The Lost Soul of the American Presidency

The Decline into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal

Stephen F. Knott

The American presidency is not what it once was. Nor, Stephen F. Knott contends, what it was meant to be. Taking on an issue as timely as Donald Trump’s latest tweet and old as the American republic, the distinguished presidential scholar documents the devolution of the American presidency from the neutral, unifying office envisioned by the framers of the Constitution into the demagogic, partisan entity of our day.

The presidency of popular consent, or the majoritarian presidency that we have today, far predates its current incarnation. The executive office as James Madison, George Washington, and Alexander Hamilton conceived it would be a source of national pride and unity, a check on the tyranny of the majority, and a neutral guarantor of the nation’s laws. The Lost Soul of the American Presidency shows how Thomas Jefferson’s “Revolution of 1800” remade the presidency, paving the way for Andrew Jackson to elevate “majority rule” into an unofficial constitutional principle—and contributing to the disenfranchisement, and worse, of African Americans and Native Americans. In Woodrow Wilson, Knott finds a worthy successor to Jefferson and Jackson. More than any of his predecessors, Wilson altered the nation’s expectations of what a president could be expected to achieve, putting in place the political machinery to support a “presidential government.”

“Knott tackles a subject on the minds of many Americans: How did we get to where we are? How did we get to our highly polarized country, complete with a highly divisive and arguably demagogic president? Knott offers an answer worth thinking about: our condition is at least partly the logical outgrowth of the transformation of the presidency from a constitutional office to a popular office.

—Perspectives on Politics

“Thanks to Knott, readers finally have a book that places the Trump administration in historical context. [His] thesis is thought-provoking, making the book a must-read for students of the presidency. Essential.

—Choice
See all reviews...

As difficult as it might be to recover the lost soul of the American presidency, Knott reminds us of presidents who resisted pandering to public opinion and appealed to our better angels—George Washington, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and William Howard Taft, among others—whose presidencies suggest an alternative and offer hope for the future of the nation’s highest office.

About the Author

Stephen F. Knott is professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. His many books include Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth and Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics, both from Kansas, and Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency.