National Geographic : 1964 Nov
National Geographic, November, 1964 President John Adams, more than a century and a half ago, thought the demands of the office were serious enough. "A peck of trou bles in a large bundle of papers, often in a handwriting almost illegible, comes every day," he complained to his wife Abigail. Yet even during the quasi war with France, Adams spent long summer months at his farm in Massachusetts. To be sure, even George Washington criticized President Adams for doing so, but the volume of business was so slight that Adams could conduct it from a single stand-up desk in which he allotted a pigeonhole to each department. As the Administrative Branch of the Fed eral Government has grown, Presidents have been forced to slough off many of their earlier routine duties; they no longer sign a fraction of the documents that confronted John Adams, or even Woodrow Wilson. Some Presidents regarded their years in the White House as an exciting adventure; some found the office onerous. Years before he him self became President, Franklin D. Roosevelt liked to recount how, as a child, he had been ushered in to see Grover Cleveland, who sol emnly expressed the hope that the boy would avoid the fate of growing up to be President. With few exceptions the Presidents have felt themselves peculiarly representative of all the American people, regardless of party or sectional differences. "In a government like ours," Thomas Jef ferson wrote in a private letter in 1810, "it is the duty of the Chief Magistrate... to en deavor, by all honorable means, to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people. This alone, in any case where the energy of the nation is required, can produce a union of the powers of the whole, and point them in a single direction, as if all constituted but one body and one mind .... " Jackson Called "King" by Angry Whigs How vigorously the President should assert his powers in behalf of the people was a sub ject of debate through much of the 19th cen tury and into the 20th. When Andrew Jackson began to make ex tensive use of the Presidential veto to thwart his opponents in Congress, and through as serting his party leadership tried to shape Congressional actions, he came under vehe ment attack. His enemies dubbed him King Andrew I. Seeking an analogy with British Parliaments which had fought against royal usurpations,they labeled themselves "Whigs." Several 19th-century Presidents, most no tably William Henry Harrison, accepted the Whig view that they should not tamper with the policy-making prerogatives of Congress. Abraham Lincoln as an Illinois Congressman in 1848 concurred, but later as President in 1861 he stretched the powers of the Presi dency to the utmost. His successor, Andrew Johnson, vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and Reconstruction legislation, but Congress repeatedly overrode his vetoes, and, through impeachment, almost removed him from office. Most Presidents after Johnson were more amenable to Congress, but James A. Garfield, during a dispute over patronage, wrote pri vately: "It better be known, in the outset, ,whether the President is the head of the Gov ernment, or the registering clerk of the Senate." Loneliness Marks Times of Decision Strong Presidents came into the ascend ancy with the advent in 1901 of Theodore Roosevelt, who assumed energetic command in shaping both domestic programs and for eign policies. He too had to face a recalcitrant Congress. In 1936 the second Roosevelt re called seeing his distant cousin clench his fist and exclaim, "Sometimes I wish I could be President and Congress too." Franklin D. Roosevelt added, "Well, I suppose if the truth were told, he is not the only President that has had that idea." Like Washington, succeeding Presidents have felt an overwhelming sense of respon sibility. Harry S Truman jauntily displayed a sign on his desk, "The buck stops here," and confessed in his memoirs: "To be President of the United States is to be lonely, very lonely, at times of great decisions." Since the day that Washington took his oath of office, the American Presidency has inspired awe both in its incumbent and in be holders, combining as it does effective power with enlightened responsibility. The Presi dency, in combination and interaction with the Congress and the Supreme Court, repeat edly gives fresh manifestation that in the American Republic a free people can govern themselves with competence and vigor with out sacrificing their traditional rights. The "sacred fire of liberty" to which Wash ington dedicated his first administration glows on with undiminished brilliance, a beacon to all mankind.