Stephen Knott

Rescuing the Soul of the Presidency

Air Date: August 25, 2019

Historian Stephen Knott discusses his forthcoming book "The Lost Soul of the American Presidency: The Decline into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal."


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Today, we consider the historical and contemporary character of the nation. “The Lost Soul of the American Presidency” is the forthcoming University Press of Kansas book from my next guest. He argues that the American presidency has devolved from the neutral unifying office envisioned by the framers of the constitution into the demagogic partisan entity of the present. The author is Steven Knott, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, Knott, co-chair, the presidential oral history program at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at U. Va. His newest book, as I note is “The Lost Soul of the American Presidency” which will be published this November. Welcome Professor.

KNOTT: Well, thank you for having me. It’s a privilege.

HEFFNER: Soul. What does it mean, the soul of the presidency? What do you mean by soul?

KNOTT: I don’t mean to suggest that the presidency has a kind of religious connotation to it, but there is an understanding of the presidency that our 18th and 19th century presidents for the most part shared, which was that the president should be a unifying figure, that the president should serve as a head of state and not appeal to a faction or a base. There was also I think an understanding or more of an understanding anyway, of the limits of the office, the limits of politics and also the importance of personal character. So I would say those sort of attributes have been lost in a more modern, primarily progressive understanding of the presidency that begins with Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson for the most part.

HEFFNER: So now that we have that definition of soul, which you can equate to character or heart, but maybe a more existential quality that has animated the institution of the presidency, the devolution started at what point in your estimation?

KNOTT: In my estimation, it started, and I hate to say this since he’s a somewhat revered figure, but I think it’s the truth. It starts with Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson rejects the sort of Washington, Alexander Hamilton conception of the presidency and begins to move the presidency away from being rooted in the constitution in Article Two, which deals with the presidency, towards the idea that the president is the spokesman for the majority, that it’s his job to represent and to implement the will of the people. He doesn’t go all the way with that kind of thinking, but he opens the door to that and it leads to the presidency of Andrew Jackson who just flat out says it’s the majority’s job to govern and it’s the president’s job to speak for that majority.

HEFFNER: I don’t want to jump all the way to the present from Jackson because there is intervening period there that you can’t ignore. But with Jackson, there was a popular mandate that had support from constituencies, right, it was not anti-majoritarian. When you say in the end of the book that there is a majoritarian focus that rejects the constitutional origins, well, the American people didn’t wake up one morning and say we want a two-party system or a three-party system. And for that matter today in, in some estimation is less democratic because you don’t have as many viable third parties as you want stayed in American history. So there must be a tension between the more majoritarian nation of Jackson to the anti-majoritarian Trump age where there is demagoguery and populism, but it’s not supported by the majority of the country.

KNOTT: Yeah. Well, that’s an excellent point. My, I mean one thing I think we need to understand is by shifting the presidency more in favor of being an office that represents the will of the majority people paid the price, minorities paid the price, whether they were political minorities, I would even argue economic minorities and of course during the age of Jackson, racial minorities. So at a time when Jackson and his movement are expanding the suffrage amongst white males, they are contracting it amongst the free blacks in the north. So you see a number of states taken over by the sort of Jacksonian movement that begin to restrict the right of suffrage of free blacks in the north. So that by the 1840s and 50s, most states, except for a few in New England have removed black voters from the rolls. So the interesting, Jackson is frequently portrayed as a champion of the common man.

Well, if you were African American or Native American, that’s simply not the case. So the so-called anti-majoritarian elitists that Jackson campaigned against actually had a more sympathetic view towards African Americans, Native Americans and so forth. So that’s one of the tensions that I would like to highlight.

HEFFNER: What about the soul of the person, the individual who occupies the office? So you said it starts with Jefferson.


HEFFNER: Now morally much like Lincoln later on, Jefferson is internally torn and has his own evolution. In the case of Lincoln, that is a more radical evolution than Jefferson. How does the personal conduct here from those beginning years of the devolution into demagoguery, how does the, how do those personal attributes of Jefferson and then Jackson informed that transition though?

KNOTT: Terrific question. I mean, I think, you know, the sad thing about Jefferson is that the young Jefferson was very much talking about putting slavery on the road to extinction.

The later Jefferson primarily in his post-presidential years is seeing the abolitionist movement as the heirs to Hamilton’s Federalists than these are people who simply want to oppress the white south. So, it’s unfortunate in Jefferson’s case that, that younger Jefferson sort of over time begins to evolve into somebody who’s a real advocate for states’ rights and an advocate for expanding slavery into the New Territories. In Lincoln’s case, I see a different evolution and I see an evolution of a man who comes to realize that the institution of slavery is completely at odds with the founding principles of the United States. And by the end of Lincoln’s life, he is devoted to the abolition of slavery. So Jefferson, in my view, regresses. Lincoln goes in a very different direction.

HEFFNER: And that regression is animating Andrew Jackson. So can you tell us though, how do the personal qualities of Jefferson then equate when we look at Andrew Jackson’s presidency, the way he treats the other branches of government and how we find ourselves escalating into, if not authoritarian government, a democracy that is shaped by a different ethos than George Washington. I want for our viewers, I have an early manuscript here, on the cover of your manuscript is this devolution in real time: Washington. Jackson, Trump. So how does Jackson’s manner, his manner of being, animate the office that he served?

KNOTT: So Jackson’s whole life in my view is one that is devoted to an acceptance of conspiracy theories and acceptance of the idea that somewhere there’s an elite, usually somewhere on the east coast, that’s determined to oppress or tuck it to the common man. And he is going to be the champion of these folks who are constantly getting kicked, kicked by these east coast elites.

There’s a tendency throughout Jackson’s public life going all the way back to when he’s briefly a member of the House of Representatives where he votes against a resolution honoring the retiring President George Washington, because in Jackson’s view, Washington was part of this east coast authoritarian plutocratic conspiracy. And Jackson’s whole political career is designed to go after these east coast elites. John Quincy Adams, his opponent in 1824 and 1828 is the personification of that elite. And I would argue that Jackson runs one of the most demagogic campaigns against John Quincy Adams. And all really he has to say is that this man is from the east coast. This man has no regards for the farmers and the plantation owners of the south and the west. It’s not so much an appeal on issues or policy. It’s a personal attack on the character of John Quincy Adams who I would argue was one of our most impressive presidents when it comes to character.

So Jackson transforms American politics into the politics of personal destruction.

HEFFNER: Is there anything redeeming about Jackson in the way that he enhanced his office to serve the character of the presidency?

KNOTT: I would say the one; the thing that immediately comes to mind in terms of redeeming qualities for Andrew Jackson is he did not tolerate the secession of sentiment that was coming out of South Carolina. Even though he’s a slave owner himself and an active slave trader through much of his life he is not a friend of secession. He is a champion of union. I think even his most ardent foes would have said that this is a man who believes in the United States of America, and so for me, that’s one of the high points of Jackson’s career, putting down that nullification and neo-secessionist movement in South Carolina in the early 1830s. But I have a hard time if you asked me for personal qualities, personal characteristics of Jackson, I’m going to find myself wanting on that front.

HEFFNER: So you say that Jackson was really the culmination of, and the, the introduction of soullessness in a sense. Where does it go, from Jackson, in thinking about the devolution, because certainly principles that animated Washington are revived in the Lincoln era, specifically with this President, Abraham Lincoln? So what is the, what is the shift that you see in it? And it was, was it purely because Abraham Lincoln was the man that he was, or was there a hunger for some of those founding principles of constitutionalism and restraint, and because if you had had a Radical Republican as president instead of Abraham Lincoln, the qualities that animated Jackson would have animated the way they reunify the country, it would be a lot different than it was.

KNOTT: No question. And so it’s a mix of, I think, a kind of hunger in certain quarters for a restoration of the founding principles. But it’s also no doubt the genius, the remarkable character, the restraint, the magnanimity that Abraham Lincoln brought to the office. But the point I try to make in the book is that Lincoln is immediately followed by Andrew Johnson, whose hero is Andrew Jackson, his fellow Tennessean. And I argue in the book that Andrew Johnson is sort of a next-to perhaps president Trump the most demagogic president this country has ever had and lacks those qualities of prudence, moderation, and magnanimity that so characterized Abraham Lincoln. I’m a big fan of Abraham Lincoln, as you probably already picked up. But one of the biggest mistakes that occurs within his presidency is when he, or primarily the Republican Party select Andrew Johnson as his running mate in 1864. It was a disaster for the country.

HEFFNER: The soullessness, heartlessness that evolves from Johnson through the present, is it more reflection of the men who served in office and their personal qualities or more a reflection of the constitutional boundaries that either protected this idea of a neutral unifying leader. There’s nothing in the constitution that sanctions political parties, if anything, the constitution wants to seek domestic tranquility. And so how do you get from Andrew Johnson to Woodrow Wilson who is another important figure in your book?

KNOTT: Very important figure. You get there partly through the exertions of certain presidential personalities, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, himself, who are anxious to expand the power of the presidency and to expand the power of the federal government. But you also get there, and this is critical. There at the beginning of the 20th century, there is some serious criticism for the first time being directed at the constitution itself by progressive historians, progressive political scientists, the media and people like Wilson and TR who are saying that the constitution, which was drafted in 1787 is not applicable to the 20th century, that we need to move beyond the antiquated system of checks and balances and separation of powers. And we need to give the federal government and the president in particular more power to stand up to corporate America, stand up to big business, to sort of take the edge off the abuses of capitalism. And that fuels this argument that the president needs to be unleashed. And both TR and Wilson make that argument. And so it’s a mix I think of the egos, for lack of a better term, of people like Wilson and T.R., but also a principled belief that the constitution is simply not up to the task of dealing with the problems of 20th century industrial America.

HEFFNER: The demagoguery can be exploited in efforts to unify the country, but it can also be diminished. Did you find ultimately that it was these presidents and perhaps their cabinets or advisers who were determining whether or not the expansion of presidential authority was in the service of real unity or in the service of a political agenda exploiting the false pretense of unity?

KNOTT: A very tough question. And, and I’m willing to try to give most of these presidents the benefit of the doubt in terms of their motives. I mean, certainly Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, who dramatically expanded the power of the presidency and of the federal government, was confronted with an unbelievable series of crises, the Great Depression, the Second World War that required, what Hamilton would call an energetic executive. Where I think he and some of his advisors went off the rails, so to speak, was while doing that, they also felt compelled to sort of trash separation of powers, trash the Supreme Court, trash the constitution. And what that has the effect of doing, I think is undermining the rule of law and replacing a constitutional presidency with this more personalized presidency and that’s, that’s problematic because you may not always have a Franklin Roosevelt on the horizon.

You may end up with somebody else who’s not quite as reliable and quite as concerned about the unity of the nation as you mentioned.

HEFFNER: So if we are experiencing the decline of statesmanship today how does this book inform the way we might rescue those qualities of Washington instead of the demagoguery of Jackson and Trump?

KNOTT: Yeah. I would argue that Americans have a lot to be proud of and of course with their past. Now this book argues in great detail that there’s been unlimited amount of racial discrimination and disenfranchising efforts directed against minorities. Certainly not downplaying that at all, but there is a model of presidential leadership, of statesmanship as you mentioned, that doesn’t see the role of the president being one of having to constantly appeal to the base but instead sees his role or her role eventually as a unifying force, as a chief of state, as a head of state, as somebody who speaks to, as Lincoln put it, the better angels of our nature and doesn’t constantly stir the pot.

Jackson stirred the pot. Andrew Johnson stirred the pot. Richard Nixon stirred the pot. Donald Trump is stirring the pot. That’s not the job that the founders conceived of for the American president. And this book I think is a clarion call I hope for a return to that older that lost soul of the American presidency that emphasizes the chief of state role, that emphasizes the fact that the president is to an extent the symbol of the nation and should act accordingly.

HEFFNER: How do you get there?

KNOTT: Well I wish I could say I’m optimistic that we can get there, but there are a few things we can do. One of which is we have to, I think, take a look at how we select our presidential nominees. There has to be more screening in a sense, and I think the political parties might have a role to play there.

Unfortunately, that screening role where party leaders use to weed out the folks lacking some essential qualities, I would want to see that type of screening restored. Now I realize that’s going against the grain of what most folks want to see these days. They don’t like the old smoke filled rooms. They don’t like the role of the party bosses. But I would argue that if you look at American history, the party bosses did a decent job in at least picking people who were not going to do harm, they may have been somewhat mediocre. They may never end up on Mount Rushmore, but they did not do harm. I don’t see anything in place these days to keep a demagogue, to keep somebody who’s totally unprepared for the office out of that office. Party leaders used to play that role. That’s one step we could take. Give the party leadership more of a role in selecting presidential nominees.

HEFFNER: In a sense, I think you’re arguing that the senior party leadership in those smoke-filled rooms were a watchdog. They were watchful of demagoguery.

KNOTT: That’s right.

HEFFNER: Is that true?

KNOTT: It’s not always true, but for instance, party leaders did remove Henry Wallace from FDR’s ticket in 1944. Thank God, in my view, and replaced Wallace with Harry Truman. Party leaders in a sense did keep people like Ross Perot or Pat Buchanan. Look, I would even argue that Bernie Sanders, who’s not a Democrat, the Democratic Party had a right to sort of stack the deck against somebody who’s not a member of their party. And so in 2016 you had this strange situation where you had a non-Democrat almost winning the nomination of the Democratic Party and you had a pretty much lifelong Democrat, Donald Trump winning the nomination of the Republican Party. That’s not what we want. So yeah, in my view, yes, I see the party leaders as playing that screening role. I actually see party leaders as in a position of playing the role that the Electoral College was originally intended play.

HEFFNER: One of the leading Democratic candidates for President Elizabeth Warren has advocated an enormously important array of anticorruption measures in her campaign for the nomination.


HEFFNER: Don’t we need to adapt in response to violations of the emoluments clause, violations of normal order, by enforcing existing statute in the constitution and Warren argues adding to the constitution because it did not protect us against the soullessness or corruption of the institution. Party bosses are not enough in Warren’s estimation.

KNOTT: Yeah.

HEFFNER: This needs to be ingrained into the constitution.

KNOTT: Yeah. I’m, is she proposing specific constitutional amendments in that regard or

HEFFNER: Legislation. Constitutional amendments.

KNOTT: Okay. Okay.

HEFFNER: Is that, I guess my question to you in the minutes we have left is, is the constitution, which was intended to be a firewall, still serving that function and if not, what do you, what legislation or constitutional amendments are required to ensure that the soul of this country and the soul of the presidency is protected?

KNOTT: There are a number of legislative initiatives I think could be taken to make sure that the things we would classify as corruption are prevented. And I have no problem with that whatsoever. What I would argue is in some ways even more important, is a cultural change that needs to take place within the American public. We need to stop falling for those folks who promise us every four years that they’re going to remake the world, you know that they’re going to stop the oceans from rising, they going to stop climate change the minute they’re elected or they’re going to make Mexico pay for the wall. These kinds of outlandish promises that long predate Donald Trump. The American public needs to think about the limits of government, the limits of the presidency, the importance of character, particularly the thing that keeps coming back to me when I was writing that book is this magnanimity of soul, this bigness of soul, of his greatness, of soul. Not Pettiness, not constantly harping on what divides us, but again, appealing to our better natures. So I’m all in favor of legislation, but I think what we really need is a civics revival in the United States that appreciates the limits of government, the limits of the presidency.

HEFFNER: Donald Trump, as he was berating Mexicans as rapists was saying, Make America Great Again. Ronald Reagan was saying in the backdrop of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, I believe, right? Make America great again. Trump was tapping into Reagan’s vocabulary. Reagan, you say, you suggest implicitly had different human qualities but you can’t ignore the fact that Trump was picking off where Reagan left off. You can’t separate it entirely because he was using that script. Different man, different ethos, different character, different soul: uplifting, destructive. But you can’t ignore that they were using the same script when they said make America Great Again. Again.

KNOTT: I’m fairly critical I thought of Reagan in this book, there’s a lot about Reagan I admire. I used to run the Reagan Oral History program at the Miller Center at U.Va. I learned to appreciate the man in terms of his human qualities but on racial issues Reagan had a tin ear. He’d besmirch Martin Luther King when he signed the legislation into law creating the King holiday, suggesting that King might be a communist. Unfortunately Reagan should’ve been above that kind of thing. For much of his life I think he was. And he always bridled when people accused him of being a racist. There are seeds of the Trump movement in the Reagan movement. But I do think it’s pretty important in the end Ronald Reagan was a gentleman. He really went after people on personal grounds.

HEFFNER: He didn’t look or act like a demagogue.

KNOTT: Good point. Fair point.

HEFFNER: Thank you professor for joining me today.

KNOTT: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.