The American Presidency: Insights from Historian Michael Lee

Just after President Trump’s inauguration, I sat down with Dr. Michael Lee to discuss the history and current state of the American presidency. Dr. Lee is the Grace F. Kea Associate Professor of American History at Eastern University. He has studied at the University of Notre Dame (Ph.D.), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.A.), and Yale University (B.A.). An edited transcript of our conversation follows:

Russell Risden: How would you describe the current political situation after the inauguration of President Trump?

Dr. Lee: We all live in relatively homogenous conversation circles, depending on where you are geographically or what friends you have. It seems to be that [there] are three categories in America right now. If you voted for Trump, and you live in Trump land, you’re probably very happy. If you voted for Clinton, you think that world is coming to an end; that we are on the edge of fascism and Nazism. It seems to me that the worst place to live is somewhere right in the middle, like me. I have friends who live in one bubble and others who live in the other bubble, and you are trying to be sympathetic to both sides. I could be wrong, but it is a tough place to live.

History may calm our fears. This is not the first contested election. The very second election between Adams and Jefferson was highly contested. It was pretty nasty. I mean, from the distance of a couple hundred years we think of them as venerated men, but they hated each other. We think it is nasty now, but that was one of the most vicious elections in our history. There were even scandalous publications about Thomas Jefferson’s biracial children with Sally Hemmings. It was a smear campaign. Jefferson supporters said Adams was a snob, an aristocrat, and argued that he was going to impose a monarchy. The country was deeply divided ideologically  would America be a democracy or a quasi-aristocracy? Some people thought that if Jefferson was elected, there would be a reign of terror as happened in France. Others thought a vote for Adams would be a return to monarchy.

Divided, personal, ideological difficult elections are not new.

Andrew Jackson is another example. Now, the issues that propelled Andrew Jackson to the White House were not that different from what propelled Trump to the White House. In the sense that the bankers, politicians, and the entrenched elites created a cabal that left the majority of hardworking Americans behind. I am not saying that it’s completely the same thing, but here is another example when America elected a populist president, and the elites did not know what to do about it. This isn’t a comforting example, because of things like the Trail of Tears, but in the long run America did not collapse. Our Republic did not come to an end.

In this sense U.S. history can offer us a perspective. It does not mean you have to be complacent, but it means that the sky will not fall down.

Russell Risden: What will the first hundred days of President Trump’s administration look like?

Dr. Lee: I don’t know specifically what he will do the first 100 days, but I can speak about the general idea of the first 100 days. It seems to me that he will do a lot, as most presidents try to do something. This is the idea of the first 100 days: the new President is riding a wave of momentum [and] good will after winning the election. There’s a honeymoon period that might last about 100 days. I think most presidents know that to get anything done it is most effective and easiest if you get it done within the first 100 days, because the rest of government feels like they have to defer to that person. Now, what is revealed about a president when he gets done with the first 100 days? It reveals his priorities. At the same time, though, it’s also about practicality: what can he get done quickly? So, he’s doing a lot of executive orders, which can be done quickly and don’t need to go through the bureaucracy of the government.

Russell Risden: Who comes to mind as a President that should serve as an example to us?

Dr. Lee: I have to go with George Washington. I think the one thing that I appreciate about Washington is that he seemed to serve out of a sense of duty, not ambition. He served reluctantly. He served not because he felt a great desire for power or fame, but because he felt it was an act of service to the people. I think that’s very hard to do right now. Ambition can be a vice, and it has to be tempered with humility.

If you desire to read further on the history of American presidents, Dr. Lee suggested the following titles:

–Russell Risden (’17) is a Templeton Scholar studying Political Science and European History. He is also a Cadet in Air Force ROTC. 

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>