Presidents Above Party has as its subject the question of how the first six presidents understood “what it meant to be virtuous in public life” (p. xi) and how this understanding guided them in shaping the presidency. Ralph Ketcham attempts to illuminate this question by focusing on how these men conceived of the relationship between political parties and statesmanship.
This focus is the book’s greatest strength and greatest weakness: It provides a subject at once interesting and important, yet one which is simply unmanageable for this study. Either a consideration of the early presidents’ ideas of party or a study of their conception of the requirements of statesmanship could have been a work of tremendous value. However, the attempt to combine the two subjects and deal not only with the thought of all six presidents, but also the thought of Franklin, Hamilton, Jackson, and Van Buren (with some consideration of the thought of the Puritans) all in 250 pages, is simply too much. As a result, the book has diffuse quality, and the treatment of each president’s thought is superficial, so that the work as a whole remains more intriguing than enlightening. Furthermore, in attempting to deal with this massive subject, Ketcham resorts to trying to fit it all into a framework he has drawn from seventeenth century England: the conflict between Bolingbroke and Walpole. In Ketcham’s model, Bolingbroke stands for public virtue, a. distrust of the entrepreneurial spirit, and contempt for party. Walpole, on the other hand, stands for the glorification of commerce, acceptance of party, and the equation of public virtue with private vice.
Unlike some, who identify the American Founding with Ketcham’s Walpolean catalogue, Ketcham argues that the Founders adhered rather to the model presented by Bolingbroke. Indeed, one of the significant contributions of this work is Ketcham’s convincing demonstration that the Founders (at least those who became president) no more thought that they had constructed a regime which would function effectively in the absence of virtue-both on the part of the people and on the part of the rulers-than they thought that pigs could fly. Thus the idea of the patriotic (i.e., virtuous) leader was of fundamental importance to the early presidents.
Ketcham argues that this idea can be traced to the Augustan giants Pope, Swift, and of course, Bolingbroke. In opposing Walpolean modernism, they upheld a “classical” ideal of public life as more than just a collection of self-interested individuals exchanging commodities, and therefore of statesmanship as more than merely securing the conditions of material prosperity.
In adopting this ideal of the dignity of public life, the early presidents accepted as well the responsibilities of statesmanship which would foster such dignity. Thus, to them statesmanship meant much more than simple administration of government. It meant setting the moral tone for the community-something attempted by strategies as diverse as John Adams’s attempt to attach elaborate titles and ceremonies to the office of the president so as to discourage any “aristocratical pride” in the Senate, and Jefferson’s reception of foreign dignitaries in “republican” house slippers (pp. 95 and 108). It meant as well directing the nation’s energies to communal purposes (expansion and internal improvements); and, most importantly, fostering a moral and intellectual community suitable for the maintenance of republican liberty. To this end, the first six presidents all supported the idea of a national university, the curriculum of which would emphasize “the science of government”; for, “in a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important . . . to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?” (Washington, Message to Congress, December 10, 1796). this idea rather gained than lost strength with the passage of time, with John Quincy Adams adding to the proposal a national observatory, because “our country had contracted the engagement to contribute her share of mind, of labor, and of expense to the improvement of those parts of knowledge which lie beyond the reach of individual acquisition” (p. 136).
The early presidents conceived of the government as an agent for the edification of the citizens, not only because such edification was noble in itself, but also because it was essential to free government. These presidents understood that republican liberty depended on public education in virtue. Their role, as they saw it, was to provide a model of virtuous citizenship for the emulation of the country.
Crucial to this role was the president’s independence from factious influence-the president, like a wife, must be above reproach. Thus they found it proper to eschew any formal partisan affiliation or activity. Even Jefferson, who effected the Revolution of 1800 at the head of a party, did not accept the legitimacy of a permanent two-party system once that revolution had been accomplished: “We are all republicans-we are all federalists.”
In Ketcham’s analysis, the acceptance of presidential partisanship is Walpolean. Hence he maintains that the election of Jackson constituted an abrupt end to the era of patriotic leadership, and the acceptance of an enervated, Mandevillean conception of republican statesmanship: “after a century, it seemed, Bernard Mandeville and Daniel Defoe had triumphed over Pope and Bolingbroke” (p. 152).
Unfortunately, Ketcham’s portrayal of the change in official attitude toward partisanship, and the effect that change had on the notion of public virtue—what should be the core of his study—is singularly unenlightening. In the first place, his discussion of the change is more chronological than analytical: Martin Van Buren seems to drop deus ex machina (in this case, a party machine) onto the stage of American politics. More importantly, however, his attempt to fit the American experience into his model requires what only with great charity can be described as oversimplification (rather than absolute distortion) of the Jacksonian presidency.
Ketcham presents Jackson as essentially Walpole from Tennessee: “Jackson assumed that the public good required of government no more than the removal of impediments to private enterprise,” and therefore accepted a party system which consisted in “bringing ordinary citizens into the process of government, both through direct officeholding and by cementing their loyalty to a permanent political party” (pp. 150, 153). Consider, however, the following passage from Jackson’s Farewell Address:
No free government can stand without virtue in the people and a lofty spirit of patriotism, and if the sordid feelings of mere selfishness shall usurp the place which ought to be filled by public spirit, the legislation of Congress will soon be converted info a scramble for personal and sectional advantages.
This is the work of a man who thinks that “the public good required of government no more than the removal of impediments to private enterprise”? Hardly. Clearly, Jackson had a more developed idea of public virtue than private vice guided by an invisible hand. Space does not permit a detailed examination of Jackson’s presidency, but two points must be made. In the first place, Jackson clearly and explicitly—Ketcham either ignores or denigrates this evidence–explains his major actions (the removal of the Bank deposits, the stand against nullification, and even the infamous “spoils system”) in terms of their effect on the public good. He consistently argues that his actions are taken for the good of the country as a whole against factious combinations. Since concern for the public good and opposition to faction seem to constitute the idea of virtue, according to Ketcham, one wonders how he came to overlook Jackson’s use of these concepts to justify his actions. In the second place, even Jackson’s enemies would argue that Jackson’s very faults stemmed not from a disregard for the importance of the presidency as a symbol of republican virtue, but from too great a concern with it and too close an identification of himself with the office: “The ordinary patriot is apt to regard the enemies of his country as his personal enemies. But Jackson was always inclined, with entire sincerity, to regard his personal enemies as the enemies of his country” (Carl Schurz, Henry Clay, v. 1, p. 324).
Ketcham might have been better advised to look to American history, rather than English literary warfare, for an explanation of the change in official attitude toward political parties. When one turns one’s gaze from the battle between Walpole and Bolingbroke to the battle between Jackson and the Whigs, two possibilities for the rise of political parties suggest themselves.
In the first place, one is struck by the simple thought that with Monroe we had run out of revolutionary leaders to be president. Following the chaotic election of 1824, parties began to be acceptable. This suggests that party may have been viewed as a training ground for statesmen, a way to fill the void left by the absence of the conspicuous patriotism represented by revolutionary service, for without the mechanism of party the “personal presidency” as represented by Jackson was the most likely model for future leaders. The danger posed by this was that it led to the glorification of military leaders (the easiest way to gain renown across such a vast country), which of course increased the danger of a military coup. Consider the warning of that preeminent partisan, Clay, to his fellow Whigs considering nominating General Taylor for president:
It seems to me that the Whig party has been long and deliberately committed against the election of a military officer to the Presidency who had never developed any capacity for civil administration. . . . The true principle, I think, is this: that great military attainments and triumphs do not qualify of themselves nor disqualify for the Presidency.
If General Taylor, who is absolutely without any experience whatever in civil administration, shall be elected, I think we may bid adieu to the election ever again of any man to the office of Chief Magistrate who is not taken from the army . . . . Military chieftain will succeed military chieftain, until at last one will reach the presidency who, more unscrupulous than his predecessors, will put an end to our liberties, and establish a throne of military despotism. (Clay, Letter to Daniel Ullman, May 12, 1847)
A presidency based on The Idea of the Patriot King is acceptable only as long as you’re sure you have patriots, so you don’t end up simply with a king.
An alternative (or supplementary) explanation for the rise of party is the growing influence of sectionalism as a pernicious force in American politics. It is possible that the antebellum statesmen looked to parties as forces to counteract the influence of merely sectional loyalties: Allegiance to party, organized on principles which could cross regional lines, could replace allegiance to section.
Consider Madison’s thoughts on the subject:
Parties under some denominations or other must always be expected in a government 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. (Letter to Robert Walsh, November 27, 1819)
Both of the preceding suggestions are merely that-suggestions as to where a serious study of the rise of partisanship in America could begin. Both possess a virtue strikingly absent from Ketcham’s work-they take their bearings from the American context of the problem of American partisanship. Seeing the development of the American presidency as the mechanical unfolding of a predetermined debate, the terms of which were set by the seventeenth century English literati,dooms from the start the project of considering what the first presidents thought about “what it meant to be virtuous in public life.”