Accusing presidents of dictatorship is nothing new

Published 8:37 am Wednesday, October 9, 2019

I recently saw a post on social media asking why conservatives are so concerned with socialism when what they should be concerned about is dictatorship in their own party. Historically speaking, accusing presidents of dictatorship is nothing new. In fact, it’s as old as the nation itself. I am not going to write about if President Trump is a dictator or not, but I do want to show that it can be said that being accused of dictatorship actually puts him in good company.
During the Nineteenth Century, the cry of dictator was not as prominent. For most of the century, presidents were fairly limited in their political power. The ones who did exercise real presidential authority always faced the accusation of dictator. Anyone who reads my columns knows the election of 1800 is my favorite. It is one of the most hostile in history and I have spoken on it many times. Suffice to say the principle accusation made by Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans was that John Adams wanted to make himself into a king or dictator. Jefferson, who believed in small government, feared that the Federalists wanted to enlarge the power of the federal government and strip away the rights of the people. It did not help that under Adam’s administration Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which in essence made it a crime to criticize the government. It turns out that Adams did not intend to enshrine himself into royalty but instead performed the most important political act in American history. He walked away from the presidency when he lost and set a precedent for the peaceful transfer of power between parties.
A few decades later, President Andrew Jackson had the same accusations made against him. The Whigs were the party that formed to resist who they called “King Andrew I. A name taken from the British party that opposed the King, the name was not a coincidence. It is not hard to see why the Whigs referred to Jackson as a dictator. First, he vetoed more bills than all his predecessors combined. Earlier presidents did not see the veto as a political weapon, but rather as a protection against unconstitutionality. Jackson, however, wielded the veto like a sword to defeat his enemies in Congress. Later, when the Supreme Court went against Jackson’s ideas of Indian removal, Jackson responded with, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” If any president had potential to be a dictator, it was Jackson. Yet after his eight years, he walked away and the nation moved on.
Jump ahead a couple more decades to the election of Abraham Lincoln. Like many readers, Lincoln is my favorite president, yet his entire presidency was plagued with accusations of dictatorship. As much as I love Lincoln, there are good reasons for the claims. Probably his greatest power move was the suspension of habeas corpus, a writ requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge to secure the arrestee’s release unless lawful grounds are shown for the person’s detention.
Basically, Lincoln imprisoned anyone who spoke out against him. Dozens of newspaper editors and political opponents were imprisoned during the war. Because of space restraints, I can mention just one. Lincoln had Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham arrested for declaring disloyal sentiments and opinions. Instead of imprisoning Vallandigham, Lincoln exiled him to live in the Confederacy. If any president had the potential to be a dictator, it was Lincoln. However, we will never know as he was assassinated by John Wilks Booth who claimed death to all tyrants.
In the Twentieth Century, one of the presidents who had the charge of dictator leveled at him was Woodrow Wilson. As a true progressive, he believed in a strong federal government and did everything in his power to strengthen and enlarge it. It was Wilson who pushed an Amendment to create an income tax to fund the federal government. Wilson also passed the Espionage and Sedition Acts. As under Adams, it became a criminal act to criticize the government, the president, or the war. It was Wilson who created the Committee on Public Information that turned into the nation’s first propaganda machine. If any president seemed prepared to become a dictator, it was Wilson. When he tried to push the League of Nations through Congress (even many Democrats opposed it), he spoke of running for a third term so he could force it through. We will never know if he would have followed through. He suffered a stroke making it difficult to even finish his second term.
Finally, there is the man who potentially was the greatest dictator but also one of the most beloved: Franklin D. Roosevelt. No one did more to expand the power of the federal government, or, more specifically, the Executive Branch. He wanted to reorganize the Executive Branch and take the regulatory agencies under his control. When the Supreme Court tried to check him, he attempted to increase the number of judges and fill the Court with his supporters. Finally, he told Americans that he was the only man who could possibly lead during the Great Depression and later WWII. He ran for and was elected to four terms. If any president seemed to set himself up as a dictator, it was FDR. We will never know, as he died in his fourth term.
I am not saying whether Trump is a dictator or not. You can decide. I am also not saying we should accept tyranny in any way, but calling him a dictator actually puts him into pretty good company. Not all the men on this list are people’s favorites, but there is no questioning they all make the list as some of the most important presidents in history. Historically speaking, maybe being called a dictator by your political enemies is a badge of honor. If nothing else, it’s a pretty impressive club to be in.
(Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium.)

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