How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency

How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency

How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency

How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency


A governor's mansion is often the last stop for politicians who plan to move into the White House. Before Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, four of his last five predecessors had been governors. Executive experience at the state level informs individual presidencies, and, as Saladin M. Ambar argues, the actions of governors-turned-presidents changed the nature of the presidency itself long ago. How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency is the first book to explicitly credit governors with making the presidency what it is today.

By examining the governorships of such presidential stalwarts as Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, political scientist Ambar shows how gubernatorial experience made the difference in establishing modern presidential practice. The book also delves into the careers of Wisconsin's Bob La Follette and California's Hiram Johnson, demonstrating how these governors reshaped the presidency through their activism. As Ambar reminds readers, governors as far back as Samuel J. Tilden of New York, who ran against Rutherford Hayes in the controversial presidential election of 1876, paved the way for a more assertive national leadership. Ambar explodes the idea that the modern presidency began after 1945, instead placing its origins squarely in the Progressive Era.

This innovative study uncovers neglected aspects of the evolution of the nation's executive branch, placing American governors at the heart of what the presidency has become--for better or for worse.


In 2008, Americans elected the first sitting senator to the White House in nearly half a century. It was, in fact, the only presidential contest in the nation’s history to field two sitting senators. Amid all the rightful attention to the election of America’s first African American president, these other firsts were unfortunately reduced to trivia— intellectual memorabilia to impress friends when reminiscing about this historic event. Such oversights, however understandable, have proven to have a narrowing effect on our understanding of the American presidency and American political development. Americans should think carefully about the effect prior elective of ce has had on the presidency— and on each of its occupants. By electing Barack Obama the 44 President of the United States, the American people ended nearly thirty years of presidential rule by governors. What this break in electoral practice portends may best be understood when considering a parallel event over 130 years ago.

The oddity of the election of Ohio’s Rutherford B. Hayes over New York’s Samuel J. Tilden surpasses the brokered political resolution that ended Reconstruction. Beyond Hayes’s controversial victory is the story of a resurgent presidential office and the rise of modern presidential power. As Hayes and Tilden were the first two governors to face each other in a presidential election, the 1876 race marked a pivotal moment in the nation’s selection of a chief executive. But more important, the moment led to a previously unimagined line of governor-presidents that would shape much of what Americans would come to understand as the basics of presidential authority. This was the era of Grover Cleveland, William S. McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, governors all, who would go on to become the protomodern leaders most identified with the emerging presidential republic. How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency is the first book to examine the role the American governorship has played in reconceiving, and in many respects inventing, the modern presidency.

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