In 2008, Americans elected the first sitting senator to the White House in nearly half a century. It was, in fact, the only presidential contest in the nation's history to field two sitting senators. Amid all the rightful attention to the election of America's first African American president, these other firsts were unfortunately reduced to trivia—intellectual memorabilia to impress friends when reminiscing about this historic event. Such oversights, however understandable, have proven to have a narrowing effect on our understanding of the American presidency and American political development. Americans should think carefully about the effect prior elective office has had on the presidency—and on each of its occupants. By electing Barack Obama the 44th President of the United States, the American people ended nearly thirty years of presidential rule by governors. What this break in electoral practice portends may best be understood when considering a parallel event over 130 years ago.
The oddity of the election of Ohio's Rutherford B. Hayes over New York's Samuel J. Tilden surpasses the brokered political resolution that ended Reconstruction. Beyond Hayes's controversial victory is the story of a resurgent presidential office and the rise of modern presidential power. As Hayes and Tilden were the first two governors to face each other in a presidential election, the 1876 race marked a pivotal moment in the nation's selection of a chief executive. But more important, the moment led to a previously unimagined line of governor-presidents that would shape much of what Americans would come to understand as the basics of presidential authority. This was the era of Grover Cleveland, William S. McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, governors all, who would go on to become the protomodern leaders most identified with the emerging presidential republic. How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency is the first book to examine the role the American governorship has played in reconceiving, and in many respects inventing, the modern presidency.
Today, as Americans grapple with the extent of presidential prerogative power—whether it is called unitary, imperial, or simply modern—we would be well served to see how today's "Prince," Machiavellian in an ability to garner personal power in the name of republicanism, first began to emerge. As governors, and later as presidents in their own right, the executives discussed in this book were part of a broader practical and theoretical construction of an executive-centered polity. In short, modern presidential power, however elusive to define, was ultimately crafted from the states up. This book is about the often forgotten link between our national and state executives, and how both presidents and governors have laid claim to extraconstitutional authority for themselves and their successors.
Outline of the Book
In the Introduction, I explore the ways prior elective executive office has shaped the presidency. Beginning with the election of 1876, I introduce the governorships of candidates Hayes and Tilden as early harbingers of the type of outsider politics that governors would come to define as presidential candidates. The key distinctions between presidents with executive backgrounds and those without are also drawn here. Chapter 1 takes up the Hayes-Tilden race's implications for the ensuing growth of presidential power. Key governorships of the pre-Progressive period are examined as well, including those of Bob La Follette, Grover Cleveland, and Hiram Johnson.
Chapter 2 explores the governorship of Theodore Roosevelt. TR's Albany tenure is presented as a window into his presidency and the emergence of innovations in executive practice in the United States. The theoretical as well as practical approaches Roosevelt employed are discussed as part of the broader trajectory of executive power emanating from statehouses in America at the time.
Chapter 3 analyzes the governorship and executive philosophy of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson's political writings and theories are explored and linked to his only prepresidential political experience as governor of New Jersey. Wilson's deconstruction and reinterpretation of the founding is presented along with his modern contributions to party relations, his bold moves in the legislative arena, and, finally, his innovative turn in press relations.
Chapter 4 explores the governorship of FDR in New York. Roosevelt's strategic political mind is analyzed and his seemingly antiphilosophical bent uncovered and scrutinized. Here, in the person of FDR as Albany leader, a powerful but by no means unchallenged governor, we can discern the outlines of the fireside chats, later efforts at establishing party unity under the executive, and the contours of the New Deal. Importantly, Roosevelt's modern executive acumen—the one that most comes to define the emergence of the modern presidency—can be seen drawing from the wellsprings of his predecessors in New York State, including Al Smith, Grover Cleveland, and Samuel Tilden.
In Chapter 5, I weigh the implications of executive power's centrality to American politics at the turn of the last century. By largely missing the governorship's role in the process of erecting the modern presidency, we have made an unintended secondary omission. This is the inability to see American executive power's growth as part of the narrative of the Progressive Era—an era in which governors challenged old conventions, opting for new tactics directed toward garnering popular support and progressive policy outcomes.
The most basic contribution of this book is to fold the institution of governor into any analysis of the modern presidency, and to revise the tendency in the discourse of presidential studies to minimize the role of prior elective office. It is time to bring the executive, writ large, into presidential studies.