Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Seat of Popular Leadership: Parties, Elections, and the Nineteenth-Century Presidency

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Seat of Popular Leadership: Parties, Elections, and the Nineteenth-Century Presidency

Article excerpt

In this article, I examine the relationship between the public and the president in the nineteenth century. While the relationship is generally thought to be a rather minimal one, I will suggest that there is an alternative way to conceptualize and theorize the "public presidency" in the nineteenth century one that has been unduly neglected.(1) Indeed, the nineteenth-century president was constrained in being a popular leader by a strong constitutional ethos, and, to be sure, he rarely made direct, popular appeals. Yet, I will argue that there are instantiations of a public presidency between the extremes of no relationship with the public and a direct, popular relationship with the people.

Most notably, presidents' relationships with the party organizations in the nineteenth century gave rise to a type of presidential public leadership. Parties in the nineteenth century were the most important vehicles for reaching and organizing the public and, ideally, transmitting its will into policy. We tend now to speak of public opinion as an entity constituted most prominently by opinion polls; however, in the nineteenth-century, party and public opinion were inextricably bound, nearly inseparable.(2) Governmental leaders, presidents included, in their ties to the parties, then, were in a very important way establishing links with the public and public opinion. One can think of a public presidency being created by party in the nineteenth century, a relationship far more "popular" in its basis than the one created by the Constitution.

To move toward establishing this argument, this article will proceed along two fronts. First, I will take a brief theoretical look at what the development of parties in the United States, in the 1830s and 1840s, meant for the political system and, particularly, the relationship between the people and the presidency. To sharply cast this perspective, I will set it against the views of the founders on party, the public, and the presidency. Second, I will begin to put some flesh on these theoretical arguments through a presentation of empirical findings on nineteenth-century presidential elections. Marshaling evidence primarily from nineteenth-century campaign biographies, I will demonstrate that, at least in the rhetoric of campaigns and elections, the presidency was seen as a seat of popular leadership. After laying out these arguments, I will suggest how this party model of presidential public leadership might fit into our contemporary debates about presidential leadership.


There is no controversy in saying that the founders were not popular democrats, that their faith in the people was limited. When analyzing the Constitution and The Federalist, it is clear that for Madison and the founders, the participation of the people in government was far from an innocuous affair.(3) Popular governments, like all governments, were prone to certain problems and downfalls. The downfall of popular governments was almost always faction. The idea that a faction (or what is the same thing in the idiom of the founders, party(4)) or a contest between factions could possibly work toward the public good was really not conceivable to Madison or the founders: "the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties."(5)

The presidency was to play an important role in the mitigation of faction in the political system. The system for electing the president, the electoral college, was obviously aimed at ensuring that popular passions would not infiltrate government through the election of a popular leader espousing divisive issues. For the founders, a presidential candidate was not expected to campaign openly and vigorously for the office on the basis of political issues or popular appeals; rather, he would allow his character, experience, and reputation speak for him.(6) The people would have a say not in how government was run but in who was running it. Yet, if candidates contravened these desideratum, the electoral college would likely work to prevent their election. …

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