidents of the early national and antebellum periods, and argues that the distinctive conditions of governance that defined the pre–Civil War polity motivated a pattern of unionist presidential restraint, prompting presidents to refrain from direct applications of federal coercion and to balance the interests of geographic sections of the Union. Presidents' preoccupation with unionism, this article argues, was ever present in this period. The article examines a diverse set of case studies to make this argument and concludes with a discussion of how changes wrought by the Civil War led to the emergence of new patterns of restraint exercised by subsequent generations of American presidents.

Most political scientists assume that American presidents are power-seeking political animals: they seek to optimize their chances of reelection, to pursue advantage against their personal rivals, and to see as much of their desired policy ends enacted, implemented, and funded. Presidents, like other, more “ordinary” political actors, are powerfully shaped by a self-aggrandizing decision-making calculus.

As crucial—and often decisive—as the inclination to maximize one's power may be, presidential decision making is, nonetheless, shaped by other motives emanating from the responsibilities of the office. American presidents, whether they governed during the early national period, the Gilded Age, the Cold War, or post-9/11 America, faced circumstances that call upon them to act, not merely as self-interested political actors but as statesmen pressed to balance their self-aggrandizing aims with the perceived exigencies of governance. Presidents of the early national and antebellum years restrained their own policy visions in order to assuage sectional divisions in the polity; presidents confronting the ideological challenge of global communism adjusted their preferred domestic policy priorities to thwart the spread of foreign sympathies among discontented domestic groups; presidents facing fiscal or economic crisis have been pressed to pursue policy ends that undercut their popularity with their party or with the mass public as a whole. Presidents, in other words, restrain their inclination to maximize power in service of what they take to be the fundamental interests of the republic. What this balance entails hinges not merely on the nature of the threat to America's vital interests (whether real or perceived) but also on the structural conditions that surround the office of the president.

The notion that power-maximizing behavior is restrained by governing exigencies, however, is not easily accommodated by existing analytical approaches to the study of the presidency. Scholars, at least since Richard Neustadt's seminal work (1990 [1960]), have treated the maximization of power as presidents' principal impetus for action. Neustadt suggested that when presidents maximize their power, they serve the public good, contrary to the assumptions encoded in the Constitution. His emphasis on power maximization is shared by leading scholars of various methodological persuasions. Indeed, behaviorialists (Edwards 1989; see also Edwards and Wayne 1983), historical institutionalists (Lowi 1985; Skowronek 1997), and rational choice scholars (Cameron 2000a; McCarty and Poole 1995) all begin or conclude with an assumption that presidents are driven by an overriding aim to secure their most preferred policy outcomes.

Presidential decision making is, no doubt, profoundly shaped by self-aggrandizing aims. American presidents, however, have also exercised a measure of restraint in their efforts to maximize power. This article will make this case, focusing in particular on the presidents of the early national and antebellum periods (1789 to 1815 and 1815 to 1861, respectively). Building on B. Dan Wood's call to take “explanations that involve statesmanship and the interests of the nation at large as potential explanations for presidential behavior” more seriously (Wood 2009b, 811), I demonstrate below that these presidents balanced their self-interested preferences with what they took to be a responsibility to thwart separatist initiatives and preempt political violence between the political parties and the states. The task of steering the ship of state between the partisan extremes and preventing polarizing divisions from escalating into violence was a crucial impetus for action for the antebellum presidents.1 Such acts of statesmanship often entailed a degree of restraint, calling upon presidents to curb their self-interested inclinations when they perceived that doing so would help preserve the union of the states.2

Statesmanship of this sort, to be sure, is not specific to the antebellum presidents; all presidents—whether they governed during the early national period or the post–World War 2 era—are pressed by the exigencies of their times to advance the vital interests of the republic. The exigencies presidents must meet, however, have evolved over time and are powerfully shaped by the structural conditions that prevail at a given moment in American political history. Indeed, the challenges to sovereignty confronted by the antebellum presidents were qualitatively different from those managed by the Gilded Age and modern presidents. Unlike future generations of American presidents, the antebellum presidents could not take the peaceful settlement of differences between the states or the political parties for granted. Because the federal government could not forcibly repress a separatist movement (not, at least, without considerable effort and uncertainty), presidents were left with little choice but to weigh their political self-interests and partisan purposes against a unionist interest to placate organized, geographically concentrated domestic dissenters. James Madison captured the problem well when he asked his fellow delegates at the Constitutional Convention, “Could the national resources, if exerted to the utmost enforce a national decree agst. Massts. abetted perhaps by several of her neighbours? It would not be possible. A; [sic] small proportion of the Community in a compact situation, acting on the defensive, and at one of its extremities might at any time bid defiance to the National authority” (Farrand 1966, 1:164-65, emphasis added). Because the states possessed their own, independent means of coercion, states intent upon resistance—especially if they were concentrated in one region of the country—could effectively “bid defiance to the National authority.”

The antebellum presidents, accordingly, adopted leadership postures tailored to the conditions of the polity they governed. As I will explain in greater detail below, the structural features of the polity that shaped presidential restraint before the Civil War were

  • Divided constitutional sovereignty between the states and the federal government;
  • A balance of coercive capacity between the states and the federal government; and
  • An uneven geographic distribution of political opposition to federal authority.

These conditions, taken together, motivated the antebellum presidents to

  • Refrain from direct applications of federal coercion; and
  • Balance the interests of geographic sections of the Union in federal policy making.

The structural and institutional conditions of the pre–Civil War years induced a distinctively unionist mode of restraint, tailored to avoid direct conflict and achieve sectional balance, all in service of the larger purposes of preventing political violence and thwarting separatist initiatives before they began.3 To be sure, some of the antebellum presidents were more vigilant or effective than others with respect to preventing partisan or sectional violence. Unionist aims, moreover, were not always decisive; in some instances, they were outweighed by other programmatic, partisan, or self-interested motives. Presidents' preoccupation with unionist ends was, nonetheless, ever present in this period.

In the following pages, I trace the lineage of unionist restraint among the antebellum presidents, with a special focus on the management of three crises of sovereignty: John Adams's management of the naval “Quasi-War” with France, James Monroe's role during the Missouri Crisis, and Andrew Jackson's handling of the Nullification Crisis. The unionist sensibilities of these three presidents disposed them to a pragmatic and consensus-driven governing style tailored to placate geographically concentrated domestic dissenters, even when such pragmatism was at odds with more self-interested ends.4 The purpose of this discussion is not to illuminate new dimensions of these familiar historical episodes but to describe how the political landscape of the early national and antebellum periods shaped presidential motives. I will follow this discussion with an analysis of two tough cases, the presidencies of James Madison and James Polk, where unionism, as a governing value, appeared to be counterbalanced by partisan and programmatic achievements. I conclude with a brief examination of how the post–Civil War presidents, freed from the specter of disunion, could govern without having to elevate the prevention of sectional divisions over their own partisan and programmatic ends. I make the case, in other words, that due to the changes wrought by the Civil War, the unionist mode of restraint gave way to new patterns of restraint exercised by subsequent generations of presidents. I briefly illustrate this point in the concluding segment of the article with reference to the leadership postures of two modern presidents: Dwight Eisenhower and George H. W. Bush.

Presidential Motives and the Early American State: a Polity-Centered Perspective

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Presidential Motives and the Early American State: a Polity-Centered Perspective
  4. John Adams: the President as Martyr
  5. James Monroe: Hidden-Hand Statesmanship
  6. Staying the Hand of Jacksonian Aggression
  7. James Madison: Underestimating the Empire
  8. James K. Polk: Pursuing a Balanced Imperialism
  9. Statesmanship and Restraint after the Civil War
  10. Conclusion
  11. References
  12. Biography

How are the choice settings within which presidents act constructed? Do we prioritize the most proximate features of their strategic surroundings, or do we look for more fundamental, structural conditions that shape the strategic setting?5 To the extent that we are able to shed light on questions concerning the factors that influence presidents' motives, how would we formalize demonstrations of our answers? These are some of the most challenging questions of social scientific inquiry.

I do not offer a solution to these formidable problems in this article. I do, however, hope to underscore the difficulty of locating, let alone explaining, the motivations of presidents without reference to foundational considerations and governing exigencies. Shall political scientists confine themselves to the institutional arrangements that are most proximate to the decision-making process of interest? In the case of the Missouri Crisis (to be discussed in greater detail below), one might argue that the institutions that most immediately shaped the preferences of the decisive actors—House members, senators, and the president—were the rules that organize the House and the Senate, as well as the formal and informal institutions that mediate relations between the executive and legislative branches. Yet approaches that engage only the most immediate institutional “rules of the game” may prompt political scientists to unnecessarily limit the analysis of other, more structural, but no less consequential, factors. Critiquing rational choice approaches for their tendency to simplify problems when complexity is essential to a meaningful explanation, Terry Moe confesses that “simplification is not just a modeling strategy that is employed when appropriate: it is required by the methodology whether it is appropriate or not” (2009, 711, emphasis in original). One might extend this critique by calling attention to the tendency to model institutions that are most proximate to the decision-making process and are easiest to formalize (in the case of rational choice institutionalism), whether those institutions are most important to policy outcomes or not.

In this article, I do not draw upon the most proximate rules governing each negotiation. I reach, instead, for more foundational considerations—America's dual sovereign constitutional design as well as the distribution of coercive capacity in the polity—to demonstrate how such structural dimensions of the political landscape shaped presidential motives during a specific period of time. The partisan divisions of the early national and antebellum periods and the vulnerabilities of the early American state require this sort of structural analysis.

Indeed, political parties in the late eighteenth and early to mid-nineteenth centuries posed an ongoing challenge to the integrity of the American union in a manner similar to the role played by political parties in some developing countries across the globe today. In polities such as Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon where opposition parties have shadow militias, “party competition” is more closely associated with civil war than it is with democracy. And so it was in the United States from 1783 (when the United States won its independence) to the conclusion of the Civil War. Until the defeat of Confederate forces in 1865, the central government simply did not possess a monopoly over the use of violence within its territory; the means of coercion during the early national and antebellum periods were shared with the states and with private militias distributed throughout the polity (Bensel 1990; Deudney 1995; Kaufman 2001). The states, which routinely came under the control of contrary political parties, possessed the capacity to mount an effective resistance should they commit themselves to oppose federal policy. The “problem of party,” such as it was, was a byproduct of the republic's dual sovereign structure.

Ever mindful of this precarious balance of coercive capacity, political leaders—presidents in particular—often went to great lengths to sidestep or, if possible, neutralize potentially volatile sources of partisan division. As John Adams and others knew all too well, party opposition, especially if it divided Americans along sectional lines, foreshadowed political violence, separatism, and even civil war.

As some scholars of comparative politics have framed the problem, developing democratic polities run two different risks: if organized opposition is not energetic, there is a risk that dominant political forces will consolidate power and impose a hegemonic consensus, suffocating liberal reforms. On the other hand, if organized opposition is too strident, the political contest runs the risk of provoking civil war (Anderson 1999; Dahl 1966; LeBas 2011; Rustow 1970). What is needed is something of a middle ground: a “hot family feud,” as Dankwart Rustow so aptly described it, where contending factions reflect meaningful political differences but do not call into question basic matters of national “family” unity. As I explain below, some of America's most notable antebellum presidents practiced a defensive statecraft, analogous in important respects to the mediating role of a father who hopes to preserve the bonds of a family mired in a hot feud. Adams, Monroe, and Jackson each displayed contrasting styles of leadership, but they all prioritized a perceived responsibility to act as father figures committed, above all else, to preserving civil peace and the union of the states.

John Adams: the President as Martyr

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Presidential Motives and the Early American State: a Polity-Centered Perspective
  4. John Adams: the President as Martyr
  5. James Monroe: Hidden-Hand Statesmanship
  6. Staying the Hand of Jacksonian Aggression
  7. James Madison: Underestimating the Empire
  8. James K. Polk: Pursuing a Balanced Imperialism
  9. Statesmanship and Restraint after the Civil War
  10. Conclusion
  11. References
  12. Biography

Presidents of the early national period were, without exception, confronted with the problem of defining American neutrality in a world divided by the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. From 1793 to 1815, the United States would be almost continuously at war or on the brink of war with Great Britain and France, two Atlantic powers that were at war with one another.6 Political elites feared—with good reason—that party opposition would produce a proxy war between Britain and France on American soil. Indeed, foreign war generated a distinctive partisan division in the United States—one based upon a reciprocal suspicion of national disloyalty. Republicans viewed the Federalists' accommodating posture toward the British as a betrayal of America's anticolonial tradition. Federalists, for their part, were convinced that the opposition, intoxicated by their Francophilia, would go to any length to advance their revolutionary cause—or their own political aggrandizement. The new republic was thus caught in the crossfire of a global struggle where the middle ground that could be had was difficult to define and, given the strong opinions on both sides and the limited coercive reach of the central state, even more difficult to enforce.

Presidential aims and desires were formed within this geopolitical context. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson each struggled to define an enforceable policy of neutrality and to avoid choosing sides in an Atlantic world divided by war (Madison's presidency will be discussed in greater detail below). Washington, Adams, and Jefferson all adopted strategies to avoid entangling the republic in the European conflict, and the steps they took to prevent war each entailed political costs. Washington parried “Citizen” Genêt's demands that the United States abide by its obligations under the Treaty of Alliance of 1778 and commit to the French cause; Washington leveraged his charismatic authority to deflect criticism from French and newly emergent Jeffersonian Republican critics. The first president's Proclamation of Neutrality, moreover, helped spur the formation of a party in opposition and prompted a noteworthy exchange between Madison and Alexander Hamilton (under the pseudonyms Helvidius and Pacificus, respectively) over the constitutional significance of executive power. Jefferson, for his part, stood behind his embargo policy, imposing significant hardships on Americans in various sectors of the national economy, all to avoid direct participation in the conflict between Britain and Napoleonic France. The embargo policy, however, rallied the Federalist opposition in New England and port towns across the country. The policy was a failure because it was unenforceable: the federal government at this time simply did not possess the surveillance capacity necessary to enforce an expansive regulatory scheme that directly coerced American citizens. The second-term president, nonetheless, was insulated from the political costs of this policy, in part because of the steadfast loyalty he enjoyed from Republicans throughout the land.

Adams was tested by the politics of foreign war in a way that Washington and Jefferson were not. Adams's governing challenge was daunting: his task was to continue Washington's work of constituting and strengthening inchoate federal institutions in a divided political landscape (Skowronek 1997). Adams, however, did not have the same political resources at his disposal. Indeed, his moral and political authority paled in comparison to that of his predecessor. Unlike Washington or Jefferson, he was not a cultural icon and could not comfortably assume a posture above politics.

The Adams administration began its tenure knee-deep in a diplomatic and quasi-military crisis with France. Embittered by the passage of the Jay Treaty, a naval “Quasi-War” ensued as the French retaliated for what they perceived to be violations of America's treaty commitments. Mindful of the domestic implications (discussed below) of a full-scale war with France, Adams went to great lengths to mend relations with America's former ally. Just like Washington before him, the second president doggedly pressed for neutrality to contain the domestic divisions that war would inflame. Adams's first effort to sue for peace with France, however, produced a polarizing scandal that deepened existing divisions.

The XYZ Affair unleashed a torrent of anti-French fury and precipitated a season of nationalist spectacle. The frenzy that ensued presented High Federalists—Hamilton's partisan faction—with an opportunity to pursue war with France. Indeed, as Fisher Ames counseled fellow High Federalist and Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, “Wage war and call it self-defense; forbear to call it war, on the contrary, let it be said that we deprecate war, and will desist from our arms as soon as her acts shall be repealed, &c., &c., grounding all we do on the necessity of self preservation &c. … tell the citizens of danger & bring them to war gradually” (quoted in Dauer 1968, 195).

In their pursuit of a broader war with France, High Federalists hoped to build the new republic's military capacity and to strike at the opposition. Many Federalists viewed these two objects as cut from the same cloth. Referring to Adams's public indignation over the scandal, Henry Knox observed that the president's sentiments “must and will electrify all the good people of the US—but all are not good. We must have some short but sharp internal conflicts” (quoted in DeConde 1966, 78). Hamilton sent a letter to his ally Theodore Sedgwick delineating the virtues of maintaining a powerful military establishment at the ready; in this message he added some suggestive words about the military's possible uses:

In times like the present, not a moment ought to have been lost to secure the government so powerful an auxiliary. Whenever the experiment shall be made to subdue a refractory and powerful State by militia, the event will shame the advocates of their sufficiency … When a clever force has been collected, let them be drawn toward Virginia, for which there is an obvious pretext, then let the measures be taken to act upon the laws and put Virginia to the test of resistance. This plan will give time for the fervor of the moment to subside, for reason to resume the reins, and, by dividing its enemies, will enable the government to triumph with ease. (Hamilton 1987, 22:452-53)

Whether Hamilton had several “sharp internal conflicts” in mind to carry out his plan remains a subject of controversy.7 There was no controversy for Adams, however: if left unchecked, the High Federalists' militant stance toward France and the Jeffersonian Republicans would lead to a rupture in the Union.

Open confrontation between the Adams and Hamiltonian wings of the Federalist Party began to take shape following a tense negotiation between Adams, Washington, and the High Federalists, over the rankings of appointments to the army. Adams was humiliated in this episode where the former president insisted that Hamilton serve as second in command, overriding Adams's preference to preserve the rankings in place from the Revolutionary War (those rankings would have placed Hamilton in third, behind Henry Knox and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney) (Adams 1856, 8:580; DeConde 1966, 97, 111).

With Hamilton second in command to an aging Washington, war with France, as Adams understood, meant Hamiltonian military leadership at home. It was in this context that Adams announced his intention to seek peace. Adams's nomination of William Vans Murray (a moderate Federalist) to serve as a new minister plenipotentiary to France left High Federalists “thunderstruck” and significantly damaged his standing in the party (Pickering, quoted in Elkins and McKitrick 1993, 618). According to historian Joseph Charles, the decision to pursue peace was “an act of political suicide for Adams, but the logical culmination of his views as to our best policy and his conception of the duties of his office” (1961, 62; Richardson 1896-99, 1:282-84). The decision to send a mission to France dashed the High Federalists' hopes for war and created a decisive break within Adams's party that may have cost him his reelection.8

As Adams later speculated, the likely alternative to a new mission was civil war. Reflecting on Hamilton's insistence that France send a mission to America (and not the other way around), Adams reasoned that “If [France] had not, or if they had delayed it, Hamilton would have continued as the head of the army—continual provocations and irritations would have taken place between the two nations, till one or the other would have declared war. In the meantime, it was my opinion then, and has been ever since, that the two parties in the United States would have broken out into a civil war; a majority of all the States to the southward of Hudson River, united with nearly half New England, would have raised an army under Aaron Burr, a majority of New England might have raised another army under Hamilton—Burr would have beat Hamilton to pieces, and what would have followed next let the prophets foretell” (Adams 1856, 9:294).

Adams disavowed the path of power-maximization within the Federalist Party—the path promising the best chance for his reelection. Indeed, he followed his unionist impulse to avoid open confrontation with the Republican states, thereby compounding the obstacles in the path of his own advancement. No one can say whether Hamilton's plan for war with France would have led to political violence between the states. This episode, nonetheless, casts into high relief the way in which unionist exigencies (both real and perceived) shaped a president's view of the available policy choices and his conception of the national interest. The circumstances of Adams's tenure, moreover, deeply influenced his own self-understanding. Adams advanced an identity as an isolated dissenter placed in a position of responsibility and encircled by ambitious, short-sighted men with little sense of the American people's state of mind. Adams's choices in this episode may be conceived as self-interested—it is possible that he drew some special satisfaction from his self-conception as a lonely voice willing to sacrifice himself for the public good. Such a motivation is only plausible as self-interest, however, if we expand, perhaps without limit, the category of self-interest itself. More plausibly, Adams was motivated by a sense of duty that transcended his personal and partisan interests, choosing a policy that carried the day at enormous cost to his own career.

James Monroe: Hidden-Hand Statesmanship

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Presidential Motives and the Early American State: a Polity-Centered Perspective
  4. John Adams: the President as Martyr
  5. James Monroe: Hidden-Hand Statesmanship
  6. Staying the Hand of Jacksonian Aggression
  7. James Madison: Underestimating the Empire
  8. James K. Polk: Pursuing a Balanced Imperialism
  9. Statesmanship and Restraint after the Civil War
  10. Conclusion
  11. References
  12. Biography

The United States weathered a different kind of political storm during Monroe's tenure in office. Monroe's handling of the Missouri Crisis was not merely an articulation of a politics “above” parties; his studied pragmatism also reflected a deep strategic understanding of the consequences that would be wrought if a party schism pitting slaveholding against nonslaveholding states emerged from an unsatisfactory settlement of the standoff.

Monroe was, no doubt, deeply influenced by an intellectual tradition that equated party with corruption (Ketcham 1984, 124-30). As he explained in a letter to Andrew Jackson,

Many men very distinguished for their talents are of the opinion that the existence of the federal party is necessary to keep union and order in the republican ranks, that is that free government cannot exist without parties. This is not my opinion. That the ancient republics were always divided into parties; that the English government is maintained by an opposition, that is by the existence of a party in opposition to the Ministry, I well know. But I think that the cause of these divisions is to be found in certain defects of those governments, rather than in human nature; and that we have happily avoided those defects in our system. (Monroe 2001, 475).

Party formation, in his view, was not the result of free citizens' tendency to fall into disagreements concerning matters of public importance; rather, party opposition was symptomatic of the defects of nonrepublican regimes. As president, he advanced a strategy to absorb the moderate elements of the Federalist Party into the Republican Party—a strategy that, he hoped, would lead to the ultimate elimination of party distinctions.

More, however, was at issue than the status of party in a republican system of government when Congressman James Tallmadge proposed an amendment to the Missouri Enabling Act of 1819 prohibiting the introduction of slaves into the new state. The Missouri Crisis was the first of several sectional crises that would define the high stakes politics of slavery's extension into the West during the antebellum era (see Fehrenbacher 1980). The standoff between restrictionists like Tallmadge, who wished to limit slavery's extension into the West, and anti-restrictionists, determined to permit its extension as far into the frontier as Americans traveled, was not a partisan battle per se; indeed, there were Republicans on both sides of the question. The Missouri question, nonetheless, foreshadowed the development of a sectional division between the parties.

Former president Madison anticipated the danger. Writing in the midst of the crisis in 1819, he observed that

Parties under some denomination or other must always be expected in a Govt. as free as ours. When the individuals belonging to them are intermingled in every part of the whole Country, they strengthen the Union of the Whole, while they divide every part. Should a State of parties arise, founded on geographic boundaries and other Physical & permanent distinctions which happen to coincide with them, what is to controul [sic] those great repulsive Masses from awful shocks agst. each other? (Madison 1910, 9:12).

Though the Tallmadge Amendment was not advanced to resurrect the Federalist Party under the banner of antislavery—as some insisted—the development of such a schism, whether intended or not, was well within the realm of possibility (Forbes 2007, 57-58, 75).

In his response to the crisis, Monroe proved himself to be a savvy tactician. According to historian Robert Pierce Forbes, Monroe led a group of “anti-slavery pragmatists” that would end the standoff by working with antirestrictionists but concealing their aim to settle for a compromise that would allow slavery in Missouri in exchange for a more general prohibition of slavery in the rest of the western territories. Forbes meticulously documents that the Monroe administration orchestrated a “coordinated and centrally directed campaign,” working through intermediaries who negotiated with legislators in “backrooms, saloons, boarding houses, and executive department offices” (Forbes 2007, 70, 91). Monroe and his representatives worked behind the scenes to peel off several key northern votes in the House to defeat the Tallmadge Amendment and to narrowly pass a compromise bill (Forbes 2007, 69-70). In so doing, Monroe helped to broker an arrangement that, ultimately, would admit Maine to the Union as a free state, Missouri as a slave state, and establish a northern limit of 36 degrees 30 minutes for the extension of slavery within the Louisiana Territory (Forbes 2007, chaps. 2 and 3).

In Monroe's view, the Missouri question presented northern interests with an opportunity to seize power by creating a new division of parties that would set northern and southern states against one another (see Monroe 2001, 516-17). Indeed, he was deeply unsettled to see zealous northern interests led in Congress by former Federalist, Rufus King of Massachusetts. King, some thirty years earlier during the Jay-Gardoqui negotiations with the Spanish king, betrayed (to Monroe's mind), a shocking willingness to sacrifice the interests of his southern and western brethren when it suited northern interests. Monroe had not forgotten this (Monroe 2001, 516-17). If King was willing to betray the South then, perhaps he was prepared to do it again? Indeed, the belief that northern restrictionists possessed a callous disregard for the integrity of the republic and would be willing to accept a separation of the South should the restrictionists fail to get their way heightened Monroe's sense of urgency (Ammon 1971, 454).

This way of conceptualizing the lay of the political land presented a problem for Monroe as he sought reelection in 1820. Monroe had become increasingly suspect among Virginia Republican elites for his nationalist views. Fellow Virginia Republicans had become increasingly vocal about the desirability of separation should northern restrictionists prevail on the Missouri question. Monroe was by no means the only voice of moderation among Virginia Republicans, but the number of pragmatists appeared to be dwindling. Monroe, nonetheless, needed the approval of fellow Republicans in caucus to secure a smooth reelection.

Monroe took a fairly significant electoral risk in hashing out a compromise deal (with the assistance of Senator James Barbour of Virginia, who played a central role in negotiations) and revealing its contents just as the nominating caucus was scheduled to meet. The deal, as it stood then, included all of the key points of the final compromise—and quite a few Virginia Republicans were set against it. Indeed, many—Barbour among them—worried that Monroe might not be renominated (Ammon 1953, 412-13).

According to William Plumer of New Hampshire,

This Missouri question has given rise to some movements in Virginia which show in how little estimation the President is held in his native state—They are about to select candidates for electors; & it is there, & here, distinctly announced, that, if Mr. Monroe consents to the bill which, it is thought, will pass both Houses, restricting slavery in the territories, they will look out for a new president. Should the bill pass, it will place the President in a sad dilemma. If he rejects it, acting under his threat he loses all the north, where his best friends now are—if he approves it, he is at open war with Virginia & the South. (Plumer 1926, 10)

Monroe and Barbour appealed to Virginians in an item appearing in the Richmond Enquirer, making the case that the compromise bill was the only certain hope for preserving union (Ammon 1971, 456). This step achieved its aim, corralling enough support within the caucus to secure Monroe's ultimate renomination. Yet as Ammon succinctly puts it, “Monroe had not won the support of Virginia, but only her neutrality” (1971, 456).

Monroe was operating with multiple-motives: as his biographer concluded, “Monroe was not just concerned about his re-election, but about the future of the Union, which he did not think could survive the formation of parties based on a North-South sectional alignment” (Ammon 1971, 454). These motives, however, were not comfortably aligned. Though Monroe was more fortunate than Adams (from an electoral standpoint), Monroe, like his Federalist predecessor, did not take the electoral path of least resistance: he engaged in a dynamic balancing act, weighing, as other antebellum presidents have, his electoral interests against his unionist aim to preempt a sectional division of parties.

Staying the Hand of Jacksonian Aggression

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Presidential Motives and the Early American State: a Polity-Centered Perspective
  4. John Adams: the President as Martyr
  5. James Monroe: Hidden-Hand Statesmanship
  6. Staying the Hand of Jacksonian Aggression
  7. James Madison: Underestimating the Empire
  8. James K. Polk: Pursuing a Balanced Imperialism
  9. Statesmanship and Restraint after the Civil War
  10. Conclusion
  11. References
  12. Biography

The constitutional crisis surrounding the enforcement of federal tariff laws in South Carolina presented Jackson with a conundrum not unlike that faced by Monroe. Like the Missouri Crisis, the Nullification Crisis foreshadowed the violent sectional schism to come. The emergence of a system of party governance, however, made new resources and strategies available to diffuse the confrontation and advance unionist purposes.

Jackson's initial approach to the Nullification Crisis placed the great party builder, Martin Van Buren (the vice president–elect at the time), in an awkward position. Van Buren was responsible for forging a hegemonic party coalition to place Jackson in office (Cole 1984; Silbey 2002). The new Democratic Party coalition, a confederation of state parties held together by a national convention system, was a formidable institutional innovation on the electoral scene. It was designed, as Van Buren famously explained in an 1827 letter to Thomas Ritchie, to preempt the development of a sectional division of the parties (Remini 1972, 3-7; Selinger 2012). The new party formation, in other words, was devised to neutralize those forces that were most threatening to the Union. An impulsive move by the Jackson administration that embarrassed states' rights advocates broadly supportive of the Democratic coalition could very well undo much of Van Buren's political work.

Jackson bristled at the provocation from South Carolina and was not averse to sounding nationalist themes even as he sought to accommodate the South through a reduced schedule of tariff rates. Jackson's annual message of December 1832, widely regarded as a conciliatory address in substance and tone, proposed a return to a revenue standard for import duties (Peterson 1982, 23; Richardson 1896-99, 2:591-606). Jackson, however, was more bellicose in his “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina” (known as the “Nullification Proclamation”), released only days later, as he made the case that he would not be soft on treason. As Van Buren cautiously explained to Jackson, his proclamation espoused a nationalist theory of the constitutional compact, a position that ran contrary to the “doctrines of the Jeffersonian school” and threatened to alienate partisan allies who were firm states' rights supporters, yet opposed to South Carolina's threats of disunion (see Jackson 1935, 4:505-7). Jackson's first maneuver (the annual message) guarded him against the charge of aggression, yet with the second (the Nullification Proclamation), he hoped to send the message that he was not intimidated by South Carolina's defiance. These contrasting messages were intellectually consistent; they operated, however, at cross-purposes: the benevolence of the message to Congress was undone by the aggressiveness of the proclamation (Skowronek 1997, 144-47).

With southern support for the administration shaken by his resurgent nationalism, the tide could turn against Jackson if he unduly provoked a violent confrontation and sacrificed the moral high ground of the administration. The Nullification Crisis, Van Buren estimated, had to be resolved peacefully in order to preserve the Democratic coalition—a coalition that itself was crafted to support the union. Anticipating the political ramifications of a bellicose posture, Van Buren sought to cultivate in Jackson a more moderate response to Calhoun, one that might both reaffirm the president's commitment to states' rights and nip the nullifiers' appeal to southern sectionalist sympathies in the bud. “You will say I am on my old track—caution—caution,” Van Buren acknowledged in a letter to Jackson. However,

The extent to which the hopes of the people rest upon you and the intense anxiety that nothing should be done that can be avoided, which lessens the chances of an amicable adjustment, will ensure, if they do not require, the observance of a greater degree of caution than might otherwise be deemed necessary. (Jackson 1935, 4:507)

Van Buren correctly surmised that a gentle handling of party affiliates was necessary to preserve the foundations of the new national party. Party maintenance could isolate South Carolina and avert a violent showdown; deference to partisan allies might also contribute to the long-term strategy of advancing the Jacksonian Democrats' program and thwarting sectionally divisive forces building elsewhere in the polity. As Van Buren understood, if the party stays together, the Union stays together. Emergent party institutions, in this manner, transformed the way unionist aims were met.

Van Buren finessed the constitutional rift raised by Jackson's Nullification Proclamation by arguing, in a report written for the New York legislature, that the people of the individual states—not the people of the nation as a whole or the state governments per se—were the ultimate sovereign authority in the American constitutional system. This conclusion affirmed a notion of state sovereignty, yet denied states the right to nullify or secede (Cole 1993, 174). Furthermore, in response to Jackson's Force Bill Message, Van Buren suggested that Jackson would be wise to refrain from any unnecessary show of executive and military authority (Freehling 1966, 287; Jackson 1935, 5:19-21).

Jackson heeded Van Buren's warnings, assuming a more reserved role as the crisis progressed. Southern support for the nullifiers' cause failed to materialize, thanks, in part, to the administration's relative restraint (Cole 1993, 167, 179; Freehling 1966, 284-85).

The crises of sovereignty met by Adams, Monroe, and Jackson were not all of apiece. Adams took steps to neutralize a militant party faction ascendant in his own administration; Monroe helped to orchestrate a grand national bargain to settle a sectional schism between the states; Jackson, for his part, aimed to isolate a defiant state intent upon repudiating federal authority. These are noteworthy cases that cast a basic condition of governance in the early national and antebellum periods in high relief. The antebellum presidents all operated in a setting where geographically concentrated dissenters could plausibly challenge federal authority with separatist claims.

In each instance, unionist sensibilities were tailored to different strategic circumstances at hand. They shared in common, nonetheless, a pragmatic and risk-averse posture that could not be simply attributed to utilitarian or partisan, programmatic motives.

Unionism manifested itself in different ways in each of these cases, yet it would be a mistake to conclude that these presidents were self-denying statesmen, all ready to fall of their swords to perpetuate the union between the states. Indeed, they each did what they could to square the perceived exigencies of the circumstances with their ambitions. It would also go too far to suggest that this calculus of interests—weighing their own ambitions against or in the context of a structural exigency to thwart separatism—always tipped the scales decisively in favor of risk-averse, pragmatic styles of leadership. Indeed, some presidents simply failed to see the ways in which their partisan or programmatic motives might come into conflict with their larger unionist purposes. Madison and Polk are notable examples. In both cases, however, the unionist commitments of these presidents shaped their decision making once the tension between their ambitions and the integrity of the Union became apparent.

James Madison: Underestimating the Empire

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Presidential Motives and the Early American State: a Polity-Centered Perspective
  4. John Adams: the President as Martyr
  5. James Monroe: Hidden-Hand Statesmanship
  6. Staying the Hand of Jacksonian Aggression
  7. James Madison: Underestimating the Empire
  8. James K. Polk: Pursuing a Balanced Imperialism
  9. Statesmanship and Restraint after the Civil War
  10. Conclusion
  11. References
  12. Biography

The difficulties of navigating a neutral course in the contest between France and Britain continued into Madison's tenure as president. Whereas Jefferson sought to enforce an embargo in the face of widespread public resistance, the Madison administration prosecuted a war bitterly opposed by the Federalist Party in opposition. After briefly considering a “triangular war” (a war with both France and Britain), Madison and fellow Republicans threw down the gauntlet, choosing sides in the European conflict by declaring war against Great Britain (Madison 1884, 2:535). A confluence of disparate sectional interests galvanized Republican support for war in 1812. The strongest proponents for war were westerners who believed that Britain was using its base in Canada to stoke Native American aggression in the territories. A belief that British Orders in Council were responsible for declining tobacco and cotton prices further goaded western war sentiments (Perkins 1961, 287-88). Southerners hoped to foster support for their claims to Florida by backing war on Canada, and northerners, for their part, believed that seizing Canada would shift the balance of power in the Union toward the free states. Congressman Felix Grundy of Tennessee expressed these sentiments in a speech to the House, making the case that territorial expansion was essential to secure widely shared unionist aims:

I am willing to receive the Canadians as adopted brethren. It will have beneficial political effects; it will preserve the equilibrium of the government. When Louisiana shall be fully peopled, the Northern States will lose their power; they will be at the discretion of others; they can be depressed at pleasure, and then this Union might be endangered. I therefore feel anxious not only to add the Floridas to the South, but the Canadas to the North of this empire. (Quoted in Adams 1986, 392)

Historian Bradford Perkins reduced American motives to a simple logic: “The central, universal theme” for proponents of war was to “strike at Canada, the most vulnerable British target, the easiest way to inflict punishment and extort concession” (1961, 289).

Unlike Adams, who was similarly pressured by prowar forces within his party, Madison chose to lead his party into battle. There was an important difference, however, between the way Adams and Madison appraised their circumstances. Even though the path of war, in both instances, was certain to be highly divisive and to polarize the parties, Madison did not perceive a threat to the Union because he, and so many others, believed that the undertaking would be limited in cost and duration. Indeed, it was an article of faith among Republicans of various stripes that the war would be quick and easy (Rutland 1990, 105-08 Taylor 2010, 140-41). Madison calculated that a limited war with an early conquest of Canada would soften antiwar sentiment and contain any great schism that might emerge between the parties (Rutland 1990).

Despite his failure to anticipate the difficulty of the conflict and the strains that war would place on the young republic, Madison acted in accord with prevailing notions of sectional balance. Indeed, here was the leader of the Republican Party—a party whose base of strength was disproportionately concentrated in the southern, western, and mid-Atlantic states, advancing an initiative whose primary foreseeable gain would expand the northern section of the Union. Such an expansion, had it been achieved, would have proven a significant boon to the political and economic strength of New England.

Madison's notion of balance, however, was not shared by New England Federalists. Indeed, Congress's declaration of war prompted deep disenchantment in the northern reaches of the Union. New England Federalists initially sought redress for their grievances within the confines of the political system. They supported DeWitt Clinton, a “peace” Republican, in the presidential election of 1812, to no avail. Facing defeat for the fourth consecutive presidential election, Federalist politics thereafter took a radical turn. Indeed, talk of disunion was tempered only by amusement at the federal government's inept prosecution of the war (see Adams 1877). Neither the president nor Congress seemed to be up to the task of war making. Madison, in fact, acknowledged that the country was not prepared for war when Congress issued its declaration. Only declared war, he maintained, would galvanize political support to build the ranks of the army and navy (Madison 1884, 2:562).

With the federal government's finances in dire straights after years of embargo, Congress was unwilling to raise an army appropriate to the task of providing for the general defense. It instead relied heavily upon the states to defend the country. The states controlled by Federalists, however, were unwilling to contribute to the effort, opting instead to keep their forces within state lines in a self-defense posture. Massachusetts and Connecticut, most notably, refused to commit their militia to the service of the federal government—even though the Militia Act of 1792 required them to do so when called upon by the president (Smelser 1968, 291; Stagg 1983, 477).

Provoked by a new federal embargo passed in December 1813, Federalists took their opposition a step further. This embargo appeared to Federalists to be a vengeful, punitive measure directed at the New England states, since the British blockade had already effectively shut down commerce throughout the rest of the nation. At this juncture, Massachusetts Federalists mobilized political leadership, mostly from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, to assemble and decide upon a course of action to protest the federal government's war measures. They met in Hartford, Connecticut, and issued a report proposing seven constitutional amendments that, taken together, constituted an ambitious wish list certain to be resisted by the South and West (Banner 1970, 341-42; original reprinted in Commager 1958, 209-11). The report, however, proposed that a second convention be held in Boston in mid-June if the proposed amendments were rejected, war continued, or if the national government continued to neglect the defense of New England (Banner 1970, 342). What a second convention would have asserted is a matter for speculation only. Few options, however, would have remained for the Federalists other than to declare neutrality for the New England states (Banner 1970, 343n.8). New England Federalists were already thinking along these lines. The governor of Massachusetts, in fact, sent an emissary to Canada in November of 1814 to inquire about the prospects for a separate peace (Martell 1938).

News of widespread smuggling in New England and Federalist plans to convene in Hartford prompted deliberations within Madison's cabinet about an appropriate response. The administration was largely unable and unwilling to meet most of the Federalists' demands. Indeed, Congress and the president had already repealed (in April of 1814) the much-maligned embargo, though this measure was taken, not so much to assuage Federalist discontent, but to aid neutral European trading partners (Stagg 1983, 381, 383-85). Federalists, moreover, appeared to be demanding an end of the war at all costs—even if doing so meant (for Republicans) national humiliation. The Madison administration, in a manner comparable to Jackson's handling of the Nullifiers, sought, instead, to isolate the disunionists politically and militarily. Instead of leaving the defense of New England to itself, Madison moved to organize a force to repulse the British from the district of Maine, showcasing to New Englanders the Republicans' commitment to their protection. This effort, however, was not to be as Governor Caleb Strong (whose support was necessary for such an initiative), appeared to have undermined the project: possibly preferring to end the hostilities than expand them, Strong likely leaked information of the planned expedition (which appeared in the Boston Centinel for all—including the British—to see) (Stagg 1983, 476).

Unable to go forward with the Maine expedition, the administration took steps to ensure that New England Republicans would not be intimidated by their Federalist opponents into supporting disunionist measures (Stagg 1983, 477-78). The administration dispatched troops to Connecticut to prevent local interference in army recruitment efforts, relocated troops to Greenbush, New York (conveniently located near the western border of Connecticut and Massachusetts), and, as a precaution, prepared to take control of the federal armory in Springfield, Massachusetts (Stagg 1983, 477-78). The war, however, ended only days after the conclusion of the Hartford Convention, so none of these measures would be necessary.

Madison's (and the Republicans') campaign to secure territorial gains that would have, in effect, strengthened the political and economic power of the opposing party's regional base of support, ironically introduced a deep sectional schism. Had the conflict continued much longer, “Mr. Madison's War” might very well have led to a separation of the New England states. Madison, a staunch unionist, knew better than most that “A; [sic] small proportion of the Community in a compact situation, acting on the defensive, and at one of its extremities might at any time bid defiance to the National authority” (Farrand 1966, 1:164-65). Despite his deep appreciation of the importance of sectional balance, Madison's underestimation of Great Britain's capacity to defend its colonial holdings in Canada led the republic into the conundrum that Madison so feared in 1787.

James K. Polk: Pursuing a Balanced Imperialism

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Presidential Motives and the Early American State: a Polity-Centered Perspective
  4. John Adams: the President as Martyr
  5. James Monroe: Hidden-Hand Statesmanship
  6. Staying the Hand of Jacksonian Aggression
  7. James Madison: Underestimating the Empire
  8. James K. Polk: Pursuing a Balanced Imperialism
  9. Statesmanship and Restraint after the Civil War
  10. Conclusion
  11. References
  12. Biography

Madison had little inclination to temper fellow partisans' hunger for new territory—or to caution against the potential consequences of their acquisitive demands; Polk, by contrast, led the Democratic charge for territorial aggrandizement. This difference in initiative notwithstanding, Polk's agenda was cautioned by a similar initial premise: balance. As the leader of a party and a polity increasingly divided by demands for “equal justice,” Polk aimed to secure gains that would satisfy northern, western, and mid-Atlantic constituents (the Oregon Territory), and their southern counterparts (on the Mexican frontier). Polk, moreover, was driven by the desire not just to extend the accomplishments of the predecessor he so revered (Jackson), but to leave his own mark on a resilient Democratic regime (Skowronek 1997). After failing to follow through on his promise of expansion in the Northwest (despite his considerable effort), Polk turned to the Southwest to secure his legacy. The border dispute with Mexico presented an inviting opportunity to solidify his own place in history with new territorial gains and a heroic military confrontation. Polk was surprised by the destabilizing impact his acts of self-assertion would have on the equilibrium within his party and between the slaveholding and the non-slaveholding states (Sellers 1987, 476, 483; Skowronek 1997, 174).

Not all Democrats were eager for war with Mexico. Many in the North and West were disgruntled by Polk's willingness to compromise with Britain in negotiations for the Oregon Territory; some were also frustrated with his support for free trade and alleged that his administration harbored a sectional (prosouthern) bias. The South, however, was not uniformly supportive of the adventure in the Southwest. Some influential southerners—Calhoun, in particular—were reluctant to support a war with Mexico, a project that risked a sectional conflict with relatively little payoff for the slave-holding states (Howe 2007, 742). Calhoun and likeminded politicians strongly supported the annexation of Texas, but California and New Mexico, unlike Texas, were seen as inhospitable to the extension of slavery. Many Whigs who opposed Polk's war preferred to avoid the whole question of slavery by endorsing a policy of “No Territory”—effectively abstaining from future acquisitions of new land (Howe 2007, 764, 828; Morrison 1992).

To no one's surprise, Mexico's underresourced military was no match for the forces collected by the growing industrial power to the north. As the war drew to a close, Polk submitted a request to Congress for $2 million to serve as a down payment for any land purchased from Mexico through peace negotiations. Polk's appeal for funds presented an opening for discontented Democrats and Whigs to thwart the president's ambitions. A Pennsylvania Democrat, David Wilmot, took advantage of the opportunity, introducing an amendment to exclude slavery from any territory purchased with these funds.

The Wilmot Proviso caused a great stir both because it cast a shadow on the territorial rewards of the Mexican War and because of the friction it would have created with the Missouri Compromise: the proviso would have prohibited the introduction of slavery into the newly acquired territory south of 36 degrees 30 minutes, contrary (in the view of many) to the spirit of the Missouri Compromise.9 In his zeal to seize a prize for his party and his presidency, Polk failed to anticipate the sectional schism his achievements would expose. Polk was taken aback by the controversy in part because he didn't believe that slavery would ever, in fact, take hold in the inhospitable lands of New Mexico and California (Bergeron 1987, 207). There was, he reasoned, no need for Congress to involve itself and legislate on the matter either way (Bergeron 1987, 208). Given the assumptions he was working with, the Wilmot Proviso appeared to him to be a pernicious distraction and a gratuitous provocation of the slaveholding states.

Once the danger that a wider division between the North and the South (and within the Democratic Party itself) was evident, Polk aggressively mobilized the resources of his administration to settle the question. In pursuit of a compromise that would permit the territorial organization of the newly acquired lands, Polk resolved to extend the Missouri Compromise line westward (McCormac 1922, 639-40), personally intervening in congressional negotiations (as he confessed, “an unusual step for the Executive to take, but the emergency demands it”), and dispatching separate contingents of his cabinet to lobby northern and southern congressmen (quoted in Bergeron 1987, 210). Anxious to organize territorial governments for New Mexico and California over the objections of antislavery northern congressmen and uncompromising Southern legislators like Calhoun, Polk exclaimed, in evident frustration, “I put my face alike against southern agitators and Northern fanatics, & should do everything in my power to allay excitement by adjusting the question of slavery & preserving the Union” (quoted in McCormac 1922, 650-51).

Polk's territorial ambitions reopened old sectional wounds and hastened the collapse of the second party system. Indeed, the president's initiatives prompted a revolt in his party by northern Van Buren Democrats (the “Barnburners”), who united with “Conscience” Whigs and members of the Liberty Party to form the Free Soil Party. By the 1850s, these new alignments would produce a new, more durable party formation, the Republican Party, which was firmly committed to preventing the extension of slavery into the territories. Henry Clay (among many others) correctly gauged the consequences of Polk's leadership: in an address given in 1847, he foresaw that “The sterile lands of Mexico might prove a fatal acquisition, producing distraction, dissension, division, and possibly disunion” (quoted in Howe 2007, 828). Critics like Clay alleged that Polk's failure to anticipate the likely consequences of his ambition pushed the country down a path to civil war.

Polk, however, sought to compensate for the difficulties his leadership produced by brokering a settlement that would allay the new divisions in Congress. Polk was not able to do so within his term in office (which expired in 1849); California achieved statehood and New Mexico was organized as a territorial government in 1850. Polk, nonetheless, concluded his presidency in a consensual leadership posture comparable, in many ways, to Monroe's stance in office. Indeed, Polk found himself, like Monroe, acting as a crucial intermediary on the slavery question, forced to take a stance (in favor of the Missouri Compromise line) on an issue that was not really his concern; indeed, his most-preferred position was to take no position on the status of slavery in the newly acquired territories. Yet here he was, like his fellow antebellum presidents, weighed down by a special burden to balance his programmatic motives against the constraints imposed by the ever-present specter of disunion.

Statesmanship and Restraint after the Civil War

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Presidential Motives and the Early American State: a Polity-Centered Perspective
  4. John Adams: the President as Martyr
  5. James Monroe: Hidden-Hand Statesmanship
  6. Staying the Hand of Jacksonian Aggression
  7. James Madison: Underestimating the Empire
  8. James K. Polk: Pursuing a Balanced Imperialism
  9. Statesmanship and Restraint after the Civil War
  10. Conclusion
  11. References
  12. Biography

The responsibility to balance programmatic motives against the exigency to preserve the Union was less pressing after the republic emerged from the wreckage of the Civil War. The defeat of the Confederacy minimized the risk of disunion and the threat posed by opposition arrayed “in a compact situation.” Presidents had little reason to fear, as they once had, that polarizing political divisions would produce a secessionist crisis.

The post–Civil War presidents, nonetheless, faced challenges to the vital interests of the polity that would call upon them to pursue ends that were clearly short of their most-preferred policy outcomes. Eisenhower's management of the standoff with Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus is a case in point. In this instance, Eisenhower was presented with a highly salient and forthright challenge to the rule of law—a challenge that a president, duty bound to see the laws of the land executed, could not disregard. Yet this most basic governing commitment ran contrary, not merely to his personal opposition to court-ordered desegregation, but also to his party's strategic aims, through “Operation Dixie,” to bring new constituencies from the solidly Democratic South into the Republican fold (Galvin 2010, 63-69). Eisenhower held fast to the responsibilities of his office and, in so doing, delivered a significant blow to his party's hopes for southern support.

George H. W. Bush, for his part, was confronted with a different sort of dilemma, but one that nonetheless pressed him to advance policy outcomes that ran contrary to his own policy preferences and his electoral self-interest. Bush faced a modern presidential dilemma largely of his predecessor's making. The fiscal crisis he met was precipitated by Ronald Reagan's budget priorities and exacerbated by recession. Charged with the uniquely modern presidential burden of economic management, Bush cut a deal with congressional Democrats that violated his pledge on taxes and was predictably received by conservative activists as a betrayal of the party orthodoxy (Skowronek 1997). Bush did what was necessary to secure the fiscal health of the polity (see King and Alston 1991, 262-63, 277), yet in so doing, considerably damaged his standing in the party and his reelection prospects going forward. Indeed, in a manner reminiscent of John Adams's commitment to pursue peace with France (dividing his party months before the election of 1800), Bush acted in accord with his own sense of responsible policy making, fracturing the Republican Party coalition and compromising his chances for reelection in advance of the 1992 presidential election.10

American presidents would be tested in new ways after the Civil War. Eisenhower's handling of the desegregation standoff in Arkansas and Bush's negotiation of a deficit-reduction deal, though treated in a cursory fashion here, illustrate how new challenges to America's vital interests would press the post–Civil War (and in these instances, modern) presidents to restrain their preference maximizing inclinations. Other post–Civil War presidents would be similarly induced to balance their self-interested aims. Indeed, the “long” twentieth century witnessed two red scares, two world wars, a cold war, and a global war on terrorism; the United States has also seen its share of political violence and protest. American presidents have always faced governing exigencies, but the nature of these exigencies have changed over time as one great challenge to the constitutional order is succeeded by another. Yet not all governing crises are equal: they differ not merely in terms of what is at stake, but more importantly (for our purposes), how the matter at issue organizes contending forces within the polity and how the range of plausible governmental responses are delimited by the structural arrangements in place at the time. Some emergencies divide Americans sectionally while others divide Americans by class or ideology across geographic space. Some challenge entrenched modes of governance while others reinforce existing political practices. American presidents have always been pressed to act as statesmen; what this role entails and the remedies presidents have at their disposal to follow through on their perceived responsibilities have, however, changed with the political development of the republic.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Presidential Motives and the Early American State: a Polity-Centered Perspective
  4. John Adams: the President as Martyr
  5. James Monroe: Hidden-Hand Statesmanship
  6. Staying the Hand of Jacksonian Aggression
  7. James Madison: Underestimating the Empire
  8. James K. Polk: Pursuing a Balanced Imperialism
  9. Statesmanship and Restraint after the Civil War
  10. Conclusion
  11. References
  12. Biography

Presidents, like other political actors, do not construct the stages on which they perform.11 The “stage” is constructed through past disputes and negotiations pertaining to matters that are often quite distinct from those the “actors” contest. The institutions that define the parameters of action represent the accumulated residuum of past power struggles. The unionist restraint of the antebellum presidents, showcased in such episodes as the Quasi-War with France, the Missouri Crisis, and the Nullification Crisis, was shaped in no small part by past political settlements—settlements that constituted a de-centered polity fraught by sectionally divisive policy questions.

An emphasis on such basic structural dimensions of the political landscape stands at odds with the focus of some prominent scholars of the presidency. Consider, for example, Charles Cameron's focus on the games presidents play. “Among these many games,” he explains, “are the Supreme Court nominations game, the veto game, the executive order game, the treaty ratification game, the legislative leadership game, the agency supervision and management game, the commander-in-chief game, the staffing game, the executive reorganization game, the opinion leadership game, and the impeachment game. Understanding the presidency means understanding these games” (2000b, 47 emphasis in the original; see Sheingate 2007). Attention to the formal rules governing these games should be of central concern to political scientists. Yet presidents cannot always be understood as “players” out to win against adversaries competing in the same game; placed in a position of high responsibility, they have to confront exigencies of governance even when the choices they make entail losses in power. To fairly capture the complex motivations that animate presidential leadership, political scientists may have to go beyond the rules that immediately surround the decision-making process of interest (the immediate “game” in play) and consider the ways in which the structural makeup of the polity itself shapes the aims and preferences presidents advance.

Footnotes
  1. 1

    For the sake of brevity and convenience, I will take the meaning of the word “antebellum” literally and refer to all of the presidents who governed before the Civil War—including those who held office during the early national period—as antebellum presidents.

  2. 2

    “Statesmanship,” for the purposes of this article, refers to a president's willingness to meet the exigencies facing the polity as a whole, whether or not doing so accords with his electoral interests or policy preferences. For a definition of statesmanship as a capacity rather than a motive or will, see (Mansfield 1965, 17).

  3. 3

    Unionism, as such, has received some attention from scholars of American political thought and development. David Hendrickson treats unionism as an ideological paradigm comparable to American liberalism and republicanism (2003, 2009). Rogan Kersh, for his part, emphasizes the diverse usages of “union” in the history of American political thought, noting the decline of the term in the vernacular in the 1890s (2001).

  4. 4

    Compare this claim with B. Dan Wood's finding that presidents since Eisenhower have tended to eschew more centrist approaches to political representation and instead follow more partisan and divisive leadership paths. With the exception of an opening discussion of George Washington's support for the Jay Treaty, Wood does not examine the leadership strategies of presidents before Eisenhower (Wood 2009a; see also Wood 2009b).

  5. 5

    See Skowronek and Glassman (2007) on the distinction between actor and polity-centered perspectives on decision-making and political change.

  6. 6

    Fighting ended with the Treaty of Amiens, signed March 27, 1802, only to resume again in 1803.

  7. 7

    For an excellent survey of this debate, see Harper (2004, 227-28).

  8. 8

    Adams, to be sure, believed (and historian Stephen Kurtz agrees) that the president could have won in 1800 without the support of Hamilton's faction. Kurtz notes, nonetheless, that Adams pursued a suboptimal reelection strategy, pointing out that Adams's “re-election would have been assured had he followed the Hamiltonian line.” As Kurtz explains, Adams pursued peace with France to avert domestic conflict: “To sacrifice both conscience and domestic peace for another term of office seemed too high a price [for Adams]” (1957, 394).

  9. 9

    Strictly speaking, the Missouri Compromise line permitting slavery south of 36° 30 minutes only applied to the Missouri territory—it did not apply to the far West. Many, however, viewed the Compromise line as the definitive boundary between free and slave territory not just for the Missouri territory, but for all of America's territorial possessions.

  10. 10

    I am grateful to Bruce Miroff and Stephen Skowronek for suggesting that I include George H. W. Bush in this analysis.

  11. 11

    This observation is a variation on Eric Hobsbawm's insight that “the evident importance of the actors in the drama … does not mean that they are also dramatist, producer, and stage-designer” (Quoted in Skocpol 1979, 18).

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Presidential Motives and the Early American State: a Polity-Centered Perspective
  4. John Adams: the President as Martyr
  5. James Monroe: Hidden-Hand Statesmanship
  6. Staying the Hand of Jacksonian Aggression
  7. James Madison: Underestimating the Empire
  8. James K. Polk: Pursuing a Balanced Imperialism
  9. Statesmanship and Restraint after the Civil War
  10. Conclusion
  11. References
  12. Biography
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  • Adams, Henry. 1986. History of the United States of America during the Administrations of James Madison. New York: Library of America.
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  • Ammon, Harry. 1953. “The Richmond Junto, 1800-1824.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 61: 395-418.
  • Ammon, Harry. 1971. James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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Biography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Presidential Motives and the Early American State: a Polity-Centered Perspective
  4. John Adams: the President as Martyr
  5. James Monroe: Hidden-Hand Statesmanship
  6. Staying the Hand of Jacksonian Aggression
  7. James Madison: Underestimating the Empire
  8. James K. Polk: Pursuing a Balanced Imperialism
  9. Statesmanship and Restraint after the Civil War
  10. Conclusion
  11. References
  12. Biography
  • Jeffrey S. Selinger is an assistant professor in the Department of Government and Legal Studies at Bowdoin College. He is presently completing a book manuscript entitled Making Parties Safe for Democracy Political Development and the Lineage of Legitimate Party Opposition in the United States.