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

Article excerpt

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. …


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