Carl Byker: The first 'imperial president': Jackson

Roundup: Media's Take

[Carl Byker is the producer of the PBS documentary Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil and the Presidency, which debuts on public television stations nationwide tonight.]

Secret prisons, warrantless wiretapping, sweeping claims of executive privilege. They have all been features of the Bush administration, and they are also hallmarks of what some call an "imperial presidency." The debate over just what powers a president can legitimately use has become so heated recently that some of the leading Democrats running for president have signed a pledge that they will not claim the same powers as President Bush if they are elected to replace him.

But George W. Bush is not the first chief executive accused of being an "imperial president." That's a distinction that belongs to our seventh president, Andrew Jackson — and how Jackson acquired the power that led his enemies to label him "King Andrew I" has enormous relevance to the modern presidency.

(Illustration by Web Bryant, USA TODAY)
Today, most of us take it for granted that the president is not only the dominant figure in our government but also "the most powerful man in the world." So it might come as a shock that a strong president was decidedly not what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

According to Robert Remini, official historian of the House of Representatives, "Going back to the Founders, James Madison once told Thomas Jefferson that they didn't have to worry about the 'executive branch' because that was the weaker branch. The Founders expected the legislature to be the centerpiece of government."

In the Founders' eyes, it was the job of the president to "execute" what Congress decided. And throughout the terms of our first six presidents, that's pretty much how things worked.

Then Jackson was elected. While in the Army, Maj. Gen. Jackson had put New Orleans under martial law and invaded Florida without authorization. So, as historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton says, "Jackson was the same kind of president that he was a general. He had a vision of the presidency that no previous president could have thought of, let alone executed."

Stacked the deck

Jackson argued that only the president represented all the people; that it was he, not Congress, who should set the agenda for the country — and to do that, he needed to control the government. To get it, he did something unprecedented: firing dozens of high-ranking government employees appointed by his predecessors — including 13 district attorneys — and replacing them with hard-core Jackson supporters.

Next, Jackson re-invented one of the few powers that the Constitution gives the president for interfering in the business of Congress: the veto. Jackson's predecessors had been extremely reluctant to confront Congress and rarely employed the veto. But Jackson viewed it as a political weapon that he could use to bend Congress to his will, and he went on to veto more bills than all of his predecessors combined....
Read entire article at USA Today

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