Brian Steele’s historical research on Thomas Jefferson raises questions of relevance to contemporary debates on executive power in a democracy, an issue highlighted by his review article in this fall’s Presidential Studies Quarterly and in a new article to be published in the Journal of Southern History this November.
Steele, Ph.D., an assistant professor of history, argues that Jefferson had a much more expansive vision of national power than most historians have assumed.
|Brian Steele reviews a new book on Thomas Jefferson and, combined with his other historical research on Jefferson, raises questions of relevance to current debates on executive power in a democracy.
“Jefferson is often dismissed as the father of states’ rights and Southern sectionalism,” Steele says. But in the Journal of Southern History article, Steele argues that Jefferson believed that the Union had the right to coerce states that failed to meet their obligations to sister states or that threatened to secede. He also believed that the Constitution granted the executive, in particular, and the national government, in general, fairly extensive powers.
“Jefferson believed in States’ Rights,” Steele says, “but within the limits prescribed by the Constitution. He thought the national state should prosecute to the fullest its rightful powers to achieve the ends demanded by the people.”
Steele says this argument raises questions of current concern, considering that the George W. Bush administration has claimed an expansive vision of executive authority. But Steele disputes the implied connection with Jefferson’s ideas in Presidential Studies Quarterly, a journal attracting historians, political scientists and media members along with others interested in executive power and the history of the American presidency.
“Jefferson was not at all averse to using executive power in an expansive way, but he always linked it very closely with democratic consent,” Steele says.
“He felt very strongly that it was incumbent upon a president to cultivate public opinion, because public approbation is what gave the government its energy — the ability to do what it’s supposed to do.
“At the same time, Jefferson believed a government tied closely to democratic consent would limit its ability to go outside the boundaries of the law and evolve into what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. later called an ‘imperial presidency.’”
Transparency believed by Jefferson to be essential
Steele says another strong tenet is transparency, which Jefferson embraced thoroughly. Even when it was necessary for the president to exercise his power in a time of national crisis, Jefferson thought the president was, as he put it, risking himself and his reputation for the good of the nation by acting behind closed doors, so to speak. “So exercising this kind of power required a great deal of personal courage and integrity and sort of paradoxically made the president vulnerable to the people’s disapproval.”
Steele believes that Bush’s vision of the President as a “unitary executive” legitimizes secrecy and circumvention of laws. When Congress questioned Bush’s interpretation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, he said, the Bush administration claimed it had a right to expand its authority.
“This is not the kind of transparency that Jefferson encouraged,” Steele says. “And, as many scholars have pointed out, it ultimately undermined Bush’s credibility among the general public.”
Steele says Bush’s inability to cultivate public sentiment and effectively explain his positions to the public led to a backlash against his policy. That fostered an air of suspicion about anything else the administration has done, he says, and undermines Bush’s ability to prosecute the “war on terror,” which Steele says, “was the original rationale for such expansive claims.”
But the Bush administration isn’t the only one to blame, Steele says.
“The American public deserves its share, too,” Steele says. “A republic is only as good as its citizenry. Jefferson was very hopeful. He really believed the American people were active, engaged and alert enough to spot tyranny on the horizon and resist it. And he was confident they would be able to sort out truth from falsehood.
“I think that’s something we may have lost over the years. And Congress has abdicated its responsibility over and again, as well.”
Speaking at West Point
On Sept. 23, Steele was a guest speaker at the opening of the new Thomas Jefferson Library on the campus of the United States Military Academy at West Point, adding to a whirlwind of fall events for the professor.
“It was exciting to be a part of it,” says Steele.
Steele was asked to speak the library opening as part of the event “Light and Liberty: Thomas Jefferson and the Politics of Knowledge.” He was asked to take part by Rob McDonald, associate professor of history at the United States Military Academy and coordinator of the event.
Steele’s speech focused on Jefferson’s sense that American democracy was exceptional for its time.
Jefferson believed Americans of the post-Revolutionary War generation were uniquely capable of handling self-government. He believed they were qualified to run their own affairs in a way no other people in history had been.
“Jefferson believed Americans of the revolutionary generation possessed a unique spirit of engagement,” Steele says. “He thought Americans were informed, engaged and economically autonomous enough not to let leaders ride roughshod over their liberties. This spirit also gave direction to governance.
“You can’t help but wonder what he would think about the current apathy many Americans show toward public affairs, although many people seem to be engaged and interested in the current presidential campaign, which is a positive sign.”