Raphael dashes through the nation’s first 20 years, stressing the steady accretion of presidential powers. When George Washington claimed powers as president, who could challenge him? Even Jefferson, apostle of small government, expanded the office. In a concise study of Jefferson’s Embargo of 1808, which trampled on individual rights in order to seal off trade with Britain, Raphael demonstrates that philosophy need not predict performance.
Raphael closes by comparing today’s presidency with the founders’ goals, producing a dessert course that is well worth the wait. He acknowledges the achievements of Article II. Civilian control of the military has endured, impeachment works, and Washington and Adams ingrained the essential tradition of leaving office quietly.
(Knopf) - ’Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive’ by Ray Raphael
Yet, Raphael points out, the framers did not anticipate the corrosive partisanship that erupted shortly after the government opened its doors. The presidency emerged as the prize of prizes, driving our politics. The party in opposition “assumes a vested interest in seeing the nation fail,” for only then will voters choose new leadership. With the presidential election “a winner-take-all game,” bare-knuckled politics quickly prevailed, devolving into today’s political attack culture and stupendous campaign spending.
One feature of the book underachieves. With fanfare, Raphael accords credit for designing Article II to Gouverneur Morris, a New Yorker who was a Pennsylvania delegate to the convention. Morris is a marvelous character: a peg-legged raconteur and ladies man, a bold orator who spoke unwelcome truths. But this claim is an interpretive leap from scanty evidence that brushes aside better evidence. Morris took many different positions on the presidency, some diametrically inconsistent. His was an important voice on the question, but not the One. The delegates struggled so mightily over the presidency that assigning its paternity to a single source is a doubful business at best. Yet the equally forgotten James Wilson of Pennsylvania could mount a stronger claim than Morris.
Beyond that, “Mr. President” provides a rich harvest of insights for reflection during the next five months of political bloodletting.
David O. Stewart
’s books include “The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution.”