The presidency


Alexander Hamilton was the first great theorist of the American executive. He believed that a vigorous president was necessary for the flourishing of the republic, that the president had to possess core virtues (a strong sense of justice, commitment to the national interest, prudence, courage), and that it was essential to create a selection process to weed out demagogues who would manipulate public fears, vanities, and prejudices to acquire and maintain power.

This “soul” was “lost” very soon after the Founding itself. Washington was a perfect embodiment of the Hamiltonian presidency . . . but Thomas Jefferson’s misguided faith in popular sovereignty led to an ineluctable process of presidential democratization. With this came all sorts of problems endemic to majoritarian tyranny: prejudice toward ethnic and racial minorities, undermining of the rule of law, and the proliferation of political corruption. The first truly demagogic president in Knott’s view was Andrew Jackson, and the “lowlights” of presidential governance include Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and above all Donald Trump, the “apotheosis of the popular presidency.”