Presidents Day is coming up here in the U.S. on Monday, and while these days there really are not any traditions to speak of for this holiday, it is a good opportunity to reflect on the limitations of that office. Technically the holiday is the official celebration of the birthday of George Washington. However its proximity to the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, not to mention laziness in both academia and in the popular press, has turned it into a day when we celebrate all of the U.S. Presidents. Thanks to our incessant need for advertising of course, we are being bombarded this long weekend with images of Washington, Lincoln, and others – even non-Presidents like Benjamin Franklin – trying to sell us cars, bed linens, and so on.
That being said, Washington himself is someone for whom all Americans ought to be deeply grateful to Providence, particularly when we look at how the office of Prime Minister or President in other countries can lead to the implementation of policies completely at odds with the will of the people whom they govern. Cousin George (he is a distant relation) did not make himself a king by setting up an American monarchy and accompanying aristocracy, even though he was certainly popular enough to do so. Nor did he cling to power once he achieved it, but instead reluctantly served two terms and stepped down, leaving the office to his political successors rather than to his relations.
Yet historically speaking, our Presidents have not always known when to reign themselves in; we see occasions throughout our history when they have become drunk on power and their own opinion of themselves. One reason why we have two-term limits for Presidents today for example, is because of the inability of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to cede power. We are often told that thanks to Roosevelt’s inspiration, America got through the Great Depression and World War II, and no doubt he must be remembered for that service. Yet we should also be aware that he was incredibly power-hungry, as we learned from his breath-taking attempts to bend the Supreme Court to his will.
In the 1930’s when FDR and his brain trust came up with sweeping legislation to get Americans to work and to create the foundations of the social welfare system, to his fury he found that lawsuits were being brought against some aspects of his plans, challenging their constitutionality. Upset that conservatives on the Supreme Court were determining aspects of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” to be unconstitutional, Roosevelt attempted to pass legislation that would have allowed him to pack the Supreme Court with his own appointees, in order to pursue his agenda. You can learn more about this often-forgotten chapter of American history in Jeff Shesol’s fascinating book, “Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court”.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis – certainly not the most conservative of jurists – reacted to the news that FDR was going to attempt to manipulate the Supreme Court with the kind of gravitas with which the old look at the impatient, doomed-to-failure plans of those younger and more foolish than themselves. On February 5, 1937, Roosevelt sent attorney Thomas Corcoran to hand-deliver a press release to Brandeis before the proverbial poo hit the fan, as Shesol describes:
The president has sent me, Corcoran said. He handed Brandeis a press release. If there had been any way to exclude you from the plan, Corcoran continued, the president would have done so; no offense was intended. Brandeis scrutinized the release, was silent for a moment, then looked up. He asked Corcoran to thank the president for the courtesy. But “tell your president,” Brandeis said gravely, “he has made a great mistake. All he had to do was wait a little while. I’m sorry for him.” Corcoran wondered what Brandeis meant by “wait,” but lacked the nerve to ask. With that, Brandeis shook the young man’s hand and passed through the red velvet curtain.
Fortunately for all of us Roosevelt’s plans eventually fell apart, and after he died during his fourth term in office, Americans had the common sense to pass legislation preventing a President from staying in power again for so long, in so doing looking back to the example of Washington for inspiration.
So as we near George Washington’s official birthday celebration, we Americans can still hope that the tension between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of government will provide at least the possibility for compromise, and also for prevent those in power from riding roughshod over the will of the people. Unlike in countries such as Britain, France, and Russia, the head of the ruling political party in the United States does not always get his way. And that, in my view at least, is a very good thing indeed, as no doubt Washington himself would agree.
Detail of “Portrait of George Washington” by Rembrandt Peale (c. 1823)
The White House