Lexicon Valley

From Jefferson to Donald Trump, a Brief History of Presidential “Temperament”

Do we want a president who is governed by temperament or who governs with temperament?

Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

From President Obama to 50 GOP national security officials, leading politicians from both sides of the aisle have been charging that Donald Trump lacks “the temperament” for the presidency. Trump, meanwhile, boasts he has “one of the great temperaments,” a “winning temperament.” Thanks to an unprecedentedly temperamental Donald Trump, this word temperament has caught fire as a keyword, and central question, of the 2016 election: Do we want a president who is governed by temperament or who governs with temperament?

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But temperament, that cool-headed, even-handed attribute so many consider a top qualification for the office, is a word long stamped with the seal of the president of the United States. And its history embodies a fundamental tension, if not contradiction, in our expectations of a president—as a person and as a leader.

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One of the earliest usages of temperament in American political letters is from a president himself. Writing to John Adams in 1816, Thomas Jefferson reflected:

My temperament is sanguine. I steer my bark with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern. My Hopes, indeed, sometimes fail; but not oftener than the forebodings of the gloomy…The perfection of the moral character is, not in a stoical apathy, so hypocritically vaunted, and so untruly too, because impossible, but in a just equilibrium of all the passions.

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Jefferson’s usage of temperament is a telling one. In its earliest meaning, temperament denoted a “proper mixture of elements,” as the Oxford English Dictionary cites it in the late 14th century. The word itself derives from a Latin root that yields words like temperature and temper and has only been referring to a more general “mental disposition” since the 1820s.

Medieval philosophers believed the relative mixture of one’s essential bodily fluids, or humors, constituted an individual’s temperament: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, or phlegmatic. The ideal temperament enjoyed a balance, a proportioned mix, of these fluids. Though long since repudiated, humoral theory has had an enduring influence on our understanding of personality—and of presidential temperament, as Jefferson’s sanguine, gloomy, and equilibrium all point directly back to the notion of innate, deterministic traits.

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Just as presidential temperament seemed to be escaping the clutches of humorism, another pseudoscience, phrenology, took hold. Sid Smith, in his 1838 Principles of Phrenology, classified then-Gen. Andrew Jackson’s cranium with the phrenological “organ” of Firmness, which the author identifies with a so-called Bilious Temperament: “General Jackson possesses an enormous development of this organ, and is singular for his obstinacy.” Many presidential historians, it’s worth noting here, have sought precedent for Trump’s aggressive temperament in Jackson, and while mere quackery, Smith’s description of Jacksonian Firmness is uncanny: “Firmness maintains the state of offence, and keeps alive the sense of insult.” (Good thing Smith was measuring heads, not hands.)

Beyond phrenology, trait-oriented explanations of presidential temperament persist through the 19th century. In his 1856 Life of John Adams, Charles Adam’s variously describes his grandfather’s temperament as “conservative,” “quick and inflammable,” and “sensitive and ardent.” Almost a half-century later, Virginia Townsend’s Our Presidents: or, The Lives of Twenty-three Presidents of the United States characterizes the temperaments of her sweeping subject: “Grover, with his sensible, practical temperament,” as she describes President Cleveland, “must have looked the facts early and courageously in the face, and resolved to having a hard battle with fate.” Buchanan’s temperament is “unemotional,” Garfield’s “brave” and “hopeful”—each descriptor seeking to explain a whole presidency through the unchanging, inborn temperament of the man.

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By the turn of the century, presidential temperament begins to emerge in its more modern usage—and anticipates some very modern debates about it. A 1904 edition of Collier’s, for example, dismissed concerns about President Theodore Roosevelt’s bullish temperament:

The opponents of Mr. Roosevelt are overdoing the personality issue. The President’s temperament and character must be discussed in connection with what he has done to what he is likely to do…Indeed, the personal obstreperousness which offends some individuals endowed with taste is a part of his popularity throughout the country.

Allowing for a change in verbiage, some pundits are plating up this precise analysis of Trump’s temperament today: His unpresidential temperament is his very appeal.

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Temperament worked in favor Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft. In the 1908 Review of Reviews, Walter Wellman roundly concludes: “Not only has Taft had the training that fits him to be President, he has the temperament.” In his endorsement, Wellman construes temperament not only as a core qualification of Taft, but of the presidency itself. A full look at his thinking is instructive:

The presidency is without a doubt just what President Roosevelt has called it, ‘the hardest job on earth’. To achieve success in it much more than intellectual equipment is required. Indeed, it may be doubted if a genius of the first rank could, under present conditions, make a success of it at all. Given a fairly strong mind and will, which pertain without question to any man who reaches the White House, beyond that success or failure is largely a matter of temperament. Chief of the temperamental qualities is tact, patience, good humor in the last analysis, the ability to work well and smoothly with men, to avoid friction, to attract loyalty, to get the best possible out of subordinates and out of the coordinate branch, the Congress.

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Decades later, then-Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes also downplayed brainpower in his own, sardonic way, famously ribbing a newly inaugurated Franklin Roosevelt as a “second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.”

In the 1960s, presidential temperament came of age. Political scientist Richard Neustadt maintained in his 1960 Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: “If we want Presidents alive and fully useful, we shall have to pick them from among experienced politicians of extraordinary temperament.” Temperament was electric in the electoral ether during the 1964 presidential race between an incumbent Johnson and Sen. Barry Goldwater. Louisiana Sen. Russell Long sniped that Goldwater lacked “the temperament” for the office. Long’s trash-talk sounds as if it could have been said on today’s campaign trail: “If he was twice hospitalized from the pressures of being a dress salesman in a dry goods store, then how can he face Khrushchev, Mao Tse-Tung, and Castro all at the same time?” Meanwhile, Life endorsed Johnson, though voiced concerns, wryly, about what a landslide win would mean: “This [two-thirds support for Johnson in the polls] raises the novel question of whether such a lopsided victory would be good for the U.S. two-party system—or for Lyndon Johnson’s own temperament.”

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Finally, one of the most recent contributions to the presidential temperament, David Kiersey’s 1992 Presidential Temperament, reaches all the way back to temperament’s roots. In this work, Kiersey applies his four personality types—guardian, idealist, artisan, and rational—to the U.S. presidents, a construct rooted in the ancient archetypes of humorism. There is some irony that, for all the progress psychology has made since fluid levels and skull measurements, a contemporary formulation of presidential temperament so loudly echoes its medieval forebears.

But this irony underscores a deeper conflict in the American psyche. On the one hand, we want a president with The Temperament: the ability to overcome personal interests and limitations and answer the “3 a.m. call.” On the other hand, we want a president with a temperament, so to speak—to have a personality and charisma, someone we can drink the proverbial beer with. We want the “One nation” and the “This is a free country.” We want the E Pluribus Unum and the Don’t Tread On Me. We want the democrat and we want the individual. Donald Trump’s temperament—or lack thereof—is unlike anything we’ve seen in a presidential campaign, but it’s born of a deeply American temperament.