At the heart of the American experiment is a commitment to certain Enlightenment ideals regarding “small-L” liberalism and “small-R” republicanism. These ideals maintain that human beings have inherent worth and the best way to handle government is bottom-up, where the consent of the governed defines government authority. America’s best presidents placed an emphasis on prudence and small government, which is exemplified in men like Washington and Lincoln: the latter fighting a Civil War to keep the Union together and the former having helped lay down the foundation for that union. The way American presidents conducted themselves in the Oval Office has often been a direct reflection of the health of the American republic. Throughout American history, certain presidents have planted dangerous seeds that have compromised the relationship between the three branches of government and the population. This article examines the positive and negative precedents set by certain presidents and expands on why precedence and prudence are so important regarding the executive branch.
Prudence is the wisdom to apply timeless principles to new and particular circumstances. This was demonstrated by George Washington when he was general of the Continental Army. During the war, Washington wrote to a group of officers who were conspiring to reject republicanism by forcing Congress to act for the Army at gunpoint. It is important to recognize that Washington was no armchair general; he suffered in Valley Forge and was neglected by Congress in the same way they were. Yet he addressed them saying, “Let me entreat you, gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained.”
Washington encouraged his officers to mentally step back from the mob that threatened to grip them and risk everything they had fought for in their struggle for independence. Had these officers followed through with their plan, the American Revolution would have been a failure – the ideals the patriots fought for tossed away in a moment. In this way, Washington exuded the virtue of prudence, attempting to inspire his men and the people he served with the example he set forth.
Lincoln also exemplified this commitment to republican ideals when, during the 1864 election, many members of his political cabinet feared the failure of re-election during the Civil War and pushed Lincoln to investigate suspending the election until the war was over. This idea was an anathema to Lincoln who viewed the Civil War as a fight for the survival of democracy and the Union. As amazing as it was that Lincoln resisted the temptation in front of him, not all presidents have exemplified his commitment to republican ideals.
In his famous Gettysburg Address, Lincoln expressed his goal to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth.” It was Lincoln’s understanding that the republic that the Founding Fathers gave to America was a grand exaltation of rights given by God to all men, who were created equal in His image. But not all politicians agree on the ideals of republican government, and ideas have consequences even if they aren’t successful. For example, see how during the tenuous 2020 presidential election a sitting president called for the suspension of an election in peacetime.
The steadier America became following the Civil War, the more economically powerful she became. This is easily seen in the way the Industrial Revolution swept across America. However, many tycoons abused monopolies and their workers, and this was something the government worked against. For example, Theodore Roosevelt used his presidency to regulate the economy and enacted antitrust laws to bust up monopolies and push for a system of active federal government in the economic world.
As good as these policies were in regulating dangerous working conditions and constrictive monopolies, for the first time the federal government was reaching into economic life directly with the 16th Amendment and other never-before-seen legislative packages. This was an idea that was and has remained controversial into the 21st century. How much should the government be allowed to interact with people’s pockets, and where does the line between economic protection end and tyranny begins? This question has led many to wish for a challenge to the dangerous precedent set up by presidents expanding on what their predecessors did and pushing the federal government further into the lives of citizens directly.
One of the largest balancing acts in American politics can be seen in the way the executive branch handles itself in the present and the way the future will interact with this. Men like Washington and Lincoln exemplify this, by making hard decisions but never betraying the things that mattered most to them. The problem isn’t purely executive; Americans have the power to influence the course of the nation in which they live. The Founders’ greatest gift was a republic which allowed people to vote for what is important and have an impactful voice on the way that politics moves forward. Virginia’s general elections will be on November 8th. If you see a problem and want to change it, then walk to the ballot in the calm light of reason and with the Lord as your guide.