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From Washington to Trump: What Is Dereliction of Duty?

When presidents take the oath of office, they are expected to protect America against attack. But what about pandemics and economic depressions? Here’s a brief history of how presidents have handled different threats.

A painting of the British army burning buildings in Washington, D.C., during the war of 1812.
The British army sacking Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812. President Madison was criticized for his "dereliction of duty." (Image courtesy: U.S. Library of Congress)
Every president takes an oath of office to defend and protect the Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic. But what does that actually mean? Americans, past and present, expect the president to defend the country against physical attacks — but beyond that, we rarely agree, whether it be 1789 or 2021. 

In 1787, when the delegates at the Constitutional Convention crafted Article II of the Constitution, they penned the president’s oath of office. Thinking of the British troops that had departed New York City just four years earlier, they certainly expected the president would rally the defenses if a foreign power invaded the country. 

They also fully anticipated that the president would lead a response to a domestic insurrection, and they had good reason to create a powerful executive for that very scenario. The previous year, Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays and a group of rebels closed down the local courts in western Massachusetts in response to punitive tax measures. Congress had been unable to raise the funds or forces to suppress the rebellion. Fearful for their own safety, wealthy citizens in Boston finally raised the money to pay for a private military force and restore order.

After the Constitution was ratified, the framers applauded the presidents that defended the Constitution against any type of armed force and condemned those who fell short. For example, protests in western Pennsylvania against a whiskey excise tax turned violent when rebels burned down the home of a local tax collector in 1794. After unsuccessfully pursuing peaceful solutions, President George Washington called up local militias and crushed the rebellion. Most Americans agreed with his decision — even the Republican newspapers that regularly criticized the president.  

On the other hand, when James Madison failed to take an active leadership role in the War of 1812, he was widely criticized. Especially after the British Army sacked Washington, D.C., and burned the White House and the Capitol. While much of the military blame belonged to the field commanders, critics dubbed the conflict “Mr. Madison’s War,” as a nod to the president’s failure to defend the city. The framers made clear, when it comes to military defense, that the buck stops with the president.

pelham-town-hall.JPG


Daniel Shays and leaders of his Massachusetts rebellion met at the Pelham Town Hall in 1787 to discuss their grievances against the U.S. government. The town hall is the oldest in the country still in continuous use. (Kidd/Governing)


 

Beyond military defense, their expectations were much less clear. While they anticipated the president would be a man of character and virtue, they did not expect the president to address public health crises, or spearhead economic reform efforts. When Philadelphia was slammed by a yellow fever outbreak in 1793, the federal government and most elite citizens simply left town. The city tried to institute a quarantine and later adopted measures to improve the water conditions around the wharf, but there was no consideration of a federal policy.

Over the next 230 years, our expectations have expanded and evolved, sometimes slowly. For example, in 1918 to 1919, the Spanish Flu pandemic ravaged the nation, but public health was still a local issue. President Woodrow Wilson left the crisis to the states to manage. But Americans didn’t blame him for failing to address the pandemic, and instead focused on local measures to combat the illness.

Just 20 years later, Americans had very different expectations for the president during an economic crisis. President Herbert Hoover was a traditional conservative and opposed extensive federal intervention in the Great Depression. He did implement limited measures but rejected direct payments to citizens and refused to order a bank holiday to stem the bank failures. While the president’s oath doesn’t mention economic crises, voters clearly concluded Hoover’s inaction was a dereliction of duty. In the 1932 presidential election between Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Americans repudiated Hoover’s approach and voted for Roosevelt by overwhelming margins.

How, then, do we define dereliction of duty in the 21st century? On some issues, we’ve departed a great deal from the framers’ vision for the presidency. When faced with public health crises, we expect the president to do something, even if we don’t always agree about the extent of presidential action. Former President Trump’s approval rating continued to fall during the pandemic because he refused to take any action at all. His low poll numbers reflect the expansion of presidential expectations — Americans in 1793 or 1918 may not have expected presidents to address a pandemic, but in 2020 they did.

And yet, on some issues we very much agree with George Washington. We fully expect that the president will defend the Constitution and the branches of government — against both enemies from abroad or from down Pennsylvania Avenue. While the Constitution and the oath of office may be outdated, on the president’s responsibility to defend the nation, it is still very relevant.

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky is an expert in the cabinet, presidential history, and U.S. government institutions. She can be found on Twitter at @lmchervinsky.
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