Articles

Inventing the American presidency – Kenneth C. Davis


Translator: Andrea McDonough
Reviewer: Bedirhan Cinar The Oval Office, Inauguration Day, Rose Garden signings, and secret service agents with dark sunglasses and cool wrist radios. For a moment, forget all of it. Toss out everything you know about the President. Now, start over. What would you do if you had to invent the President? That was the question facing the 55 men who got together in secret to draw up the plans for a new American government in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia, in the same place where the Declaration of Independence had been written eleven years earlier. Declaring independence had been risky business, demanding ferocious courage that put lives and fortunes in jeopardy. But, inventing a new government was no field day either, especially when it’s summer and you’re in scratchy suits, and the windows are closed because you don’t want anybody to hear what you are saying, and the air conditioning doesn’t work because it won’t be invented for nearly 200 years. And, when you don’t agree on things, it gets even hotter. For the framers, the question they argued over most while writing the Constitution and creating three branches of government had to do with the executive department. One man or three to do the job? How long should he serve? What would he really do? Who would pick him? How to get rid of him if he’s doing a bad job or he’s a crook? And, of course, they all meant him, and he would be a white man. The idea of a woman or an African American, for instance, holding this high office was not a glimmer in their eyes. But the framers knew they needed someone who could take charge, especially in a crisis, like an invasion or a rebellion, or negotiating treaties. Congress was not very good at making such important decisions without debates and delays. But the framers thought America needed a man who was decisive and could act quickly. They called it energy and dispatch. One thing they were dead-set against: there would be no king. They had fought a war against a country with a monarch and were afraid that one man with unchecked powers, in charge of an army, could take over the country. Instead, they settled on a president and laid out his powers in Article 2 of the Constitution. But who would choose him? Not the people, they were too liable to be misled as one framer worried. Not the legislature, that would lead to cabal and factions. Got it: electors, wise, informed men who have time to make a good decision. And if they didn’t produce a winner, then the decision would go to one of the other branches of government, the Congress. The House of Representatives would step in and make the choice, which they did in 1801 and 1825. In the long, hot summer of 1787, compromises were made to invent the presidency, like counting slaves as 3/5 of a person, giving the President command of the army but Congress the power to declare war, and unlimited four-year terms. Since then, some of those compromises have been amended and the men in office have sometimes been too strong or too weak. But, if you could start from scratch, how would you redesign the Oval Office?

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