If George Washington had not been sitting in the room, it’s likely many of the delegates to the federal convention of 1787 would have supported a multi-executive model for the new Constitution, rather than a solitary president. After all, just upstairs in the Pennsylvania State House where they met that summer was the chamber where the Pennsylvania executive council met, led by a president who they changed annually. But Washington’s unquestioned integrity, submission to civilian rule over the military, and willingness to lay down his sword after the war gave the delegates a picture of an energetic executive, yet one who could be trusted to guard the liberties of the people. No one doubted that he would be the first to take the oath of the new office, and so the presidency was made in Washington’s image.
Unfortunately, after 1799, characters like Washington were in short supply. If Barack Obama had been sitting in Washington’s chair, the American story would have been — in Obamanese — “fundamentally transformed.” When Republicans and other Americans react with almost knee-jerk resistance to Obama’s executive overreach, it’s not personal … it’s historical.
I’ve spent the past year and a half studying the U.S. Constitution, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers, as well as a dozen or more books and many primary source documents from the period of the Founding through the ratification of the Constitution, so that I could write the new PJTV video series Freedom’s Charter. This quest has made me read the daily news in a new light.
We revolt, at least inwardly…
- When he makes recess appointments (to the National Labor Relations Board and to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) while the Senate is not in recess;
- When he does through bureaucratic regulation what he cannot accomplish legally through persuasion of the people’s legislature;
- When he stands before the Congress, the nation, and the Supreme Court, as he did during a State of the Union address, and publicly rebukes the Court for a decision he didn’t like;
- When he initiates overseas military adventures (i.e., Libya) without congressional approval;
- When he campaigns around the country saying “we can’t wait” for Congress to act, and instructs his cabinet to do everything they can without Congress, because he wants to spend more borrowed money on more social experiments, despite the demonstrated failure of his previous experiments.
- When he erects “a Multitude of new Offices, and [sends] hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their Substance.”
(That last one actually referred to King George III … at least, originally.)
In 1787, folks clustered in little towns up and down the eastern seaboard looked to their local papers in vain for word of what was happening with the delegates in the Assembly Room in Philadelphia. The only “press release” to emerge during the four months of deliberations that produced our Constitution attempted to quell a pernicious rumor: “Tho we cannot, affirmatively, tell you what we are doing; we can, negatively, tell you what we are not doing–we never once thought of a king.”
Well, that’s technically accurate. However, on June 18, 1787, New York’s Alexander Hamilton delivered a five-hour speech to the formally dressed delegates shut up indoors during a sweltering Philadelphia summer. Among other ideas, Hamilton proposed an elected executive (who he called “the Governor of the United States”) who would serve “during good behavior,” like Supreme Court justices do — effectively for life. In other words, Hamilton called for an elected monarch. His proposal was met with stony silence and a motion to adjourn.