TCS Daily


The Father Without a Son

By Lee Harris - February 20, 2006 12:00 AM

When Thomas Jefferson first read a copy of the United States Constitution, he was appalled. He was particularly scandalized by the office known as the Presidency, comparing it to the elective king of Poland. By using the dreaded and hated word "king," Jefferson became among the first to denounce the Presidency as a step backwards into monarchy—the very kind of government that the Americans had rebelled against in their revolution.

There were, of course, differences between the President and the elective king of Poland. For example, the Polish King did not have to be Polish, and many were not, while the President of the United States was an office that could only be held by someone who had been born in America. Furthermore, the king of Poland was elected for life; whereas the President was to be elected only for four year terms. Yet, in Jefferson's opinion, the fact that the President was elected for a limited term was only a cosmetic difference. After all, Jefferson was fully aware that the first President was going to be George Washington. Everyone knew that—just as everyone knew that the Presidency would remain in Washington's hands for as long as he wished to hang on to it. Washington, elected once, was in essence elected for life.

Just as Mozart wrote operatic arias that were specially customized to the talents of one particular singer, so the office of the Presidency had been originally customized for one particular man, namely, George Washington. The authors of the Constitution did not say to themselves, "Hey, let's create an office and call it the Presidency, and then let the people vote on who is to hold this office." On the contrary, they thought to themselves, "George Washington must be given sufficient power to keep the United States from disintegrating. He must, in effect, become a monarch—only, of course, we cannot call him a monarch. So let's invent a new title, the Presidency, and call Washington the President." Thus, by a process that Orwell would later dub "newspeak," the Constitution delivered into the hands of one man the power usually reserved for monarchs.

In fact, Jefferson's comparison of the Presidency with the elective king of Poland overlooked a profound historical difference between the two positions. The center of power in the Polish government had always been its aristocratic parliament, the Sejm. The Polish king was elected by the Sejm, and the Sejm, ever jealous of any encroachments on its traditional prerogatives, was not interested in creating a powerful king who would have the upper hand over them. Yet in the early days of the United States, there was no such countervailing source of power to check the ambitions of a power-hungry president. Thus, it was perfectly possible to imagine a scenario in which the United States Congress, rather than acting as a check on the power of the President, became the creature of the President, merely rubberstamping any measures he undertook to impose on them. Furthermore, there was no Supreme Court as we know it today—the power of the Supreme Court would only be established later, under the guidance of the immensely strong-willed John Marshall. There was nothing in the Constitution to suggest that the Supreme Court was originally envisioned as an institution that could check or even curb the power of the President. On the contrary, it was the President alone who held the awesome power of the veto, subject only to the provision that a law could be passed over the President's veto by a two-third majority of Congress.

In the early phase of the French Revolution, there was a bitter debate concerning what powers Louis XVI should retain as King of France. Louis insisted that he should be permitted to veto laws passed by the Legislative Assembly; he argued that such a veto was the minimal condition of monarchy. His wise advice, however, was ignored, and the French King was stripped of this critical executive power—a power, it should be noted, that the elective kings of Poland did not have. In Poland, the power of the veto remained firmly in the hands of the Sejm—indeed, any single member of the Sejm could veto any proposed law.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution, on the other hand, rejected the idea that a legislative body could govern their nation by itself. Americans had tried out this approach during the dismal days of the ill-fated Continental Congress, and they had recognized the perils of trying to operate a government in which there was virtually no one in charge. That is why they turned to George Washington—he had proven his ability to take command and to act decisively. Furthermore, he was a national hero, with wide support among the people and in every region. It was also known that Washington had flatly refused to entertain the idea of setting himself up as a military dictator when this proposal had been aired as the only remedy against the anarchy and disorder bred by the failure of the Continental Congress.

So here was the problem. Washington had to be given the kind of powers normally reserved only for kings and military dictators—yet it was politically impossible to declare him either one or the other. After all, America was a Republic, and Republics could not be governed by kings or dictators. Therefore, a solution was found in devising an hitherto unheard of office, namely, the Presidency. Though the word "president" had been used before to designate various appointed officials, it had never been used to designate a Head of State.

By a stroke of extraordinary good fortune, the man for whom this office was designed was also a man who was profoundly aware of the potential dangers inherent in the office that had been specially designed for him. Washington was keenly aware just how easily the Presidency could degenerate back to a monarchy, or worse; and, shrewd man that he was, he clearly saw that there was nothing in the written Constitution that could prevent such a process from occurring.

For example, there is a remarkable letter that Washington wrote, before assuming the Presidency, in which he argues that he is peculiarly qualified to be President because he has no son. Now imagine a candidate for the Presidency today making such a claim: Vote for me, because I have no son. How strange it would sound to our ears. Yet Washington regarded this as virtually an indispensable desideratum in a President—or, at least, in the first President. Nor is it difficult to see why this mattered to him so much. He did not want the office of the Presidency to become the possession of a dynasty.

The Constitution had made it clear that the President could be re-elected over and over again, and there was no doubt that Washington would have been re-elected over and over again until the day he died. How easy it would then be, Washington realized, for his own son, if he had one, to become the heir apparent who, upon his father's death, would naturally succeed him in office. There was nothing in the Constitution to forbid a President's son from becoming the President—and two have done so in our history. Thus, the combination of a popular President who retained office until his death, and a popular President's son who was available to succeed him, deeply disturbed Washington.

Because Washington had no son, this danger did not arise. Yet Washington recognized the danger of a popular President, such as himself, getting re-elected over and over for the remainder of his life. Here again the Constitution provided no solution, so Washington had to devise a solution of his own. He would not die in office; instead, he would be elected for two terms, and then he would not run again. Furthermore, by his renunciation of power, Washington would set a precedent and an example that would check the ambitions of all Presidents for nearly a hundred and fifty years, thereby providing a kind of unwritten amendment to the Constitution.

Take the case of the popular Theodore Roosevelt. He had inherited the office of the President after the assassination of McKinley, and served out the remaining three years of McKinley's term. But when he was finally elected in his own right, he immediately issued a statement that he would honor the spirit of George Washington's example by not running again when his term of office was up, arguing that no President should hold office for more than the eight years that Washington had served. Here again, there was nothing in the Constitution to prevent Teddy Roosevelt from doing so; it was only Washington's example that inspired him to make his declaration—though, subsequently, Teddy Roosevelt came to regret his rash statement, and in 1912, he would form his own political party, the Bull Moose Party, and take another shot at the Presidency.

When his cousin Franklin Roosevelt ran successfully for his third term, he knew he was violating the unwritten law established by Washington's example. The result was an inevitable reaction that culminated in the passage of a Constitutional Amendment limiting all future Presidents to no more than two elected terms. As Washington clearly saw, the American people needed to be protected not only from their enemies, but from their popular heroes as well—indeed, perhaps especially from them.

Today we now call it President's Day, and no longer celebrate Washington's Birthday. This is a pity. For without the greatness, wisdom, and humanity of our first President, the office of the Presidency would almost certainly have become something radically different from what any of us are familiar with—indeed, it might well have become something that none of us would feel much like celebrating. It was not the written document called the Constitution that protected us from tyranny; it was the shining example of a single man.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.

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10 Comments

President Jenna
How fortunate the first citizens were in having a wise president, who not only offered good advice, such as to avoid foreign entanglements, but stepped down for the good of the country rather than establish a precedent for rule by inherent right. Thus for much of our history we have avoided monarchs.

Fast forward to today. An adequate president, hardly an intellectual giant but certainly no worse than most, has a son who distinguishes himself in no way whatsoever. He's a business failure and a party guy, who only gets to sit with the big dogs for reasons of legacy. He becomes one of the most popular presidents in history, if you follow the inclinations of half the nation.

But now that the name has been firmly lodged in the minds of a docile public, can it be more than just a matter of time before we endure President Jenna? The founding fathers have to be laughing in heaven at this human comedy.

Yes
I wholeheartedly agree George Washington was and will forever be the best President the USA has ever had for the sole reason he stepped down after two terms.
Maybe modern politicians have intentially diluted his contribution precicely because of his example.

As much as the socialists hate it..
As much as you socialists may hate it, the American People will elect whom they choose. If, for some reason as yet untold, the American People, through their established processes, decide upon a 'President Jenna', as you so condescendingly put it, then yes, that is exactly what would happen.

Perhaps the party of political correctness, social justice, affirmative action, gay marriage, and abortion should examine a mirror and ask itself such a thing should even be thinkable: Because the left in this country has so marginalized and trivialized itself, made such a farce of itself, it is to the point now that it almost doesn't matter WHO the conservatives choose to nominate.

Fewer and fewer people will be voting for the Deranged Radicals party, until natural selection weeds them out entirely. Then, and only then, will the democrats become a viable political entity again.

Unless you think a President Sheehan would be preferable to a President Party-Girl.

It's too bad the left has sunk so low. Otherwise the level of discourse would be higher, and your little joke might actually be funny.

The Deranged Radicals
In fact, wesley, the Deranged Radicals haven't fielded a candidate since the days of Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey. Insofar as national politics are concerned, they have been as extinct as the dodo for the past 25 years.

Today the range of debate is pretty much restricted to the extreme right, the traditional right and the moderate center-- into which category today's hapless Dems are perpetually trying to fit themselves without alienating what used to be their base.

Increasingly, opposition to current administration policies is coming from the Principled Right-- people like Lindsey Graham, or John Murtha.

Jus sanguinis
". . . the President of the United States was an office that could only be held by someone who had been born in America."

I believe the Constitution's words are "natural born citizen." I believe there are not one but two sufficient criteria for natural-born citizenship. One is jus sanguinis or lex sanguinis, being born to American parents. That would allow me to run for president; I was born to American citizens working in eastern Africa. Not that I have any plans.

See Wikipedia on "natural-born citizen" and "jus sanguinis" for more information or misinformation as the case may be.

The US Presidency: To SERVE not RULE
The US Government was designed to be a decentralized, power-sharing organization accountable to its citizens. Members of the various branches of Federal, State and Local governments have been guilty at times of power overreach. This is a predictable outcome that the system itself was designed to counteract. In general, it appears that the "sharing" nature of the system has functioned historically to check and balance excesses. While the system could be improved by increasing the citizen role (through referendums, etc...), the core feature of decentralized authority has endured and even thrived despite many life-threatening tests in our 230 year history.

If a different "President Bush" or "President Clinton" is the choice of the people to serve (NOT RULE) our country, then so be it. Maybe even a "President Roy-Bean" is in our future. All US citizens should have the opportunity to serve in the distinguished manner of George Washington.

presidntial restraint

"Thus, it was perfectly possible to imagine a scenario in which the United States Congress, rather than acting as a check on the power of the President, became the creature of the President, merely rubberstamping any measures he undertook to impose on them."

In other words, the Framers saw that in the end there was no alternative to trusting people with power. In the end, no quantity of "checks and balances" can guarantee a truly democratic government.

I think the literalists of today, Supreme Court Justice Scalia and apoligists for Bush oversteps (wiretapping, jailing, ...) in particular, have misunderstood this point. Because the few words of the brief Constitution can be construed to allow X does not mean that the Framers would have wanted X to happen.

Moral Character
That's why they depended upon leaders having high moral character, like G.W.

Lessons not learned
We would be well served if the holders of elective office would emulated George Washington. The ideal is to serve the public in office not to hold authority over them.

Liberal Constitution
Liberal writes:

"I think the literalists of today, Supreme Court Justice Scalia and apoligists for Bush oversteps (wiretapping, jailing, ...) in particular, have misunderstood this point. Because the few words of the brief Constitution can be construed to allow X does not mean that the Framers would have wanted X to happen."

It is not relevant what the Framers would have wanted, if it cannot be traced to the actual words of the Constition. In a country of limited government, there must be some check on that government. In the case of wire-tapping, one issue is whether that power is necessary for the president to wage war. If it is, then Congress cannot take it away, because the Consitution gives the power to wage war to the president alone. Congress can declare war, or not declare war, and Congress can cut off the funding, but it cannot tell the president how to do his constitutional duty. Only the Consitution can do that.

Obviously, Liberal prefers that somebody decide what the founders would have wanted. Just how, do we do that, and who does it? The Constution supports no such role for any branch of government. Thus, Liberal is basically requesting that some individual or group be given the power to add to the constution based on non-constitutional grounds. No thank you. We have a written Constitution, and we can amend it at any time, should we desire to do so. That's good enough for me.

-Bob

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