The Role of Monsters in the American Presidency

"She [America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy." So said our 6th president John Quincy Adams in 1821. But as economist and historian Robert Higgs has pointed out, a president displaying such timidity will not be judged as great by today's historians. Indeed, those presidents who heed Adams' vision are practically destined for mediocrity, if not worse. These observations raise important questions for the student of American history: How has the perspective of American presidents on monsters evolved over time? What is the relationship between monsters and greatness in the American presidency? Below I will present a brief overview of these important, but all too often neglected topics.

The first president to achieve greatness after Adams was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln admired the Founding Fathers and, like all great presidents, was eager to build on his predecessors' accomplishments. While he might have become hamstrung by the constraints seemingly imposed by the Constitution or the vision of Adams, Lincoln instead came to a profound new insight into Adams' words. "America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Adams' counsel did not preclude the destruction of domestic monsters. In other words, monster destruction begins at home! Armed with this new insight, when southern states began to secede, Lincoln was prepared to destroy the Confederate monster and to preserve the precious Union. Surprisingly, a few Lincoln historians have been critical of his actions. Some thought that the states' decision to join the union was voluntary and that secession was within their rights. Others thought that the massive bloodshed was unnecessary to end slavery and Lincoln's trampling of civil liberties was at odds with the vision laid out by the Founding Fathers. All such critics lacked the essential wisdom of the modern historian who recognizes that, if you want to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs!

While Lincoln exercised unprecedented presidential power at home, it took the near-great Woodrow Wilson to shed the final vestiges of America 's squeamishness about monsters. By his time, the American experiment had lost its preoccupation with Liberty (Give me liberty or give me death!) and found a new focus on Democracy. Early on in his presidency, Wilson established the income tax and a central bank (the Federal Reserve), paving the way for a massive expansion in government power. Wilson avoided bringing the U.S. into the Great War in his first term, but realized his folly after his reelection and led the country into the 'War to make the world safe for democracy' and the 'War to end all wars.' Clearly, Wilson had discovered a monster in Europe that could imperil democracy itself, and by extension America too. Wilson seized control of much of the economy during the war and established a massive conscription drive. The war would cost America greatly in lives and treasure and end via a treaty ruinous to Germany . It would give way to Fascism abroad and WWII. But Wilson had displayed boldness, vision, and leadership in confronting the monsters abroad. And when you are evaluating the performance of a president, what more can you really ask for?

As we have seen, Lincoln and Wilson earned their spurs by slaying monsters in epic battles, first here and then abroad. One might imagine that later presidents would have gotten discouraged, thinking that all the monsters had already been slain and that greatness would elude them. But to do so would not account for American ingenuity, in general, and FDR in particular. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Wilson during WWI and saw firsthand how government could expand its powers during wartime. It could even do things that would ordinarily be prohibited by the Constitution. But what good does this do a president who is inaugurated during an economic collapse? 'The New Dealers seized on an analogy: the war [WWI] was a national emergency and we dealt with it by creating government agencies to control and mobilize the private economy; the depression is a national emergency and therefore we can deal with it by creating similar agencies.' [1] In his 1st inaugural address, Roosevelt declared, 'We must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline.' Should Congress fail to act to his satisfaction, he would seek 'broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency as great as the power that would be given me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.' [2] The Great Depression was thus transformed from an economic breakdown into a monster against which to do battle! The significance of this transformation was not lost on future presidents or modern historians: No longer would the charge of the Commander-in-Chief be limited to battling monsters who could threaten the country's sovereignty and form of government. The American president would now be responsible for destroying all manner of monsters, in peacetime and in war. Nevertheless, some contemporary and subsequent economists have come to the conclusion that FDR's frenetic activity did nothing but deepen and prolong the economic downturn. While there might be some merit to these arguments, unfortunately these analysts give short shrift to the critical role of the president under dire circumstances: when America was hurting and pessimistic, FDR cared and provided hope.

Thus, by the mid-20th Century, America had fully overcome its early reticence toward confronting monsters. Building on FDR's legacy, modern presidents would fight Communism (The Cold War), Poverty (The War on Poverty), and Drugs (The War on Drugs), to name a few of the more notable monsters to emerge in the post-WWII era. The serious presidential candidate would need to demonstrate that he was attuned to the full array of active and lurking monsters, and that he was willing to do battle with them. In addition, the creation of the CIA by the near-great Truman in 1947 provided an indispensable weapon in the American arsenal for fighting monsters. With the benefit of hindsight, scholars will sometimes criticize CIA activities and foreign aid programs by pointing to cases where allies turn into monsters. But right-thinking Americans reject neurotic thinking such as this; they realize that sometimes you need to create a monster in order to destroy one.

The 21st Century has given rise to a breed of monster that recent, mediocre presidents worried little about--the terrorist. Fortunately, a president with all the markings of greatness came to office in time to respond to the September 11th attacks. George W. Bush has been resolute ever since the attacks, demonstrating a willingness to go after terrorists the world over, using a variety of means, no matter how long it takes or what the cost. Moreover, Bush passed the legislation America needs to find, detain, and neutralize terrorists, recognizing that the old rules no longer apply. Of course, bold responses such as Bush's will always bring out critics who agonize about things like collateral damage and individual liberty. My money says that Bush is destined for greatness.

Works Cited

[1] Robert Higgs, "The Mythology of Roosevelt and the New Deal" essay in Against Leviathan ( Oakland : Independent Institute, 2004)

[2] As quoted by Robert Higgs, in 'The Mythology of Roosevelt and the New Deal' essay in Against Leviathan ( Oakland : Independent Institute, 2004)

0
Your rating: None
D. Saul Weiner's picture
Columns on STR: 1