A Brief History Of The American Presidency, Part 2: ‘In Case Of Tyranny, Break Glass’

At the Constitutional Convention, the specter of monarchy cast a long shadow over the discussion of the presidency.

The failures of the Articles of Confederation notwithstanding, everyone still remembered King George, and a unified executive power left a foul taste in many mouths. Reasonable voices could point out that while a body of disparate interests might fight amongst itself, a unified power is in an ideal position to grasp even more power — a president can act quickly and decisively during a crisis, and then refuse to relinquish those powers once the emergency had passed.

However, a strong executive could also do things, which deliberative bodies tend to struggle with. Some situations, like an invasion or rebellion, required quick and decisive action.

Cognizant of history, a handful of delegates tried to square this circle by following the example of the Roman Republic — like America, Rome had thrown off tyrannical kings and loathed monarchy ever since, but unlike America, Rome had extremely powerful magistrates — the consuls — who held the power of life and death over their citizens and were immune from legal prosecution while in office. However — there were TWO consuls, and each had unlimited veto power over the activities of the other.

This has some advantages: the executive can act quickly and decisively when necessary, but if one consul gets power hungry the other consul could check him.

However, the plural executive solution comes with its own suite of problems. What happens when the two consuls disagree? Well, mutually assured vetoes mean nothing happens, in which case we’re right back where we started.

Worse, when a consular army was deployed in the field, with command alternating between the two, the results proved disastrous.

Take the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC when the Carthaginian Hannibal played the two consuls against one another. One consul was reticent, suspicious that Hannibal was leading them into a trap, while the other was aggressive, eager for battle and glory.

Hannibal wisely made the simple move of holding a strong position while the cautious consul was in charge and then baiting the other Consul into a trap while the commander who was wise to his shenanigans couldn’t do anything about it — killing one-fifth of Rome’s fighting aged men in the process.

Anachronistically observing that a house divided against itself cannot stand, the framers tabled the “plural executive” almost immediately.

Of course, the Romans had a different office they could fall back on in extreme emergencies, where the Senate could appoint one man whose word was law — a dictator — but if you’ve ever heard the name Julius Caesar you know exactly where that story goes.

Terrified that their Frankenstein creation might turn into a dictator despite their best efforts, the Convention quibbled over the specifics — should the president be selected by the states, or Congress, or popular election? Should he be elected for life contingent on good behavior, or should he only be eligible to serve one limited term?

Ultimately, the convention took a cue from the Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu and decided that the executive and legislative branches should be separated, and, alongside the judiciary, their powers could be turned against one another to check ambition with ambition.

Congress would have no role in selecting the president but would have the power to confirm or deny the appointment of his most important underlings, and his desired judges. Impeachment was left on the table as an “in case of tyranny, break glass” safeguard, with a further safeguard of a two-thirds threshold for conviction in the Senate so the House couldn’t get impeachment-happy for political purposes.

The president could veto legislation, but Congress could override that veto. The president commanded the military, but only Congress could declare war. And the smorgasbord electoral college gave the people and states the power to reward or replace the chief executive quite regularly.

All this wasn’t enough to satisfy the detractors, and according to the anti-federalists the power of the presidency was one of the major deficits of the Constitution, but supporters would point out that George Washington would inevitably be the first proper president and that his administration would set the standard for all his successors. Washington had already walked away from absolute power after relinquishing his command at the end of the Revolutionary War, and is perhaps unique in American history for the unique admiration and trust Americans of all political backgrounds had for him — if anyone could paper over ambiguities or deficiencies in the office, it would be him.

Washington would set the tone for the presidency in many ways. He supported the adoption of a Bill of Rights which would further limit the federal government’s powers. In an age of regal titles, instead of “his highness” or “his majesty,” he settled on the simple honorific of “Mr. President.” He treated his veto power not as a stamp of approval but as a tool of constitutional review — he would veto only two bills on the grounds that he thought they were unconstitutional.

Crucially, after being unanimously elected and widely popular, he stepped away from power after two terms, setting a precedent that would be voluntarily observed by his successors, a precedent that the office was greater than any one man — until the Roosevelts came along and ruined that.

Unfortunately, America would peak early and hard. John Adams, our second president, would overreach his authority by pushing through the Alien and Sedition Acts, which led to the jailing of some critics of his administration — although he did admirably set the precedent for a peaceful transition of power. Jefferson, who famously said that “government is best that governs least” admittedly “stretched” his own powers to secure the Louisiana Purchase.

The power of each subsequent president would ebb and flow, but the trend line was clear almost immediately: Over time the president would wield ever greater influence.

RELATED: A Brief History Of The American Presidency, Part 1: Humble Beginnings

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