Americans didn’t want a king. They feared an excessively strong executive.
As a Delaware Whig wrote in the Pennsylvania Journal, November 13, 1776: “The executive power, is ever restless, ambitious, and ever grasping at encrease of power.”
Virginia Governor Edmund Randolph, who presented the so-called Virginia Plan (really James Madison’s plan), which provided a framework for debate at the start of the convention, thought the idea of a single executive contained the “foetus of monarchy.”
North Carolina’s Hugh Williamson felt that eventually we’d have a king, but wishing to postpone the inevitable, he proposed limiting the president to a single term of, perhaps, up to 12 years.
Pennsylvania’s Gouverneur Morris, who penned the preamble, favored a powerful president, but told the delegates, “This magistrate is not the King, but the prime-Minister. The people are the King.”
Even so, New York Gov. George Clinton, writing as CATO in the New York Journal (Nov. 8, 1787), warned that the presidential term should be no more than one year, to prevent the executive from surrounding himself with appointees, and growing a government bureaucracy dependent upon him that would work to assure his continuance in office, creating aristocracy or monarchy.
The constitutional presidency holds a few specific powers — he’s commander in chief of the military, he can make treaties and appoint various officials and judges with the advice and consent of the Senate, he can make short-term appointments when the Senate is in recess (a provision designed for an age of travel by horseback, and long Senate recesses), he recommends legislation to the Congress and he can veto bills. But beyond that, his main job is to ensure that the law is carried out, not to create law. When not at war, the presidency is a modest job, at least according to the Constitution.
Few presidents of the modern era have viewed it that way. But many Americans still yearn for one of whom it can be written (as William Allen White wrote of President Benjamin Harrison):
“He was content to exercise the simple constitutional functions of his office. He was a constitutional President, and, with all his gelidity, this man whose feet were always under his desk, whose breath was out of other people’s faces, and whose arms were off their shoulders, was never accused of assuming to be a dictator.” (“Masks in a Pageant,” 1928, p. 89)
Scott Ott is creator of Freedom’s Charter, a 20-part series of brief videos on PJTV.com, which reveals the conflicts, compromises, and characters behind the writing of the U.S. Constitution.