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.”
—ChoiceSee all reviews...
“A fantastic history of the second branch of government. Fascinating throughout, and a model of how to think about American history through an institutional lens.”
“Meticulously researched and eloquently reasoned.”
“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
“The Lost Soul of the American Presidency provides a welcome and timely antidote to both the Left‘s romance with the progressive presidency model and the Right’s newfound love affair with the ‘unitary executive.’ Arguing that the framers’ limited ‘republican’ presidency has morphed into a president as democratic tribune to the people, Knott calls for a return to the ‘sober expectations’ of the framers’ true or ‘originalist’ constitutional model of the presidency. Challenging the contemporary orthodoxy, this book should have a significant impact on how we view the presidency.”
—Michael A. Genovese, president, Global Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University, and author of How Trump Governs: An Assessment and a Prognosis
“In this provocative, beautifully written book, Stephen F. Knott reopens the essential debate regarding the origins and evolution of presidential power.”
—David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, award-winning historians and authors ofThe Rise of Andrew Jackson: Myth, Manipulation, and the Making of Modern PoliticsSee fewer 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.