The Presidency is a Terrible Institution

There is nothing about the presidency of the U.S. to celebrate.  It was one of the greatest failings of the American founders, and we would be wise to reform or repeal it.  No free people needs a “strong man” to rule them.

[Originally posted at The Imaginative Conservative, November 2016].


When it comes to the American Founding, broadly defined, it’s hard for this born-and-bred Kansan not to genuflect. After all, the Founders were extraordinary in almost every way, and, through the great minds and experiences of the past, they inherited and then perfected, properly understood, a republic. There’s no finer example of the creation of a political society on the scale of the American Founding, before or after. Their achievement was extraordinary. The years 1761 to 1806 stand as some of the finest ever in world history, an explosion and exploration of self-government. Every second academic year, I have the privilege of teaching the American Founding, and I never take this for granted. I’m as patriotic as they come, perhaps to a fault.

Just as the Founders analyzed the failures and successes of the past, so must we. After all, we must remember, they sought not a “perfect union,” but a “more perfect union.” It is well worth remembering perhaps the most interesting of the neglected founders, John Dickinson, who famously stated on August 13, 1787:

Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us. It was not Reason that discovered the singular & admirable mechanism of the English Constitution. It was not Reason that discovered or ever could have discovered the odd & in the eye of those who are governed by reason, the absurd mode of trial by Jury. Accidents probably produced these discoveries, and experience has give a sanction to them. This is then our guide.

It would be hard to find a greater statement of discovery and Celtic Enlightenment thinking—as in Adam Smith, David Hume, and Edmund Burke—than this.  Frankly, it would be hard to be any more Whiggish than this.  Well worth considering, however.

What does experience tell us, 229 years after the writing of the U.S. Constitution? Have we learned anything about a republic?  We certainly should have. To trap our republicanism neatly in 1787 is to misunderstand how the Founders perceived their own place in history.  I am not, I must stress, arguing for a progressive interpretation of the Constitution. Quite the opposite. But, we must be wise, and we must look to experience. Just as the Founders looked to the past, so should we conservatives. After all, we need to know what to conserve, what to reform, and what to abolish—the very Burkean job of every generation.

Whatever successes the Founders had, however, one grand mistake has hampered the effectiveness of the American republic to resist the tyranny of democratic sentiments and democratic despotism as it emerged in the nineteenth and, then, the twentieth centuries. In particular, the Founders failed to restrict the executive and prevent it from becoming the very tyranny they opposed in the British monarch. Indeed, our president today is far more powerful than George III ever imagined himself to be. The presidency is, simply put, out of control, both in the actual workings of the executive branch and in the minds of its adherents among the populace. As I type this, major cities across the U.S. continue to experience protests on the verge (some have crossed over) of becoming riots, all because of anger over who will actually sit in the oval office. I hope and pray that these demonstrations will have run their course by the time this essay appears, but we only have to look to the presidential election of 1860—when Abraham Lincoln’s victory spurred seven Southern states to leave the Union—to understand how deep American political resentment can run.

Even if they have subsided, the protests reveal rather horribly how many false and misguided hopes we as an American people harbor in regard to this branch of government.  As originally understood, the executive was never meant to embody the will of the American people, but merely to execute its will as expressed through the Congress.

As James Madison recorded in his famous Notes on the Federal Convention:

Mr. Randolph strenuously opposed a unity in the Executive magistracy. He regarded it as the fœtus of monarchy. We had he said no motive to be governed by the British Governmt. As our prototype. He did not mean however to throw censure on that Excellent fabric. If we were in a situation to copy it he did not know that he should be opposed to it; but the fixt genius of the people of America required a different form of Government. He could not see why the great requisites for the Executive department, vigor, dispatch & responsibility could not be found in three men, as well as in one man. The Executive ought to be independent. It ought therefore (in order to support its independence) to consist of more than one.

Following in the footsteps of the Founders, no president dared to claim his office to be the embodiment of the will of the American people until our seventh president, Andrew Jackson. Despite this pretense, the presidency remained relatively contained for the next century. (The obvious exception was Abraham Lincoln, but the events surrounding this president are extraordinary, thus allowing the exception to prove the rule.) Not until Woodrow Wilson did the presidency attain the heights first envisioned by Jackson. It’s no accident that the New Deal court historians who puffed up Franklin Roosevelt were the revivers of the Andrew-Jackson-as-great-president myth.

Since Wilson, though, the radically explosive expansion of presidential power had become the norm, with only real exceptions to this being Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Ronald Reagan. The presidency has become the single element most corrosive to our republic. From permanent Commander-in-Chief to wielder of the pen of the executive order, the presidency has successfully claimed the power of the legislature while gelding Congress. Every once in a while, charismatic Senators such as Frank Church and Rand Paul have attempted to reclaim legislative power, but their efforts have proven rather ineffective, no matter how noble their fight.

As anti-ideological as the Founders were, they did possess one bizarrely optimistic and idyllic hope about the “new order of the ages.” In such a time, they hoped, they would usher in a new age in which virtue became more widespread as well as more pronounced. In what seems to us today so utterly naïve, Ben Franklin claimed that George Washington would signal the beginning of a new era in human virtue.

To bring the matter nearer home, have we not seen the great and most important of our officers, that of General of our armies executed for eight years together without the smallest salary, by a Patriot whom I will not now offend by any other praise; and this through fatigues and distresses in common with the other brave men his military friends & companions, and the constant anxieties peculiar to his station? And shall we doubt finding three or four men in all the U. States, with public spirit enough to bear sitting in peaceful Council for perhaps an equal term, merely to preside over our civil concerns, and see that our laws are duly executed. Sir, I have a better opinion of our country. I think we shall never be without a sufficient number of wise and good men to undertake and execute well and faithfully the Office in question.

Arguably, though, only one or two persons at best have even come close to measuring up to Washington’s standards as a man and as a leader. Humanity is just not capable of producing such greatness repeatedly and consistently. God is, but if He has given us such men in every generation, they have not revealed themselves, at least in the realm of politics.

More worrisome, though, is that the American people—conservative, liberal, and otherwise—have come to see the president as the embodiment of their hopes, their dreams, and their nightmares. Far more worrisome, this seems to have become the default position—a poor habit, but one now deeply rooted in the American psyche.

I realize it would be utopian to imagine an absolution of Article II of the U.S. Constitution, but it would not be folly to believe that Americans could begin a conversation about the nature, the goals, and the limits on the U.S. Presidency. If this happens, it would need to come from the legislative branch. In the 1830s, the Whig party did very well resisting Andrew Jackson’s presumption in holding the president out as the democratic element of the republic. In some ways, one might even argue that they succeeded for a hundred years. We need to hope that legislative leaders today, such as Justin Amash, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz, might lead a similar effort. Certainly, it’s worth considering.

Don Briel, Genuine Man of Brilliance and Integrity

brielAs some of you no doubt know, Don Briel–now professor at the University of Mary in North Dakota, after a long career as the founder and fountainhead of the Catholic Studies Program at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul–has been diagnosed with two forms of cancer.  He is not expected to live more than a few more days.  Not surprisingly, for those of us privileged to have met Don, he’s taking the inevitable with all due Christian stoicism and, amazingly, even joy.

Though I’ve followed Don’s work for well over two decades, I’ve only met him in person once.  It was several summers ago, when he very graciously had invited me to lead a week-long faculty summer seminar on Christian Humanism.  It was one of the nicest and coolest invitations I’d ever received up to that point in my career.  My whole week at UST was rather magical, frankly.  I’d never quite realized how much my scholarship might actually mean to anyone besides myself.  I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant–it’s not meant to.  But, when I met with roughly 15 brilliant peers for a week, I realized, wow, Christian Humanism really is fascinating and vital.  It was a great moment of personal and professional encouragement.

That week, I had lunch with Don.  Though it was a rather humid and hot summer, we walked a long distance to a really nice bistro.  Both of us in ties and suits, sweating like mad, we never ran out of things to say.  We talked nonstop about ideas, institutions, and, really, everything that matters in life.

When I came away from that week–on a total confidence boost and high–I realized that I had met one of the “greats” in the form of Don Briel.  I’ve felt this way a time or two in my life–when finally meeting those I’d always admired but only at a distance.  When I’ve met them, I’ve often come away disappointed only because I’d had such a high opinion that I had built in my own mind.  And, more often than not, those I meet still have the brilliance, but they also have all too often the arrogance that so sadly goes along with brilliance.  Not Don.  He is too brilliant, I think, to be troubled with something as petty as arrogance.  He was just. . . well, Don.  Totally confident and comfortable with himself.

When my wonderful friend, Winston Elliott, asked me about Don (Winston is a fellow admirer of Don, but, unfortunately, only from a distance), I replied, “Well, imagine the integrity and mind of Socrates in the suave form of Cary Grant.”

Don, I can’t even imagine how many lives you’ve touched in this all-too short life.  Through your students, your institutional building, and your books, you have truly been one of the greats of the last century, along with Father Marvin O’Connell, Ralph McInerny, and some others.  Thank you.  Thank you for your life, and thank you for your witness.  Thank you for your dignity, and thank you for the confidence you so graciously gave to all of those around you.

You have lived love as it was meant to be.  Not as something to possess, but as something to give and share.

Do me a favor.  When you enter the Kingdom, please say hello and thank you to Christopher Dawson, Russell Kirk, and J.R.R. Tolkien for me.  And, say a prayer or two or twenty that someday I’ll get to hang out with you as well.

Russell Kirk’s Unfinished Justice — The Imaginative Conservative

Russell Kirk thought that because justice is rooted in nature and because in its perfection transcends all time and space, one can innately observe virtue in the actions of wise women and men. 1,429 more words

via Russell Kirk’s Unfinished Justice — The Imaginative Conservative

3 Ways to Protect Your Online Accounts


Image from:

As some of you know, I’ve now proudly earned the enmity of several alt nuts. So, let me recommend three things to protect yourself NOW rather than later from these thugs. After all, they don’t just harass, they’re actually using relatively intelligent and sophisticated cyber attacks against personal and professional accounts.

You (at a company, think tank, magazine, university) need to take serious personal precautions. That is, don’t wait for your institution to protect you.  They might not be able; they might not want the publicity; and they might just hope the attacks will go away.  You have to take charge of your own accounts.

As one of John Moser’s friends, Joe Murphy, reminded me, be proactive rather than waiting for an attack–after which you have no choice but to be reactive.

If you’re on a Mac, it’s indispensable that you use
1) a password vault. I’ve fallen in love with 1password from Agile Bits. Not only is the program intuitive, but the folks who run the program respond IMMEDIATELY to any problems. One solid company.

2) Malware/virus protection (yes, even on a Mac). I recommend VirusBarrier from Intego. Once again, I can’t praise the company highly enough. I needed help immediately when the attacks came, and the company went overboard to help me.

Both companies have earned my lifelong loyalty. Again, do not wait for your institutions to provide protection. Do it personally.

And, third, for all folks of Mac, Linux, or PC persuasion,
rewatch The Sound of Music. Be Captain Von Trapp, and rip up racist rags.

Looking Back at Law School (Pulliam)

Screen Shot 2018-02-05 at 7.19.21 PM

Pulliam’s homepage.  Go, quick now, said the bird.

Mark Pulliam’s new blog is a thing of wit and intelligence.  Enjoy.

In recent years my law school alma mater has hosted an annual “celebration of diversity” event, which I recently attended out of curiosity. I thought that my law school class of long ago was quite diverse, with students from all over Texas, who had attended a variety of colleges and universities located throughout the country, representing a wide range of backgrounds—socio-economic, age, marital status, political orientation, and otherwise.

Alas, that is not what “diversity” means these days. “Diversity” connotes the politically-correct assortment of students (and faculty) from specific racial and ethnic groups that were “under-represented” in the era of primarily meritocratic admissions.  Race-conscious affirmative action at the University of Texas School of Law—once considered controversial and sparingly used—has “fixed” that.

To keep reading, please click here:

Mark Pulliam’s New Blog

Mark Pulliam, writer and thinker extraordinaire, has a new blog.  Make sure to visit and register.

Screen Shot 2018-02-05 at 7.19.21 PM

Pray for Russell Kirk’s Beatification (TIC)

As shocking as it might seem to those who knew Russell Kirk as a bad (in terms of practice) Catholic, he deserves sainthood. Here is my case for Saint Russell of Mecosta… 1,202 more words

via Saint Russell of Mecosta? — The Imaginative Conservative

%d bloggers like this: