But in this election year, as the nation nears the 225th anniversary of Constitution Day — which marks the document’s adoption on Sept. 17, 1787 — it is worth remembering that the very idea of a president was once as novel as the republic itself.
Today, we take the presidency for granted. From Rose Garden photo-ops and the commander in chief bounding down the steps of Air Force One, to the annual Kabuki performance called the State of the Union, the office and its trappings seem as if they always existed.
But in that steamy Philadelphia summer of 1787, as the Constitution was secretly being drafted and the plan for the presidency invented — “improvised” is more apt — the delegates weren’t sure what they wanted this new office to be. To patriots who had fought a war against a king, the thought of one person wielding great power, at the head of a standing army, gave them the willies.
Still, Hamilton asserted in the Federalist Papers that this experimental executive must have “energy” — a quality characterized by “decision, activity, secrecy and dispatch.” Hamilton knew that the times demanded bold action. Operating under the Articles of Confederation, a weak Congress had dithered through crisis and conflict, unable to collect taxes or raise an effective army. And the presidents of Congress — 14 of them from 1774 to 1788 — wielded nothing more threatening than a gavel. They couldn’t even answer a letter without congressional approval.
As the delegates to the Constitutional Convention sweltered behind closed windows, in the same Pennsylvania State House where the Declaration of Independence had been adopted 11 years earlier, they disagreed about many things. But no issue caused greater consternation than establishing an executive office to run the country.
Would this executive department be occupied by one man or a council of three? What powers would the executive have? How long would he hold office? How would the executive be chosen? And how would he be removed, if necessary? (Without an answer to this question, Ben Franklin warned, the only recourse would be assassination.)
On these questions, the record points down a tortuous path filled with uncertainty and sharp division. While some delegates feared creating a presidency that could become a “fetus of monarchy,” others called for an executive who could negotiate treaties and make appointments — or command an army if the nation was threatened. Or at least answer the mail.
An erudite Scotsman and signer of the Declaration, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, railed against the idea of an executive council, saying it would contain “nothing but uncontrolled, continued and violent animosities.”