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Presidents and Political Thought

David J. Siemers

Publication Year: 2010

“What did the president know and when did he know it?” takes on a whole new meaning in Presidents and Political Thought. Though political philosophy is sometimes considered to be dry and abstract, many of our presidents have found usable ideas embedded within it. In this first comparative study of presidents and political theory, David Siemers examines how some of them have applied this specialized knowledge to their job.
Presidents and Political Thought explores the connection between philosophy and practical politics through a study of six American chief executives: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton. Writing at the intersection of politics, history, and philosophy, Siemers combines his extensive understanding of political philosophy with careful research and analysis of individual presidents to produce provocative and astute judgments about how their understanding of political theory affected their performance.
Each chapter examines a particular president’s attitude about political theory, the political theorists he read and admired, and the ways in which he applied theory in his activities as president. Viewing presidents through the lens of political theory enables Siemers to conclude that Madison and Adams have been significantly underrated. Wilson is thought to have abandoned his theoretical viewpoint as president, but actually, he just possessed an unorthodox interpretation of his favorite thinker, Edmund Burke. Often thought to be so pragmatic or opportunistic that they lacked any convictions, FDR and Clinton gained their orientations to politics from political theory. These and other insights suggest that we cannot understand these presidencies without being more aware of the ideas the presidents brought to the office.
Siemers’s study takes on special relevance as the United States experiences regime change and a possible party realignment because, as he notes, Barack Obama has read and learned from political theory, too.
Avoiding much of the jargon that often accompanies political theory, this book demonstrates the relevance of political theory in the real world, chronicling both the challenges and potentially rich payoffs when presidents conceive of politics not just as a way to reward friends and punish enemies, but as a means to realize principles.

Published by: University of Missouri Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi

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Preface: What We Really Should Know about Barack Obama

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pp. vii-xiv

The long presidential campaign of 2008 allowed the American people to get acquainted with Barack Obama—at least in a certain sense. We discovered that, as with any human being, many different things have contributed to making Barack Obama who he is. His experience with multiple ethnicities and cultures, in Hawaii and in Indonesia, seemed to have a profound...

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pp. xv-xviii

This book would not have been possible without those who have diligently researched individual presidents’ intellectual lives. Ralph Ketcham’s James Madison: A Biography is the gold standard of this kind of research. C. Bradley Thompson’s John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty and Niels Aage Thorsen’s Political Thought of Woodrow Wilson deserve special...

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1. On Presidents and Ideas

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pp. 1-19

Even with the power of the presidency just emerging from its low ebb, Oxford University professor James Bryce found the office to be a focal point in the American system of government. In 1893, Bryce, a future ambassador to the United States, stressed that a president might persuade the public to see the value of his ideas. But Bryce also took pains to suggest...

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2. John Adams: Defense of the Mixed Constitution

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pp. 20-45

John Adams read more political theory and felt he learned more from it than any other prominent politician. His sense of worth was intimately wrapped up in his knowledge of political philosophy. As a young man he set out to gain a systematic understanding of politics. Well before he reached the presidency he felt that he had lived out his ideal by reconciling...

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3. Thomas Jefferson: Notes from a Prophet of Progress

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pp. 46-73

Thomas Jefferson provides a stark contrast to John Adams. Adams found the time to both read and write dense tomes of political thought. Jefferson had little taste for such endeavors. Adams believed he had found the one form of government which worked well from his study of history and political theory. Jefferson thought Adams’s discovery and most of the...

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4. James Madison: Political Theory Must Be Made to Counteract Political Theory

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pp. 74-103

James Madison is one of the few politicians who are routinely recognized as political theorists. Madison’s reputation as a profound, original political thinker is based primarily on his efforts in formulating and explaining the nature of the United States Constitution. He did so most famously in The Federalist, the newspaper editorial series he coauthored...

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5. Woodrow Wilson: Keeping the World Safe from Philosophy

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pp. 104-130

Presidents are ambitious people; many of them have wanted to wield political power from an early age. Woodrow Wilson was one of these. As a Princeton undergraduate Wilson made a pact with a classmate, Charlie Talcott, to gain power in order to advance the principles they held in common.1 As a young man, he put aside his hope to be a politician for an...

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6. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: A First-Class Trimmer

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pp. 131-154

At first blush it would seem that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be a most unlikely case study for this subject. Famously pragmatic and not much of a reader of books, Roosevelt exhibited a lack of attraction to political theory that was palpable. In this respect he is the polar opposite of John Adams and James Madison. FDR also has a reputation as something...

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7. Bill Clinton: Flirtation with the Social Contract

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pp. 155-179

Every president who has been interested in political philosophy has approached it in a unique way, has internalized a distinctive set of ideals from it, and has applied these ideals in ways that are original to him. Bill Clinton is no exception. Clinton’s intellect has frequently been analyzed, and patterns have emerged. Clinton reads prodigiously, he is a polymath...

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Conclusion: Dear Mr. President

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pp. 180-196

As evidenced by Wren and Harrington’s exchange, we have been arguing about whether political theory is of any real value for centuries. Unfortunately, this argument has not often progressed much beyond the blanket accusation that theorists (or professors) have little or no real-world experience and therefore cannot offer valuable suggestions, and...


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pp. 197-220


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pp. 221-230


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pp. 231-242

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About the Author

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p. 243-243

David J. Siemers is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh and author of The Antifederalists: Men of Great Faith and Forbearance and Ratifying the Republic: Antifederalists and Federalists in Constitutional Time.

E-ISBN-13: 9780826272058
E-ISBN-10: 0826272053
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826218780
Print-ISBN-10: 0826218784

Page Count: 261
Publication Year: 2010

Edition: 1