- The Man of the People: Political Dissent and the Making of the American Presidency by Nathaniel C. Green
Dissent, Presidency, Accountability, Presidential history
To the extent that current events shape questions asked and answers found, a history can be as much about the present as about the past. This need not reduce these works to whiggish narratives. Current events can help historians to understand the past. This applies to The Man of the People by Nathaniel Green. For Green, Donald Trump—whose “vile nationalism” he condemns in his Prologue (xviii)—informs how he sees the presidency and what he called “Trump’s nation.”
Although about the early presidency, Green’s book begins and ends with Trump. The intervening chapters relate episodes in the administrations of five of the first seven presidents, from Washington’s popular inauguration to Jackson’s populist bank veto, plus one on framing and ratifying Article II. Perhaps more than any president, Trump laid bare what the presidency could become—the realization of antifederalists’ fears for an office without enforceable limits. This Trumpian presence animates Green’s book. [End Page 483]
Green depicts the presidency as the defining institution of the United States as a republic of and by the people. The president is the focus of popular attention; offers a model for popular emulation; reflects and reinforces popular values; and serves to unify the American populace. This is the standard Rooseveltian narrative applied to the early presidents, which is nothing new for Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson. At times straining at the effort, Green applies it to episodes from the administrations of John Adams and Madison as well.
Fitting an era of a Trump rather than a Roosevelt, however, Green gives the other side of this coin for his five early presidents. All became focal points of popular dissent, from the moment Washington endorsed Jay’s Treaty to when Madison’s ineptitude led to the burning of the capitol. As with assent, Green argues, dissent serves to model, shape, encourage, and reflect American values. It can even unify. Think of how popular resistance to Adams’s Sedition Act helped Americans to understand their freedoms better. For good and for ill, the people hold their presidents to account.
By presenting as much popular dissent to it as he could muster, Green tries to apply this approach to Jackson’s violent treatment of Native Americans and Black slaves—that the people found virtue from their president’s vices—but ultimately he leaves this sorry tale on the other side of his populist ledger. Jackson was the people’s president even in his racism, Green concludes in the chapter titled “A Violent Man for a Violent Nation.” Readers can almost hear Green grappling with Trump when he writes, “Praise for Jackson took the form of an expression of popular dissent from politics as usual” (273), as if to explain away their popularity.
Although “dissent” features in his book’s subtitle, Green balances chapters and episodes with offsetting examples of presidential adulation and contempt, with both helping to forge the American republic. “The breathless appropriation of private citizens broke down local divisions to define every citizen’s Americanness according to his or her support for the president,” Green writes about the response to Washington’s election. (54) After Jay’s Treaty, however, he notes, “Arguing that the president was subject to public scrutiny at all times, not just during elections, critics made the presidency the cultural touchstone of a more democratic and even contentious political culture. . . . This perpetual public accountability, they insisted, was foundational to a healthy, lasting American nation” (79). [End Page 484]
Green organizes his book chronologically and episodically by narrating various public episodes in the presidencies of Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson in temporal order but skipping other events in their presidencies and omitting any from those of Monroe and John Quincy Adams. Some of these episodes support his theme better than others do, and some are better stories. The...