The American Presidency: Statesmanship and Constitutionalism in Balance

Imprimis, Hillsdale College, January 1983. Reprinted in Educating for Liberty: The Best of Imprimis, 1972–2002, Douglas A. Jeffrey, ed. (Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College Press, 2002).


America today is in need of leadership of the sort provided in the past by our greatest presidents, presidents whom we mean to honor and praise when we denominate them “statesmen.” Our familiar habit of associating wisdom or propriety or goodness with constitutionality bespeaks our attachment to the Constitution and thereby to constitutionalism.

We are equally in favor, it seems, of statesmanship and of constitutionalism, and a strong argument can be made that we need them both.

The paradox that I want to explore here consists in, if not the incompatibility of the two—for, after all, the greatest of our presidents, Abraham Lincoln, displayed his statesmanship by saving the Constitution—then, at least, in the tension that exists between them.

Hillsdale College