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.”

“How did the Founders’ vision of a dignified presidency that elevates the republic evolve to its current status as the national seat of direct populist leadership often appealing to and enabling some of the worst instincts of our citizens? As Knott so ably describes and analyzes, it didn’t start with President Trump, who represents the culmination of a long and troubling trend in our democratic republic. To understand how we got to our current situation, no work of scholarship better tells that story. A must-read.”

—Mark J. Rozell, author of Executive Privilege: Presidential Power, Secrecy, and Accountability

The Lost Soul of the American Presidency is a significant contribution to the field of presidency studies. Stephen F. Knott offers a reassessment of the office that challenges the tendency of many scholars in recent decades who focus more on ‘presidential greatness’ than the core constitutional principles the Framers envisioned for the office. It is an essential read for anyone who wants a better understanding of the origins of the office and how it can explain the president’s role in the current political environment.”

—Lori Cox Han, author of Advising Nixon: The White House Memos of Patrick J. Buchanan

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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 United States 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.