Someone smart-sounding* once said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We all think of dictators as the best proof of that argument, but the scary truth is that the theory holds up pretty well in democracies, too. The President of the United States is no exception. For all our good ol’ American aversion to autocracy, we’ve had a few Presidents who weren’t scared to bend the rules, break them, or dynamite them into a pile of splintered detritus.
In no particular order, here are a few times when (for reasons both noble and horrible) the Commander in Chief threw caution to the wind, checks and balances be damned:
1. John Adams – The Alien & Sedition Acts
John Adams got a little help from Congress on this one, but it was nonetheless one of the all-time head-smackers of Presidential overreach. The Alien and Sedition Acts did two things: first, they imposed stringent restrictions on immigrants, including raising the number of years required to earn citizenship from five to fourteen. Second, they made it illegal to criticize the President. Yes, you read that right, and yes, the First Amendment was already a thing.
Adams hoped that restricting the rights of immigrants would drain support from his opponent Thomas Jefferson’s party, whose anti-British attitude made them popular with the thousands of Irish emigres washing up on American shores. He also hoped that taking a big ol’ Braintree steamer on free speech would prevent him being called things like “a hideous hermaphroditical character,” which was literally a thing someone called him.
It didn’t work; Adams became our first one-term President after being demolished by Jefferson in the election of 1800.
2. Thomas Jefferson – The Louisiana Purchase
Jefferson, running on a platform of shrinking federal power and making the President less autocratic, was the last person anyone expected to go too far. Yet, in 1803, a genuine dictator made him an offer he couldn’t refuse- despite the fact that by his own principles, he should have.
French Emperor Napoleon needed money, not American wilderness, so he offered the Louisiana Territory (a chunk of land larger than the entire US at the time) for a paltry $15 million. Impossible to pass up, right? Unfortunately, Jefferson fancied himself a strict interpreter of the Constitution, which doesn’t exactly give the President the power to make that kind of massive, history-altering agreement with a foreign power all on his own.
Napoleon didn’t have time to wait around for the democratic process, so neither did Jefferson. Employing the ancient maxim “fuck it,” Jefferson agreed to the deal, and instantly doubled the size of the nation. Unfortunately, he had to hear whinging about his betrayal of small-government principles for the rest of his time in office.
3. Andrew Jackson – Closing of the Bank of the United States
The Federal Bank was always a controversial notion. While anti-Federalist types screamed that it would give the new American government too much power, it was actually its destruction that offers a lesson in executive abuse. The bank having become the bedrock of a thriving American economy, Congress voted to renew its charter. Jackson vetoed the renewal. No problem there; presidents are allowed to veto things, right?
Right. But Presidents aren’t allowed to enforce their vetoes with illegal action, like Jackson did when he ordered the bank emptied of all its deposits and closed it before its existing charter expired. This was so illegal, in fact, that Jackson’s Secretary of the Treasury refused to do it when ordered. Jackson fired him. The new Treasury Secretary also refused to do it. Guess what happened to him? The third Secretary finally emptied the bank.
Jackson got his way , but it led right to the Panic of 1837, one of the worst financial crises in US history.
4. Andrew Jackson – The Trail of Tears
Yes, Old Hickory makes the list twice, and for good reason. His legacy of executive overreach is unparalleled in history, not least because he defied all sense of Constitutionality for the sake of some good old fashioned ethnic cleansing.
Jackson had passed the Indian Removal Act in his first term, which required all Native Americans to, well, get the fuck out. With reservations established just west of the Mississippi, no native tribe would be allowed to live east of it, period. While some tribes fought back physically, the Cherokee Nation sued for the right to their ancestral lands, winning in a stunning Supreme Court victory.
Jackson had other ideas. First, he sent the military to round up the Cherokee and place them in camps. Once assembled, the whole tribe was forced to march, in winter, without adequate food or supplies, hundreds of miles to their reservation. A full 25% of the tribe died en route, hence the phrase “Trail of Tears.”
As for those pesky checks and balances, Jackson said of the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice “He has made his decision. Now let him enforce it,” which roughly translated from the original Assholenese means “last time I checked, I have an army, and the Judicial Branch doesn’t.”
5. James K. Polk – Invasion of Mexico
After a large population of American immigrants started a successful revolution in the Mexican province of Texas, things weren’t exactly friendly between Mexico and the US. While Texas was briefly an independent nation, it wasn’t long before the “Lone Star” was added to the Union flag, very much to the Mexican government’s chagrin.
Complicating matters was the fact that the new border between the US and Mexico was extremely fuzzy. Where Texas ended and Mexico began was a matter of serious dispute, with Americans insisting it was at the Rio Grande, while Mexicans claimed it was farther north at the Nueces River.
President Polk, who made no secret of his ambition to conquer the continent, took advantage of the confusion to start a war while making Mexico appear to be the aggressor. Hoping for a skirmish, Polk sent troops into the disputed area, including Ulysses S. Grant, who remembered the scheme thusly:
“We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it. It was very doubtful whether Congress would declare war; but if Mexico should attack our troops, the Executive could announce, “Whereas, war exists by the acts of, etc.,” and prosecute the contest with vigor.”
When US troops got too close to Mexican civilian populations, the Mexican army gave Polk the excuse he needed, attacking and driving the “invaders” off. Polk famously claimed that the Mexicans had shed “American blood on American soil,” which few were willing to publicly dispute, despite that whole “American soil” bit being debatable at best. Abraham Lincoln fumed over the claim, publicly demanding that Polk reveal exactly what “particular spot” Polk was referring to. Regardless, the war happened, and the US got not only Texas, but over half the nation of Mexico, clear to the Pacific Ocean. Winning!
Stay tuned for He Did What? Part II: The Revenge, where we finally get to the Nixon part.
*Sir John Dalberg-Acton, a 19th-century British MP with possibly the greatest beard in parliamentary history