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Making Sense of Presidential Restraint: Foundational Arrangements and Executive Decision Making before the Civil War


  • AUTHOR'S NOTE: I wish to thank Janet Martin, Andrew Rudalevige, Nicholas Toloudis, and the editors of this symposium, Bruce Miroff and Stephen Skowronek, for their insightful feedback and commentary.


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.