Making Sense of Presidential Restraint: Foundational Arrangements and Executive Decision Making before the Civil War

By Selinger, Jeffrey S. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2014 | Go to article overview

Making Sense of Presidential Restraint: Foundational Arrangements and Executive Decision Making before the Civil War


Selinger, Jeffrey S., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Most political scientists assume that American presidents are power-seeking political animals: they seek to optimize their chances of reelection, to pursue advantage against their personal rivals, and to see as much of their desired policy ends enacted, implemented, and funded. Presidents, like other, more "ordinary" political actors, are powerfully shaped by a self-aggrandizing decision-making calculus.

As crucial--and often decisive--as the inclination to maximize one's power may be, presidential decision making is, nonetheless, shaped by other motives emanating from the responsibilities of the office. American presidents, whether they governed during the early national period, the Gilded Age, the Cold War, or post-9/11 America, faced circumstances that call upon them to act, not merely as self-interested political actors but as statesmen pressed to balance their self-aggrandizing aims with the perceived exigencies of governance. Presidents of the early national and antebellum years restrained their own policy visions in order to assuage sectional divisions in the polity; presidents confronting the ideological challenge of global communism adjusted their preferred domestic policy priorities to thwart the spread of foreign sympathies among discontented domestic groups; presidents facing fiscal or economic crisis have been pressed to pursue policy ends that undercut their popularity with their party or with the mass public as a whole. Presidents, in other words, restrain their inclination to maximize power in service of what they take to be the fundamental interests of the republic. What this balance entails hinges not merely on the nature of the threat to America's vital interests (whether real or perceived) but also on the structural conditions that surround the office of the president.

The notion that power-maximizing behavior is restrained by governing exigencies, however, is not easily accommodated by existing analytical approaches to the study of the presidency. Scholars, at least since Richard Neustadt's seminal work (1990 [1960]), have treated the maximization of power as presidents' principal impetus for action. Neustadt suggested that when presidents maximize their power, they serve the public good, contrary to the assumptions encoded in the Constitution. His emphasis on power maximization is shared by leading scholars of various methodological persuasions. Indeed, behaviorialists (Edwards 1989; see also Edwards and Wayne 1983), historical institutionalists (Lowi 1985; Skowronek 1997), and rational choice scholars (Cameron 2000a; McCarty and Poole 1995) all begin or conclude with an assumption that presidents are driven by an overriding aim to secure their most preferred policy outcomes.

Presidential decision making is, no doubt, profoundly shaped by self-aggrandizing aims. American presidents, however, have also exercised a measure of restraint in their efforts to maximize power. This article will make this case, focusing in particular on the presidents of the early national and antebellum periods (1789 to 1815 and 1815 to 1861, respectively). Building on B. Dan Wood's call to take "explanations that involve statesmanship and the interests of the nation at large as potential explanations for presidential behavior" more seriously (Wood 2009b, 811), I demonstrate below that these presidents balanced their self-interested preferences with what they took to be a responsibility to thwart separatist initiatives and preempt political violence between the political parties and the states. The task of steering the ship of state between the partisan extremes and preventing polarizing divisions from escalating into violence was a crucial impetus for action for the antebellum presidents. (1) Such acts of statesmanship often entailed a degree of restraint, calling upon presidents to curb their self-interested inclinations when they perceived that doing so would help preserve the union of the states. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Making Sense of Presidential Restraint: Foundational Arrangements and Executive Decision Making before the Civil War
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.