Jefferson and the Presidency

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Robert M. Johnstone notes in his acknowledgments to this fine text an indebtedness to the late Clinton Rossiter for his varied conceptual assistance on the topic of the presidency. Clearly, Johnstone could have no finer mentor on the executive branch than Rossiter, who is widely regarded to be among a mere handful of premier authorities on the subject. Yet it is also curious to note that Johnstone implies that Rossiter may have had some reservations about the conclusions and perspectives that are put forth in Jefferson and the Presidency; and, although Johnstone does not elaborate on the particulars of Rossiter’s remarks, one can speculate as to their nature.

One of the more controversial features of this work is the use of leadership analysis models fashioned originally by Richard Neustadt in his classic, Presidential Power (1964). Neustadt, a considerable authority on the presidency, offered a framework for ascertaining the relative level of success or failure of presidents in terms of their ability to govern within the context of altering political situations. The Neustadt model, however, was clearly designed to study the performance of presidential leadership during more contemporary times. In particular, the emphasis was upon the twentieth century figures traditionally looked upon as vanguard personalities in the rise of what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has termed “the Imperial Presidency.” To suggest that such a model might also be applied to the presidents of the nineteenth century may not have been in keeping with Neustadt’s intent. Yet this is, in fact, the thrust of Robert Johnstone’s study of Thomas Jefferson.

Johnstone himself acknowledges that his approach may be subject to some immediate speculation, but he nevertheless feels that the application can be a valid method for analyzing policy decision-making as it relates to the use of executive authority. Beyond this, the author builds a strong case for focusing a greater degree of attention upon the role of individuals in such leadership situations—a focus which Johnstone suggests has been largely absent until only recently. The argument put forth in this text is that, because of a conceptual perspective which centers upon the context of events or the flow of society, historians have traditionally felt less inclined to view the individual personality as a critical element in governance. In fact, Johnstone goes so far as to imply that such an approach among American historians may be due to a cultural bias which honors, however unconsciously, the mass-oriented notions of democracy at the expense of dominant personalities.

The figure of Thomas Jefferson and his presidency was by no means a random historical selection on the author’s part. Johnstone is blunt in his view that Jefferson was a primary element in the creation of presidential leadership more traditionally associated with the expansive presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. He portrays Jefferson as the presidential pioneer of the chief executive as “power broker,” willing to cultivate and promote influence beyond the confines of precedent and constitutional legitimacy.

Johnstone divides his work into three segments which survey the nature of executive leadership, its context in relation to party, the press, and the other branches of the Federal government, and, finally, the limits which can occasionally curtail such executive performance. With Jefferson as the executive in question, Johnstone pursues his...

(The entire section is 1431 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Choice. XV, October, 1978, p. 80.

Library Journal. CIII, April 1, 1978, p. 747.