Nicole Eustace: American Democracy and the Imperial Presidency

cover art for warring for america We welcome a guest post by Nicole Eustace, co-editor of Warring for America: Cultural Contests in the Era of 1812, to be published in September 2017 by the Omohundro Institute and UNC Press. The War of 1812 was one of a cluster of events that left unsettled what is often referred to as the Revolutionary settlement. At once postcolonial and neoimperial, the America of 1812 was still in need of definition. As the imminence of war intensified the political, economic, and social tensions endemic to the new nation, Americans of all kinds fought for country on the battleground of culture. The War of 1812 increased interest in the American democratic project and elicited calls for national unity, yet the essays collected in this volume suggest that the United States did not emerge from war in 1815 having resolved the Revolution’s fundamental challenges or achieved a stable national identity. The cultural rifts of the early republican period remained vast and unbridged.

In the following post, Eustace highlights how essays in Warring for America explore the ideas of dictatorial power and populism in early American history.


American Democracy and the Imperial Presidency

Can an “imperial presidency” arise in a democracy? Commentators on both sides of the political spectrum have urged attention to this issue for several decades now and, for many observers, the question becomes more urgent by the day.

The term The Imperial Presidency was coined by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in his book of that title, first published in 1973. Schlesinger believed that history operated cyclically and that Presidential war-making powers in the United States fell into a discernible pattern of 76-year rises, followed by 75-year falls. He charted the years from 1789-1865 as a period of ever-increasing presidential authority, followed by a period of decline up to 1940. If Schlesinger was right, 2016 saw another apex of the concentration of executive power. While there is little reason to believe that history in fact turns on such precise algorithmic calculations, there is good reason to recognize that we are currently living in an era of expansive and expanding presidential power that, while exceptional, is not without precedent.

If Schlesinger was right, 2016 saw another apex of the concentration of executive power.
The essays collected in Warring for America: Cultural Contests in the Era of 1812 have much to tell us about the ways in which Americans in the first strong presidential period debated the question of how to constitute authority. If Schlesinger tended to give blame, or credit, to the character of the chief executive himself in defining the nature of presidential power, critics, like Garry Wills (who reviewed The Imperial Presidency in the New York Times November 18, 1973) countered that responsibility for elevating the president to the place of emperor lay squarely with the public that selected him for office. Evidence of both trends emerges in the pages of Warring for America

In his essay, “For the Love of Glory: Napoleonic Imperatives in the Early American Republic,” Matthew Rainbow Hale describes the importance of Napoleonic ideas of glory in the culture and politics of the nineteenth-century United States through the examination of personal statements by American officers, styles of military dress, and modes of portraiture in vogue in 1812. The shift from self-sacrificing republican virtue to ambitious democratic glory embodied in the cult of Napoleon disseminated a militaristic element in American culture. The hyper-masculine mode of Napoleonic glory has too often been dismissed as tangential to the national character, whereas it was actually essential to the progress of the nation’s wars. Hale argues that an attraction to militarism and autocratic monarchism has accompanied American democracy from the era of 1812 to today.

In a related essay, “The Self-Abstracting Letters of War: Madison, Henry, and the Executive Author,” Eric Wertheimer explores the historically significant fact that James Madison, principal author of the American constitution, was also the prime mover behind the nation’s first declared war. Wertheimer analyzes ironic effect of this dual authorship; in authoring the constitution, Madison had removed declarations of war from executive purview to the legislative realm, in effect, deauthorizing his future self. Madison the president thus made an uneasy heir to Madison the architect of the constitution. Yet Madison found a solution to the crisis of executive authority in the power of the people themselves. In 1812, Madison turned to the public to reauthorize powers he himself had once enjoyed the authority to allocate. As Wertheimer shows, Madison cannily made use of the publicity surrounding a purported international spying episode—and the ability of the presidential bully pulpit to magnify his voice above all others in the rapidly expanding national press—to manipulate popular opinion as a new base of executive power.

At a moment when divisions among Americans about the desired direction of the country are as stark as they have ever been, the essays in Warring for America: Cultural Contests in the Era of 1812 have much to teach us about the interplay of populism and dictatorialism in American history.

Nicole Eustace is professor of history at New York University. She is co-editor, with Fredrika Teute, of Warring for America: Cultural Contests in the Era of 1812 (September 2017) and author of Passion is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution (2008, 2011) and 1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism (2012, 2015).