What if American presidents looked not to Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy as their role models, but instead patterned their presidency after George Washington? That is Stephen F. Knott’s appeal in his insightful new book, The Lost Soul of the American Presidency, which offers a sweeping panorama of American history and a provocative argument about the kinds of leadership that have served the American people well and poorly.
Knott’s core contention is that American presidents have lost sight of what he calls the “constitutional presidency” (p. 67). His exemplar is Washington, who, with an assist from Alexander Hamilton, established the president as a national leader who would stand in defense of constitutional principles and check majority rule. Knott praises Washington as a president who “served as a unifying head of state, who was respectful of the dignity of his office, who refrained from stoking partisan divisions and becoming a captive to public opinion, always paying due regard to the Constitution” (p. 26).
The break from Washingtonian principles began with Jefferson’s so-called Revolution of 1800 (p. 28), Knott contends, which celebrated presidents as the voice of the po
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