Published Humanitas, Volume VII, No. 2, 1994

The American Presidency: An Intellectual History, by Forrest McDonald. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1994. 516 pp. $29.95.

Forrest McDonald’s The American Presidency: An Intellectual History is a most impressive work. Few contemporary books in American politics reflect the careful and prodigious research, as well as the considerable breadth of knowledge and historical insight brought to bear by McDonald. If you are looking for behavioral models and typologies of presidential behavior, this is not the right book. But if you seek a deeply historical and substantively rich overview of the U.S. presidency, this book is without peer.

As one might expect, given McDonald’s reputation as a leading scholar of the American founding, about half of the book is devoted to a discussion of the numerous influences shaping the creation of the presidency as well as the institution’s evolution during the formative early years of the republic. No less than five chapters out of sixteen are devoted to assessing the importance of the “great commentators on English law and constitutional custom,” political philosophers, ancient and contemporary historians, and the experience of the colonial and revolutionary eras as reference points for the Framers of the Constitution in their creation of the presidency.

McDonald’s discussion of this broad array of influences is not without its contradictions, however. “It seems fair to say,” writes McDonald, “that the Framers could not have accomplished what they did without the political philosophies of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Bolingbroke, Hume, De Lolme, and a few others” (39). Yet, in his next chapter, McDonald argues convincingly that political philosophy was substantially less important than the lessons of history…

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