Mount Rushmore has long stood stoically above the plains of South Dakota. The faces of the four Presidents on the mountain’s facade look out from the granite as symbols of inspiration to the American people. They were each giants in their own right and are now legends of American History. George Washington is remembered as the hero of the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, Roosevelt showed the world that the United States was now a world power, and Lincoln will always be remembered for ending slavery. These men shaped the American spirit and helped to define who we are as Americans. They are our epic heroes, and not because they were bureaucrats or legislators. We remember them because they were our leaders and they lead our nation in a world that many times was hostile towards it.
Foreign policy is in fact the most influential aspect of a President’s administration. As commander of our armed forces and chief diplomat the President is the face of the United States to the rest of the world. Domestic issues, for the most part, are controlled by Congress so the legacy of a President is usually based on his skill at international relations. The men on Mount Rushmore were all very good with foreign policy. Some of them used their position to preserve the Nation while some helped it to expand and become the superpower that is to this day. In many instances these men had to make decisions that may have changed the position of the Presidency forever. Each man’s use of the executive power in his foreign relations added something to the modern view of that power.
Every President who holds the highest office in the land adds something to the legacy of the Presidency. Not only are these four men discussed here no exception to that rule but they are strong examples of how much a man really can add to the office. These men have left precedent in regards to constitutional rights, and the executive power that are effecting domestic and especially foreign policy to this day. Their work is a foundation upon which the U.S. government has since based many of its arguments and policies.
So if it is a President’s foreign policy that best characterizes him then it stands to reason that the decisions these men made and the policies these men enacted in this area made them the legends we see them as today and it must be the executive power, which allowed them to enact these policies, that truly helped define the American character.
At the end of the American Revolution nobody was certain what would emerge as the new system of American government. The executive branch was a very troublesome because many Americans were concerned with the rise of another Tyrant Like England’s King. Some called for the naming of a new king but the one thing most Americans agreed on was that General George Washington was the only reasonable choice for this new executive position. There was a question as to exactly how much power this leader should have. Upon the writing of the constitution it was spelled out how this position would operate and what powers this man would and would not have. The issue was that in a democratic government decisions can be made in regards to what the people want, and even to what is best for the people, but the problem is that a government of this kind cannot make decisions in a timely fashion. There is also the matter of making decisions when the legislature is not in session. In general the government needed a way to make decisions in times when the legislature is unable to function properly. The balance then is to find the responsibilities to give to the executive that would allow the government to function properly while still not descending into tyranny.
This system, based deeply on the writings of political philosopher John Lock, seemed fine on paper and was ratified by the States. However, as with most documents, it did not function quite as efficiently in practice. There were times when the responsibilities shifted between the branches and Presidents felt that it was absolutely necessary to violate the Constitution to do what is best for the American people or to preserve the regime. This is the “Executive Power”. It is exercised by a President when he feels that undertaking an action that requires congressional support needs to be done without it. In an instance when waiting for congress to deliberate would be seen as not being prudent or being detrimental a President has traditionally overstepped his bounds, at risk of impeachment, to do what he feels is best, hopefully to be vindicated later.
Even before the adoption of the Constitution, there were major discrepancies in the description of the duties of the executive that the first President, George Washington, had to improvise to deal with. The first of these had to do with the large army that was now sitting around without a war to fight. The provisions in the Constitution regarding the military dealt mostly with the highest levels of command and with militias. Under the Articles of Confederation it was even more convoluted. Washington took steps to keep a certain number of solders as a standing Army and Navy. Though it may seem basic now, in the beginning of the United States it was a serious unknown.
The term limitations of the President were a big check on the executives power. Unfortunately these reforms would not come for well over a hundred years after Washington left office. Washington took it upon himself to step down after his second term. This was a large step in the limitation of the power of the executive. This meant that despite how well Washington might be able to appease the American people he would make way for another man with fresh ideas and might be more friendly to the congress. Without a term limitation a popular president could deceive the people into allowing him to become a tyrant. With this precedent set, following executives would have to justify running for additional terms. Should they do so they would have to explain why he is more important than Washington. This Precedent stood fast until Franklin Roosevelt many years later who would inspire the codified amendment to the Constitution. Which finally limited the President’s term in office.
Though President Washington did not make many forays into foreign policy, he did set up many precedents which shaped not only foreign policy but the entire executive power held by the President. It can be argued that without Washington the office of President would be much different today. It is thanks to his behaviors that the office of the President did not descend back into tyranny shortly after the Revolution. Many other such revolutions throughout history have failed due to a lack of this kid of selflessness. Washington set the bar for every President to come after him.
Jefferson is one of the Presidents most often associated with the executive power and its use in foreign policy. His actions in the early days of the Republic allowed the expansion of the country and set precedent for how the United States was going to behave toward other countries in both diplomatic and military matters. Jefferson’s effect on the executive power was at very least memorable and at best began the modern concept of breaking from constitutional law to act in the best interest of the country.
The Barbary wars, Jefferson took actions that would set a precedent for fighting wars on foreign soil that stands to this day. When he saw that United States economic interests were being threatened by North African Pirates he decided to take the fight to them and commit U.S. forces to a fight on foreign land as opposed to the isolationist ideals that have plagued American foreign policy since the founding. His methods from this conflict shaped how the U.S. would respond to events such as Pearl Harbor and the international wars on drugs and terrorism. Today we look at ending an international conflict by starting at its source as very basic strategy. Shortly after the founding, however, U.S. troops had not fought an enemy on foreign soil. This conflict was also the first time that the American people got a real taste of the power and unpredictability of the growing Islamic powers in the Middle East and North Africa. From this point onward the United States would not wait for an enemy to come and bring the fight to the homeland. The
precedent was also set that the United States was willing to go to war over economic interests and not just threats to its sovereignty. This was a big step in American foreign policy because it leads to justifications for many of the wars in our military history, including actions in China during the Boxer Rebellion, Panama, and some would argue the current war in Iraq.
As a side note to this conflict Morocco was actually one of the first nations to recognize The United States as a country in 1777. In 1786 the Kingdom of Morocco signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with the United States which stands as the longest unbroken treaty the U.S. has ever entered into with another nation.
The dealings with the Barbary Pirates and Jefferson’s pursuit of domestic security through wars on foreign soil solidified his hold on the still vague executive power of the President. He showed that it was the President’s job to not necessarily enforce U.S. laws over its citizens in foreign countries, but to pursue their security abroad. He solidified the President’s position as chief foreign policy maker and as Commander-in-Chief, the military protector of U.S. citizens and interests abroad.
The other major feature of Jefferson’s foreign policy while he was President is his acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson, without approval from congress cut a deal with Napoleon to more than double the size of the United States territory. This action was, possibly, as provocative and controversial as any use of the executive power that any President has ever engaged in. The complicated aspect of American foreign policy is that the President is the chief diplomat and is in charge of appointing ambassadors and engaging in relations with foreign powers. All treaties, however, must be ratified by the congress. This leaves the President in a difficult situation when he disagrees with the majority of the Congress but still believes it is his duty to preform actions he feels are best for the well being of the American people and best for the country. The strange thing is that Jefferson, one of the architects of the constitution would be one of the first ones to ignore it in, what he thought, was the best interest of the country.
The standard Jefferson set with the Louisiana Purchase really laid out the fight over what the executive power really was, an argument which continues to this day. Arguments over covert actions, economic deals, illegal wire taps, and even the entrance into the Vietnam war can be tied back to this concept which Jefferson started. In a speech to Congress in 1803 , Jefferson talked about the purchase as if it were waiting for congressional approval. Meanwhile he had already made the necessary preparations and deals. This proves that Jefferson did not, in fact, want to change the law or to change the Constitution to make his actions more legally acceptable. This president, of consciously acting against the constitution in order to benefit the country, is still a hot issue today, but was originally addressed by Jefferson in 1803.
In addition to what the Louisiana Purchase did for the executive power it was also seen as a huge step in one of the most pressing international relations issues of the time. Americans were traveling westward and they were beginning to settle in lands not owned by the United States. The North American continent, at the time, was a patchwork of colonial holdings of the major European powers. The land these settlers were moving onto was owned by the French, the Spanish, the British, and eventually the Mexicans and Russians. The idea of “Manifest Destiny” was driving the deeply religious and idealistic American settlers further and further west. The Louisiana Purchase provided these people with what they truly wanted; land. Land was the main source of social mobility in the early days of the republic and it was something rarely dealt out to common folk by the European monarchies. With the acquisition of Louisiana from France, Jefferson effectively provided for this American wanderlust and jump started the nationalist sentiment which became the driving force behind Manifest Destiny. Though there would be some small actions engaged in over the European held lands of North America, most would come under the jurisdiction of the U.S. through transactions like that of Louisiana. The Purchase of this land can be seen as the largest step ever taken in making the United States into, geographically, what it is today.
Abraham Lincoln is rarely remembered for his foreign policy. Because the civil war dominated his Presidency, he is most notable for his domestic policy. However, some of the actions he took against what he saw as an internal insurrection would be used to justify actions taken in foreign conflicts by later Presidents. Though history was deprived of a decent gage of his foreign policy prowess by his early death, his work as a legislator before his Presidency sheds some light on his views on the subject. During President Polk’s execution of the Mexican American war Lincoln stated his views plainly on what is often considered the least just war in U.S. history.
During the war Lincoln preformed one of his most controversial acts of his career. To prevent insurrection in critical western and border States Lincoln declared a suspension of habeas corpus in certain areas. He did so without congressional approval and against the wishes of the Supreme court. This case has often been debated in the grand historical question of whether to sacrifice civil liberties for security, but in this context I would like to speak to its influence on modern foreign policy and the executive power. Many Presidents, especially recently, have been chastised for their alleged mistreatment of prisoners of war and their intrusions on our constitutional rights as citizens during wartime. In the recent cases at Guantanamo Bay foreign prisoners were denied some of the same rights Lincoln took away from prisoners during his administration. This is an important part of how the executive power is viewed today. Lincoln’s actions set a precedent that the President of the United States can suspend the constitutional rights of citizens in the pursuit of National Security. Jefferson had gone against the Constitution to make deals with foreign powers but he had not taken rights directly away from individual citizens. This argument, and Lincoln’s precedent are often used in civil liberties cases. When a President uses an illegal wire tap, or the FBI searches someone’s mail without a warrant they harken back to Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus to justify their actions. These kinds of actions have been taken by Presidents ever since Lincoln, including the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two. Though this is seen as a detriment to the constitutional rights of Americans by many, and is easily interpreted as unconstitutional, it does provide an option for the executive branch during times of great strife. In this way Lincoln’s domestic policy during the Civil War is effecting U.S. foreign policy to this day.
Lincoln was a relatively inexperienced congressman when Polk began his crusade for the Rio Grande River. In his 1848 Speech to congress Lincoln lays out his argument actually opposing Polk’s excessive use of the executive power. He explains away his prior support for the war by almost pleading ignorance, but with a strong sense of patriotism.
“When the war began, it was my opinion that all those who, because of knowing too little, or because of knowing too much, could not conscientiously approve the conduct of the President, in the beginning of it, should, nevertheless, as good citizens and patriots, remain silent on that point, at least till the war should be ended. Some leading democrats, including Ex President Van Buren, have taken this same view, as I understand them; and I adhered to it, and acted upon it, until since I took my seat here; and I think I should still adhere to it, were it not that the President and his friends will not allow it to be so.”
His initial comments, in regards to remaining silent in his descent because of his assumed lack of understanding, actually would support his later actions as he himself violated the constitution during his Presidency. The problem Lincoln seems to have with Polk is that he did not violate the constitution in a time of war, he did not cut a deal with a foreign country that would help the Union, he had in fact taken American troops to war on foreign soil for a land grab based on an illegitimate treaty made between a militia force and a deposed leader. Lincoln systematically tore apart each one of Polk’s arguments for war and exposed his claim to the land between the Nueces and Rio Grande as nothing more than a trick devised to fool congress into supporting his war effort. In Lincoln’s eyes Polk was simply making an old fashioned power play for land that would, in all likelihood, come into the union as slave territory. In addition, he was doing so through direct deception of both the U.S. Congress and the American people.
One of the other arguments that Lincoln makes in attempting to sway his fellow Congressmen is a plea against party line voting. Not that Lincoln was going to change anything with this but he did bring up an important issue in congressional foreign policy. One of the reasons a President has to overstep his constitutional bounds is because the congress, at the time, is dominated by the opposing party. This kind of party politics constantly plagues a President and is one of the main reasons for the existence of the executive power. The concept itself came about when the President had to overstep his bounds to accomplish something that the hostile Congress would not approve. Many times this is due to the very party line politics that Lincoln is preaching against in the early parts of his speech.
President Theodore Roosevelt, often called by his endearing nic name “teddy” was legendary for his new outlook on United States foreign policy. He took the country out of its traditional policy of isolationism and presented it to the rest of the world in a brash, unapologetic way. Roosevelt was a student of Lincoln and continued that legacy of a firm stance in defense of the Monroe Doctrine. In stark contrast to Wilson’s Kantian ideals of international law and the like, Roosevelt was an avid supporter of realpolitik. He believed in showing the power of the United States all over the world and in using that power to further the interests of the American people. Roosevelt ignored party line politics, international sentiment, and any sort of adversity to accomplish his goals of making the United States a true super power, no longer subservient to the European powers.
He made no misconceptions about his wanting to follow in the steps of Lincoln. In a speech on Lincoln’s birthday Roosevelt made direct connections between the newly formed Progressive Party to Lincoln’s involvement in the formation of the Republican Party. He also mention’s a very important concept in this speech. He talks about the strict constructionist approach to the Constitution pursued by Lincoln’s opponents. This seemed to be Roosevelt’s way of praising Lincoln’s use of the executive power. This part of Lincoln’s legacy was very influential to Roosevelt’s foreign policy.
Roosevelt made popular the idea of the “bully pulpit”. He was able to use his position as president to sway public opinion toward his own views. Roosevelt was able to develop a great
sense of nationalism among the American people. The only way he was able to do this was by putting aside some of his utilitarian views and argue for righteousness. Of course, at the time, the argument for a natural aristocracy was perfectly acceptable, so arguments for shaping the non-European world were perfectly acceptable. This allowed Roosevelt to use the argument of protecting and almost parenting the peoples of Latin America to accomplish the goal of keeping the European powers out of the Western Hemisphere. This kind of public support for Roosevelt’s ideals lead to what is called the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. This addendum to the old doctrine halting European colonialism in the hemisphere gave the United States soul right to protect those developing countries and to encourage the growth of liberal democracies in the region. American foreign policy would never be the same after this. From here on out the nation would control the Western Hemisphere and would rival the power of the European nations not just economically but militarily as well. It is this paradox that would guide Presidents’ foreign policy for years to come. They would have to seek the utilitarian goals of national security and economic sovereignty while at the same time convincing the public that the policies they enacted were aiming toward some idealistic goal of justice or freedom. Roosevelt was able to balance these two arguments very well throughout his presidency while many others have failed going too far to one side or the other.
One of the most utilitarian actions Roosevelt ever took to enforce this kind of policy is now know as “the Great White Fleet”. The act of sailing a fleet of warships around the world can hardly be seen as a pleasant gesture. If Roosevelt was going to tell the Europeans to stay out of the western hemisphere he was going to have to show some force behind it. Monroe had been asking for somewhat less from the Europeans when he presented his Doctrine. He also had the might of the British Navy to back it up. Roosevelt was cordoning off half the world and was basically saying that America would do it on her own. The way he got the other super powers of the world to sit up and take notice was to parade America’s military might right up to their doorstep and display exactly what would be handling the development of Latin America.
Roosevelt’s largest project in his foreign policy career was his legendary building of the Panama Canal. Started by the French, the man made cut through central America was thought by many to be an impossible task. Despite the obvious benefits to the United States in a much shorter trip from the East coast and the newly opened China, building in Panama presented seemingly insurmountable challenges. Of course, Roosevelt being the utilitarian that he was saw the canal as a necessary undertaking for the expanding international power of the U.S. Through dealings with the South Americans, including encouraging a Panamanian revolution and cutting a deal for the canal zone, Roosevelt once again used lofty idealism to accomplish what he felt was necessary for the survival and expansion of the nation. He expressed this need in his first State of the Union address to congress after the signing of the treaty with Panama in 1903. Though he did not go into the issue of the canal until near the end of his speech, he talked extensively of the American interests in places like China, Alaska, The Philippines, and the American West. Though he tended to make the idealistic arguments to the American people, he talked of necessity with the congress. He wanted to convince skeptical politicians that without
the canal the United States would not be able to properly support these interests and would fail to expand.
His actions in Panama, with the Great White Fleet, and with Roosevelt’s foreign policy in general showed his views on the executive power. He was not unwilling to act unilaterally and on his own best judgement, but he felt a need to justify his actions. He justified them to the American people through high minded arguments of idealism and justice. He told them and the rest of the world that he wanted to protect the Western hemisphere and foster fledgling democracies away from the colonial power of the Europeans. He justified his actions to other American politicians in more realistic and reasonable terms. He cited the need for trade with China, the ability to support our own West coast, and our military and economic interests in the Pacific as reasons for his great canal project. He knew how to change his rhetoric and balance what is right and what is necessary well enough to not only help to keep the country safe and help her expand, but also to preserve those elements of the American spirit which espoused the ideals of freedom and justice. This kind of rhetoric on Roosevelt’s part really solidified the defense of the executive power that had been experimented with by Presidents since the founding of the United States. His style of rhetoric, it can be argued, guides the defense of the use of executive power to this day. In addition, his actions of the display of power and the toppling of a regime for interests other that open war seemed radical at the time but are now seen as a legitimate foreign policy. Roosevelt’s manipulation of the control of Panama can be directly theoretically linked to such actions as were taken by our government in places like Chile, Iran, and Nicaragua in attempts to put into place a friendly government for the purpose of our own interests. We also continue Roosevelt’s legacy of explaining our actions as attempts to foster free and liberal democracies from oppressed states.