Perhaps even more disturbing than Barr’s manifesto for radical change—for the creation of a president with nearly autocratic powers—is the revisionist account of American history on which it is based, and his dogmatic insistence on it in the face of ample evidence to the contrary. Whereas Levi recognized a commitment to intellectual integrity and accountability as the keys to building public trust and defending the rule of law, Barr simply presents as gospel a conveniently distorted vision of the past.
At the beginning of his speech, Barr derides “the grammar-school civics-class version” of our history—the one that generations of students have internalized. It is that the Founders, sensitive from experience to the danger that one part of government might develop tyrannical powers, adopted a complex structure of checks and balances. In that government, power was shared among the three branches through sometimes-countervailing delegations of authority, which made each branch dependent on the others. The numerous checks that the Constitution created to limit the president’s authority—the impeachment power, the House appropriation power, Congress’s power to override vetoes, the need for a congressional declaration of war, and the Senate power to advise and consent, for example—show that presidential tyranny was prominent among their concerns.
According to Barr, the Founders actually were not much concerned about an out-of-control president, as this “civics-class version” suggests. He reasons that history shows a rise in the relative power of Parliament against the King during the mid-18th century, and that by the time of our own Revolution, the evil perceived by the patriots was more “an overweening Parliament” than “monarchical tyranny.” Further, chaotic governance during the Revolution and under the Articles of Confederation pointed out the need for a single executive officer, and after some debate, such a president was included in the Constitution. Of course, none of this negates the specific provisions that the Founders adopted to curb presidential overreach, or suggests that it was not a matter of great concern. Nor does it remotely suggest that the later development of institutions such as judicial review and congressional oversight was out of step with what the Founders had in mind.
Barr’s next piece of history—his account of how things have allegedly proceeded during the intervening 230 years—is the real stunner. He would have us believe that this vision of an all-powerful president that he wants to restore has in fact been a reality for most of our history. Indeed, he says, “more than any other branch, the [American presidency] has fulfilled the expectations of the Framers.” At least, that is, until recently.
But what about the widespread consensus of historians that, throughout the 1800s and until the 1930s, Congress was the dominant branch of government, and that over the course of the 20th century, the balance of power shifted dramatically toward the president? With the exception of the founding generation and a few others, including Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, most of our presidents prior to Franklin D. Roosevelt were extremely weak. And without doubt, the greatest expansion of executive power came not early in our history, but during the 20th- and 21st-century era of the imperial president.