Trump and the Founders: Just What Jefferson Wanted?

How did the Constitution’s framers envision the presidency? Would Donald Trump be their worst nightmare, or just what they had in mind?

We know something about what kind of person their ideal president was because of who was chosen to be our first. More or less the same folks who framed the Constitution agreed that George Washington should be the first president of the United States under the new federal government. Washington had led the Continental Army in its successful revolutionary war against Great Britain, he had presided over the Constitutional Convention itself, and he was regarded as a paragon of sagacity and virtue.

His was a successful presidency, all things considered, and, in particular he was well-served by his first secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who put the nation’s finances in order, and by his first secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, who, though he didn’t serve through both of Washington’s terms, did at least begin to secure a place for the new nation among its old world peers.

Hamilton died defending his honor against the slippery Aaron Burr, and Jefferson went on to serve as president, but both of those men—like Donald Trump—had something of a checkered past. Jefferson admitted that he once “offered love to a handsome lady” not his wife, and Hamilton weathered a blackmail scandal as a result of an unwise dalliance.

Like Hamilton, Trump has succeeded in putting the nation’s finances on a more secure footing, if the stock and jobs markets can be regarded as key financial indicators. Like Jefferson he has scored diplomatic successes, and if he has not yet completely achieved his foreign policy goals, his trade deals show promise of future achievement, and, as Washington advised, Trump has avoided military adventurism abroad.

What is most striking about Trump, however, is that he fits the framers’ preference for seeing the country led by people who are not professional politicians. Washington was a successful farmer and general, Hamilton was perhaps the most accomplished commercial lawyer in New York (and started a newspaper that still publishes there), Jefferson was governor of Virginia, then vice president, and finally president, but he also had a plantation in Virginia, and was a noted scholar, a talented author and inventor, and a cultivated connoisseur.

Washington set a pattern that endured for almost 140 years, of serving no more than two terms as president, and after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s four elections, it is now enforced by constitutional amendment. This followed the Roman model set by Cincinnatus of serving the nation and then graciously returning to private life, and Washington, of course, was a founding member of an American Society of the Cincinnati to celebrate that new American ideal.

The greatest fear of the founders was that our country, like Great Britain, would succumb to the rivalry of faction in government, or worse, that an entrenched elite would plunge us into the kind of financial corruption to which, our framers believed, Britain had succumbed.

Those who elected Donald Trump in 2016 must have understood that it was the triumph of professional politicians in the 20th and 21st centuries that had brought us to the brink of corruption and concomitant decay. The economic collapse at the end of the second term of George W. Bush, and the stagnant economy under Barack Obama for both of his terms (along with the increased federal regulation that his administration encouraged) demonstrated that our government has come more to serve the interests of an elite corps of professional bureaucrats, lawyers, lobbyists and consultants, than it is working for the American people. As the economy in most of the nation sputtered, Washington and its environs achieved a prosperity it had never before known.

Hillary Clinton was the epitome of everything that was wrong and corrupt about the national government, and whether or not she deserved to be locked up, as the chant went at many Trump campaign rallies, had she been elected, it is clear she would have simply furthered the misguided rule of her predecessor.

President Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” is best understood as an effort to return us to self-government and to end rule by the administrative state and its minions. Trump’s task of cleaning the Augean stables of Washington is a formidable one, especially when so many entrenched bureaucrats remain in our national government, and when, as we have seen, holdovers from the Obama Administration in and out of power are not above using every means at their disposal to stymie and undercut Trump and his efforts.

The recent flap over the erstwhile British ambassador, Sir Kim Darroche, whose leaked communications suggested his view of the ineptness of the president, is a reminder that our mother country is still suffering from its own entrenched corruptocrats, who surrender their power most unwillingly.

Modern governments, of course, have complex and difficult tasks, and they create the need for the kind of expertise that, unfortunately, leads to the large and almost immovable bureaucracies we have today. Nevertheless, if the sovereignty of the people still has a role to play in our polity, it is the American people themselves, through their elected officials, who have the right to control our future.

Donald Trump may be leading the charge, but it is also time to make more of an effort to eliminate the national professional political class, or at least to tame its power. Several constitutional reform efforts currently are underway, and eventually may succeed, bringing with them term limits for members of Congress and perhaps even some judicial reform which might lead to ending another impediment to popular sovereignty, government by judiciary.

In the meantime, as we approach the election of 2020, then, it is imperative that we not lose sight of what Trump accomplished in 2016 and what he ought to be able to do in another term. Some of the creatures of the swamp—Paul Ryan, John McCain, both Clintons, both Bushes, and Barack Obama are more-or-less gone, but some, such as Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Jerrold Nadler, and Adam Schiff fight on.

It is clear that other such professional politicians – most notably many of the contenders for the Democratic nomination, and, in particular Joe Biden, would bring us back to the very situation Donald Trump sought to overcome. Ambassador Darroche saw what he perceived to be disarray, but he was actually witnessing a needed and corrective disruption, of which Jefferson, indeed, might have approved.

Jefferson’s rather radical way of preventing corruption, as he noted in an early letter to James Madison, was that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” More strikingly, in another letter he observed that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” This goes further than we need, but the tree of liberty will not be refreshed by a victory by the Democrats in 2020, and we should understand that Trump’s 2016 achievement was a little Jeffersonian rebellion. We could use more of the same.

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Photo Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

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About Stephen B. Presser

Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, and the author of “Law Professors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law” (West Academic Publishers, 2017). In the academic year 2018-2019, Professor Presser is a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder.