The electoral process was convoluted. States would choose electors in whatever fashion they wished. Electors would meet on a single day at their respective state capitals. Each elector would cast votes for two possible presidents, one of whom had to reside in another state. The candidate winning a majority became president, with the runner-up vice president. If no one commanded a majority, the contest moved to the House of Representatives, where . . . well, it goes on at some length.
The process proved misbegotten. John Adams won the first contested presidential election in 1796, but his opponent (Jefferson) finished second and became vice president. Four years later, the result was more surprising. Jefferson was tied by his own running mate, Aaron Burr. Then the House of Representatives deadlocked for 36 ballots. With Adams’s term ending in a few days, state governors made preparations to call out their militias, which proved unnecessary when the logjam broke in Jefferson’s favor. In 1804, the 12th Amendment repaired the worst of the process by directing that presidential electors vote separately for president and vice president.
In contrast, Article II’s description of the president’s powers was spare. He was commander in chief. He could, with the Senate’s advice and consent, make treaties and appoint ambassadors, judges and other officials. Most sweepingly, he held the nation’s “executive power.”
These unlikely materials have produced the most important job on Earth. In “Mr. President,” historian Ray Raphael explores the birth and early molding of the presidency. The journey is an illuminating one, with wisdom that resonates as the nation prepares to choose its president again.
Raphael incisively explains how damnably difficult the problem was. Revolution-era Americans knew British monarchs and royal governors. They knew foreign kings and emperors. They knew their own flaccid state governors and presidents. They knew the Articles of Confederation of 1781, which created a very weak central government without any executive branch, only a few administrative officials who reported to Congress.
But the world afforded no model of what the convention delegates wanted: an executive with “vigor” who would not threaten republican self-rule. Some wanted multiple executives, some a single president with a long term in office. Others pressed for short terms, with Congress choosing the president. Political conflicts between North and South, between large states and small, complicated the problem. No one much liked the final version of Article II, but time ran out.