Appearing in person to read messages to Congress — Harding and Coolidge followed Wilson's plan — First President to go overseas — No secret at Cabinet meetings — "A gentleman at his own fireside."
"The harness of precedent is sometimes a very sad and harassing trammel." — Wilson
In December, 1912, shortly after Governor Wilson had been elected President, a friend visited him at the executive offices, in Trenton. This gentleman, who afterwards became a member of his Cabinet, had called to secure the influence of the President-elect to adjust differences in Delaware which threatened to defeat the election of a Democratic Senator in that State. A Senate in sympathy was important to the working together to carry out party pledges. Governor Wilson was keen to do anything proper in the matter, but the threatened division was adjusted without the necessity of his intervention.
"Did you ever hear the reading of a President's message at the joint session of Congress?" he asked the visitor, apropos of nothing. His friend had.
"Did anybody pay attention to the reading?" he asked, and his visitor told him that usually the members chatted or read papers while the clerks read the message. Many of them went out, and it was out of the ordinary for anybody to listen to it, the Congressmen preferring to read it for themselves later. That was all. But later p221 when President Wilson stood in Congress to deliver his message in person, the conversation was recalled.
Jefferson had discontinued delivering the messages in person because he thought it savored too much of an "address from the throne." When Wilson announced his intention to return to the practice begun by Washington, old-timers thought it looked too much like possible executive dictation. But after his first appearance, when not only Congress but the diplomats and all who could gain admittance to the House of Representatives listened intently, applauding what they approved, there was none to doubt the wisdom of restoring the Washington practice. This breaking of a precedent an hundred years old was an innovation which demonstrated its wisdom. He prefaced the message by saying: "I am very glad indeed to have this opportunity to address the two Houses directly and to verify for myself the impression that the President of the United States is a person, not a mere department of Government hailing Congress from some isolated island of jealous power, sending messages, not speaking naturally and with his own voice — that he is a human being trying to co‑operate with other human beings in a common service." He added: "After this pleasant experience, I shall feel quite normal, in all our dealings with one another." Both President Harding and President Coolidge followed the example of their precedent-breaking and precedent-making predecessor. Wilson ended the spectacle of apparent disrespect shown executive recommendations to Congress. The delivering of the message is now an impressive occasion and the views of the executives receive greater consideration than when the clerks hurried or droned through their messages.
p222 Readers of "The State," written many years before he broke the precedent of a century by delivering his message in person, might have known he would do that very thing. He had said in his book, "Washington and John Adams addressed Congress in person on public affairs, but Jefferson, the third President, was not an easy speaker and preferred to send a written message." Here is his scorn of the way precedents control: "Subsequent Presidents followed his example, of course. Hence, a sacred rule of constitutional action."
"You do not mean to tell me that Wilson is thinking of doing so revolutionary a thing as that?" exclaimed an old-time Senator to a friend of Wilson's shortly before the inauguration in 1913. "The Senators would resent it. It would be a fatal mistake. I hope you will dissuade him if he has such a thing in mind."
The friend of Wilson had just returned from Princeton and was talking to the Senator about his visit. The President-elect had asked him: "Is there not a room in Capitol set apart for the President?" "Yes." "Does the President ever occupy it?" The answer was that in which occupied by the chief executive only at the close of Congress when he signed measures passed in the rush hours. At other times, it was explained, it was used by the Senators to see favored visitors.
"What would you think," asked Wilson of his visitor, "if I should make use of it now and then when it was desirable to hold conferences with Senators?" The friend, himself lacking reverence for outworn precedents, said that the builders of the Capitol having constructed a room called "The President's Room," he could see no reason why it should not be used by the officer for whom it was set apart, but he added, "If you p2223 use it, there will be the cry that you are trying to control legislative action. It has not been used since the time whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary."
Later, when President Wilson for the first time occupied the President's room and held conferences there with a number of Senators on important policies, this happened: The old-time Senator, who had been shocked at the very thought of the innovation, in an interview published next morning, expressed his gratification that, instead of sending for Senators to make a trip to the White House, the new President had done them the courtesy to call at the Capitol for conferences. Nevertheless, though this Senator was converted, President Wilson never occupied his room at the Capitol that there was not talk of "executive dictation" and of the attempt "to relegate the Senate to a subordinate position." Most Senators, however, did not indulge in such criticism, for while they found Mr. Wilson earnestly advocating his measures, they found he was seeking a common ground of agreement. Adamant for the principle at stake he was, but reasonable and ready for every helpful concession. Often his open-minded conferences with Senators and Representatives caused him to adopt gladly the methods their experience showed were an improvement on his own. But once the line of battle had been drawn, once the opponents of the principle involved were seeking compromise that would impair the idea aimed at, in the Federal Reserve contest and others, he adopted the motto of Grant: "I purpose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer."
It has been a precedent time out of mind in the White House that no one must sit down while the President is standing. There is a story that years and years p224 ago, a lady of fifty took a seat while waiting for her husband at the close of a brilliant reception. A White House visitor reminded her of the rule and told her it was regarded as lese majeste. President Wilson upon all formal occasions made no change in rules. One evening when with the receiving party were gathered in the library upstairs awaiting the signal to descend the stairs in the "grand march" as it is called, a member of the Cabinet and a lady house guest drew up their chairs by the fireplace for a cozy chat, all unmindful that the President was standing. The wife of the Cabinet officer, who was standing and engaged in conversation with the President, gave the wifely command by her eyes to her husband. He obeyed it and came to his feet immediately. Seeing this pantomime, the President walked over to the Cabinet member, placed a hand on each shoulder, pressed him back into the chair, saying with a smile, "Sit and behave yourself," and, turning to the wife, added that no matter what the policy at formal occasions, no office could make him forget his right to be a gentleman at his own fireside.
"Mr. Bryan was saying to me," said President Wilson at an early meeting of the Cabinet — he repeated the remark that the Secretary of State had made, in a low tone of voice, before the Cabinet session had actually begun. Other members were talking and Mr. Bryan had chosen the moment when the others were so engaged to speak of a state department matter which was not important enough for discussion. "I am repeating the whispered message," President Wilson went on to say, "solely because when I read the 'Diary of Gideon Welles' I was impressed by the resentment felt by the other members of the Cabinet when Seward would take p225 the President aside and talk with him alone, while the other members sat by wondering why they could not be let in on the conversation between the President and the Secretary of State." That precedent of private conferences obtaining in Lincoln days was not followed.
One precedent which had been established from the beginning was that the President of the United States should not go beyond the borders of his country. Some indeed had an idea that it was prohibited by the Constitution or the laws.a Therefore, when Wilson decided to go himself to Paris to take part in framing the peace treaty, there was a great outcry that he was not only smashing tradition and breaking precedent, but he was also violating the proprieties. So fierce was the criticism that an outsider would have supposed that Wilson was breaking all the Ten Commandments at once. Mr. Lansing, Secretary of State, whose mind was not open to departures from custom, says in his book, "I felt it to be my duty, as his official adviser in foreign affairs, and as one desirous to have him adopt a wise course, to tell him frankly that I thought the plan for him to attend was unwise and would be a mistake." The assumption that it was Lansing's duty "as official adviser in foreign affairs" to protest against Wilson's going received no rebuke from the President, showing he was often a patient and long-suffering man. "The President, listened to my remarks without comment and turned the conversation into other channels" was the entry Lansing made in his diary says he wrote at the time: "I prophesy trouble in Paris and worse than trouble here."
On the other hand, the New York Times succinctly p226 said Wilson's going to Paris was "one of four times when Wilson fell up stairs." At the Conference of Governors held in Annapolis, December 18, 1918, Secretary Lane gave this effective answer to the criticisms of Wilson's going to Paris:
"I have seen criticisms of the President and so have you for going across the water at this time. The spirit which animates him in going is the spirit of the new day. It is the spirit of giving your hand to your neighbor. It is the spirit that would make this war the end of wars.
"The man who stands as the representative of the foremost democracy of the world goes to Europe, not that he may march down the Champs Elysees, not that he may receive the plaudits of the French multitudes. But he goes to Europe as the champion of American ideals because he wants to see that out of the war comes something worth while. He would have been derelict, he would have been negligent, he would have been false to our ideas of him, if he had not stood in Paris in person as the champion of that principle which we love and those institutions which we hope to see spread around the world.
"To me, Woodrow Wilson in Paris represents not the ambitions of Napoleon, striving to master the world by force, but of the greater Pasteur, the healer of the nation who comes to bring peace, happiness, and to secure gratitude from those whose lives and homes he makes secure."
Every reader of Wilson's "Congressional Government" should have known he would go to Paris to the Peace Conference. "When foreign affairs play a prominent part in the politics and policies of a nation, its p227 executive must of necessity be its guide; must utter every initial judgment, take every first step of action, supply the information upon which it is to act, suggest and, in a large measure, control its conduct," and he added: "He must always stand at the front of our affairs, and the office will be as big and as influential as the man who occupies it."
"After all," he said to the Englishmen in the Mansion House at London, when he visited there in December, 1918 — "after all, the breaking precedents, though this may sound strange doctrine in England, is the most sensible thing to do. The harness of precedent is sometimes a very sad and harassing trammel. In this case the breaking of precedent is sensible for a reason that is very prettily illustrated in a remark attributed to Charles Lamb.
"One evening, in a company of his friends, they were discussing a person who was not present and Lamb said, in his hesitating manner,
" 'I h‑hate that fellow.'
" 'Why, Charles,' one of his friends said, 'I did not know that you knew him.'
" 'Oh,' he said, 'I‑I‑I d‑don't. I can't h‑hate a man I know.'
"And perhaps that simple and attractive remark may furnish a secret for cordial international relationship. When we know one another we cannot hate one another."
He walked the groove of change.
a An idea that must have filtered in from British constitutional practice, in which travel abroad by the British monarch requires the permission of Parliament; otherwise, it is construed as abdication.
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